Crafting Café-Worthy Espresso in Your Own Kitchen

Every coffee-making method has its nuances, tricks, and challenges, but espresso seems to have more than most. It’s not always easy to pinpoint what’s causing the trouble when your shots don’t turn out as expected.

That’s where I come in—I’m here to guide you through the fundamentals of making espresso at home. Whether you’re a newbie with a new espresso machine on your kitchen counter or a seasoned pro in need of a quick refresher, I’ve got you covered.

Be sure to explore our other coffee gear guides, such as the Best Espresso Machines, Best Cold-Brew Coffee Makers, Best Latte and Cappuccino Machines, and Best Coffee Grinders. And don’t forget our How to Brew Coffee at Home guide—it covers all the basics.

  1. Getting the Beans There’s no such thing as “espresso beans.” Sometimes, coffee makers offer blends tailored for espresso machines, but these beans are no different from any other coffee beans. Personally, I prefer a medium roast for espresso—it tends to have rich, chocolatey flavors that complement steamed milk well. Blonde roasts are also good if you prefer a lighter body and floral notes, but they can be hit or miss in mixed espresso drinks.

Dark roasts can work, but occasionally, they result in a burnt-tasting brew when used in an espresso machine. For consistency, I recommend aiming for a medium roast.

Where to get your beans? If you opt for a local roaster, look for beans with a roast date no more than a month old. Alternatively, consider joining a coffee subscription service to have freshly roasted beans delivered to your doorstep.

  1. Grinding the Beans For espresso, you need a burr grinder. I’ve tried using blade grinders for years, and they just can’t achieve the powdery consistency required for espresso. If you don’t have a burr grinder, buy your beans from a local coffee shop that can grind them for you, specifying an espresso grind. Or invest in a grinder—I have several recommendations in my Best Coffee Grinders guide.

With a burr grinder, it’s a bit of trial and error to find the right grind size. Start with the finest setting or the last third or fourth of the grinder’s fineness settings. Aim for grounds similar in size to salt or sugar granules, rather than flour.

As for quantity, I typically start with 15 to 16 grams of coffee. You can weigh the coffee before or after grinding. If you don’t have a scale, I recommend a reliable option from Amazon.

When tamping, apply gentle pressure to compact the grounds in the portafilter, aiming to eliminate air pockets. Twist the tamp as you lift it off to ensure a smooth surface. There should be about 1/8 inch of space between the top of the portafilter and the grounds.

  1. Extracting the Espresso Assuming you have an espresso machine, lock the portafilter in place, position a cup underneath, and start the machine. Most semi-automatic machines will stop extraction automatically after a set time, but if yours is manual, you’ll need to time it yourself.

You can gauge when it’s done by time, color, or weight. I typically use a combination of time and color—around 20 to 30 seconds is a good starting point. The espresso should have a thick, syrupy consistency and a caramel to reddish-brown color. Stop the extraction before it turns lighter than light brown sugar.

As the espresso pours into the cup, observe the formation of crema—the thick layer of foam on top. It should be a rich light brown with a bubbly center (the heart) and a darker brown outer layer (the body).

  1. Troubleshooting If your espresso drips slowly or in a thin trickle, the grounds may be too fine, packed too tightly, or lacking sufficient headroom. Adjust one variable at a time and try again. If the espresso pours out quickly and looks watery, the grounds may be too coarse or insufficiently tamped. Adjust as needed.

It may take some trial and error, but with practice, you’ll improve your espresso-making skills.

  1. Adding Milk (Optional) For lattes or cappuccinos, you’ll need to steam milk. Most espresso machines have a steam wand attachment, but you can also use a milk frother.

Fill a pitcher no more than halfway with milk, then purge the steam wand to ensure it’s clear and hot. Submerge the wand into the milk and heat it to around 145 degrees Fahrenheit or until it’s almost too hot to touch. As the milk heats, position the wand to create a whirlpool effect, aerating the milk and creating foam.

Once the milk reaches the desired temperature, pour it over the espresso, and enjoy your homemade espresso-based drink.

Congratulations, you’ve made espresso! Even if it’s not perfect, celebrate your accomplishment—you’re one step closer to mastering the art of coffee making.

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