Featured How to Use an Espresso Machine

Have you recently treated yourself to a brand new espresso machine and want to learn how to use it? Having your own espresso machine at home is a real luxury and has a number of advantages: you can control all the variables yourself, and you can experiment as much as you like until you find a recipe you love, and then repeat.

However, as exciting as unboxing your new espresso machine can be, setting up and using it for the first time can be intimidating – especially if you’ve been used to using something more automated like a pod machine.

But the good news is that you don’t need to be a trained barista, or have one on standby, to make consistently great-tasting espresso at home. There are just a few key things to bear in mind, and a few key pieces of equipment you’ll need, to get started. We’ll cover all of them in this guide.

What you’ll need

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A grinder, if not already built into the machine
  • A steam wand/separate milk frother
  • A portafilter
  • A tamper
  • A set of digital scales
  • A microfibre cloth or similar

Getting to know your espresso machine

Once you’ve got your equipment laid out, it’s time to familiarise yourself with everything, starting with the machine itself. Although the exact specifications of espresso machines can vary depending on whether they’re intended for domestic or commercial use, and the sort of volume they’re designed to deal with, certain key parts are included in most models.

For example, all espresso machines have at least one boiler to provide hot water for espresso extraction and steam for the steam wand (if it has one). Dual boiler machines – machines with one boiler for coffee extraction and one for steam creation – are more common in the commercial market, although certain manufacturers, such as Sage, have started developing dual boiler machines for the home.

While commercial machines tend to be plumbed into a water supply and may also have a filtration system installed, depending on how ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ the local water supply is, most home machines have a water tank that you empty and fill manually. It’s important that you keep on top of this!

Your machine will also have at least one grouphead, which is where you lock in the portafilter to pull a shot, along with a pressure gauge, which will show how many bars of pressure are being applied when extracting the espresso. 9 bars of pressure has generally been the industry standard, but lowering to 6 bars of pressure, for example, is something that has been explored with great success over the last few years.

Depending on the make and model of your machine, there may be a temperature indicator, which could be analogue or digital, buttons for double and single shots of espresso, and the all-important power button. If there’s a steam wand built in, there will be some sort of dial or lever mechanism to control this with, along with the steam wand itself.

Finally, most espresso machines will also have a drip tray, which sits at the very bottom of the machine, underneath the grouphead. It’s designed to catch any waste, or drips, that escape when making your espresso. You should empty and clean it regularly.

Getting started

If your machine has a water tank, make sure it’s filled up before you switch on. Once your machine is on, it will probably take a moment or two to warm up and be ready to use, though the good news is that the wait is significantly shorter for domestic machines vs. commercial ones.

If your machine has a built-in grinder, fill this with coffee beans (ideally ones roasted for espresso). Be sure to double check everything is set up in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations before you set about making your coffee.

Preparing the coffee beans

Grind the coffee beans

It’s always best to grind your espresso beans fresh instead of using pre-ground coffee. This is because coffee goes stale rapidly once ground, with its aroma and flavour beginning to degrade almost immediately. Grinding fresh also has another key advantage – you’ll be in total control of your grind size, which you’ll likely need to adjust a few times to get your shot just right. So although it’s entirely possible to make espresso using pre-ground coffee, you’ll be limiting the potential of your shots before you’ve even pulled them.

Next, place your portafilter on your digital scales and tare. Grind some coffee into the portafilter and weigh it: for a double shot, between 15 and 20 grams of coffee is a good place to start, but trial and error, personal preference and the type of beans you are using will determine the exact amount that works best within these parameters.

If you don’t have access to scales, you should still be able to approximate on sight, but just bear in mind that this won’t be as reliable, or guarantee the same level of consistency, as if you were to use scales.

As for grind size, generally, coffee ground for espresso should be very fine – finer than sand, but not so fine that the water from the machine can’t force itself through the grounds. Again, this is a process that needs experimentation, so don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away.

Preparing the ground coffee

Tamping the ground coffee

Once you’ve got your weighed ground coffee in your portafilter, make sure it’s distributed evenly throughout the portafilter basket. An easy way to do this is by gently tapping the side of the portafilter with your hand, or you can level off the espresso grounds with the side of your finger. This is to make sure that you’ll be able to tamp evenly.

Next, taking your espresso tamper, press down as level as you can – ideally your hand and wrist should be at a 90-degree angle to the rest of your arm. The pressure you apply should be firm, but not excessive. Here you’re trying to achieve a flat and even surface to avoid over, under, or inconsistent extraction later.

It’s also important that there are no holes or gaps for water to escape through as this can lead to something known as channelling, which is when water rushes through a gap – or channel – within the ground coffee, resulting in an unevenly extracted and often weak and watery shot of espresso.

As we touched on earlier, different types of beans can give you different results, so we’d recommend keeping a record of what grind size and dose you use for each bean so that you can adjust accordingly as you go. This can be done using an app, or a logbook that you can keep close to your machine. This is often done in coffee shops to help with training and to keep things consistent.

Now, assuming you’ve got a nice even basket, it’s time to pull the first shot.

Pulling your espresso shot

Pulling a shot of espresso

The first thing to do is to lock the portafilter into the grouphead – you may need to look from underneath the first few times you do this, but once you’ve got a feel for it, you’ll probably be able to do it without looking. Then, as soon as the portafilter is in, place a vessel of some kind underneath (ideally a transparent one so you can see what the shot is doing) and press the button to start pulling your shot.

If all has gone according to plan, the extraction time for the shot should be somewhere between 25 and 35 seconds, with the volume sitting somewhere between 30 and 55ml. Again, this is a guide more than anything, but anything too far outside of these parameters is likely to taste too weak or too strong, or too sour or too bitter.

When you take the portafilter out after pulling your shot, take a moment to inspect the basket for any gaps or other irregularities that may have occurred during tamping, as this can help you next time.

If the water races through too fast, and the espresso tastes overly acidic or sour, this is a sign that the espresso is under-extracted, so you’ll probably need to go for a finer grind next time to stop the water passing through so quickly.

On the other hand, if the water passes through too slowly, and the resulting espresso tastes overly heavy or bitter, this indicates that the espresso is over-extracted. In this case, you’ll want to try coarsening the grind to allow the water to flow through more quickly.

This process of fine-tuning your grind size and dose is known as ‘dialling in’. It takes time to learn, but is well worth the effort you put in.

Steaming the milk

Steaming milk

If your goal was to pull a black espresso shot, then you can stop right there, but if you’re creating a milk drink, then you’ll need to get steaming.

If your machine has a steam wand built in, we’ll take you through how best to use this, but if not, there are several standalone milk frothers on the market which are effective and easy to use, including Lavazza’s A Modo Mio MilkEasy Milk Frother, and versions from Dualit and Smeg.

Standalone milk frothers are simple and straightforward: all you need to do is fill one with the required amount of cold milk (many models have recommended fill levels for different drinks), replace the lid, and push a button. That’s it.

A steam wand, on the other hand, involves more technique but gives great results. To start, pour your desired amount of cold milk into a stainless steel milk pitcher, and turn the steam wand on and off again to ‘purge’ any excess milk left in the tip. Then, dip the tip of the steam wand just beneath the surface of the milk, and start steaming.

A good tip is to hold the milk pitcher slightly off-centre while steaming as this allows the steam to create a whirlpool effect on its own and helps to produce the lovely, silky texture we all want in steamed milk. Once the pitcher starts to feel hot in your hand, count to three and then shut the steam wand off – any more air and you risk the milk getting bubbly, any hotter and you risk losing sweetness.

Once you’ve got your espresso and your silky, velvety milk sorted, it’s time to put the two together. Whatever size milk drink you’re going for, it is good practice to tap your milk pitcher on the countertop to knock out any bubbles, then swirl the milk around in the pitcher to make sure the foam and milk are amalgamated into one, then pour into the espresso. The end result should be a balanced and delicious espresso-based coffee.

Pour the milk into the espresso to serve

For a more in depth exploration of espresso-based milk drinks, read our guide: The Relationship Between Espresso and Milk.