January 7, 2019

How To Make Barista-Quality Espresso at Home

So, you love sipping on a delicious espresso, latte, or flat white at your favorite coffee shop, but wish you could have that same great coffee at home. Well then, this article is for you!

Kim Ossenblok and Danilo Lodi are both coffee ambassadors at the Italian espresso machine manufacturer Dalla Corte. They agreed to share with me their advice for brewing barista-quality espresso at home.

Preparing good espresso doesn’t have to be as complicated as you might think. With the correct equipment and a little bit of know-how, you’ll soon be pulling great shots in the comfort of your own kitchen.

You might also like Barista Basics: How to Make an Espresso in 14 Steps

espresso served on a plate

Espresso, ready for drinking.

Understanding Espresso

Before we jump into their advice, let’s start by looking at what an espresso actually is.

This short coffee is known for its intensity, something that’s created by its small volume and the pressure involved in brewing it.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), “espresso is a 25–35 ml beverage prepared from 7–9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 90.5-96.1ºC has been forced at 9–10 atmospheres of pressure, and where the grind of the coffee is such that the brew time is 20–30 seconds.”

The 20–30 seconds is a good parameter. However, keep in mind that there is no hard-and-fast rule for timing. The behavior of coffee during extraction depends on many factors, including grind size, coffee origin, roast profile, your personal preferences, and more.

That being said, let’s take a look at the experts’ tips for improving your home espresso.

Dalla Corte Studio

The Dalla Corte Studio in the kitchen. Credit: Dalla Corte

Start With Good Coffee

Good coffee starts with good coffee beans. “First of all, you should have a specialty coffee,” Kim tells me. “We could say, one that’s fresh, recently roasted, with tones of chocolate, red fruits, sugar, caramel… slightly less acidity because the acidity always comes to the forefront in espresso.”

The coffee’s roast profile is also important. Roasts that are too dark can taste bitter, while ones that are too light may taste too acidic and lack sweetness and balance.

“I would say that the limit is a dark brown,” Kim advises. He recommends medium espresso roasts. “I always recommend asking the roaster: ‘What do you recommend for espresso?’”

As Kim said, the roast date is also important. Coffee is an organic product: it goes stale over time. However, there’s also such a thing as “too fresh”, especially for espresso. Coffee needs to degas; this is the slow release of (perfectly harmless) carbon dioxide that has built up during the roasting process. At the beginning, the coffee degases rapidly, which can disrupt the extraction of flavor and aroma compounds. However, if the coffee degases too much, the flavor will be reduced and it will also be hard to achieve crema.

Read more in What Roasting Dates Can & Can’t Tell You About Coffee

Additionally, it’s best to buy whole bean coffee and store it somewhere away from oxygen, sunlight, and too much heat (or fluctuating temperatures). The only exception to this rule is if you’re using a poor-quality grinder.

Danilo recommends purchasing small amounts of coffee at a time to make it easier to keep it fresh. “If the coffee bag has a ziplock, take the air out by squeezing the bag and keep it away from the light, heat, and humidity,” he adds.

grinding coffee into portafilter

Grinding coffee into a portafilter, ready to pull an espresso shot. Credit: Kim Ossenblok

Use Good Equipment

Good equipment won’t guarantee a good espresso, but it does make it a lot easier. The two most important things you’ll need are a grinder and an espresso machine.

  • The Grinder

“The grinder will determine how much you can make out of that coffee,” Danilo says. “You need to have consistent grind particles and a range that you can use from coarse to fine. With that, you can adapt to each coffee and get the best out of it.”

Kim suggests investing in a flat burr grinder. He tells me that not only will it start faster, but it will also give you a more uniform grind size.

Discover more! Read A Brewer’s Guide to Choosing a Good Coffee Grinder

  • The Espresso Machine

“You should look for stability in the pressure, temperature, and volume of water. The machine should give you the same result from the first cup to as many as you want,” Danilo advises.

Make sure you ask about the boiler. Kim recalls buying his first ever machine, a Dalla Corte Mini, back when he first started in the coffee industry. He tells me that one of the reasons he bought it was because it has an independent group head boiler. He wanted to practice latte art and knew that the independent boiler would allow him to use the water vapor without jeopardizing the machine’s stability or his espresso consistency.

He looks for many of the same things as Danilo when buying an espresso machine, but also values control over the variables. “What would I look into in a machine?” he asks. “That you can regulate things such as temperature, pressure, water flow, and things that allow you to experiment.”

Of course, it’s also worth considering user-friendliness. While it’s great to have a machine that gives you complete control, this is no good if you’re not sure how to use all the features. Home espresso machines such as Dalla Corte’s soon-to-be-launched Studio feature control panels that allow you to adjust temperature, dose, pre-infusion, and more. Look for a machine that you are confident in your ability to use.

Oh, and don’t overlook the importance of maintenance. Danilo recommends cleaning the machine every time you use it. “This will help you have your equipment working properly for years,” he says. Plus, he adds, it’s best to change the water at least every two weeks if you’re not using the steam boiler.

editing settings on espresso machine

Adjusting settings on the Dalla Corte Studio. Credit: Dalla Corte

Grind Your Coffee Well

Remember when we said that degassing leads to stale coffee? Well, degassing speeds up dramatically after the coffee is ground. The fresher the grind, the fresher the taste. This is why whole bean coffee is typically best.

What’s more, when you’re ready to grind the beans, you need to consider the grind size. Grind size is important because it affects the rate of extraction of the flavor and aroma compounds in your coffee beans. The finer the grind size, the quicker extraction takes place.

Controlling the degree of extraction is key to good-tasting coffee. This is because the first compounds to be extracted create fruity, acidic flavors; the next ones are responsible for sweetness; then, finally, we get bitterness and astringency. When brewing coffee, the goal is to get a well-balanced coffee with plenty of sweetness and a reasonable amount of acidity and bitterness.

As the same time, the grind size affects how quickly the water can pass through the coffee – or, in other words, how long it takes to pull an espresso shot. If the grind is too fine, it becomes like wet sand, and it takes a lot longer for the water to make its way through. This then increases the brew time and therefore the degree of extraction.

Kim tells me, “The grind should be sufficiently fine that it takes more or less 20–30 seconds to pull the espresso shot. If the grind isn’t sufficiently fine, the espresso will take less time. And when it takes less time, you can’t extract the sweetness in the coffee and instead are left with the more acidic and salty flavors.

“When you extract your coffee in between 20–30 seconds, you will get those acidic and salty flavors, but you will also extract sweetness.”

In other words, grind size is critical if you want a delicious espresso. The coarser the coffee, the faster the extraction, leading to less bitterness and more perceived acids in the cup. The finer the coffee, the slower the extraction, resulting in more bitterness and less perceived acids.

Espresso always requires a fine grind size, due to the short brew time. However, if your espresso isn’t tasting quite as you’d like, you can try tweaking the grind settings and see if this resolves your problems.

ground coffee on portafilter

Freshly ground coffee in portafilter. Credit: Neil Soque

Decide on Your Coffee: Water Brew Ratio

How much water should you use? Well, that depends on how strong you want your coffee to be. Kim recommends starting with a 1:3 ratio. For every gram of dry coffee, you want 3 ml of espresso in the cup.

However, you can also experiment with different recipes depending on your preferences. Use 1:2 for a stronger coffee or, if you’re aiming for something more like a lungo, try 1:4 or even 1:5.

Remember, there is no “best recipe:” there’s simply the recipe that best suits your coffee and your tastes.

However, regardless of the recipe you choose, it helps to measure the coffee and water with a scale. You’ll notice that many specialty baristas weigh both the ground coffee and the extracted shot. This allows them to use exactly the right ratio and ensure the exact same delicious coffee every single time. And it’s a process that’s easy for home baristas to also do.

pouring shots of espresso

Weighing espresso shots. Credit: Kim Ossenblok

Pay Attention to Water Quality & Temperature

It’s not just about how much water you use: it’s also about what kind of water.

Poor-quality water can damage your equipment. Hard water, in particular, can lead to limescale build-ups that can affect the machine’s performance.

What’s more, water quality can influence the taste of the coffee. If your tap water has been treated with chlorine, it can make your espresso dull. Water that’s too hard can lead to dull brews. On the other hand, soft water can leave your coffee flat or lacking in body.

Kim recommends using water with a neutral pH and a total water minerality in between 100–150 milligrams per liter. “It is a good idea to use bottled water or use an active carbon filter,” Kim says. “There are several brands that are also suitable for home use, and a carbon filter for tap water is always good.”

As for water temperature, you can experiment with this to impact your extraction: the hotter the water, the faster the flavors and aromas extract. However, Kim advises sticking to 90–93ºC/194–199ºF.

“A couple of degrees hotter or cooler can change the flavor,” Kim says. “That’s why it’s so important to have temperature stability.”

pouring shots of espresso

Pulling espresso on the Dalla Corte Studio. Credit: Dalla Corte

Evenly Distribute & Tamp Your Coffee

And finally, you’re ready to pull that espresso shot. But stop: before you begin, what happens if your coffee is unevenly distributed in the portafilter? The simple answer is: bad coffee.

Good-tasting coffee relies on the idea that the different coffee grounds are all extracted to the same degree (or as close to it as possible). But if some of the grounds are packed tighter together in one section of the portafilter than in another, then the water will choose the path of least resistance and flow through the area with more air. This will lead to these grinds being over-extracted and the others, which are less exposed to the water, being under-extracted.

So, before tamping, make sure the grounds are uniformly distributed. If you grind directly into the portafilter, you can move it around during dosing to help ensure this. There are also many techniques and tools that you can try.

distributing coffee grounds on portafilter

Distributing coffee grounds in the portafilter.

Once your coffee is correctly distributed, you can proceed to tamping. Danilo tells me, “We need to tamp the coffee evenly and consistently to extract flavors and sugars into the cup. Even as a home user, you have to do it to get a great result.”

“It is not necessary to add a lot of pressure,” Kim advises. “Just as much as is necessary to compact the coffee so the water encounters the same level of resistance in all the coffee.”

Check out A Video Guide to Tamping Coffee!

And now, finally, after grinding your coffee, selecting your ratio, and tamping, you’re ready to pull that amazing espresso shot. Enjoy it!

Interview with Kim Ossenblok conducted in Spanish.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Dalla Corte.  

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