How to make barista-quality coffee without spending a ton on an espresso machine
By Sarah Pitts
Jan 22, 2020 | 8:27 AM
It’s a daily dilemma: You love your morning latte, cappuccino, macchiato, etc., but the ludicrous coffee shop prices are eating into your monthly grocery budget.
You'd love to make your own drinks at home and stop watching the money drain from your bank account each time you caffeinate, but you Googled the espresso machine they use at your favorite café and it costs upwards of $10,000.
However, as a former barista at one of those high-end coffee shops with $7 lattes, I can tell you that it actually is possible to brew café-quality drinks at home without the heavy machinery — if you know how.
Here are my favorite (and affordable) at-home barista setups that will have you pulling perfectly balanced espresso and frothing perfectly foamy milk in no time.
Most affordable setup: These are the bare minimum for making milky espresso drinks at home. As long as you use fresh, quality beans and you grind them (very finely) each time you prepare a cup, you should get the results you're looking for.
I love my Bialetti Moka for two reasons: First, it makes delicious espresso with minimal effort on my part. Second, it looks authentic sitting on my stovetop. You just grind the beans, pack them tightly into the small brew basket, fill the bottom chamber with water, and set it over a stove eye until it percolates and fills the upper compartment with ready-to-drink espresso.
While some people use cheap wands to froth their milk at home, I recommend this Ninja Milk Frother instead, as it’ll last longer and create more consistent results. You likely won’t be able to make latte art when you foam your milk with a device like this — it creates a different consistency than a fancy espresso machine frothing wand — but it’ll still taste great.
If you expect your at-home espresso to taste anything like what you get at a café, you're going to have to grind your own beans each time you make a drink. This results in a fresher, fuller taste that's worth the elbow grease required. Make sure to set it to the finest possible grind.
Mid-range setup: This is a home espresso setup in the middle of the price range, but you can also mix some of these options with those listed above to create your own custom espresso bar.
Some people prefer the taste of AeroPress coffee to any other brew method. I once met a barista who was so enthusiastic about it that he packed his AeroPress every time he traveled to make sure he could always have access to his preferred coffee. This is also a versatile option if you want to be able to make regular coffee in addition to espresso shots.
This impressive and aesthetically pleasing little device can froth milk in a matter of seconds, so you can get caffeinated as efficiently as possible without sacrificing on taste. What's special about this device, beyond how quickly it froths, is that it can actually foam hot or cold milk so you can enjoy your favorite drinks all year round.
If you're willing to pay a bit more, you can save time and get an electric burr grinder. This is a good option if you have multiple coffee drinkers in the house and you need to grind in larger quantities, or if you want to be able to quickly grind at various levels of coarseness.
High-end setup: If you have the budget, you can look and feel professional with your own espresso machine. This combines your espresso maker and milk frother in one appliance, so although it's an investment, you won't need multiple devices (except the grinder, of course).
Breville is the most popular brand for at-home espresso machines, and this petite model is their affordable, entry-level option. Although inexpensive by espresso machine standards, it still offers impressive performance and creates balanced espresso and creamy, warm foamed milk.
This is the grinder I currently have on my countertop at home and I absolutely adore it. It offers a lot of grind setting options so I can get the beans exactly as fine or as coarse as I want them, it can handle a lot of beans at once, it's fast, and the results are always consistent.
Top-of-the-line setup: If you want to splurge on the real deal, you can still get a full-service espresso machine without spending thousands of dollars. Plus, with a machine that does everything, you won’t need three separate devices for your morning cup.
The best thing about this particular machine is the LCD display that gives you precisely the information you need to pull a balanced espresso shot every time. It heats water quickly and it includes an integrated grinder and milk frother, so it's a convenient one-stop-shop.
Portable setup: If you're really dedicated to preparing your own espresso no matter where you are, consider a device that you can take on-the-go.
You'll feel luxurious preparing espresso at a campsite, tailgate, or in a hotel room with this deluxe Handpresso set. It includes a pump to prepare espresso, either from pre-ground beans or pre-made E.S.E. pods, an insulated thermos for hot water, four espresso cups, and a very suave carrying case. It's all compact and light enough to transport easily.
If you're going to brew espresso at home, you should keep a tin of the most iconic espresso beans on hand at all times. These Illy Arabica beans are medium roast, making them a crowd-pleaser, and they come in their own vacuum-sealed can so they stay fresh.
A scale helps you measure out the precise amount of beans for your espresso shots, which is critical for preparing café-grade coffee. For a double shot (about two ounces), you'll want between 15 and 20 grams of coffee. Every machine is different, so you'll want to play around with this and see what tastes best to you.
If you tend to order flavored coffee drinks, you'll want syrups at home in order to recreate your favorite caramel frappuccino or vanilla latte. Torani is the flavor used at many coffee shops, so you'll likely be familiar with the taste, and this variety pack includes favorites like vanilla, caramel, and hazelnut.
It's of utmost importance to keep your coffee gear clean. If you're going to bother making fresh espresso at home, the last thing you want to do is ruin it with the taste of old, stale coffee remnants from a less-than-clean machine. This coffee wash is what we used at the café where I worked, and it does the job better than any standard dish soap since it's specially made to clean coffee.
Sarah Pitts is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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