My cousin from Italy came to visit this week – her first time in the U.S.; we’d met her nine years ago in Italy – and paid me the ultimate compliment by saying she liked my espresso … and that it was the first decent espresso she’d had in the U.S. I’m no expert on coffee or espresso, but I’ve got a system that seems to work for me.
I’ve said in the past that you need a burr grinder to properly grind coffee. Blade grinders smash the beans in an uneven fashion, and generate more heat the longer you grind, so to get coffee ground finely and evenly enough to use in an espresso machine, you’d have to grind the beans so long that they’d continue roasting and could even smoke, and you probably still couldn’t get the grind fine enough. If you can’t afford a good burr grinder, buy your coffee ground for an espresso machine, and buy it in the tiniest quantities possible.
I use a Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder, which, at $90, is the cheapest “true” burr grinder available. (I had a lower-end Capresso burr grinder before that one, but it couldn’t go fine enough for espresso.) The Infinity works for French pressed coffee, drip coffee, and espresso, and claims to be able to go fine enough for Turkish coffee, although I’ve never tried that. On the downside, it creates some coffee dust that spurts out when you remove the plastic receptacle where the machine deposits the ground coffee, and you’ll have to give the machine a good whack to get all of your grounds to fall. There are, of course, many more expensive grinders you can buy, from Saeco, Rancilio, DeLonghi, and other brands.
For the espresso machine itself, again, I own what I think is the cheapest legitimate model available here, the Gaggia Carezza. The Carezza makes a great shot of espresso. It steams/froths milk well, but I’ve found it takes two boiler cycles to steam enough for cappuccino or a caffe latte, so the lower machine cost means some extra time investment when you’re making drinks. The Carezza is still available, but Gaggia has introduced a slightly smaller and cheaper machine, the Evolution.
I also bought a heavier tamper than the cheap plastic thing that came with the Carezza, and I use a $5 instant-read thermometer when steaming milk. That’s about it for the specialized hardware. Have a double shot glass capable of holding 2.5 ounces of liquid ready to receive the espresso out of the machine, and get your cup(s) ready for the actual espresso drink(s). I do not recommend that you use the plastic splitter that allows you to divide the espresso coming out of the machine into two cups; it’s a crema-killer.
For coffee, the most important variable is not roast, but date: Coffee begins to go stale as soon as it’s done roasting. If you can buy beans where they’re roasted on the day on which they’re roasted, you’ll get better espresso, with more crema and a fuller body. Beans sold at Starbucks were roasted three weeks before the day you buy them. For making espresso, they suck. I buy my beans at Whole Foods, where they put the roast date on the outside of the bin; if I’m lucky, I’ll get beans that are still warm. I store them in airtight mason jars, loosening the lids once a day to let out the excess carbon dioxide.
To actually make the drink:
1. Turn on the espresso machine about ten minutes before you intend to make coffee. Make sure that the water reservoir has plenty of water in it, and that the portafilter is in place but (of course) has no coffee grounds in it. This allows the metal part of the portafilter to heat up before you put coffee in it.
2. The Carezza has three buttons: a power switch, an espresso on/off switch, and a steamer on/off switch. Unless the steamer switch is on, the machine assumes you’re making espresso, and a green light is illuminated when the machine’s boiler is hot enough to do so. (If you have a different machine, these steps may vary slightly.) When the green light is on, flip the espresso switch to “on” and open the steamer valve by turning the knob on top of the machine that controls steam pressure. I use my metal steamer pitcher to catch the hot water coming out of the valve, and I pour this into the shot glass and into the demi-tasse cups to warm them up.
3. When the boiler recovers, pull a blank shot – that is, pull a shot without any coffee grounds. This is a good time to turn on the coffee grinder and get the beans ready; I find that two scoops of beans yields enough for about 15-16 grams of grounds, which is the right amount for two shots of espresso. I’ve found it’s far, far better to use a little too much coffee than a little too little; in fact, going to 18-20 grams will almost ensure a good but imperfect pull. Always pull two shots at once.
4. Remove your portafilter from the machine, dump out any remaining water and rinse quickly with hot water if necessary. Add the ground coffee and press it down with your tamper, using about 30 pounds of pressure. I know what the right amount of pressure is now because I’ve done it for a while, but if you’re just starting out, try using a bathroom scale and pressing down on it with your tamper. Tap out any loose grounds and put the portafilter back on to your machine.
5. Put your shot glass under the portafilter. Wait until the boiler is ready and then turn the espresso switch on. You should get about 2-2.5 ounces of espresso in 25-35 seconds of brewing; I usually stop at 2 ounces, around 25 seconds when I’ve done everything right. The espresso stream becomes noticeably thinner beyond that point.
6. Wait 20-30 seconds and remove the portafilter. (If you don’t wait, the machine will “burp” and you’ll get wet coffee grounds everywhere, including up in the machine where you don’t want them.) If you’re just making espresso, you’re just about done – run a blank shot to clean the machine and that’s all.
7. To add steamed or frothed milk, turn the second switch to “on” and wait for the boiler to heat up. I leave the two shots of espresso in the shot glass to keep the liquid as warm as possible. Steaming is simple: With a thermometer in your milk, raise the pitcher until the tip of the steamer wand is touching the top of the milk. Froth until the milk’s temperature reaches 100 degrees, then plunge the wand into the milk until the thermometer reaches 160 degrees. The goal is pourable froth, and if you froth it too long the froth will become dry and spoonable rather than pourable. I’ve found this is easier to do with the steam valve most of the way open – trying to finesse it with a low level of steam produced coarser bubbles for me.
8. Turn the steamer switch off and run a blank shot of espresso. If you left the portafilter in place during steaming, wait several minutes for the pressure to dissipate before running the blank.
I think that’s it, although I may have missed a step or a detail. The product links above go to amazon.com; you can also find them at Whole Latte Love, where you’ll find buyer guides and more product information. For some coffee-making tutorials and a very active message board on coffee, check out coffeegeek.com.