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Making espresso and cappuccino is an art that can take practice.
Use our guide to get to grips with the key steps you need to take to brew a perfect coffee, and watch our coffee tasting expert Giles Hilton show you how it's done.
Our years of testing coffee machines have taught us that, however good your coffee-making techniques are, if you have a shoddy coffee machine you'll end up with a disappointing espresso. So make sure you have the for you.
The machine you choose depends on how much input you want into the coffee-making process. Here's a quick summary of the different types available:
This guide explains how to make coffees with your ground coffee machine, but there are also useful tips for getting the most out of other types of machine. If your bean-to-cup or capsule machine has manual milk frothing (eg a steam pipe), we explain how to use it to froth milk successfully for cappuccino.
Follow these tips to achieve coffee perfection. Want to jump straight to the video of our coffee expert Giles Hilton explaining what he looks for when tasting an espresso or cappuccino?
Don't skip this crucial first step, no matter what kind of machine you have.
Water will be pumped through the coffee machine and through the spout. This flushes out any leftover grains from the last coffee. It also heats water ready for your real espresso. If the water isn't clear, repeat the process until it runs clear.
With coffee, you get out what you put in. You'll need to use the right type of coffee for the best results; if the grind is too fine or too coarse, your espresso won't extract properly and you'll end up with an underwhelming brew.
Ground (traditional) machine
To make a great espresso, you'll want 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 best flavour. Look out for ground coffee labelled 'espresso' or specifically designed for use in coffee machines - or buy whole beans and grind at home.
Bean-to-cup coffee machine
You should be able to adjust the grind level on your machine, depending on how finely you want your coffee to be ground - check your machine's instructions for more detail. Be aware that too fine a grind can clog the machine, and you should make adjustments to the level during grinding to avoid damaging the mechanism. Some models also warn against oilier dark-roasted beans, which may clog the machine.
Capsule or pod coffee machine
Pre-measured coffee pods take all the guesswork on grind size out of the equation. All you need to do is buy a capsule that offers the intensity of roast you are after, and that is compatible with your machine. See our for more advice.
If you have a ground coffee machine, it should come with a measuring spoon, so it’s easy to know how much coffee to use. This will usually be around 7g of ground coffee for a single espresso, or 14g for a large espresso or two single espressos. For a double-shot, you use the larger metal filter basket (if supplied). This fits into the portafilter that you attach to the machine.
Preparing your coffee:
If you have a bean-to-cup machine, your machine will do all the work for you. All you need to do is tip your coffee beans into the machine and it will grind and tamp the correct amount for you.
If you have a capsule machine, all you need to do is pick your desired capsule and pop it in the machine.
It’s worth using the built-in cup warmer on your machine if it has one, or filling your cup with hot water to warm it before you use it. This helps your espresso to keep its temperature instead of being cooled down by a cool cup.
Espresso coffee is cooler than other types, such as filter or instant coffee, so it can take some getting used to if you are accustomed to a hotter brew. Pre-heating the cup will help.
You're now ready to make your espresso. This is usually just a case of pressing the relevant button on your machine.
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. Usually, it should take about 17-24 seconds.
We've found, over many years of testing coffee machines, that some models can drip for longer than they should, weakening your drink. If your machine drips, remove the coffee as soon as you see clear water.
The perfect espresso should have a golden creamy-looking top, known as a crema.
To turn your espresso into a tasty cappuccino, you’ll need to use your machine’s steam pipe to froth some milk and transform your coffee’s texture from flat and smooth to light, bubbly and airy. Here are the steps you need to take:
To make a nice textured milk foam for your cappuccino, it's best to use a metal jug, as they heat up more quickly than ceramic ones.
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a good result straight away. It can take practice.
If you have a capsule coffee machine, most models can be bought with an automatic milk frothing accessory that will do this step for you at the touch of a button, although some do have traditional steam pipes for manual frothing. Some capsule brands, such as Dolce Gusto and Tassimo, use pre-prepared milk capsules instead.
If you have a bean-to-cup machine, you'll either have a steam pipe and need to follow the steps above, or you might have a model that automatically froths the milk and prepares your cappuccino, in which case you'll just need to add milk to the frothing unit.
The final stage of creating your cappuccino is to add the lovely frothed milk to the espresso you made earlier.
Ideally, your cappuccino should have equal proportions of coffee, milk and foam.