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Some Tips for the Home Barista: Tricks for Making Good Espresso, and Some Secrets About Frothing Milk

Some Tips for the Home Barista: Tricks for Making Good Espresso, and Some Secrets About Frothing Milk

There are many who enjoy a well-made (a “professionally made”) espresso, or latte, or cappuccino at home each morning. But there are a few practical problems with the scale of most home equipment. While large commercial machines will make high quality drinks in large quantities, it’s more difficult to make just one drink for yourself.

In this article, we’ll give you some tips to help you emulate the advantages of a large, commercial system to get similar results from your household equipment. Some of these tips will require using some additional tools and gadgets with your espresso machine to get professional results. But these are all relatively inexpensive, and will transform the (perhaps) uninteresting drinks you currently get from your machine into the kinds of coffee drinks that you’d pay several dollars for at a real coffee shop.

Pulling a Shot – The Espresso Itself:

When it comes to a plain espresso, there isn’t much that we can say. Your machine either makes good espresso, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then either it can’t, or you’re not being careful enough about a few basics.

  1. First, grind the coffee to a granularity that makes an extraction run for (about) 20-25 seconds; not more or less. If you’re not sure, you should use a timer to calibrate your shots. Less than 20 seconds, and your espresso will be weak; more than 25 seconds, and it will become bitter.
  2. Tamp the coffee grounds into the portafilter hard enough (and carefully enough) to make a uniformly compressed puck that will give you a consistent extraction. Again, if you’re not sure, you should have a REAL tamper, and (perhaps) a tamping mat to protect your counter. Note that the 20-25 second hint (above) assumes this. Tamping pressure should be 30-40 pounds. But before the heavy tamping, do a light tamp to make sure that the coffee is evenly distributed. Also, brush any remaining grounds off of the portafilter rim. These will wear out the group gasket if you don’t.
  3. Make sure that your portafilter is pre-heated so that it doesn’t cool the extraction down when you’re pulling a shot. The commercial E61 group has hot-water channels that run through it to keep it hot. You should put the portafilter into the group and let it sit for a while to heat up. Or, run hot water through it to pre-heat it before loading it. Many baristas will pull an empty shot first before loading the portafilter with coffee. This is why.
  4. Keep your equipment clean. You should clean the group and the portafilter with Cafiza periodically. And you should also take the screen off and hand clean it once in a while. Note that the screen will eventually need replacement if you use your machine a lot. This goes for the group gasket too.

Some Very Basic Supplies and Tools You’ll Need

Some Very Basic Supplies and Tools You’ll Need

The above points are basic elements of making a consistent espresso. We have other articles that explain them in more detail if you’re not sure what any of these mean. The gist of this article has more to do with pulling consistent shots, and making good froth and/or foam.

To pull consistent shots, you need to do all of the above, and you need to use the same amount of coffee in each shot. How do we do this? In a professional shop, they usually use a grinder with dosing chambers in it. The dosing chamber holds “the right amount” of ground coffee. All the barista needs to do is to put the portafilter beneath the grinder chute, and pull a lever. The contents of the dosing chamber (the right amount) are dumped into the basket.

Should you get a grinder with a doser? No! For the doser to work, the dosing chamber needs to be full of ground coffee. This is enough ground coffee to make 15-20 shots. In a busy coffee shop, this will all move quickly. If you’re making 1-2 shots for yourself, you don’t want to grind this much coffee. You are better off using a doserless grinder. This simply dumps the ground coffee directly from the grinder as it is ground.

If you try to grind directly into your portafilter using a doserless grinder, you will spill a lot of coffee. Again, this isn’t a problem in a commercial shop (where the floor is routinely scrubbed), but you don’t want to do this in your kitchen or dining area. So it’s best to use a doserless grinder, but to catch the grounds in a larger container that will catch them all.

How much coffee should you grind? Simple: a single shot is 7 grams, and a double-shot (what most of us drink) is 14 grams. Huh? How do we measure this? For pre-ground coffee, we can use a coffee scoop. As a rule of thumb, 7 grams of ground coffee is a Tablespoon. But this can vary with the coffee itself, with the granularity of the grind, with the water and oil content, etc. But how do we measure it before we grind it? “A Tablespoon” doesn’t work for beans.

One way is to grind too many beans, take a Tablespoon of grounds, and discard the rest. The other way is to weigh the beans before grinding them. If you’re rich, you can throw out the extra grounds. If you’re like I am, you should have a small scale that gives you a 1-gram resolution. What you want is to pour beans onto the scale (into a container) until you have 14 grams of beans. Then grind them, and catch the grounds in another container. You’ll then have 14 grams of ground coffee.

Things You’ll Need to Measure a Shot’s-Worth of Beans, and to put the Ground Coffee into the Portafiler without Making a Mess

Things You’ll Need to Measure a Shot’s-Worth of Beans, and to put the Ground Coffee into the Portafiler without Making a Mess

Now you’ll need to put the grounds into the portafilter. To do this, pour them out of the container into which they were ground into the little, tiny portafilter. Doesn’t this make a mess? Not if you’re very careful, and pour just a little at a time. You’ll only lose some of it. Alternatively, you should use a barista funnel. This fits neatly into a 57-58 millimeter portafilter basket, and has a bowl with a 5.5” diameter. It’s easy to pour the ground coffee – all of it – into your portafilter without losing any of it, and without making a mess.

Also, if you use the barista funnel, the ground coffee will be (roughly) level in the portafilter before you tamp it. This gives a nice result, and a neat result. You’ve only used 14 grams of coffee beans, and all of them made it to your portafilter. Now tamp the grounds using a real tamper, and do your extraction. That’s your espresso.

Frothing a Small Amount of Milk:

You will froth milk using the steam wand on your espresso machine, and a frothing pitcher. There are many caveats here for home frothing:

  1. Inexpensive espresso machines do not have actual boilers in them. They use heat exchangers to make steam. They will NOT froth milk at near the quality or consistency of the froth that you’ll get from a commercial machine. If your espresso machine does not have an actual boiler, consider investing in a small, stovetop boiler that will blow real, high-pressure steam, with sustained consistency for 30-40 seconds at a time.
    A Stovetop Frother will Make Quality Froth if Your Espresso Machine Doesn’t

    A Stovetop Frother will Make Quality Froth if Your Espresso Machine Doesn’t

  2. It’s important to start with very cold milk, and a very cold frothing pitcher. This will allow you to froth it for enough time to produce a thick foam. The milk should not be frothed past the point at which the milk hits 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you froth the milk beyond this, it will be slightly acrid, and the bubbles won’t be consistent. This is why it’s so important to start with very cold milk and a very cold frothing pitcher – it gives you more time to blow hot air into it before it hits 165 degrees. Use a thermometer to do this until you have experience.
  3. Don’t fill the frothing pitcher more than 1/3 of the way with cold milk. Note that a full froth (as for cappuccino) doubles the original volume of the milk. Steaming the milk (as for latte) will not add much volume to the milk, but you should have a little froth to top your drink off. For Latte Art, there should be about a half-inch (or less) of froth on top of the latte.
  4. It’s important to drain residual water from the steam wand before frothing the milk. When your machine cools down (the last time you turned it off), steam from the boiler will condense inside the steam wand. When you first turn on the steam next time you use the machine, you’ll get a spurt of hot water before you get steam. You don’t want this water in your milk. The way to do this is with a barista cloth (or old dishtowel). Hold the towel under the wand, and turn the steam on. Water will spurt out. When the steam starts, turn it off and remove the towel. Now you can froth your milk.

While the points above might be “obvious,” and are easy to do in a large coffee shop that froths lots of milk, they are more difficult to do in small quantities, at home for yourself. In particular, commercial frothing pitchers (in which thermometers work, and in which the temperature changes slowly) are big. But when you steam 4 ounces of milk to put into a 2 ounce espresso, the temperatures change quickly, and the frothing wand barely fits - this is harder to do right.

So the first point at home is to use a SMALL frothing pitcher. Our small 12 ounce pitcher is about 2 ¼ inches in diameter, and a little less than 4 inches tall. For this pitcher, 4 ounces of milk will be about 1 ¼ inches deep – this is deep enough to completely submerge the tip of the steam wand, as we would for latte.

Note that the inside height of this frothing pitcher is only 3 ½ inches. So a frothing thermometer with a 5” stem will seem way too big for it. It isn’t. What you’ll need to do is to slide the clip about half-way down the thermometer’s stem, and clip it into the frothing pitcher right next to the handle. This will put about 3 inches of the stem into the pitcher, and it will keep the stem against the wall of the pitcher so that the milk can circulate easily, and so that you can move the pitcher relative to the steam wand as needed to get a nice “swirl.”

It’s important to note that 4 ounces of milk will heat very quickly relative to the response time of the thermometer’s reading. Many frothing thermometers have a red band spanning 140-160 degrees. For large pitchers of milk (as in a commercial shop), this band alerts you to stop frothing when the thermometer drifts above 140 degrees. The thermometer’s reading will continue to climb somewhat; it shouldn’t go beyond 160 degrees.

IMPORTANT: When using a 12 ounce frothing pitcher and 4 ounces of milk, you should stop frothing when the thermometer shows 120 degrees. You’ll see a much faster response time in a 12 ounce pitcher. If you stop at 120 degrees, you’ll see the temperature continue to rise to 160. This is exactly what you want to get professional quality froth and foam.

How to Use a Frothing Thermometer with a 12 Ounce Pitcher

How to Use a Frothing Thermometer with a 12 Ounce Pitcher

Also, BECAUSE the temperature climbs so quickly in a 12 ounce pitcher, it’s very important to start with a VERY cold pitcher. So when you are going to make a cappuccino, before you do anything you should fill the frothing pitcher with ice water and a few ice cubes. Let it sit there with the ice water in it when you go about grinding the coffee and pulling your shot of espresso.

It’s after you’ve pulled the shot that you should dump the ice water out, put the milk in, drain the frothing wand (using a towel – don’t forget this step!), and froth the milk, stopping when the thermometer registers 120 degrees. It will continue to climb after you’ve stopped.

It’s Essential to Start with an Ice-Cold Frothing Pitcher

It’s Essential to Start with an Ice-Cold Frothing Pitcher

SECRET: While you wouldn't do this professionally, if you are making latte or cappuccino for yourself (or for a guest), an excellent way to add sugar to your drink is to put it into the cold milk before frothing it. The act of frothing the milk will melt the sugar, and will mix it into the drink uniformly when your pour the milk. There will be no need for you or your guest to "stir in sugar," which will ruin the texture of the froth.

Finishing Your Drink:

What you really should use (which so few people do) is a frothing spatula. Get one with a wide tip. These are very inexpensive, and what they allow you to do is to pour the frothed or steamed milk into the espresso cleanly so that the drink is finished neatly and professionally.

For a latte, hold the froth back with your spatula and pour in the milk, then use the spatula to top the latte off with a little froth. For a cappuccino, use the spatula to pull froth out of the pitcher ahead of the milk. You want to have a very thick foam topping for cappuccino. You can’t do either of these correctly with a “freehand” pour. You should use a frothing spatula.

Use a Frothing Spatula to Pull-Forward or Hold-Back the Froth

Use a Frothing Spatula to Pull-Forward or Hold-Back the Froth

Finally (and strictly optional), if you want to top off your drink with cocoa or vanilla powder, or with cinnamon or nutmeg (and many purists would wince, but this is America), you should get an inexpensive cocoa shaker.

Some Like to Top-Off Their Drink with Cocoa, Vanilla, Numeg, or Cinnamon

Some Like to Top-Off Their Drink with Cocoa, Vanilla, Numeg, or Cinnamon

We hope that these few tips will help you to make professional-quality espresso drinks at home. Why stand in line and pay a fortune, when none of these things are difficult, and none of the tools mentioned are expensive?