You don’t have to go to Rome to do as the Romans do. It took a while for Americans to catch on to the European taste for espresso, but these days it seems as if there is a coffee shop on every corner to suit the growing demands of our sophisticated palates. Espresso boasts superior taste and tremendous versatility, not to mention a hit of caffeine to start your day with a jolt. Lattes, cappuccinos and other blended espresso drinks are just a short walk away, but getting your fix at the local coffee shop isn’t your only option. Pronto’s Espresso Machine Buying Guide can point you toward the right machine to help you find your inner barista (see also Coffee Maker Buying Guide).
Pump espresso machines can achieve the 9 pressure bars needed for ideal espresso shot consistency and flavor, but cost more than steam espresso machines. If flavor, not budget, is your concern, go for a pump espresso machine.
Choose a manual espresso machine if you’re coffee-obsessed and want to hone your barista skills. Stick to automatic or super-automatic machines if all you want is to save yourself a trip to the café for that latte.
This capability is a must if you want lattes and cappuccinos. Espresso machines usually come with wands to do the job, but if you’re all about automation, choose a higher-end machine that can froth for you.
Machines that derive pressure from steam can sacrifice taste, but pump-driven machines are often more expensive. If your drink of choice is a latte or cappuccino, the steam machine might suit your needs without hurting your wallet. Straight espresso drinkers will get better results from the lower-temp pump machines.
Espresso machines can be messy to clean. If you want flavor without fuss, stick with the pod or super-automatic machines.
Any espresso machine that is not entirely manual. Superautomatic machines handle every step of the pull process, including clean-up, while semi-automatic and automatic varieties automate just the “pull.”
This is the pressure rating on most pump espresso machines. Ideally, machines will produce 9 bars of pressure when the shot is pulled. Steam machines generate 1-3 bars, while pump machines are capable of building an acceptable level to produce intense flavor and a crema.
A well-pulled shot will have a slight head of foam that is gold and brown in color. It’s also a good indication that the espresso will taste flavorful and balanced.
On manual machines, baristas are able to pull the shot themselves by depressing a lever which allows pressurized steam to pass through the espresso grounds.
The moka pot is a manual machine that is used on the stove top to make strong coffee. It is capable of producing roughly 1.5 bars which it then forces through coffee grounds using steam.
Aone-shot, pre ground, and pre-packed serving of ground coffee that can be used in pod machines for a no-mess espresso fix.
Pulling a balanced espresso shot depends on a multitude of factors: the temperature of the water, the rate at which the water is forced through the espresso grounds, the amount of pressure used to tamp the grounds into the filter-basket, and the quality and size of the grind of the coffee beans.
To handle this delicate balance, today’s machines offer a wide range of automation options. So, when you’re choosing an espresso machine, it’s important to consider how much control you desire over the final product. If you’re looking to hone your barista skills, then you will want a machine that lets you practice your craft. On the other hand, if you are just craving a homemade alternative to the store-bought latte, then you ought to be satisfied by a machine that handles most of the work for you.
The intense flavor of espresso is a result of high pressure, measured in bars, which can be generated by steam or by a pump. Most steam espresso machines can produce only 1-3 bars of pressure, while electric pumps are capable of achieving the 9 bars that are recommended for ideal espresso flavor and consistency. Steam machines boil water in a chamber which is then forced through the espresso grounds at a very high temperature. If it’s flavor you’re after, you’ll want to look at pump espresso machines instead.
Electric pump machines heat the water to an optimal temperature for extraction without boiling the water in the chamber, which can sometimes produce a bitter taste and they can be manual, fully automatic, semi-automatic or super-automatic. Steam espresso machines tend to be noisy, but they do produce consistent shots, and are often less expensive than the electric pump variety, which, though they deliver better flavor and consistency require that you have a more watchful eye unless you choose one with fully or super-automatic functions.
Manual espresso machines offer the home barista a true, but gratifying, challenge. With this machine, your inner barista controls the entire shot-pulling process; you not only fill and tamp the filter-basket, but also pull the shot by applying pressure to the lever which forces water through the grounds (this is the technique from which “pull” got its name). Sound like too much work? Unless you’ve got your heart set on a steam espresso machine, leave the manual machine to the purists and professionals and consider one of the various automatic espresso machines on the market today.
Automatic espresso machines come in either semi-automatic or fully automatic varieties. In both, an electric pump delivers water to the espresso grounds. On automatic machines, the brew pressure can be controlled by an electronic console, and can turn itself off when it is done pulling the shot. For the best of both worlds, choose a semi-automatic espresso machine where you control everything but the pump extraction process—grinding the beans, filling the filter-basket, tamping it with adequate pressure, and timing the shot. And then there are the super-automatic espresso machines, the primary advantage of which is ease of use. To operate one, you only need to fill the machine with espresso beans and water. A built-in grinder produces an acceptably fine grind, and then tamps it with appropriate pressure. After pulling its shots, the espresso machine even disposes of the used grounds by putting them in an internal waste receptacle. Some super-automatic machines come equipped with an automatic milk-frothing capability, which allows you to produce homemade lattes or cappuccinos in mere minutes. These machines are gaining popularity as more espresso-drinkers are looking for an easy way to make their own shots at home.
Even higher on the ease-of-use spectrum is the pod espresso machine which uses pre-packaged disks of ground espresso instead of loose grounds. The advantages of this machine are its ease of use and its lack of mess. However, many espresso traditionalists argue that the product is inferior to the complex cup that a barista can create. These same espresso experts probably wouldn’t use a moka pot, which is a stovetop espresso machine, because the final product lacks the highly-desirable cream. Moka pot espresso machines are easy to use. Simply place the moka pot on the stove to heat the water in the bottom chamber, and the resulting steam travels to the middle chamber where it is forced through the ground coffee. Additionally the moka pot is portable, making them a good choice for tailgating, camping or travel.
Most espresso machines have a steam wand which allows you to froth milk for espresso drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos. If you enjoy these specialty drinks, you should determine if you want to froth your own milk, or if you want the machine to do it for you and make your decision accordingly. Some machines let you froth while the espresso shot is pouring. This cuts down on time and prevents either the milk or the espresso from sitting for too long before they are mixed together. If timing’s not your forte, skip the wand and choose an espresso machine with a built-in frother. Want a milk frothing secret without a machine? Here’s how to do it: Start with a microwave safe container with a very tight fitting lid (kid’s juice cups with a screw on lid work well). Fill with ½ cup of milk, microwave uncovered for 1 minute. Remove, and secure the lid as tightly as possible. Shake the container vigorously. Cover the lid with a kitchen towel (for protection from hot steamy milk), and slowly remove the cap. Inside you will find frothy milk without a machine.
Espresso machines use varying methods to acquire the high pressure necessary to extract flavor from the extra-fine coffee grounds. The ideal “pull time” for an espresso shot is 25-30 seconds. In this short period, 1.5 ounces of water are pushed through the coffee at a high temperature (roughly 195 degrees). If the water is not hot enough, then the espresso will turn out bitter. If it’s too hot, then the espresso will taste sour. High-end models have internal gauges that produce the ideal temperature for flavor extraction. Steam machines produce a higher temperature at the expense of flavor, but if you are going to use your machine for milk-based drinks, then you might prefer to stick with these less expensive models.
Pod and super-automatic machines are designed to require very little maintenance or clean-up. Manual machines grant you the ultimate control over the final product, but they can be messy once you are done pulling a shot. If you think the necessary cleanup will make you use your machine less often, stick with pod or super-automatic espresso machines. Some espresso-drinkers want the taste without the hassle, while others seek a machine that will allow them to pull their own delicately-balanced shots regardless of mess.
Looks. Trained baristas and regular espresso drinkers alike can tell if a shot has been well-pulled just by looking at it. The color is rich, the consistency is adequately thick, and the crema dances on top of the liquid. But the look of the espresso machine is also subject to the discriminating eye. Espresso machine makers pay attention to how your appliance will look when it sits on your countertop. You’ll pay more for stainless steel, but you can also find some models housed in plastic to cut down on the price. You’ve got options and won’t have to sacrifice form for function.
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