The machine is not the only important factor in producing espresso. The type of coffee, its freshness and how it is ground also make a difference.
Most experts consulted recommend using a dark-roast coffee and grinding the beans just before brewing. The grind should be fine but not powdery. If the coffee is too coarse, the water will flow too rapidly and not extract a full flavor. If the grind is too fine, the water will flow too slowly or not at all, producing weak coffee and leaving very wet grounds or water in the brew basket.
One manufacturer, however, recommends using a lighter Vienna roast rather than a dark French roast in steam machines. Another expert said a slightly coarser grind should be used in steam machines.
When it comes to grinding the beans, several sources recommended using a burr (buhrstone) rather than a propeller blade grinder. These are considerably more expensive, $80 to more than $200.
Seven grams, or slightly less than two tablespoons of coffee, is suggested for each cup of espresso. The coffee should not be tamped with most steam machines, and should be only lightly tamped with most pump machines. Check the manufacturer's directions.
Two manufacturers recommend using espresso pods--premeasured coffee enclosed in paper filters--in their machines. These require no tamping and are less messy, but they cost about 60 cents each. Once the package is opened, the manufacturer claims the pods stay fresh for two weeks.
Top-quality espresso should have crema, a light-colored foam, on the surface of the coffee (not to be confused with frothed milk on cappuccino). Good crema indicates the water came through the grounds hot and rapidly, rather than dripping between the particles.
Two other tips: Most manufacturers recommend preheating the brew basket in the machine and warming the cups before use.
Steaming Milk for Cappuccino:
* Nonfat or 1% milk should be used; whole milk and half and half do not froth well.
* Most experts recommend using a stainless-steel pitcher for steaming milk. Store the pitcher in the freezer between uses, then fill about a third full with milk and place back in the freezer for about five minutes before steaming.
* It is important to follow the manufacturer's instructions for steaming. Generally place the steam-jet just beneath the surface of the milk and move the pitcher in a circular motion after opening the steam valve.