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Perfect EspressoHow to Use an Espresso Machine to Pull the Espresso Shot

Some things are better when they’re done by hand: making bread, driving a stick shift, and yes, brewing espresso. Pod espresso is easy (and lame), and your neighborhood coffee shop can get you in-n-out in minutes; but home espresso brewing offers the pinnacle of connection to your brew.

Pulling a great shot of espresso is not as easy as A, B, C; but with the following tips you can skip much of the painful learning curve.

What You Need

  • Semi-automatic espresso maker
  • Burr grinder (If you’re lucky; its built into your machine)
  • A tamper
  • Espresso beans
  • Scale (optional)
  • Milk thermometer
  • Milk frother (if your machine does not have a built in steam wand)

Do you really need a coffee scale? The key to making good espresso is consistency. You can still make good espresso without weighing your coffee, but you’ll leave nothing up to chance if you know exactly how much you’re using each time. When dialing in your first shot, using a scale is a good idea.

To grind or not to grind? If you want the best possible cup of espresso you’ll be best off grinding it immediately prior to use. Of course, it is entirely possible to make espresso out of pre-ground beans, just be aware that you’ll be limiting your beverage’s potential.

6 Steps: How to use an Espresso Machine

Pulling a great shot of espresso requires skills and the right equipment, but don't worry. We'll guide you through the whole espresso-making process. Just follow our instructions below. 

1. Turn on and preheat your espresso maker

In order to get the best out of your espresso maker, you’ll need to ensure that the entire machine is preheated. This can take up to 25 minutes for some machines, so get your machine warming up in advance. If you're using a portable machine, skip this step.

PRO TIP - If you want to speed this process you can pull a blank shot by simply omitting the espresso from the porta-filter. Pulling this shot straight into your espresso cup does double duty, preheating it as well.

an empty portafilter

Pull a shot without any ground coffee

water coming out of the portafilter

2. Measure and grind your beans

Set your grinder to a fine grind size, don’t worry too much about what “perfect” looks like right now, we’ll come back to this.

Place your portafilter on your scale and tare the scale out, then fill your portafilter with around 20 grams of ground coffee. It is a good idea to write down how much you used so that you can remain consistent during the dialing in phase.

Your machine’s portafilter has a capacity recommended by the manufacturer. It is prudent to work within the range they’ve provided as some portafilters are larger or smaller than others!

If you’re lucky enough to have an espresso machine with a built-in grinder, simply grind into your portafilter. I use the Breville barista express - read about it here.

using the machine's built-in grinder

Ideally you’ll have a little mountain of ground coffee in your portafilter basket. Use your hand to shave away the excess coffee, push it into the nooks and crannies and smooth it down so you can start applying pressure with your tamper (next step).

a barista smoothing excess coffee off the portafilter

Smoothing excess coffee

3. Tamp your grounds

You’ll want your beans roughly evenly distributed before tamping. This can be accomplished by lightly tapping the side of the portafilter with your hand, or even by leveling the espresso grounds off with the side of your finger as we showed you above.

Once you've done that it's time to get tamping. 

a home barista holding a tamp and a portafilter during the tamping process

Tamping in action

The key to tamping well is to press down straight - you do not want to have an uneven puck. You’ll want to use a fair bit of pressure her, although the age-old wisdom of 30lbs of pressure is probably overkill. A good rule to follow is tamp until the grounds stop settling, always ensuring that you have a level top (1). Perfect Daily Grind explained why doing so is important (2). 

“A straight tamp will make sure that the coffee is even. In this way, it will help you avoid channelling and, in turn, over, under, or inconsistent extraction.” - Perfect Daily Grind
A level tamp

The tamp is level here. Thats what you want.

a tamp that is not level

The tamp is not level here. This is a problem.

Give your tamper a quick spin to polish the top of your espresso puck. Brush off any excess grounds clinging to the top or side of your portafilter and you’re ready to get brewing!

flat bed of coffee grounds in a portafilter

Make sure our portafilter has a flat bed of grounds after tamping.

Read our more detailed tamping instructions in this article for some more tips.

PRO TIP - You Tamping is a bit of an art and you get better at it with practice. Get a journal/notepad and note down the type of bean you're using, and an idea of how much you tamped (e.g. "Pushed down at roughly 50% strength until grounds stopped compressing"). This will be invaluable later when dialing in the shot.

4. Pull Your First Shot

While you pull this shot, time how long it takes to hit 2 ounces (the typical size of a double shot). Ideally, you’ll end up between 20 and 30 seconds per pull.

If you’re in this range then technically are done, you’ve made espresso. Hopefully it is rich and dark and sweet and glorious. But, the reality is that this first shot is just establishing a baseline.

an image showing how to use an espresso machine to pull a shot

5. Dial In The Shot

If you’re using a machine with a pressure gauge take note of the pressure reached. This will help you in adjusting your next shot if you have too much or little pressure. Good espresso machines (like these) will give you an indicator of how well (or poorly) extracted your shot is.

an espresso machine dashboard focusing on the pressure gauge

If you don’t have a gauge; taste your espresso and make your mind up. Note it down in your journal. If your espresso pulled too quickly you’ll want to change to a finer grind. Conversely, if your espresso took an eternity to pull you’ll want a coarser grind (3). 

When you change the grind size you’ll want to toss the first portafilter worth of grounds. The grounds right after you change the setting will consist of a mix of sizes.

Ultimately we don’t measure flavor in seconds. If your espresso tastes under-extracted (sour) then you’ll want a finer grind. Bitterness indicates that your espresso is over-extracted and you should select a coarser grind.

If you switch between roasts, particularly between light and dark, you’ll have to repeat this dialing in process. Darker roasts are easier to over-extract than light roasts and typically benefit from a coarser grind.

At this stage you decide whether you want to enjoy the espresso pure, like an Italian, or turn it into a milk based coffee. If the latter is the case, keep reading, it's time to work on the milk.

6. Steam Your Milk

Hopefully your machine has a steam wand built in. If not, you'll have to use a separate milk steamer to steam your milk.

Steaming milk

If your machine does not have a steam wand, use a milk frother

Using your machines steam wand - Start out with cold milk poured into your stainless steel milk pitcher. Turn on your steamer wand briefly to eliminate any condensation that may have accumulated in the wand.

Next, put the steamer wand tip below the surface of the milk. Turn on your steamer and froth the milk until it reaches your desired consistency. Be sure to keep the steamer wand just below the surface during this process.

Once you’ve reached the frothiness you want, plunge the tip to the bottom of your milk vessel and continue steaming until you reach your desired temperature. Wipe your wand down and give it a brief purge to keep things sanitary. You can check out our more thorough milk steaming guide right here.

“At the recommended temperature of 55–65°C (139–149°F), all of the fats in milk have melted into liquid form and will not destroy the foam.” - Perfect Daily Grind

The key to foaming your milk is heat. Too little and your foam won’t stay together, too much and your milk will taste burnt and unpleasant. Practice practice practice and you’ll get a feel for it.

Final Thoughts

Rich, creamy, and full of flavor: what's not to love about espresso? Bring some patience and a learning mindset to your espresso brewing adventures and you'll master it in no time. Once you've mastered pulling espresso, other brewing methods will become easier. It will all make sense. Do you brew coffee using different coffee makers? See our other brewing guides here.

FAQs

How do you make coffee with an espresso machine?

To make drip coffee with an espresso machine you make an Americano. An Americano is a beverage popularized during WWII by American troops stationed in Italy seeking out a more familiar cup of coffee. Make your espresso as normal and add hot water until you reach your desired strength. Here's a guide on making an Americano.

Can you use regular coffee beans in an espresso machine?

Yes, you can use regular coffee beans in an espresso machine. However, espresso blends are specifically crafted to be low acidity, while regular coffee beans destined for more plebeian extraction methods might embrace their high acid nature. This can be challenging to overcome, resulting in sour espresso. 

How do I make a single shot of espresso?

You can make a single shot of espresso using a single shot portafilter basket, or by using a double shot basket with a dual spout and 2 cups. Single shot baskets use less coffee but will require you to adjust your dosage and timing accordingly. Double shot baskets with dual spouts will end up wasting some of your (possibly quite expensive) coffee beans but will not require any changes from your standard double.

Can I make espresso without a machine?

Yes, you can make espresso without a machine but it will be hard to achieve the required pressure to create good espresso. Hence, let's say "you can make almost espresso without a machine" instead. We cover a few different methods to make 'almost espresso' in this guide: make espresso without a machine.


References

  1. How Hard Should You Tamp? (2019, May 20). Retrieved from https://baristahustle.com/blog/how-hard-should-you-tamp/
  2. Aupiais, S. (2018, March 22). Barista Basics: How to Make an Espresso in 14 Steps. Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/01/barista-basics-how-make-espresso-14-steps/
  3. Boydell, H. (2018, December 02). Understanding Coffee Extraction For Your Perfect Cup.  Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/11/understanding-coffee-extraction-for-your-perfect-cup/
Scott
 

Hi, I'm Scott, and I've traveled extensively through North America and Europe, exploring food and drink pairings around the world. My Love of coffee began during my teen years when a friend's family introduced me to the glories of the classic Italian Moka pot. That technology got me through too many early-morning final exams in college and eventually led to a manual espresso machine after graduation.

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