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Buying Guide: The Best Espresso Machines For You

The authors of The New Cooks' Catalogue certainly know what to look for when choosing cooking equipment. These leading culinary experts have been evaluating cooking equipment for over 25 years. The following information is what they consider important when selecting a espresso machines/maker.

All Espresso Machines/Makers »

All Small Appliances »

What to Look For

  • We recommend "piston" or "pump" machines.
  • The higher the wattage of a pump machine, the faster it will "recover" to produce another cup of espresso.
  • Some higher-end models grind-fill-and-tamp for you, while others are designed to use pre-packed pods of espresso.
  • A large capacity water tank will do the best job frothing and foaming milk to top your cappuccino.

More information

History

Though espresso came to its glory in Italy, the hissing and grinding of high-performance espresso machines in bustling cafés are sounds now heard round the globe. Home espresso machines are hot items but there is an enormous range in price, quality, and performance, so you’ll want to consider the choices carefully.

An espresso maker should do two things: makes hot, flavorful espresso with a crown of crema on top, and froths milk for a cappuccino. There are basically three types of espresso machines, distinguished by the mechanism they use to force hot water rapidly through the coffee grounds: steam pressure, a manual piston, or an electric pump.

Steam Machines

With a steam machine, the espresso streams into a carafe just like regular electric drip coffee makers. But steam machines are not able create the driving pressure that forces water rapidly through coffee. They do not extract all the flavor and texture from the beans and the result is an espresso with little or no crema similar to the brew from a stovetop moka pot.

Piston Machines

We recommend instead either a piston or a pump machine. They are more complicated, as you must tamp the coffee evenly and firmly into the filter holder, but the result is a superior cup of espresso.

Though espresso first became popular around the turn of the twentieth century, it was virtually reinvented in 1948, when Giovanni Achille Gaggia mounted a spring-powered piston over the filter holder of an espresso machine. The result of Gaggia’s invention was a sweeter, more intense cup of coffee than the old steam models could make--and a revolution in espresso machine technology.

Today’s piston-powered home machine is a reproduction of vintage technology. Though impressive in appearance, the system can be difficult to operate. Success depends on when, how hard, and how fast the user raises and depresses the pull lever.

Electric Pump Machines

The most popular design in modern home espresso machines--and for good reason-- is the pump machine, based on the 1961 design of Italian engineer Ernesto Valento. An electric pump forces water rapidly through ground coffee into a waiting cup. The espresso and steamed milk that these pumps produce rival the best coffee bar versions. And because many have large water reservoirs, pump systems let you make cup after cup without having to wait.

With a little practice, almost anyone can make very good espresso or cappuccino. Check out the capacity of the water tank. If you’ll be making an occasional cup of coffee for your own pleasure, choose a machine with a small capacity, but if you need multiple cups in a day, look for a larger tank. A generous 96-ounce tank holds enough water for 48 2-ounce shots for example.

In addition to brewing espresso, the machine should be able to produce steam for frothing milk and should reheat quickly. The higher the wattage of the machine the faster it will “recover.”

Stovetop Espresso Makers

If the complexity (and expense) of espresso machines is not for you, consider the simple stovetop brewer that’s been in Italian households for more than half a century. It works with steam pressure and gravity: water boils in the closed lower chamber with enough headroom to allow a cloud of steam to collect. The pressure from the steam forces hot water out of the chamber and through the medium-fine coffee grounds, where it drips into the upper, handled chamber.

This brew can’t compare with espresso from a high-powered pump machine, but many fans, including Italians, say it’s just fine for mixing with steamed milk to make lattés. Stovetop pots are also convenient to use, easy to clean, and take up little space.

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