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For everyone who has ever marveled at the skill of a barista as he or she works magic behind a coffee shop counter: take heart.
It’s much easier than it looks.
In fact, you can create delicious cappuccinos, lattes, and espressos in the comfort of your own home.
All you need is a great espresso machine! A quality cappuccino or latte begins with a perfectly pulled espresso.
Espresso is a rich, black coffee that results when pressured water and steam are forced through fine coffee grounds.
Steamed milk, when layered on top of espresso, creates the variety of coffee beverages found at your neighborhood coffee establishment.
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If you’re interested in purchasing a espresso maker, we invite you to examine the five top products in our matrix, above.
If you’d like to learn more about the intricacies of espresso makers, please continue reading this shopping guide.
The best espresso machines cater to the daily needs of coffee lovers who have little time on their hands. These machines are durable, reliable, and yield delicious results every time.
Espresso machines fall into four main categories: semi-automatic, fully automatic, manual, and super automatic.
Semi-automatic and fully automatic machines are the most popular types on the market today, largely because of their convenience.
Semi-automatic machines deliver even, hands-free water pressure, and the user decides when to turn the pump on and off.
Fully automatic machines regulate the amount of water traveling through the machine; users don't control the pump at all.
Manual machines require more labor, as the user must manually push water through the machine. Because of this, results can vary — experienced espresso makers tend to fare well with this type of machine.
Super automatic machines do all the hard work and often include features such as a built-in grinding apparatus.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
De'Longhi EC155 Espresso and Cappuccino Maker
The De'Longhi comes with a durable, high-quality stainless steel boiler which would serve you well over time. Other notable features include a swivel jet frother for easy cappuccino and latte prep, a dual-function filter holder that gives you a choice between ground coffee and pods, and a self-priming function which we recommend for the absolute best results.
While clever baristas are always coming up with twists on common coffee staples, the most popular beverages are based on a shot or more of espresso and steamed milk with a layer of foam artistically placed on top. Cappuccino is among the most popular espresso-based drinks, but with some clever applications of milk and cream, they sky is the limit as to what you can create.
Some espresso machines allow you to manipulate the strength of your espresso with an adjustable pressure gauge and/or multiple frothing settings.
Here’s a look at six of the most popular coffee shop drinks you could be enjoying at home with the help of an espresso machine:
A double espresso with hot milk and a layer of froth or milk foam, cappuccino is often served with cinnamon or nutmeg sprinkled on top.
This is espresso with steamed milk. In some areas of Europe, caffè latte is known as café au lait.
This strong drink is espresso with hot water added to taste.
Espresso con panna
Literally translated, this Italian culinary delight is espresso with whipped cream.
This is steamed milk mixed in over a double shot of espresso.
Order this if you want espresso with just a dollop of steamed milk.
The six beverages above represent the basics. By adding syrups, chocolate, liqueurs, and even tea, a clever home barista could potentially brew a different espresso drink every day of the week.
Filtered water is a must for the best espresso. That’s because rich coffee is comprised of 90% water. If you want the best coffee, begin with the best ingredients.
The ideal espresso is rich, smooth, velvety, and strong. Creating the perfect cup is an art that requires some trial and error.
The steps may vary slightly by machine, but here’s a general list of procedures to follow:
Obtain some dark-roasted coffee beans. The best varieties hail from Italy.
Grind the beans down to a powder-like consistency.
Pour the espresso into the machine’s portafilter. A portafilter is a handle with a small cup holder at the end.
After the portafilter is filled, use a small, flat-edged device to tamp down, or “flatter,” the grounds.
Attach the portafilter to the gasket, which locks it into place. Turn the portafilter about 20 degrees counterclockwise until it tightens into place.
Suzanne Stagg, a café owner in Hobart, Australia, holds the Guinness Book of Records achievement of making 289 cappuccinos in one hour.
If you’re taking an espresso shot, pour the dark goodness into a six-ounce cup and enjoy.
If you’re making cappuccino, pour the coffee into a slightly larger cup. Layer on the steamed milk and top with some froth.
Some of the best espresso machines have a built-in grinder. By pushing the portafilter into the machine, the grinder carefully loads it with perfectly ground beans.
Different espresso machines perform in different ways. Some machines make multiple servings while others brew just one cup at a time. Some machines allow you to prepare more than one type of drink at a time. The size and power of an espresso machine correlate with its required power supply.
In terms of maintenance, more complex machines tend to require more cleaning. Accessories like pumps, boiler setups, and thermostats usually forecast the amount of cleanup and maintenance that will be required over time. Buyers should be aware that machines with plastic outer coatings can crack with repeated use, leading to the need for expensive repairs or even replacement.
All espresso machines do essentially the same thing: they create rich, dark coffee. But individual models differ in their “ease of use” and the amount of control they offer the home barista.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Breville BES870BSXL The Barista Express Coffee Machine
Grinder & Tamper
The Breville's conical burr grinder, made of stainless steel, effortlessly grinds coffee beans and optimizes flavor extraction by maximizing the surface area of the grinds. A 54mm tamper ensures expert tamping control, and a hands-free grinding cradle leaves all the hard work to the machine. Our favorite features are the Breville's grind size/grind amount selector dials, which enable you to customize grinds from fine to coarse.
How much espresso do you want to make at once? The size of your machine’s water reservoir determines this. The market offers models with tanks large and small. Some machines include a filter that removes impurities from the water.
Plenty of espresso machines on today’s market can accommodate “regular” beans, but some machines require specially designed pods. For example, Keurig machines accept pods.
You’ll also notice that some espresso machines have a built-in bean grinder whereas others require you to grind your beans elsewhere.
Always begin the milk steaming process with cold milk.
The amount of time it takes a machine to reach the perfect temperature depends on its heating element. High-end machines from the likes of Breville and Keurig often reach their ideal temperature in less than 10 minutes. Machines from other manufacturers may take longer.
When choosing an espresso machine, be sure to scrutinize features like water tank storage, overall size and design, bean requirements, and whether the machine self-primes.
Frothing aids, decanters with measuring marks, cool-touch handles, and removable drip trays are just a few of the other features you may wish to consider before making a purchase. Read on to learn more about the particular features offered by each product in our matrix.
An espresso machine's type, size, and features usually dictate its price. Stainless steel costs more than plastic, but it's also more durable. Higher-end espresso machines can cost $600 or even more. Lower-end machines often sell for less than $100.
You’ll find great espresso machines from manufacturers like Mr. Coffee and DeLonghi in this price bracket. Machines in this range often boast automated features and versatility.
If you want to be daring, you could purchase a stovetop espresso maker for under $25 and take the “old school” approach to creating espresso. The process required here is as simple as automatic machines, but the principle is the same: you heat water through finely ground coffee. This approach isn’t for amateurs, but it’s a fun experience.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Mr. Coffee Steam Espresso System with Milk Frother
With a price of just $35, the Mr. Coffee ECM160 is a highly affordable machine. Its budget price comes as a relief to cash-conscious consumers who might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the pricier options on the market. For the money, users get a product with a moderate output of one to four cups of coffee at a time.
A few users complained that the included tamper is not very effective. An even smaller number of customers told us that their machine broke down or quit shortly after purchase. However, these were rare occurrences.
A top-notch espresso maker could cost up to $600. If this price gives you pause, consider that a 16-ounce cappuccino from a coffee shop costs around $4. That means that after 150 drinks at home, you’d break even on the cost of the machine.
Want to create fancy designs on top of your drinks? The lower the fat content, the easier it is to “texture” hot milk.
Q. How should I care for my espresso machine?
A. After every brewing session, run a shot of water through the machine to keep it clean. Sediment can build up through repeated use.
If your machine permits it, you should also perform a clean water backflush every 10 to 15 shots. This requires you to put a stopper in your portafilter to reverse the water flow.
Q. What is a “Red Eye”?
A. It’s a powerful combination of espresso and strong drip coffee. It can be drunk with our without milk or creamer.
Q. I know that Seattle is the nation’s top coffee-drinking city. Where was its first espresso bar?
A. Seattle’s first espresso bar was Cafe Allegro, located near the University of Washington. The owners worked with Starbucks to create the company’s original espresso blend.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.