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Make the best espresso or cappuccino

By Yvette Fletcher

Watch our video and follow our expert tips to discover the art to making a perfect espresso or cappuccino that's rich and flavoursome.

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Making the perfect espresso or cappuccino is an art that can take practice. That's why we asked coffee expert Giles Hilton to show us how it's done. 

Our video guide (above) shows you how to make the perfect espresso using a traditional coffee machine. You can also follow the steps below to ensure you get a heavenly espresso or cappuccino every time.

But before you start, you'll need a machine that won't hinder you with its shoddy coffee-making ability. We've tested hundreds of coffee machines over the years, and found that not all of them make tasty coffee, however good the barista.

The coffee machine you choose makes a big difference to the quality of espresso you'll be able to make. For example, if you prefer coffee made by grinding beans fresh as opposed to using pre-ground coffee, you'll need to get a bean-to-cup machine.

Choosing the best coffee machine

Our coffee machine reviews will help you choose the best coffee machine for you, and avoid models that produce weak, grainy or unappetising coffees.

When our coffee expert blind tests and rates the coffee each machine makes, he looks at its strength, texture, aroma and appearance. Only coffee machines that produce truly delicious coffees get Best Buy status. 

To see which coffee machines earned our coveted Best Buy recommendation, take a look at our round up of our Best Buy coffee machines.


Prime the coffee machine

No matter what type of machine you have, the first stage in successful brewing is to prep your machine properly.

Fill the tank with clean, cold water and place an empty cup on the drip tray under the spout. Switch on the coffee machine and press the start button as if making a single espresso.

Water will be pumped through the coffee machine and through the spout, allowing any leftover grains from the last coffee to be flushed out. It also heats water ready for your real espresso. Repeat this again if the water isn’t clear.


Use the right coffee

To make a great espresso, you'll want to get a strong, high roast coffee that's finely ground so that the water can be pushed through it at the right rate to get the flavour.

If you're using a bean-to-cup machine, you might have a setting for how finely you want your coffee to be ground.


Measure out the coffee

Most traditional coffee machines come with a measuring spoon, so it’s easy to know how much coffee to use. Around 7g of ground coffee is used for a single espresso, so a double-size filter (if supplied) can take 14g – either for two cups or one large espresso.

On a traditional machine, check that the filter basket is clean, then place it into the portafilter and spoon in your coffee. You then need to ‘tamp’ down the coffee to compact it together so that it creates a barrier through which the hot water must pass.

Some coffee machines come with a separate tamper accessory – usually a metal or plastic circular disk – while others have one fitted on the espresso machine.

Fit the portafilter to your espresso machine and place a cup underneath.

Most bean-to-cup coffee machines will do all of this for you, from measuring out the right amount of coffee to tampering it down.


Make the espresso

You’re now ready to make your espresso. Check the instructions on your coffee machine, but it’s usually just a question of pressing the relevant button. It's worth using the built-in cup warmer on your machine if you have one, or filling your cup with hot water to warm it before use.

It usually takes up to 10 seconds for the espresso to start flowing into your cup. The whole process should be completed in about 17-24 seconds.

The time it takes to make your espresso is variable, as each coffee machine works differently, and the flow rate will also depend on how the coffee beans are ground and how firmly you’ve tamped the coffee. When we test coffee machines we check whether this process takes the right amount of time or whether it's sluggishly slow.

We've also found that some coffee machines can drip longer than they should, weakening the coffee. If yours does, remove the coffee as soon as you see clear water.

The perfect espresso should have a golden creamy-looking top, rather than being all black.

If you want to make cappuccino...


Get the coffee machine ready

Having made your espresso, you now need to use the coffee machine's steam pipe to heat the milk and transform its texture from flat and smooth to light, bubbly and airy.

Switch your coffee machine to its cappuccino setting, which increases the water temperature and creates steam. Expel any water from the steam spout into an empty cup, by briefly turning on the control tap.


Froth the milk

To create the foam for your cappuccino, fill a small metal jug to around an inch with semi-skimmed milk. Metal jugs are best as they heat up more quickly than ceramic ones.

Turn on the steam pipe and hold the jug underneath, allowing steam to blow into the milk. Then move the jug gently up and down to fold air into the milk. You’ll see the milk start to expand in size with bubbles appearing.

Listen as well. You should hear a high-pitched whining noise as the process continues. If you hear a growling noise, stop immediately as this signals that the milk is nearing boiling point and will go flat.

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a good result straight away. It can take practice. 

If you aren't bothered about learning to froth milk perfectly with a steam wand, consider a capsule machine with milk-frother accessory, or a bean-to-cup machine with automatic milk frothing. Both take the hassle out of making frothy drinks. But first, check our coffee machine reviews to see which machines scored best for milk frothing and making cappuccino.


Combine milk with your espresso

To create your cappuccino, you just need to add your lovely frothy milk to the espresso you made earlier.

Start by pouring in the thickened, heated milk and then use a spoon to transfer the frothiest bits on top of the cup. Ideally, your cappuccino should have equal proportions of coffee, milk and foam.


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