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How to Use an Espresso Machine: A Complete Guide on Making Espresso at Home

CCS Article starting image - How to Use an Espresso Machine

Measure, grind, tamp, lock in the portafilter, steam the milk, clean the machine… Then do it all over again each time you want another espresso. 

When I first started looking into how to make my own espresso at home, the list of things needed to get started and the steps I’ll have to go through was enough to make me balk.

Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t give up. There are a few things less satisfying than pulling good-quality espresso shots. 

I wanted to make it easier for everyone just beginning to brew their own espresso, so I came up with a complete guide on how to use an espresso machine.

I’ll talk about the equipment you’ll need, a step-by-step brewing espresso process, and how to clean your espresso maker. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be an expert on espresso brewing.

What You’ll Need to Make Espresso

You’ll need several pieces of equipment to brew espresso:

  • Espresso machine — obviously, you’ll need an espresso machine.  We have reviewed plenty of espresso machines, including the best for beginners and Breville has a great range of semi-automatic options. 
  • Scale — You’ll need a scale to measure the coffee in and espresso out. Choose a scale that measures 0.1 grams and is water-resistant. 
  • Coffee beans — dark roasts are best for espresso, as they have less acidity and more oiliness, resulting in a heavier, fuller flavor. Espresso brewing expresses the bean’s flavor, and light roasts are overpowering and sour.  
  • Grinder — Espresso is very sensitive to grind size and consistency, so don’t skimp on the grinder. The best grinders have tiny stepped or stepless adjustments for the grind. High-end grinders have timers to help you dose, or a built-in scale that automatically calibrates. Or look at our favorite espresso machines with a grinder. 
  • Filter — The portafilter basket, including single-wall (non-pressurized) and double-wall baskets (pressurized). Double-wall baskets are more forgiving on grind size and dose, but you can grind finer on a single-wall basket, which brings out way more flavor. 
  • Tamper — You need a tamp to compress your grounds. Use a tamper that fits the portafilter exactly, and choose a stainless steel tamper to get a more even puck.

Step-By-Step Guide on How to Use an Espresso Machine to Pull a Shot

I’ll walk through the steps to pull a perfect espresso shot.  It’s really about 1) the right grind size, and 2) leveling out the grounds.  You can see espresso basics to learn more before starting.

1. Prep the Machine

You should preheat your espresso machine to get the best out of it. This can take some a half hour depending on the heating system and it’s important the entire espresso maker is heated to have a consistent water temperature for an even extraction and flavor.  Low water temperature will lead to flat-tasting espresso.  

You can pull a blank shot to speed up the process.  A blank shot is running the espresso machine without any coffee grounds in the portafilter. This preheats the espresso maker and your cup right away.

flush brew head espresso machine
Make sure to flush the brew head first for cleaning and heating

A blank shot also purges the group head (the group head is the nozzle where you attach the portafilter). You want to flush the group head to clean out the previous coffee grounds.

This way, you’ll get new espresso with only fresh beans. Purging the group head also purges lukewarm temperature water that could be sitting in the waterline.

Finally, make sure the equipment is dry and clean, such as the portafilter, cup, and steam wand. Make sure there’s enough water in the water tank to pull a shot and steam milk.

2. Measure and Grind the Beans

Use fresh coffee beans for the best espresso results (ideally roasted less than three weeks ago). Grind the beans immediately before making espresso to maximize freshness. 

You want to get the correct grind size, because it has the biggest impact on espresso flavor apart from the bean itself. The grind size impacts extraction, which refers to the amount of flavor in your espresso.

Since espresso uses a high ratio of coffee and minimal filtration, the grind size really impacts extraction, more than other brewing methods.

You want very small grinds for espresso — think table salt. The biggest issue people have with espresso is grind size and almost always you want to grind more finely.

extra fine coffee grind size

Then, it’s time to measure the coffee. Baristas generally use a 1:2 or 1:3 coffee to water ratio. This means a single shot of espresso needs between 7 to 9 grams of ground coffee and produces one ounce of liquid.

A double shot of espresso needs 14 to 18 grams of coffee and produces two ounces of liquid. 

Use the scale to weigh out the appropriate amount of coffee into the portafilter. 

portafilter on a scale

In case you have a grinder with an electronic timer built-in, you can control how much coffee comes out of the grinder by pressing the dispense button. Make sure to use a scale to calibrate the grind volume against the timer.

For example, if five seconds of grinding doesn’t give you enough ground coffee, you can adjust the timer, so it’s just a few tenths of a second longer for the next dose.

3. Load the Portafilter (Important Step!)

It’s extremely important to have the grounds level and tightly packed in the portafilter. Anything less will lead to channeling. Channeling is the process where the water finds its way into narrow gaps in the portafilter and bypasses the grounds, ruining the flavor of espresso.

When you’re pressing nine bars of pressure onto the portafilter, it’s really easy for water to channel. I’ll show you exactly how to load the portafilter to avoid channeling.  

First, it’s time for coffee distribution. Distribution is preparing the ground coffee for tamping by evenly distributing it in the filter basket. 

By making the puck even and without clumps, there’s less chance of channeling and a higher chance of good extraction.  Clumping causes hot water can go through less dense parts, which will cause an uneven extraction. 

Distribution starts with the little mountain of coffee grounds in the portafilter post grinding.  You can use your hand to shave away the excess coffee. Smooth down the coffee so it’s even, and avoid creating any clumps.

To break up the coffee clumps, there are several tools and techniques. One of the most popular is the Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT) device. This tool has ultra-thin needles that stir the ground coffee in the portafilter. The WDT breaks up coffee clumps that come out of the coffee grinders. 

You can place a WDT tool right to the bottom of the portafilter basket and swirl it in small circles, so the puck is even. Or, you can use acupuncture needles as a homemade WDT device. Place a funnel above the portafilter to prevent spills. 

WDT device with portafilter

Then it’s time to level the grounds. Use the heel of your palm to tap gently against the side of the basket. This will push the grinds to the edges of the basket so they are settled and level. Then, tapping the bottom of the portafilter also levels out the grounds and removes big air pockets. 

The distribution process is less messy if you do it once when the portafilter is two-thirds full, then again with the rest of the grounds.  

Finally, it’s time to tamp. Tamping seals the dry grinds against the basket walls. Even if you turn the portafilter upside down after tamping, the coffee shouldn’t fall out. 

The key with tamping is to make the ground flat, not apply maximum force. The maximum tamping pressure doesn’t exist. You can’t overdo tamping. But, there’s no need to tamp with your whole strength.

You should only tamp until you pass the point where the coffee grinds stop compressing and the grinds are level.

Keep your wrist, arm, and elbow in line over the center of the basket so there’s no strain on you. Also, this will keep the force of the tamp evenly distributed across the basket. 

How to use an espresso machine tamping
Push straight down on the puck when tamping espresso

To sum up: press down straight to have a level puck and tamp until the grounds stop settling. 

Brush off excess grounds on the top or side of the portafilter when you’re done tamping.

4. Pull the Shot

The next step is attaching the portafilter to the group head. You should do it in a controlled way, making sure not to knock the portafilter into the group head as you’re inserting it.

Otherwise, it will break the seal of the bed and cause channeling. All the effort you’ve put in distributing and tamping the coffee will be undone, and you’ll have to start over.

You have to align the sides of the portafilter with slots in the group head to attach it. Start from a position parallel to the machine, and pull the filter handle, so it’s perpendicular to the machine. The portafilter should feel tight and not loose or like it’ll fall off.

Once the portafilter is positioned, you can start the brew. Some machines have a pre-infusion option, which is when espresso makers use lower pressure to wet the espresso grounds. This achieves better extraction and espresso flavor.

Place the cup on a scale, zero it out, and let the espresso machine run until the espresso volume reaches 1:2 to 1:3 ratio of grounds. Most machines have preset options that make this easy, but watch the scale as different beans have different yields.

Note: It should take no more than 10 seconds to start pouring, and the total espresso brewing process should take about 30 seconds.  Too short or too long means you’ll have uneven extraction.

5. Dial-In the Espresso Shot

It’s very rare to get espresso right on the first try. Espresso is extremely fickle – slight differences matter, and every bag of beans is different.  You have to calibrate the flavor, which is known as “dialing in espresso.” 

The goal of dialing in is to pull a single or double shot that tastes good to you by tweaking the grind size, shot volume, and distribution technique. 

There are some guidelines to help dial in a shot. A properly dialed in espresso shot will start brewing after 8 to 12 seconds. It’ll flow like warm honey, be dark brown with golden brown crema.

An under-extracted espresso will start brewing in 1 to 6 seconds. It’ll flow like water, be pale brown, have a thin crema, and taste weak. When this happens, grind on a finer setting, and increase the dose.

An over-extracted espresso will start brewing in 12 seconds. The flow will drip, it’ll be very dark brown with dark and spotty crema and taste bitter. When this happens go for a coarser grind and decrease the dose to lessen the strength.

Time to StartColorTasteImprovement
Correct Extraction8-12 secondsDark brownBright, richNone – enjoy!
Under Extraction1-6 secondsPale brownWatery, sourGrind finer
Over Extraction>12 secondsVery darkBitter, roastedGrind coarser

Note: every time you switch beans you’ll have to dial in espresso again, as different beans need different settings.

6. Froth the Milk

If you’re making a latte, cappuccino, macchiato, or a flat white, you’ll have to use the steam wand to steam the milk. The milk is frothed for a cappuccino, while it’s steamed for a latte (a latte has less foam than a cappuccino).

Pour cold milk into the milk pitcher until it’s about 1/3 full for a cappuccino and 2/3 for a latte. Start with whole or skim milk before advancing to plant-based ones. Whole milk creates a thick, creamy foam, while skim milk can produce even more foam. 

Turn on the steam wand to get rid of condensation that may have accumulated inside. Then place the tip of the steam wand just below the milk surface. You’ll hear the “hissing” noise. This will achieve milk stretching or aeration.

Plunge the tip under the milk once you’ve got the desired frothiness. That usually happens as the milk jug starts to feel warm. You can angle the pitcher and slowly turn it around to create a vortex that’ll distribute the milk and give you texture.

steam milk how to use an espresso machine
Stretching the milk on a Barista Pro

You should keep the wand working until the milk gets to 150 degrees. If the temperature gets higher than this, it can burn the milk.

Pro tip: Keep your hand on the side of the metal milk container to check the temperature. Once it’s too warm to hold comfortably, stop frothing.

7. Clean Up the Machine

Espresso grounds and oils build up fast — they’ll be noticeable in your espresso in a short time as one hour. This means you should clean the machine and all the accessories regularly. 

We have a full guide on how to clean, maintain, and descale your espresso machine, which we recommend checking out, but here’s a shortened version:

  • Portafilter — This is where the worst build-up happens. You should rinse the portafilter under water after each use and wipe it dry after each use.
  • Group head — Purge the group head each time you brew coffee to flush coffee grounds and oils.
  • Steam wand — Milk can build up inside the steam wand and curdle, so you should purge it after each use and wipe the exterior with a warm rag.
  • Grinder — Remove the coffee from the hopper, and wipe the hopper with a wet cloth to get rid of residual oils. Put the empty hopper back on the grinder, and run the grinder to get rid of residual beans between the burs. Put a vacuum cleaner against the exit chute of the grinder while the grinder is running to vacuum out all the grinds. Wipe the exterior.
  • Removable parts — Filter baskets, shower screens, drip tray, and water reservoir should be cleaned from time to time. Some machines have removable parts that are dishwasher safe, or you’ll have to wash them yourself.

You should also descale your machine occasionally. Most espresso machines have a descaling alert, so you’ll know it’s time to descale. 

Espresso Terms to Know

  • Brew group — The part of the espresso machine that contains the group head, portafilter, and filter baskets.
  • Basket — You put coffee grinds here. It’s attached to the portafilter. 
  • Channeling — Happens when the portafilter isn’t properly loaded. The pressurized water finds pathways into narrow gaps in the filter basket instead of evenly flowing through the grounds. This results in subpar espresso flavor.
  • Crema — Emulsified oils that sit on top of an espresso. Resembles foam and its dark golden brown color.
  • Distribution — A technique that settles coffee grinds in the portafilter.
  • Portafilter — Holds the basket with the coffee grinds and is attached to the group head during extraction.
  • Extraction — Hot water is forced through tightly packed coffee, which extracts flavors and oils from the beans and results in flavorful espresso.
  • Flushing — Action that stabilizes the temperature on some espresso machines, especially as the steaming milk temperature is too hot for brewing, and it has to be flushed out.
  • Tamper — Packs and levels the grounds in the filter basket.

How to Use an Espresso Machine: Final Thoughts

If you pull a perfect shot on your first try — congrats, you’re one of the chosen ones. This is very rare for most espresso lovers, and if you’re having issues, change the grind size first.  Expect to experiment with different beans, grind sizes, and single and double shot volume until you find the combination that hits your sweet spot.

You can read all our guides on espresso or if you want to learn how the process of espresso brewing happens, check out our in-depth guide on how espresso machine works.

Marina Maletic

Marina Maletic

Marina comes from a family of coffee addicts, but she started to appreciate java fairly late — around 25 years old. Her coffee journey began by writing coffee articles. This led to buying her first coffee machine, where she fell in love with the drink that means so much to people all over the world. For the last five years, she starts every day by brewing a cup of coffee. Nowadays, if she’s not writing or thinking about coffee, she can be found trying out the latest social media coffee trend.

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