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Espresso machines

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Can you make the perfect coffee in your kitchen?

From our test

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Which type of espresso machine?

If you're thinking of buying an espresso machine, here's what you should consider.

Automatic machines

Automatic and automatic-manual espresso machines (also known as “super automatic”) automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. You fill the bean hopper or add pre-ground coffee, add water to a reservoir and press a button or 2. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device.

Pros

  • You can choose from a wide variety of beans or pre-ground coffee.
  • Digital displays and indicators make using them easy.
  • You don’t need to fuss about with portafilters and filter baskets or separate grinders.

Cons

  • You don’t have the “control” over the extraction process (and sometimes the frothing process) that you do with a manual or semi-automatic model and this may result in a less satisfactory taste.
  • They can be more expensive than semi-automatic and manual machines.

Semi-automatic machines

Semi-automatic and manual espresso machines work along similar lines: you pack the coffee into the filter basket, which sits in the portafilter. You then twist the portafilter into the machine. The only significant difference is that manual machines require you to judge the amount of water that flows through the filter basket whereas semi-autos cut off the flow once a pre-set amount is poured.

Pros

  • You can choose from a wide variety of ground coffee.
  • You can easily change the strength of your espresso by adjusting the amount of ground coffee and water used.

Cons

  • Semi-autos and manuals take time to master.
  • Portafilters and filter baskets can be fiddly to use and clean; some portafilters require some effort to twist into place.

Capsule machines

Capsule machines use hermetically sealed pods of coffee. You drop a capsule in the top, pull a lever and push a switch. The machine pierces the capsule and forces hot water through to make an espresso.

These machines use proprietary systems such as Caffitaly or Nespresso.

Pros

  • They’re convenient to use and easy to clean.
  • The sealed capsules can keep the coffee fresh for up to 9 months.

Cons

  • These machines use proprietary systems such as Caffitaly or Nespresso. So they tie you to using certain brands of capsule.
  • Capsules cost more than ground coffee and result in extra packaging waste.
  • You have less control over the strength of your espresso.

Features to look for

If you're thinking of buying an espresso machine, here's what you should consider.

  • Clear and simple controls: Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when you’re programming the machine.
  • Grinder: An adjustable grinder lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine. Check that the grinder mechanism’s safely inaccessible, or that the grinder automatically shuts off when the hopper lid is removed.
  • Variable coffee strength (automatic machines): A machine with several coffee-strength settings or a continuous range of settings lets you adjust the intensity of the coffee to your taste.
  • Footprint: A big espresso machine is fine if you have plenty of bench space in your kitchen, but you may want one that takes up less space.
  • Cup warmer: This can help keep your cups at a constant temperature, which helps the taste of the coffee and keeps the milk frothy.
  • Froth enhancer: Some machines come with a froth enhancer on the milk-frothing wand. This is intended to make frothing easier, but often it produces large bubbles instead of the fine foam suitable for latte and cappuccino. Removing the enhancer often makes it easier to produce fine velvety foam.
  • Water container: This should be big, accessible and transparent (so you can easily check the water level).
  • Drip tray: Go for big and easy-to-drain.
  • Exterior: A groove-less exterior will be easier to keep clean. Stainless-steel and matte finishes look stylish but show up fingerprints and grime.
  • Tamper: A tamper turns the loose coffee into a firm, evenly distributed pellet in the filter basket. A good tamper allows you to pack the coffee down evenly. Tampers fixed to the machine are poor substitutes for solid-metal hand-held tampers.

Compare test results and features for all the espresso machines we've tested.

Espresso machine reliability

We surveyed espresso machines in our 2013 appliance reliability survey.

Become a Gold or Silver member to find out which brands rated best for reliability.

Buying tips

Some quick tips for buying an espresso machine:

  • Ask the salesperson if there's a demonstration model. Get them to make an espresso so you can check the quality before you buy.
  • Check the milk-frothing mechanism to make sure you can create good-quality creamy froth without large bubbles.
  • Make sure the controls are easy to operate. A digital display is better than indicator lights.

Getting started

Get your espresso machine up and running with these pointers:

  • To remove factory flavours, flush a litre of water through a new machine and push a cup of hot water through the steam wand.
  • A standard espresso shot is 7g of coffee in 30ml of water – you can amp this up by adding more coffee or reducing the water.
  • Use fresh water only. Discard any water that's been sitting in the tank for a few days.
  • Adjust the grind fineness until you can get the machine to give you 30ml of espresso after about 20 seconds. (This time – which is called "extraction" – doesn't include the few seconds of "preinfusion" some machines go through.)
  • The best temperature for brewing is around 91-92°C. Too hot and the coffee can have a bitter flavour. Too cold and the coffee could be under-extracted, leaving you with a watery coffee lacking in flavour.
  • Warm up the cups by leaving them on the cup warmer (if there is one) or running hot water into them.
  • Froth milk immediately after making an espresso (don’t let the coffee cool). Aim for small creamy bubbles. Banging the jug on a table and swirling it around several times will remove the larger bubbles.
  • After frothing milk, clean the nozzle with a sponge that’s not used for anything else. Run a small amount of water to cool the internal parts of the machine (otherwise the extra heat can burn the grind of the next cup of coffee).
  • If you want a "long black", add an espresso shot to hot water rather than extracting it for a long time. Over-extraction causes bitterness.
  • Drink the espresso within a few minutes of it being made.

Tips for the home barista

Some handy hints to making the perfect coffee at home:

  • There are 2 main varieties of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans generally make a higher-quality coffee.
  • A true espresso is made from darkly roasted and finely ground beans. It's sometimes called "Italian style". But this can be misleading, as some coffee using this label is not dark or ground finely enough.
  • If you're using a manual or semi-automatic espresso machine, you may want to buy your own grinder. Avoid cheaper grinders that won't let you control the fineness. A decent burr-type grinder will give you the right fineness and control. For best results grind your beans just before making the coffee.

  • Keep your beans fresh by buying in small quantities from a store that has a high turnover (use beans roasted no more than 10 days ago). Keep them in an airtight container somewhere cool, dry and dark. Don't refrigerate or freeze them.

  • If you like milky coffee, use fresh homogenised milk. Full-fat milk produces the best quality froth. Low-fat milk will produce more froth – but it tends to separate more quickly.

  • Invest in a thermometer that fits inside the frothing jug. Milk should be around 65-70°C. Any hotter and it will burn.

Perfecting the crema

Here's how to get that professional looking crema.

  • If it's light, inconsistent, thin and dissipates quickly, the coffee has been under-extracted. It was probably too coarsely ground or the water temperature was too low.
  • If it's dark and has a hole in the middle, there's either too much coffee in the filter basket or the coffee was compressed into the filter basket (a process known as tamping) too firmly.
  • If it's white with big bubbles, the coffee was probably over-extracted because the hot water was passed through the filter for too long.
  • If you still can't get good crema, check whether the coffee chamber is dirty.

Perfecting the froth

Here's how to get that professional creamy froth.

  • Use fresh, homogenised milk. Full-fat milk produces the best quality froth. Low-fat milk will produce more froth – but it tends to separate more quickly.
  • Use a stainless steel jug, half full of milk straight from the fridge. Turn on the steam and purge any water from the wand. Stop and put the wand into the milk just below the surface. Angle the jug and turn the steam on to full.
  • Move the jug around to create a whirlpool effect, keeping the nozzle just under the milk level and well under the foam as it develops.
  • When the foam has risen to almost twice the original milk level, drop the nozzle down to heat the milk. Keep heating until the jug is almost too hot to touch.
  • The froth should be a creamy froth where the bubbles are so tiny that they can't be seen, and the surface should look shiny, almost glasslike.
  • After frothing the milk, bang the jug on the table to remove larger bubbles from the froth, swirl it around a few times, bang it again and pour it on the top of the coffee straight away. The milk and froth should be poured out of the jug on to the crema – you shouldn't have to spoon it out.

Coffee types

Here are the proportions of espresso to milk for 3 classic coffees, and 2 recipes for a smaller cup or glass. All require a double-shot of espresso.

Steamed milk sits in the jug in layers: the most finely-textured milk is at the bottom whereas heavier textures are towards the top. The quality of flat whites, cappuccinos and lattes is often determined by the blend (or separation) of these textures.

Latté

Espresso with lightly-frothed milk.

  • 1/5 espresso
  • 4/5 lightly-frothed milk

Flat white

Espresso with less milk than a latte, and little froth.

  • 1/4 espresso
  • 3/4 steamed milk

Cappuccino

Espresso with a mix of finely-textured and frothy milk.

  • 1/3 espresso
  • 1/3 steamed milk
  • 1/3 froth (shake aerated milk from the top of the jug)

Piccolo

A mini-latte, served in a 100ml glass or cup.

  • 1/3 espresso
  • 2/3 steamed milk

Macchiato

Espresso with the tiniest "mark" of milk.

  • A double shot of espresso.
  • A spoonful of milk (the milk must have enough texture to sit on top of the espresso)
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