The Moka Pot Is an Inexpensive Espresso Alternative

Moka pot on stove

[Photographs: Shutterstock]

These days, I’m trying to find joy in the little things in life. And above all, that means starting my day with a good, strong cup of coffee from my newly (re)discovered moka pot.

See, back when the Serious Eats team worked out of an office, my work days were somewhat ritualistic. After getting settled at my desk, I’d pour myself a nice cold glass of Grady’s cold brew (truly the best stuff around) with a splash of almond milk. It was the perfect companion to my morning apples and almond butter, and it gave me just enough energy to get through part of the day, until I’d give in to another deliciously cold glass around 3 p.m.

But for the last six weeks or so, I’ve been working remotely from my parents’ house, and the coffee from their auto-drip coffee maker just doesn’t cut it. It takes me at least two cups to even feel a slight buzz (I may or may not have been told by a few fellow staffers that I have a caffeine addiction). I’ve been longing for the boost I got from my weekday cold brew or the pep-in-my-step that the weekend lattes from my local coffee shop gave me.

Enter the moka pot, a small coffee brewer that delivers big flavor (and comes with an interesting history).

What Is a Moka Pot?

I first encountered a moka pot when visiting a friend who was studying abroad in Florence. He made me coffee on his stove in a little silver pot, and the result was pure bliss, a shot of coffee so smooth and fresh that you could taste the care that went into making it. The whole process felt very European—a method requiring a level of patience that feels quite contrary to the instant gratification Americans seek in their daily lives.

I've since learned that the moka pot is a simple but ingenious percolating device. Our resident coffee expert, Erin Meister, explains that it allows "hot water to pass upward, through coffee grounds, and rise up out of a tube—meaning brewed coffee does not have to pass through any additional coffee filters, as the grounds stay below the final extraction."

I was thinking wistfully about that cup when I suddenly remembered that my parents had one stored somewhere in the depths of their kitchen cabinets. A quick search led me to the silver treasure I sought, gleaming behind other forgotten appliances.

How to Use a Moka Pot

Moka pot Using a moka pot is quite simple and, to me, very therapeutic. The type of coffee you use depends on your tastes—I like to use a dark espresso (and thankfully, my parents are prepared for any kind of emergency, even the caffeine-related ones), but you can purchase any kind of roast you like. Whether you’re grinding the beans yourself or buying them pre-ground, you’ll want to make sure they’re ground finer than you’d need for a drip coffee maker, but coarser than what you’d use in a regular espresso machine.

You start off by filling the bottom chamber with hot water just until it reaches the line in the bottom of the brewer. (Using cold water in the chamber and then bringing it to a boil on the stove will cause the grounds to overheat and give off a burnt, metallic, and bitter taste, so it’s best to boil water beforehand and have it ready.) Then you insert the filter basket into the bottom chamber and fill it with the grounds, leveling it with a spoon or your fingers, but making sure not to tamp it down. Be sure to brush off any loose grounds from the edge of the basket so that the top compartment screws on correctly. Since the bottom chamber is now filled with hot water, you’ll want to grab hold of it with a towel before screwing on the top.

And now for my favorite part—watching the coffee come to life (what the common folk refer to as “brewing”). Place the moka pot on the stove on medium heat, just enough so the flame is covering the bottom, and leave the lid open. When the water in the bottom chamber starts to boil, the pressure will push the coffee up into the top chamber and through the spout in a slow, steady stream. If the brew starts to spurt, that’s usually an indication that the water is too hot. You’ll know the brew is finished when the coffee gets lighter in color and starts to sputter out. At this point, I like to follow the advice from the folks at Stumptown Coffee, taking the pot off the heat and running the bottom chamber under cold water, carefully tilting it so the coffee doesn’t spill out. According to Stumptown, this helps it cool, stopping the extraction process and preventing the coffee from acquiring a metallic taste.

A cappuccino with a leaf-like latte art design

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

With the coffee brewed, I take it a step further and go full-out barista. I warm some milk in the microwave, then use my nifty handheld IKEA milk frother (not nearly as nice as the Serious Eats–recommended Nespresso frother, alas), to whirl it until a layer of teeny tiny bubbles has formed on its surface. Then, I pour the milk over my coffee and scoop the foam over the top.

Voilà, a near-replica of a cappuccino.

So Is the Moka Pot an Espresso Machine or Not?

While this homemade cappuccino doesn’t bring with it the familiarity of office life or the comfort of a cozy coffee shop, it’s a good compromise given current circumstances. However, it’s important to note that even if you use espresso grounds, you’re not making technically making a true espresso. According to this study, the pressure that takes place in the moka pot (about one to two bars) is nowhere near as strong as that of a standardized espresso machine (nine bars). Instead, you’re making a concentrated shot of coffee; you can read more about the difference between coffee and espresso here.

I have a similar disclaimer about the milk frother: the foam structure it creates is different from what you’d get using the steam wand on an espresso machine. The latter has more of a dry texture, while the former tends to be more thick and silky. Nevertheless, these tools make for good stand-in espresso and frothed milk at home, especially if you don’t have the time or money to invest in the real-deal equipment.

While I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just recently discovered this miracle coffee maker, I’m just a few weeks into this thing and it’s already become a daily ritual that I very much look forward to. Not only do I feel accomplished that I’m able to replicate something I normally pay upwards of $6 for at a coffee shop, but I also enjoy the time it takes to make it. For five minutes every day, I’m forced to practice patience and focus on putting care into what’s in front of me. And now more than ever, I actually have the time to do so. That first sip is heavenly, leaving me in good spirits for a majority of the day. And thanks to its strength, my second afternoon cup is a thing of the past.