An espresso machine is a wonderful device that allows you to brew espresso drinks in your home. You can benefit from the amazing taste and shot of energy that espresso provides without heading to a coffee shop.
But how does an espresso machine work? It is crucial that you understand so that you can use it correctly and fully appreciate its features.
An espresso machine is relatively complex and has a host of different components and characteristics. To give you insight, we delve into how espresso machines work in the below guide and how you can use one to create a good espresso!
Understanding the Components of an Espresso Machine
When looking at how an espresso machine works, you must understand the different components and designs. Espresso machines typically have a set of common components that are vital to brewing espresso drinks.
When making espresso, a vital ingredient is hot water. As a result, all espresso machines have a water source. There are two types of water sources – a reservoir and a plumbed connection.
A water reservoir is common for smaller espresso machines for home use. This is because it is easier to use, cheaper, and requires no additional work.
In contrast, professional machines often have a plumbed connection that fits directly into a water system. This is ideal when your espresso machine is constantly used – like in a cafe, for example. Plumbed connections also often need filtration systems to purify the water before it is used in the process.
Most home espresso machines also have a rotary pump or a vibratory pump. The electric pump aims to create pressure to push the hot water through the coffee grounds to create an intense espresso.
In contrast, manual espresso machines do not have electric pumps. You have to manually force the hot water through the coffee filter using a lever or manual pump mechanism.
Rotary pumps are mechanical. They have a complex design that helps create pressurized water. At the centre of rotary pumps, there is a disc and motor. The motor spins the disc, which presses against the chamber wall, creating pressure bars for the water.
In contrast, vibration pumps utilize magnets and metal coils to generate bars of pressure. Inside vibratory pumps, there is a magnet inside a coil and a piston. An electrical current passes through the coil. This causes the magnet to move the piston rapidly and thus push the pressurized water through the chamber.
To make espresso coffee, you need boiling water! Therefore, most espresso machines have a built-in boiler. The most basic function of the boiler is to increase the water temperate once it has been pressurized from the pump.
The boilers work via a heat exchanger or heating elements, depending on the size of the unit. Most modern espresso machines for home use have smaller heating elements. In contrast, commercial machines may have a larger boiler set up to cope with a larger capacity.
Some espresso machines also have a dual boiler or use a boiler and a heat exchanger. The optimal temperature for an espresso shot is below boiling. However, you may want boiling water to produce steam for cappuccinos and lattes. Therefore, a dual boiler allows for that flexibility.
If your home espresso machine has a heat exchange boiler or can create steam, it will also have a steam wand. A steam wand is a small metal pipe that is connected to the dual boiler or heat exchange.
The steam wand is then used to froth milk for lattes, and you can use the steam pressure to create artistic patterns in the froth.
Another important aspect of the boiler is the water temperature stability. To create the perfect shot of espresso, you need the correct temperature. This is why digital temperature controls are preferable. Digital temperature control for the single boiler will allow you to create consistent espressos each time.
The group head is the main part of how espresso machines work. This group head contains several basic parts that effectively allow you to pass the water through the coffee grounds to create a shot of espresso.
These components include a filter basket, a locking mechanism to keep the metal filter basket in place, a pump activation device, and a channel for the water to pass from the boiler or heat exchange boiler to the filter.
The filter basket is one of the main parts of the head and the brewing process. This is what the coffee grounds are placed into. It is removable and has a handle. This is locked in place so that no water can escape when creating espresso shots. Coffee is typically compacted in the filter using a tamper.
There are many designs of group heads, but all have the same function. Different types of group heads include the E61, Saturated Group Head, and Semi-Saturated Group Head. Saturated and semi-saturated denotes how much water is present in the head chamber.
How to Use an Espresso Machine
Now that you understand the basic components, we can look at using your espresso machine! These units are more complex than simple coffee machines.
Also, to create the perfect espresso, you will need practice. However, if you follow the steps listed below, you should be able to become a coffee geek in no time!
Step 1: Familiarise Yourself With the Machine
As with any kitchen appliance, it is important to familiarize yourself with the machine. We first advise fully reading the instruction manual. This will show you the different components. It will also explain features like electric heating elements and temperature controls.
Once you have read the manual, spend time assessing the machine. Find the different parts like the steam wand and water reservoir. Look at the filter basket and make sure you understand how to lock the filter in place.
The more you know, the easier the brewing process will be. You will also be less likely to make mistakes and waste ground coffee.
Step 2: Fill the Water Reservoir
Next, the machine requires water. If you have a plumbed water connection, then you do not need to fill anything. The water should automatically flow once you start the process or turn the machine on and press the correlating button.
You should have already identified the reservoir, so open it and fill it with water. Don’t overfill it – we advise only ever filling to the maximum line if there is one.
If your espresso machine does not have a built-in water filter, you may also want to use filtered water. Although tap water is fine, filtered water offers a marginally improved taste and quality and will reduce the risk of limescale.
Step 3: Power up and Preheat the Espresso Machine
Next, it’s time to turn the espresso machine on. For most espresso models, the machine will need to preheat. Preheating times can vary, but in most instances, it may take up to 25 minutes. As a result, we advise turning the machine on and preheating it before you want your espresso shot!
Step 4: Fill the Filter With Coffee and Tamp
Now we get to the interesting part. You should now measure your ground coffee. The ideal amount of coffee grinds is required depending on the size of the filter basket and the strength or size of the espresso you want to make. Twenty grams of ground espresso beans are usually a good amount.
Before adding the coffee, make sure it is finely ground. Espresso brewing requires fine ground coffee to get the best taste and intensity. As a result, you may want to use a coffee grinder to make a fine blend.
Pro Tip: Once you have found a suitable amount of coffee, make a note of the value so you can create consistent espressos every time.
Ideally, it would help if you now had a mound of coffee inside the basket. Could you give it a shake and level it off? Next, use your tamping device to flatten and compact the coffee. The coffee should be level, and this is achieved by tamping straight down – not at an angle.
When the coffee is compacted, you should have a nice, solid coffee puck. You are now ready to start brewing!
Step 5: Secure the Filter Into the Group Head
With the coffee perfectly tamped, you must now lock the filter into the head. Be careful when doing this. You don’t want to dislodge the puck or any of the coffee.
Ideally, you should have read the manual and understood how to lock the basket in place. You should also ideally practice this beforehand using an empty basket.
Make sure the filter is secure and that the lock mechanism has been activated properly. This will prevent any coffee from spilling and the boiler pressure reducing.
Step 6: Place a Cup Underneath and Pull the Shot
You can now start the process of pulling a shot. This term derives from older espresso machines where you had to pull a lever to force the water through the coffee. However, today, in most instances, you simply press a button! The term sticks, though, and it is still widely used by coffee aficionados.
Your first espresso shot may not be perfect. You may have to adjust the timing, for example. However, hopefully, you should now have a decent espresso ready to drink! You can always use the first attempt as a gauge to then adjust timings, temperatures, and pressure if needed.
Step 7: Steam Milk to Add to the Espresso
Many people enjoy their espresso as a shot on its own – without any milk. However, some people like to add frothed milk to create a latte, for example. If your espresso machine has a built-in steam wand, then you can easily do this!
Ideally, it would help if you had a separate stainless steel container for milk frothing. Pour fresh cold milk into the container. Next, put your wand below the surface of the milk and turn it on. This should then start to froth the milk. Continue to do this until it reaches the consistency you like – simple!
Steaming milk takes virtually no time at all, and you can also add fun patterns and designs to the froth on the top of your espresso shot. Once you have steamed the milk, you should always thoroughly wipe the wand and clean it. This will make sure that any excess milk is removed, as milk will easily spoil.
Now that you know how to use an espresso machine, you can now enjoy a cup of coffee anytime you want! An important thing to remember, though, is to clean it regularly. This is to make sure that your machine continues to function optimally for a long time.
Can You Make Different Drinks Other Than Espressos in This Type of Machine?
Yes! An espresso shot of coffee is used as the basis for many other types of drinks. Popular examples include a cappuccino, cafe latte, macchiato, and mocha. Once you are confident creating a basic espresso, you can start experimenting with other drink types!
Can You Put Milk Inside Your Espresso Machine?
Yes, but it is not advised to. Espresso machines are designed specifically for water and, raise water temperature/cope with increased water pressure. If you fill your water reservoir with milk, this could cause damage. Also, the milk will eventually spoil in the reservoir and degrade the quality of the tank.
Can You Use Regular Coffee Beans to Create an Espresso?
Yes, however, the taste may vary wildly. You can typically find coffee beans in stores that are labelled as espresso beans – they are labelled so for a reason. This is because they give the best taste and texture. You could try using regular coffee beans – but don’t be surprised if you don’t get that same satisfying taste!
Enjoy a Cup of Espresso Every Day
We hope you now have a clear understanding of espresso machines and how they work. Creating the perfect espresso will take practice. But it can also be an art form, and you can get creative with the different coffee you use and foam patterns. The more you use your espresso machine, the quicker you will be able to make an amazing shot!