Beginners guide to making espresso at home
The whole journey of finding the perfect way to make espresso at home starts with understanding the basics of espresso. These basics will give you a solid foundation that you can then use to experiment by changing some of the variables that make a good coffee.
In this beginner guide to making espresso at home, we will touch on three topics: Essential equipment for espresso making, the coffee that makes a good cup, and the dialing-in process to find the perfect recipe for your espresso.
Essential espresso equipment
Buying the most expensive espresso machine in the market won't be enough to make a good cup of espresso every morning at home in the kitchen. In fact, if you are at the beginning of your espresso journey, buying an expensive, advanced espresso machine might even harm you more than help because these machines will have more variables and levers to control than beginner-friendly machines. I suggest you save that cost on the espresso machine and spend that money on other necessary equipment.
The espresso machine
There are different types of espresso machines that each come with their pros and cons. You can categorize them into automatic, semi-automatic, and manual machines. There are other categories, such as the target market: Consumer, Prosumer, or Commercial.
The more you learn about making espresso, the more you understand the different types of espresso machines and what they are best for. But in the beginning, I wouldn't spend too much time overthinking. It's more important to get a feeling for making espresso and learn for yourself if you enjoy making it at home. You can upgrade to a better machine once you've outgrown your first.
The ideal espresso machines for beginners are semi-automatic machines with somewhat standardized specs. You don't want a fully automatic one as it removes all the manual processes and leaves no room to adapt and learn. On the other hand, a manual machine has too steep of a learning curve that it might put off beginners too quickly.
With standardized specs, I mean machines quite similar to most others that will allow you to upgrade parts of your machine before you upgrade the entire machine. For example, a portafilter diameter of 58 mm (or 54mm) will allow you to get a better basket than the one delivered with the machine.
When I started, I got a cheap one, and I ended up manually modifying the portafilter because there was no other equipment in that size. I now owned a Breville (or, in some countries, sold a Sage) espresso machine for a few years, and I'm still good with it. I would nowadays start with the Gaggia Classic, Lelit Anna, or Rancilio Silvia.
The espresso grinder
Something as necessary, or even more than an espresso machine, is getting a good grinder. Being able to control how coarse or fine your espresso is will play a massive role in how well of a cup of espresso you can make. You'll need to grind really fine for espresso, so unless you make coffee using different brewing methods, you can look for machines that focus on espresso only. As with espresso machines, there are also different grinders at various price points. I suggest looking for solid beginner options such as the Baratza Encore Esp, the Fellow Opus, or the Varia VS3. Maybe also the Niche Zero
As mentioned above, I'm using the Breville Barista Pro, which has an integrated grinder. While this was a good idea for me back then due to the lack of space in my apartment, I'm now locked into this grinder until I change my machine. The lesson from this is to buy two different machines for espresso making and grinding.
Now that we have the two more expensive pieces of equipment covered let's look at the next most important piece for making espresso: a scale. The scale is crucial to make the same espresso every time you pull one. This is possible because you have an exact measurement of how much coffee you used to make what amount of espresso. And before you've figured out the perfect recipe, a coffee scale will help you to make slight adjustments during the dial-in process (we'll cover that in a bit).
When buying a scale, there are only a few requirements. The key is that it focuses on lower weights as you'll primarily measure out coffee in the 10-40 grams, and your scale should be compact enough to fit under your coffee cup on the espresso machine. Bonus points If you can also measure time with it.
Tamper (and a tamping mat)
When you buy an espresso machine, it usually comes with a tamper already. You'll need it to compress the coffee in your portafilter to a dense puck that the water is then pushed through.
While you can start with the tamper you get with the machine, it's usually the first thing you want to upgrade. Apart from the fact that it should match your portafilter size (that's why I recommended looking at the machine's specs), a tamper should be heavy and firm.
There are different kinds of tamper, such as the palm tamper, double head tamper, or even automatic ones. I suggest starting off with the regular one. I'm using a simple one I found on Amazon, and it's doing the job much better than the one that comes with the machine.
With that, you'll also want to buy a tamping mat since tamping means putting a lot of pressure on your portafilter resting on your tabletop; the mat will function as a protective layer in between.
This is not essential, but having a microfiber towel instead of a regular kitchen towel will make it easier to keep the steam wand clear. This is not a must but more of a pleasing extra. You can for sure also use any regular kitchen towel you already have when you start out.
A knock box
Once you've pulled your espresso, you should clean your portafilter, and the first step is to remove the puck from it. Because the espresso is made by pushing the water through the fine coffee ground you compressed with the tamper, the puck won't easily fall out.
The knock box helps you to literally knock the puck out. You can start without one and probably use the edge of your bin to knock it out, but that option will probably not be a sustainable long-term solution.
The last item I'm adding to this essential guide's list is a milk pitcher. You obviously don't need this if you are only interested in espresso or beverages that don't require milk.
But if you look forward to making the occasional cappuccino or latte macchiato at home, then a milk pitcher should be on your equipment list.
There is only a little to consider here. The most important bit is the size. If you plan to make the cappuccino for yourself, you'll want to go for a smaller option; if everyone at home drinks their morning coffee, you may want a bigger one.
Something I might want to add from personal experience: I like pitchers with a rounder spout shape more than the others, as I think they make it easier to create better latte art (not that I am an expert in that, though)
Now that we have covered the essential equipment to make espresso at home let's look at the other crucial element.
Finding the right coffee
You can have the best equipment money can buy to make espresso you still won't get anywhere close to a nice shot if you don't have a good coffee to start with.
Of course, what coffee you do or do not like is a personal preference, but there is one criterion you can't avoid.
Buy fresh coffee
A trap that many beginners fall into is that they go to their next supermarket, buy a bag of coffee, and are surprised that their coffee tastes disgusting. After several attempts, they get frustrated and give up. But all that they needed was a bag of freshly roasted coffee.
I'm not saying that supermarket coffee is terrible. You should find your own preference. But I do suggest buying fresh coffee. Every decent coffee will have a note when the coffee was roasted, anything that's a week or two weeks old is perfect. You can then use that bag of coffee for another 2-3 weeks when you store it in an airtight container.
If you can't find any coffee beans in your supermarket that mark their roast date, look out for some local coffee shops or roasters around you and see if you can get the beans from them. I promise it's gonna be worth it.
From here, It's all about your personal taste. You can buy coffee from different regions, altitudes, light to dark roasts, etc. Try them all until you find something to your liking.
Dialing in an espresso
If this is the first time you have heard that term, you might be confused, but dialing in an espresso means nothing else than finding the proper variables that work for the coffee you bought and the machines you have.
But before we talk about that process, here is a quick overview of the steps for making espresso.
1. Grinding coffee beans
The first step is to turn on your coffee machine to get it up to temperature. Then it's time to grind your beans. It's always best to grind them when you make the coffee, as ground coffee will not last its freshness or aroma as beans.
When it comes to making espresso at home, I mentioned that you will need to find the correct variables for the coffee you chose. The first two variables come into place when grinding your coffee.
First, you can choose to grind either coarser or finer. Espresso needs finely ground coffee, but there is no universal grind size for every coffee. Instead, you'll need to find the right grind size for every coffee and grinder.
Secondly, you want to determine how much coffee you want to grind. That's called the dose-in. Every coffee and every roast level works differently. Finding the right amount of ground coffee is the second variable. A good starting point is how much your portal filter basket is made for. There is a wide range from just 7g to anything at around 20-24g. (And probably even more).
2. Fill your portalfilter
The ground coffee goes into the portafilter, and then use your finger to distribute the coffee evenly. You can also slightly tap the portafilter on the tamping mat to break bigger lumps. If your grinder can, you can also grind straight into the portafilter.
Now use your tamper and compact the coffee ground by pushing the tamper onto your ground. You'll feel some resistance from the puck; that's when you know you've put enough pressure. Don't worry about the exact amount; it's more important that you can replicate that tamp than how hard or soft you tamp. But make sure to tamp evenly and level.
4. Make the espresso
Place your tared scale on the drip tray. Put the cup on top (remember to tare it again), and now mount your coffee portafilter, and you are ready to go. Start your timer when the coffee runs through and measure how long it takes.
The amount of coffee in grams is the third variable, called the dose-out. Different ratios of dose-in and -out can be used based on what coffee beverage you want to make.
The last variable to look at is how long it takes to pull that espresso. The coffee will taste bland and watery if the water goes through your puck too quickly. It will most likely taste burnt and bitter if it takes too long.
Playing around with the grind size, dose-in, dose-out, and time to find the espresso that tastes best is the process of dialing in.
If the coffee runs through fast, you can grind finer or use more coffee, but then you need to adjust the dose-out to match the ratio. If it's too slow, you can go coarser.
There is so much more to the dialing-in process that it's impossible to cover this all here, but there are a few things I want to pass on:
- Some roasters provide their ideal recipes that you can use as starting points.
- When adjusting the variables, only do one variable at a time to ensure you know which variable had what kind of impact on the espresso.
- Don't get too stuck on the numbers that you forget to taste the coffee. Sometimes the numbers might be super off, but the espresso you made still tastes good. That's not a bad recipe for you to dismiss.
This was a long article, but hopefully, you have a solid base for understanding how to make the perfect espresso at home on your own espresso machine. There's much more to learn about espresso, but this article covers the essentials.