Making the Perfect Espresso

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to become proficient at making the perfect espresso, or espresso-based beverages, as they are called by those in the know. Not only can I make an Americano with ease, but I can also make an Americano in an espresso machine (my beloved Italian Breville for most years). I have a ton of anecdotes, but if you want to get a good grip on the basics, I’d suggest starting with these ideas and thoughts, and then you can branch out from there.

Here are 7 expert tips on making the perfect espresso.

1. Barista Shuffle

For a good amount of my barista career, I made espresso every day. All day long. Nowadays I’ll make a small cup or two, which may be less of a challenge, but you can never forget how to do this—a fresh, clean pull and push on the lever and press down on the plunger is always a valuable lesson to have!

2. To Shoot or Not to Shoot

Not all of the factors that go into making espresso are well understood, and even then it is a complicated dance. Do you shoot it to the brim or not? How full is your cup? How hot is it? How much pressure do you use? There are countless variables, and to choose a perfect amount of pressure is tough—you can never go too low on pressure and you can never go too high on heat, so the espresso starts at a medium but heats up to a high level. Generally, when you feel it’s the right point you’re at, you’ll want to hold off on shooting it any further.

3. Water Temperature

This is just like espresso, with a little added variation: if you don’t get the water hot enough, the heat will not properly move through the hot water itself, so you’ll get “wet-crushed” coffee. Again, this can be hard to get just right, but it’s definitely something you can improve on over time.

4. The Underglaze

The underglaze, also known as the “dripping gel,” is the protein that the espresso roasts contain, and it’s much like chocolate ganache in its thickness—it will slow down the espresso as it cools. When you let a pot of underglaze “drip,” you’re ensuring that the temperature of the underglaze is uniform as the water cools and therefore the espresso is not over-extracted. This is the primary reason why espresso at high temperatures is good and good-quality (and a lot of crappy espresso at high temperatures is bad). A properly made espresso at a higher temperature will have more underglaze (and therefore a denser flavor) than a properly made espresso at a lower temperature. A lower temperature will yield a lighter, less concentrated espresso. A proper espresso should have a matte base—there should be no bright spots.

5. Timing

The exact length of time the espresso is extracted depends on the amount of underglaze. All that matters is that you get the underglaze into the espresso as soon as possible.

6. Deeper Underglaze

The reddish underglaze (also called the espresso shot) has a lot of milk in it, and this milk must get extracted into the espresso shot—hence the degree of extraction. For a good extraction, the espresso shot should be between the 1.0 and 1.4 mark, while too high an extraction will produce a smoother cup, but it will have more energy, also known as punch. A lower extraction gives you the “milky mouth feel” and a smoother, less concentrated drink.

7. Pressure

The pressure that you use when pulling the shot and pushing the plunger is the key to producing the optimum amount of extraction. If you don’t make the shot tight enough, you won’t extract any milk or any espresso, and you’ll end up with a runny latte. If you make the shot too loose, you’ll get a weak, watery shot that’s easy to spill (and that’s definitely a bad thing). If you use the correct amount of pressure, the espresso will pop through and shoot down like a rocket.

But it’s not just pressure, you have to push it in the right way. You need to be gentle and smooth, or the shot will be too steep, too fast, or too slow. Too steep and the shot will burn, too fast and the shot will scald, and too slow and the shot will go everywhere.

When pulling the shot, consider a few things:

1. Don’t forget to press the plunger down firmly and forcefully (it helps if the barista is encouraging you to do this, too).

2. Don’t pull the plunger so far that you can’t push it all the way back in. If it feels like it’s dragging, or if it gets stuck, pull it back farther.

3. Don’t let the espresso go out the side of the pot, or it’ll feel extremely thin and watery.

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All of this sounds like a lot of science, and maybe to some extent, it is. But I can tell you with certainty, the more you practice the better you’ll get, and you will be well on your way to making the perfect espresso.