An espresso machine is a complicated tool with one simple goal: to make great espresso drinks. For a recent review, I spent a lot of time tinkering with multiple home espresso machines across a wide range of price points, and one thing that became clear was that many of those machines could be nudged to higher levels of performance—if you know how. In some cases that meant upgrading some of the included parts, while in others it meant mastering a "hack" to help achieve more desirable brewing temperatures.
Here are four of the most important things you can do to make better espresso at home.
Espresso Upgrade 1: Get Better Portafilter Baskets
Metal portafilter baskets are the filters in an espresso machine. They hold the ground coffee in a compact puck and have very fine holes on the bottom for the espresso to exit into the cup below. But many of the baskets that are included with home machines suffer from design limitations that can prevent good extraction of coffee flavor, such as a tapered shape and imprecisely drilled holes. VST baskets are much better; they're laser-drilled and flat-walled, meaning that they can extract coffee evenly.
Imagine ground coffee compacted into the three baskets below—the first is a VST basket, the middle is from the Gaggia Classic Pro, and the last one is from the Rancilio Silvia Pro. All three have a 58 mm diameter:
For an even extraction, you want water to flow through the coffee evenly, which is what the VST's straight walls and precise holes encourage. With the tapered baskets, on the other hand, the sides almost become ‘dead zones’ while the bottom becomes over-extracted, since water from the sides has to flow through the tapered bottom before exiting.
If you have a machine that can accommodate the VST baskets—like the Gaggia Classic Pro, which we rated as one of our favorite home espresso machines, second only to the Breville Bambino Plus—I recommend making the $30 upgrade. Before ordering, you should measure the diameter of your portafilter since most VST baskets are designed for 58mm portafilters. Their website also lists machines that are compatible with VST baskets, to help confirm they'll work with the one you own.
Espresso Upgrade 2: Invest in a Better Tamper
Many home espresso machines come with lightweight plastic tampers, which often don't fit the portafilter baskets well, leading to parts of the espresso puck that were compacted and parts that weren’t around the edges. This poor fit also left a lot of small, uncompressed coffee grounds just sitting on top of the espresso puck. This, too, negatively affects extraction (and thus flavor), a difference we could clearly taste when we brewed coffee side-by-side using the same machines, switching back and forth between the dinkier provided tamper and a heavyweight, 58mm one.
While a proper tamper is a slightly bigger investment than VST baskets (and I’d argue VST baskets are the better of the two upgrades) you can find some very good tampers starting at around $45. That said, some of the higher-end machines we tested came with solid, heavy-duty tampers that didn't need replacement, like our top pick from Breville and the Rancilio Silvia Pro.
Espresso Upgrade 3: Learn to "Temperature Surf"
Getting your water temperature right is key to pulling good shots of espresso, but not every machine makes that easy. Most commercial espresso machines and some higher-end home ones come with double boilers to separate the water-heating functions for brewing the coffee and steaming the milk, and some come with PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) controllers to precisely regulate the temperature of the water—but unless you’re paying more than $800, you’re not getting a machine with a PID.
Many home machines, meanwhile, are single-boiler designs, meaning that just one water heater has to do double duty, providing water for espresso brewing and steaming milk. That means the temperature in the boiler fluctuates when you switch between functions. “Brew and steam modes work differently: they use different thermostats, one with a higher temperature threshold for steam,” says Steve Rhinehart, e-commerce manager at Acaia and former brand manager at Prima Coffee Equipment. “Switching into steam mode uses the same heating element in the boiler but now it's on a different electrical circuit that will run until it hits a steam temperature 20 or so degrees higher than brewing.”
When you're steaming milk, the boiler has to get hot enough to produce steam, while the boiler has to drop temperature to pull shots, usually to between 198-202°F (92-94°C), but that depends on the machine. This creates a bit of a predicament: not only can you not steam milk and pull shots at the same time, but it's difficult to ascertain what the temperature of the boiler is at any given moment. This is partially due to the dual nature of the boiler, but also has a lot to do with how water travels into the boiler as shots are being pulled. The solution, in this case, is to learn to “temperature surf,” which is a way to manipulate the temperature in the boiler to achieve not necessarily an ideal brewing temperature, but a consistent one.
Think of it this way: A boiler works by dispensing pre-heated water, then replacing that water with fresh, cold water, and finally bringing that fresh water back up to temp. When an espresso machine is trying to use the same boiler for both brewing and steaming, the temp it most likely to bring the water back up to is a full boil, hot enough to produce steam and too hot to brew coffee. The most common way to temperature surf, therefore, is to catch your ideal temperature for brewing on an upswing during a reheating phase, before the water returns to the steam-capable temp.
Most of the machines in our review had an indicator light, signaling when the machine is heating up. To temperature surf, you should flush the machine when the water is fully heated and the heating indicator light is turned off (press the brew button but without any coffee—just let hot water out) until the light turns back on again. It can take some practice to figure out the ideal timing on each machine, but roughly thirty seconds after the boiler starts heating again, the water is likely in the more acceptable brewing range of 195-205ºF.
A related trick for hand-powered espresso devices, like the Cafflano Kompresso and the Fellow Prismo attachment for the Aeropress, is to pre-heat them with hot water. Just as a coffee cools down when you pour it into a cold mug, your brewing water will cool down if poured into a cold brewing device. A simple preheat with hot water is all it takes to make sure your coffee brews at the proper temp (just make sure to dump out the warming water before moving on to actually brewing).
Espresso Upgrade 4: Keep it Clean, Consider Your Water
This is, in all honesty, less of an upgrade and more of a best practice, but it's worth mentioning anyway (trust me, I've seen what some home espresso machines look like). Keeping your espresso machine clean and using filtered water is a critical step in improving brew quality on any machine.
“Water quality is extremely important,” says Madeleine Longoria Garcia of Pacific Coffee Research in Hawai'i. “It's a make-or-break kind of situation.” It’s worth getting to know where your municipal water comes from and how hard or soft the water coming out of your tap is. “I completely rebuilt a home espresso machine last year and most of the damage could have been avoided if the proper water was being used and if the owner simply cleaned it on a regular basis.” If you’re using hard water in your espresso machine, calcium carbonate—known better as scale—can build up and prevent your machine from performing at 100%.