Making Espresso Drinks

Get tips for making lattes like a seasoned barista.

Brown Sugar-Caramel Latte
Photo: House of Aqua

While there's definitely an art to preparing the perfect espresso drink, the process doesn't have to be a foreign concept.

Starting From the Grounds, Up

There are two main types of espresso machines, and they each require a different grind, so first you'll want to determine if yours is steam-driven or pump-driven. (Check with the manufacturer or store where you purchased it.) When you buy beans, specify your machine type and the barista should know how coarse or fine to grind the beans.

Got Aerated Milk?

Steaming the milk is the first step in preparing an espresso drink, and the trick to getting creamy, velvety quality is aerating as you steam:

  • Fill your milk pitcher no more than half-full (milk will expand when steamed).
  • Submerge the steam wand into milk, then turn the steam wand on.
  • Begin to aerate by lowering the pitcher a bit while guiding the steam wand so the tip is just kissing the surface of the milk.
  • Find that sweet spot where a layer of foam is beginning to form, creating a sprinkler-like sound, but the wand isn't blowing big bubbles in the milk.
  • Once you have a layer of foam, submerge the steam wand again. Continue steaming to between 145 to 165 degrees F (63 to 75 degrees C).
  • If while steaming, the sound begins to get high pitched, repeat the aeration process, lowering the milk pitcher, until the sound mellows to a soft hum.

When you're done, wipe the steam wand with a wet towel (folded over), then blast the steam wand for a second or two into the towel to blow out any milk that's been caught inside.

Gingerbread Latte
Photo by Holiday Baker.

Anatomy of an Espresso Shot

Producing quality espresso will be much easier if you become familiar with the three components of a shot. Yes, there will be a little memorization required, but not in the scary biology way.

  • The crema is the top thin layer and sweetest part of an espresso shot. A good crema should be a light golden-brown color.
  • The body makes up the middle and "umph" of the shot and should be a caramel-brown color.
  • The heart is the very bottom of an espresso shot and is the bitter balance to the crema's sweetness. It should be a deep, rich brown color.

For a great example of what shots should look like pouring, empty a can or bottle of Guinness beer into a pint glass. Notice how it seems to be pouring in rich, creamy layers — dark to light — from the bottom of the pint up. This is exactly how an espresso shot should appear. Just don't expect them to taste the same.

Pulling Shots

"Pulling" actually refers to the first espresso machines that had levers to pull down in order for shots to pour. Pulling shots doesn't entail quite the workout it once did, but you'll still have to put a little muscle into it. Here's what you need to know to pull shots at home:

  • Watering the grounds: for the best results, use filtered water in your espresso machine.
  • Portion control: scoop 4 tablespoons of grounds into your portafilter to pull two one-ounce shots.
  • Tamp it like you mean it: "tamping" is just a fancy way of saying "packing the coffee grounds down." Use a medium forced tamp to start, then adjust if needed. If your first shots pour too fast: tamp harder; too slow: tamp lighter.
  • Timing is everything: in addition to how a shot looks, the amount of time it takes for shots to pour is also a good indication of quality. Two one-ounce shot glasses should take roughly between 12 to 18 seconds to fill.

Now that you understand the basic elements of making espresso, it's time for a coffee break. Ready? Pull!

Abbey's White Chocolate Latte
Photo by Holiday Baker.

What Did They Say?

Sometimes it seems like baristas are speaking a different language. Allow us to translate:

Macchiato: Refers to a drink "marked with" something: "marked with" foam, "marked with" a shot of espresso, etc.

Ristretto shot: Using the same amount of coffee grounds, water is only poured to produce the first half of an espresso shot. A ristretto shot still contains most of the caffeine and is sweeter than a full shot.

Portafilter: The "thing" you put the coffee grounds into to pull espresso shots.

Split Shot: Half decaf, half caffeinated

Shot-in-the-dark, Red Eye, or Pile Driver: This drink — drip coffee with a shot of espresso — goes by a variety of amusing names.

Equipment Check-list

  • Steaming pitcher
  • Milk thermometer
  • Milk towels
  • Coffee scoop (2 tablespoon size)
  • Coffee tamper
  • Knock box (to knock used grounds into — optional)
  • Large spoon (to hold back foam as you pour)

Basic Espresso Drinks

Solo Espresso: A single shot of espresso

Doppio Espresso: Two shots of espresso

Espresso Macchiato: Espresso shots with a dollop of foam

Espresso Con Panna: Espresso shots topped with whipped cream

Americano: Espresso shots with hot water

Latte: Espresso shots with steamed milk, topped with a layer of foam

Mocha: Espresso with chocolate, steamed milk, usually topped with whipped cream

Latte Macchiato: Steamed milk topped with a layer of foam and a ristretto shot of espresso

Cappuccino: Espresso with half steamed milk, half foam. "Dry" refers to more foam than the standard, and "wet" refers to more milk than the standard. "Bone dry" means espresso shots, then filled to the brim with foam.

Espresso Drink Recipes

Recipe Collections

Whip up something to go with your espresso drink:

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