How to make espresso like a barista

A cup of espresso on a stone worktop representing how to make espresso
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Learning how to make espresso at home opens up a whole new world of possibilities, allowing you to take your coffee drinking to the next level. In the long run, it can also save money if you regularly buy your espresso from a coffee shop each day.

That said, espresso brewing can be quite tricky to master, and if you've just bought an espresso machine like the Breville/Sage Bambino Plus, you might find yourself struggling to recreate the rich, dark espresso and thick crema you see in coffee shops. Fear not: learning the basics is actually pretty straightforward, and this guide will teach you how to use an espresso maker like a pro in no time.

This tutorial will cover making espresso using pump machines, as opposed to stovetop coffee makers or Nespresso machines. If you're still looking for an espresso machine, make sure you check out our top picks of the best espresso machines for advice on which to choose. If you want to perfect your coffee, this $30 gadget may transform your coffee routine.

For the summer, you can also follow our tips on how to make iced coffee in 4 simple steps.

How to make espresso in just 4 steps

Here are the main steps when preparing espresso at home:

  • Choose which coffee beans are the best for you
  • Grind your coffee beans for the perfect shot
  • Use a coffee tamp to create a puck
  • Experiment to find the best flavor

coffee beans in roaster

(Image credit: Pexels)

1. Which coffee beans are the best for espresso?

If you're new to this, you'll likely run into people telling you that expensive specialty beans are a must. But, while it's true that higher quality beans often produce a better product, it's perfectly fine to use less premium beans which will still make a great coffee. Just ensure you choose either whole beans or pre-ground beans that have been ground for espresso. Pre-ground from the grocery store will often be too coarse for espresso, which we’ll cover a bit later, and unless the pack features a roast date, there's no way of knowing how fresh the coffee is.

You’ll need to choose what flavor profile you want from your beans, which is based on the type, origin and roast. Check out any tasting notes on the back of the pack to find out what flavors the coffee will yield when prepared. Generally, darker roasts yield a more bitter end result with rich, chocolatey notes, while medium and light roasts will produce a sweeter and more acidic profile with fruity and floral flavours. Which you go for is entirely up to you. Just make sure you buy a bean that has been roasted for espresso, rather than for filter or French press.

Coffee beans being poured by hand into a manual coffee grinder demonstrating how to make espresso

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

2. How to grind coffee beans for espresso 

The level your coffee is ground to dictates its resistance to your machine’s pump, varying the time the coffee is exposed to and cooked by the pressure and hot water — this affects the taste, texture and strength of brewed espresso. A finer grind will provide more resistance, resulting in greater extraction of the coffee’s compounds as it spends a longer time exposed to heat, water and pressure. It’s important that your coffee is ground evenly throughout to ensure consistent extraction and results.

Many espresso machines come with a built-in grinder, but it’s also common to own a standalone one, too. If you have a coffee grinder, aim initially for a grind coarser than dust (like Turkish coffee), but finer than for filter or French press. Getting the right grind (A.K.A 'dialling in') essentially boils down to trial and error, and the grinder settings required will change for different beans and even separate batches of the same beans. We’ll cover that trial and error a bit more later on. If you don’t own a grinder, many local coffee shops will grind beans for you, although usually only for beans you buy from them.

Grocery store pre-ground is usually too coarse for pump espresso, resulting in thin, watery coffee without crema. Handily, though, some espresso machines come with pressurised dual wall baskets to help increase the pressure the coffee puck is subjected to, allowing for coarser grinds — these will make a great brew, but will not produce the texture or taste to match ‘true’ espresso.

A portafilter filled with coffee grounds demonstrating how to make espresso

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

3. Weigh and tamp your coffee grounds 

Once you’ve ground some beans, you’ll need to put them into the basket of the portafilter which came with your coffee machine. It’s a good idea to weigh the coffee you put in to ensure you’re taking a consistent approach for each shot, and because the amount of coffee will also affect your puck’s pressure resistance. A common starting point is 0.32 oz (9g) for a single shot and 0.64 oz (18g) for a double, although if your coffee machine suggests a weight, use that. A good set of highly accurate espresso scales is useful here to keep things consistent, and coffee scales which include a shot timer are readily available for under $20. Look for one which says it is accurate to 0.1g.

Use a coffee tamp — frequently supplied with machines — to firmly press your coffee and turn it into a puck. Again, this affects the resistance of the puck, so you should ensure you apply even pressure across for consistency between shots. You may need to adjust your tamping pressure based on how your espresso pulls later down the line.

Consider investing in a tamping mat to ensure your portafilter remains stable and so that you don’t damage either it or your worktop when tamping.

A Breville Oracle Touch espresso machine with a cup of espresso on the drop tray

(Image credit: Breville)

4. How to pour an espresso shot

Before you start, ensure you have a knock box or food waste bin close by to dispose of your grounds afterwards, and treat the hot puck with care to avoid burning yourself.

A good shot will pour with the viscosity of runny honey and should be golden brown in colour. If you’re using a set of coffee scales, which we would recommend, place these under your glass or cup and pour until you reach double the weight of coffee you put in. This usually takes around 30 seconds, and you should time your shots to ensure you're taking a similar amount of time to pour each one. Taste your espresso and see what you think.

Here’s where your earlier consistency pays off. It’s unlikely you’ll nail a perfect shot to begin with. It may be too thin, too bitter, too sour. You may have too much coffee, or too little. Generally speaking, you’ll be aiming for espresso that matches the flavor profile of your chosen beans in a balanced way: with dark roasts you’d expect some bitterness with chocolatey, rich notes. With medium and lighter roasts you’d expect more sweetness and acidity, with floral or fruity notes coming through. Flavors should be balanced, however, so if you have overwhelming bitterness or acidity, that’s a sign of over- or under- extraction, essentially too much or too little brewing. Not much liquid or a shot that pulls with difficulty means your grind is too fine, while too much liquid indicates the opposite.

Play around with the grind of your coffee, as this is often the most likely cause of any extraction issues, keeping all the other inputs the same, including the beans and weight of coffee used, the tamp pressure, brew time and ratio. If this doesn’t work, try adjusting the other factors individually until you have the perfect espresso. It takes time, but is definitely worth it once you get the hang of it. 

If you feel like you’ve bitten off a little too much with espresso, don’t worry. Our best coffee makers features a range of coffee machines to take the effort out of your morning brew.

For more tips on making great coffee, check out our guides on how to make a cold brew coffee, how to make pour over coffee, how to make French press coffee, how to clean your coffee maker and why you should descale your coffee maker

You can also learn how to make summer treats like ice cream without an ice cream maker at home.

Peter Wolinski
Reviews Editor

Peter is Reviews Editor at Tom's Guide. As a writer, he covers topics including tech, photography, gaming, hardware, motoring and food & drink. Outside of work, he's an avid photographer, specialising in architectural and portrait photography. When he's not snapping away on his beloved Fujifilm camera, he can usually be found telling everyone about his greyhounds, riding his motorcycle, squeezing as many FPS as possible out of PC games, and perfecting his espresso shots.