How to Make Great Coffee at Home: 5 Tips espresso

by Vincent Scordo espresso and milk - perfect togetherespresso and milk – perfect together

Writing about Italian food we get plenty of questions on topics such as “my favorite Italian food or recipe” (answer: too many to choose just one) or my favorite Italian restaurant (answer: cook Italian food at home).   On occasion, we also recieve questions having to do with coffee, in general, and particularly the coffee in the United States versus Italy.  My answer is often long winded and complicated, but we generally have a few standard convictions about coffee in the United States:

  1. Coffee that is sold at cafes (both independent shops and chains) is, generally, of very poor quality; i.e., while the raw ingredients (e.g., roasted beans) are good the brewing process and methodology is wrong.  In turn, leading to a broken coffee culture here in the United States.  For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz suggests the French Press is the best way to make coffee while his chain uses drip style makers (a huge paradox)
  2. The best coffee on the planet is produced via forcing water (near boiling temperature and under pressure) through finely ground (and darkly roasted) coffee beans; that is to say, espresso.
  3. American style drip coffee brewing is, generally, not the right method to extract optimal flavor from ground coffee beans.  This is the method used at Starbucks and by most folks preparing coffee at home.

Like eating good Italian food we believe drinking good coffee can only be had by perfecting the process at home and, as you guessed, making your own coffee.  There are a few coffee shops in large metropolitan areas, often run by European ex-pats, that make old world style espresso (roasting their own beans, getting the grind correct, setting up the right pressure and time allocated for water to run through the coffee beans, etc.)  but I’ve personally had more bad espresso than good in the United States, including in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, etc.  So, what’s a person interested in consuming good coffee to do?  Ween him or herself off the substance?  Maybe switch to tea?  We say no and just follow these basic tips:

Stovetop espresso – not the ideal way to make espresso but the most common way to consume coffee outside of a bar or cafe.

  1. Invest in good (and the correct) equipment.  Throw away your $40.00 drip style coffee maker and percolator from the 1970’s – both machines get water temperature wrong as well as the correct time that water and ground coffee should sit together.  It’s our unscientific (and entirely qualitative) opinion that there are three great coffee making devices designed for American style coffee on the planet: 1. Aeropress 2., Chemex 3. French Press (we also like the Clever Coffee Dripper).  The online shop Sweet Maria’s carries only the very best equipment, green beans, and dispenses excellent coffee knowledge (the owners also love what they do and it shows).
  2. Invest in whole beans and never buy pre-ground coffee.  It’s a fact that coffee detoriates as soon as it’s roasted and the situation only amplifies if the bean is roasted and ground.  So, ideally the home barrista is roasting and grinding his or her own coffee beans.  Roasting coffee at home can get complicated, but there’s no excuse for not grinding your own, pre-roasted, beans at home just before consumption.  If you’re buying pre-roasted beans then inquire about roast date and the source of the beans.
  3. Think long and hard about water temperature and the time ground coffee is in contact with hot water.  The optimal extraction temperature for American style coffee is beetween 195 – 205 degrees Fahrenheit.  If the water is to hot or too cold you’re looking at underextracted coffee which will yield all sorts of bad coffees tastes.  Depending on the coffee making device, you’re looking at different times that the hot water is exposed to the ground coffee.  For example, when making espresso the water in coffee are in contact for anywhere between 10-30 seconds depending the style of espresso (e.g., ristretto , doppio, etc.)  and a method like French Press has the coffee and hot water commingling for about 4 minutes.
  4. Spend more time thinking about grind.  Different coffee making machines and processes call for different whole bean grinds.  For example, if you’re using a French Press (invented by an Italian in Italy, by the way) then your grind can be coarse and fairly uneven.  If you’re making espresso, then you’ll want to use a grinder that can create a small, uniform, substance or grind (“burr” grinders can often control bean grind better that a standard “blade” type of coffee grinder).
  5. Making good espresso is lots of work.  I grew up on stovetop espresso, like many Italian children (i.e., I didn’t start to consume it until I was about 17 but the stovetop espresso pot was the #1 coffee maker in our household) and it was simply a substitute for real espresso (only made at proper bars or cafes).   Real espresso is still consumed outside of the home in Italy and is the ideal way to enjoy coffee in it’s finest form.  If you want to try and make espresso at home then you’re looking at a signifact investment in equipment (including espresso machine and canoical burr grinder)  and a steep learning curve (especially if you vie for the type of espresso machine that gives you the most control and in turn best tasting cup; viz., a semi automatic machine).  For more on espresso see our guide.

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Author: Vincent Scordo Lead Italophile (and/or lover of all things Italian).

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