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How to use an espresso machine

Make your best cup of coffee yet with these top tips

How to clean a coffee maker
(Image: © Getty)

Want to master the art of making exceptional coffee? Here’s how to use an espresso machine in a way that’ll give baristas a run for their money. For those that already have one of the best coffee makers, and the ones that are still on the hunt for the perfect machine, these tips will help you create consistent coffees every time. 

Espresso machines are hugely popular and brands such as Nespresso are some of the biggest names on the market. Some models use pods and others use ground coffee and all of them will operate slightly differently. Here we’re going to run through the basics, what to avoid, and how to get the most out of your espresso machine. 

It’s not just espressos you can make in these machines either as many models come with a steam wand so that you can froth your own milk and broaden your coffee horizons. Here’s how to use an espresso machine.

There is a range of different espresso machines on the market but the main dividing factor is that some machines use pods while others use ground coffee. Most pod machines operate in a simple way where you add a pod, press a button, and the coffee process is underway. For this how-to, we’re going to focus on using an espresso machine that uses ground coffee, and here’s where to start.

Fill up the water reservoir: This might sound like a really obvious first step unless your espresso machine is plumbed into your main water supply, but filling up the water tank should be the first thing you do.

Tap water will be sufficient for many people, however, if you live in an area with hard water, consider filtering it first or use bottled water. Hard water can cause limescale to build up inside the water reservoir as well as causing problems with the machine’s pipes. 

Once the water is topped up, turn your machine on to heat up -how long this takes varies for each model. 

Tamper the coffee grounds: There are coffee machines, such as Sage by Heston Blumenthal: The Oracle Touch, that take care of the whole brewing process, and they offer a bean-to-cup experience. Some espresso machines need you to add ground coffee and compact it, and this is called tampering. 

Most coffee machines that use ground coffee will come with a handle that holds a small metal basket - this is called a portafilter and you use it to connect the ground coffee with the machine. Portafilters come with different metal baskets which you place in the end and it’s in the basket where you add your ground coffee. 

To create a tasty and full-bodied shot of coffee, you’ll need to tamper the coffee grounds. This essentially means compacting the grounds until they’re really close together so that when the water drips through them, you end up with a better-tasting drink. Some espresso machines have a tamper disc that’s attached to the unit itself. You simply have to lift your portafilter underneath the disc and compact the coffee grounds until they’re firm. If your machine doesn’t have an attached tamper, handheld versions are available and these allow you to press down onto the coffee as if you’re stamping it. 

(Image credit: Getty)

Create a shot of coffee: Now that you’ve tampered your coffee, you can place the portafilter into its holder in the machine - this is normally called a group head. Most of the time you’ll have to twist and click the portafilter into place and then it’s simply a case of pressing a button to let the coffee machine work its magic and create a shot of espresso. 

For those that just want to drink espresso, that’s all you’ll need to do but if you want to make a milk-based drink, you’ll need to move on now to the steam wand. 

Froth your milk with the steam wand: You can widen your coffee making capabilities by choosing an espresso machine with a steam wand. This part of the coffee maker works by pushing steam into milk until it increases in temperature. 

Once you’ve added cold milk into your steam jug, turn the steam wand on for a few seconds so that any drips of water can come out first and don’t end up in your milk. When it’s just steam coming from the wand, place it into your milk jug and ensure the end of the wand is below the milk’s surface, but not down at the bottom of the jug. The milk will begin to form a foam on the top and after you’ve reached your desired level of frothiness, place the steam arm deeper into the milk to heat it up and as soon as it’s hot enough you can pour your espresso shot and the milk into a mug ready to drink.

Don't miss these espresso machines for fantastic prices:

Sophie Bird

Sophie writes about all things appliance-related and is currently the Home Editor at TechRadar's sister site, Top Ten Reviews. When she's not testing coffee machines and appliances, Sophie is thinking of eating delicious food, and asking people what they're having for dinner.