How to Make Café-Quality Espresso at Home

Making good espresso is hard, and it takes some trial and error. Here are some tips to get you started.
Left Glass with coffee sitting on ledge of espresso machine. Center Closeup of coffee beans grounded up. Right Spout...
Photograph: Jaina Grey; Getty Images

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Every coffee preparation method has little tricks, secrets, pitfalls, and different ways to end up with a cup of something you're not super happy with. Espresso has more of those than most, I'd say. Many things can impact the quality of the shots you pull from your espresso machine, and it can be hard to tell what is causing the trouble.

So, I'm here to walk you through the basics of how to make espresso at home. Whether you've got your first espresso machine sitting on your counter, or you're an old pro looking for a quick refresher course, we've got you covered.

Be sure to check our other coffee gear guides, including the Best Espresso Machines, Best Cold-Brew Coffee Makers, Best Latte and Cappuccino Machines, and Best Coffee Grinders. Oh, and our How to Brew Coffee at Home guide covers the basics.

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1. Acquire Beans

There’s no such thing as espresso beans. Sometimes, coffee makers will have a blend of beans designed for use in espresso machines, but the beans are the same as any coffee beans. For me, I like a medium roast for espresso. Medium roasts tend to have enough rich, chocolatey flavors on their own that they won’t get lost if you add some steamed milk. Blond roasts are also good if you prefer a lighter body and more floral notes, but they’re a little more hit-or-miss if you’re using them in any mixed espresso drink.

Dark roasts can be good, but now and then you find a dark roast that turns into a burnt-tasting charcoal sludge when you put it through an espresso machine. So for consistency, I recommend you aim for a medium roast.

Where do you get beans? If you go the local route, look for a roast date printed on the bag—ideally you want beans no older than a month after the roast date. Alternatively, you can join a coffee subscription service and get freshly roasted beans sent straight to your door. I've tested dozens and have collected my favorite services here.

2. Beans, Meet Grinder

Your grind for espresso needs to come from a burr grinder. Trust me, I have tried for years to make blade grinders get to the powdery consistency you need for espresso, and they can’t quite do it. If you don’t have a burr grinder, buy your beans from a local coffee shop that can grind them for you. Make sure you ask for an espresso grind. They’ll know exactly what consistency to use. Or you can snag a grinder for yourself—I have several recommendations in my Best Coffee Grinders guide.

If you do have a burr grinder, great! It’s always trial-and-error when grinding new beans for espresso. Some beans work great when they’re super-fine, others need to be a bit coarser. You may have to experiment to find the right spot for each bag of beans, but for espresso, I always start in the last third or fourth of a grinder’s fineness settings. If your machine uses a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the finest coffee grind, you want to start at a 7. Chances are your sweet spot will be somewhere between 7 and 8. Your grounds shouldn’t be as fine as flour, but closer to salt or sugar granules in size.

As for amount, this is also a variable, but I always start at 15 to 16 grams. You can weigh the coffee when it’s whole, before you put it through the grinder, or weigh it after, when it’s in the portafilter (but before you tamp). If you don’t have a scale, I recommend this one from Amazon, which has served me well for years and years. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s accurate and versatile.

The next step is the tamp. There are a lot of opinions out there about how much pressure you need to use to get great espresso. In my experience, err on the side of less. Place the tamp over the coffee in the portafilter and press down gently. We’re just looking to press the grounds together so there isn’t much air between them. We’re not trying to hydraulic-press them. Twist your tamp as you lift it off to keep the top of your puck nice and smooth, and you’re good to go.

Depending on your machine, you should have about 1/8 of an inch of headroom between the top of your portafilter and the top of your grounds. Not enough headroom means your espresso is going to fight to make its way out of the portafilter, and you don't want that.

3. Grounds, Meet Pressure

Presumably, you have an espresso machine if you're reading this guide. It's not the only way to make espresso, but it's the most common. Read my Best Espresso Machines guide if you need some recommendations.

Your portafilter is locked in place, you have a cup waiting underneath it, and your machine is heated up and ready to go. Once you press the button for your machine to start, you’re now faced with a question: How do you know when it’s done? Most semi-automatic espresso machines will automatically stop the extraction for you after a certain amount of time. But if you’re using one that’s manual or want to time it yourself, the answer varies.

You can go by time, color, or weight. I almost always use a combination of time and color. If your machine doesn’t have a little timer on it, start one on your phone right before you hit the button on your espresso machine. I find 20 to 30 seconds is reasonable for a home espresso machine, but pay attention to the color of the coffee coming out. It should start as a thick, almost syrupy swirl of caramel brown to a darker reddish brown. It’ll get paler over time, and usually around the 20- or 30-second mark, it’ll get lighter and lighter. Stop it before it gets lighter than light brown sugar.

As it falls into your cup (this is why I prefer using glass), you’ll be treated to a beautiful show of light and color as the mixture of espresso and crema mixes and separates. At the top, you’ll have a nice thick layer of rich light brown crema with a bubbly center called the heart, and the darker brown outer layer called the body.

Diagnosing Problems

If you see your espresso come out in drips or a thin dark black trickle, it’s because the grounds are too fine, packed too tight, or there’s not enough headroom. Adjust one variable and try again. If it’s watery and starts pouring out fast, your grounds are too coarse, there wasn't enough of them, or they weren’t tamped tight enough. It’s usually the first two; adjust one of those and try again.

It will take some trial and error, and there will be days when you feel like you’ve done everything right and your coffee is still wrong somehow. That’s because, like any cooking, making espresso is an art.

4. Milk, Meet Steam

You’re not done yet! Well, technically you are if you want espresso. You can make an americano by filling your cup with hot water. But if you want a latte or cappuccino, you have one more step: steaming milk. Most espresso machines should have a steam wand attachment, but you can get a cheap milk frother like the one below to do the job.

To steam the milk, fill your pitcher no more than halfway with the milk of your choice. Plant-based milk will behave differently than dairy milk, but the process is mostly the same. Put a towel under your steam wand, point your steam wand at it, and turn on the steam for just a quick puff. We’re just clearing the wand and making sure the boiler is hot enough to push steam into your milk, not just hot water.

Next, dip the steam wand into the milk, far enough below the surface that you don’t hear any hissing when you turn on the steam. You should hear screaming first. Let the milk heat up, around 145 degrees Fahrenheit, but honestly, my mom always said to heat it till it’s almost too hot to touch. That’ll be different for everyone, but it’s a good benchmark.

When it’s nice and hot, start pulling the pitcher down away from the wand, slow and careful. We want just the tip of the wand underneath the milk at this point. It’s going to start swirling the milk around and aerating it. As the milk starts to froth, you’ll need to keep slowly (slowly) moving the pitcher down so the wand stays just submerged enough that the scream turns into a hiss or whoosh sound, but not a bubbly sound.

If you hear bubbles, push the wand deeper into the milk and try again. If you keep getting bubbles, the milk might be too hot; go ahead and kill the steam and try again another time. Once you’ve almost filled the pitcher with steamy milky foam, kill the steam and gently tap the pitcher on your counter to pop any extra bubbles.

5. You, Meet Espresso

Give it a tiny swirl to polish the froth, then pour it into your coffee cup, onto the espresso. I’m not finicky, and I like a lot of foam, so I usually pour out of the side of the pitcher so as much foam as possible ends up at the top of my drink.

Now you’re done! That’s it. That’s making espresso. You did it, good job. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you can taste that it’s not as good as it is at your favorite café, you still made it and you should be proud of that. To get good at something you have to be willing to be bad at it.