Lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos, mochas and other popular (and expensive) coffee drinks depend largely on one thing: a small but mighty shot of espresso.
First created in Italy, espresso is simply the result of pushing very hot water through finely ground, tightly packed coffee. While that sounds simple enough, making a great shot of espresso — with its warm honey-like texture, bittersweet taste and characteristic crema, that golden layer of froth on top — requires skill and patience. It also takes a high-quality espresso machine.
Even complete beginners can get great results with the right machine, but buying one can be expensive. Prices range from around $50 for a basic, mostly plastic espresso maker with a steam wand, to more than $3,000 for a gleaming stainless steel contraption that wouldn’t look out of place at a café in Rome.
Fortunately, some moderately priced machines can produce espresso that rivals, or even tops, that of many coffee shops. And spending a few hundred dollars on an at-home espresso machine could definitely save you some money in the long run. After all, if you’re spending $5 or more a day on coffee now, buying the right machine and making your drinks at home is a good investment.
Different types of espresso machines
There are five main types of espresso makers: manual, semi-automatic, automatic, super automatic and capsule or pod.
As the name suggests, manual or lever espresso machines don’t use electricity. They are the most labor-intensive and have the steepest learning curve. To use one of these machines, you must grind beans very finely and evenly, place the correct amount of grounds into the portafilter, tamp down firmly, and push on a lever to force hot water through the grounds.
Many coffee connoisseurs swear by this method, which can produce amazing coffee once you get the hang of it. But it does take quite a bit of trial and error to get the perfect shot. Additionally, unlike automated models, manual machines cannot steam milk or heat water. This means you’ll have to heat the water for the coffee yourself and pour it, making sure it’s between 90° and 96°C (195/205°F), the right temperature for espresso.
Note that some espresso maker manufacturers call their electric machines “manual” because you have to grind the beans, tamp the grounds and make adjustments yourself. However, others refer to these as semi-automatic machines, as explained below.
Semi-automatic machines have a water boiler and a steam wand for milk. You simply press a button (or turn a dial), and the machine quickly heats the water up to the right temperature, pushing it out of the tank and through the grounds in the portafilter. It requires some work. You’ll need to have a grinder or buy coffee grounds meant specifically for espresso, place the right amount in the portafilter, and make sure to tamp down firmly to provide adequate pressure.
Because this type of machine doesn’t automatically shut off the flow of water, you need to keep an eye on it and make sure to shut it off once you’ve reached the right amount.
You can find some semi-automatic espresso machines for as little as $35. However, if you’re looking for that perfectly balanced, crema-topped espresso, machines at that price point probably won’t cut it.
Additionally, many budget-friendly machines have a small water tank/boiler that it uses for both the espresso and the steam wand. If you want to make more than one drink with steamed milk (such as lattes or cappuccinos), you’ll need to refill the water tank in the middle of the process.
Automatic machines generally have larger water tanks, will stop the flow of water automatically once the ideal shot length is done, and will let you customize the size and type of espresso shot you want. (More on the different types of espresso shots below.)
The best automatic machines can deliver shots with the characteristic color gradation and crema — that caramel-colored layer of froth on top — of truly great espresso. Additionally, third-party testing shows that their results are often more consistent than less automated machines.
These models require little work from you, but you still have to ensure that your beans are ground to the right size (fine to very fine grounds for espresso), that you tamp down firmly enough, and that you use the correct amount of coffee.
Super-automatic espresso machines, however, don’t even need that attention to detail. You simply put beans in the grinder and fill up the water tank, which can usually hold enough to last for days at a time. The machine will grind the beans however fine you’d like them, direct the grounds to the portafilter, tamp them down evenly and firmly, and produce the exact shot you want — all in less than a minute. These machines also often feature powerful steam wands, and some (like our best overall pick, De Longhi’s Specialista) even let you choose the type of foam you want.
The easiest machines to work with, however, might be the capsule or pod models. There’s no need to grind beans, measure coffee, or tamp the grounds with these. You simply buy vacuum-sealed pods, put them in the portafilter, and the machine takes care of the rest. These capsules come in different flavors, so if you’re a pumpkin-spice latte fan and just can’t wait for fall, this could be the perfect solution.
There are some drawbacks to these models, though. To start, there’s little room for customization since the capsules are pre-portioned and already tamped for you. They also produce a considerable amount of waste because of the pods’ individual packaging. Lastly, you’ll need to buy compatible pods, which are not as readily available and are often more expensive compared to ground coffee or whole beans.
Espresso machine buying guide
Espresso machines can vary widely in features and price, so it’s important to be clear about the features you absolutely must have, and the ones you can do without.
• Bars of pressure. Many espresso makers prominently display how many bars of pressure they’re capable of, with most high-end espresso makers stating they provide somewhere between 15 and 19.
The pressure refers to the amount of force the machine can exert to push hot water through the coffee grounds.
According to the Italian Espresso Institute, which sets the standards for espresso quality, the ideal shot requires at least nine pressure bars. So, why would we need a machine that is capable of more than twice that amount of pressure?
The answer comes down to physics. A machine needs to exert a huge amount of pressure to heat and push water up from the tank through the portafilter filled with coffee grounds. By the time the water gets to the portafilter it will have lost almost half of its momentum, so a machine is better off starting with more than twice the pressure it needs.
This pressure is essential to getting a great shot — too little of it and your espresso might be watery and tasteless; too much, and your espresso can taste bitter and burnt.
• Portafilters. Portafilters, the baskets that hold the ground coffee, can come in different sizes for single, double shots, or coffee pods.
There are two main types of filter baskets: pressurized and non-pressurized.
Pressurized baskets are said to be more forgiving since they can help you pull a great shot despite unevenly sized grinds or tamping, making them a great option if your coffee grinder isn’t the best.
Non-pressurized baskets, on the other hand, are said to produce the best tasting shots; however, they do require evenly and precisely ground coffee and just the right amount of pressure from both the machine and tamping.
• Steam wands. If great lattes, cappuccinos and mochas are what you want, then there’s no way around it — you’ll need to master the art of steaming milk.
Not all espresso makers have steam wands, but those that do feature wands that fall into one of two camps: a wand covered with plastic (sometimes referred to as the pannarello wand), or the commercial-type of wand which, much like the ones seen in major coffee shops, is metal all the way to the bottom.
Pannarello or plastic-encased wands are designed to be easy to use; some will even give you options as to the type of foam you’d like, such as drier froth for cappuccinos or silken foam for flat whites and lattes. Commercial-type wands can do all that and more — including the microfoam needed for latte art, for example — but the results will largely depend on your steaming skills and know-how.
• The water tank. Espresso maker water tanks can vary widely in sizes. The cheaper machines tend to have smaller tanks, just large enough for four shots at a time. If you make the maximum four shots, you’ll have to let the machine cool a bit and refill if you want to steam milk.
Higher-end machines tend to have large tanks that can hold enough water for steaming and brewing multiple drinks, sometimes for several days.
The really top-notch machines might even have two boilers, one for brewing and another for steaming, with independent temperature control for each. These types of containers can be removed for easy refilling and maintenance.
However, while having a large water reservoir is a plus, it can also be counterproductive. As you’ll see below in our tips for great espresso, using fresh filtered water is a must, and it’s good practice to wash out and refill your water tank every day or so.
• Extra perks. Certain machines come with a few features that, while not essential, are sure great to have. Some of the perks that get plenty of customer praise include a dedicated hot water spout for Americanos and teas, extra filters for capsule coffee and a pressure gauge.
The latter isn’t meant to just look cool (although it does); it lets you see exactly how much pressure your espresso maker is using and allows you to make adjustments if necessary. This can come in handy if you’re not getting the espresso quality you really want. For example, if you see your machine is not reaching the necessary nine pressure bars when the water reaches the portafilter, you could increase the amount of coffee you use, or tamp down the grounds more firmly.
Tips for great espresso every time
There are three main types of shots: regular espresso, lungo and ristretto.
The terms refer to how long it takes for the water to go through the grounds. A regular espresso will take around 25 seconds for the water to come through; a lungo (the Italian word for “long”) will take more than 30 seconds, contain more water and thus be more diluted; while a ristretto (“restricted” in Italian) takes the least amount of time, uses little water, and has the most intense taste.
You’ll also hear the term doppio used quite frequently — doppio, the Italian word for double, simply refers to a double shot of espresso.
Aside from getting the best machine you can afford, there are a few things everyone can do to get the best-tasting shot of espresso possible:
• Filtered water is best. Hard water (water with a high mineral content) can not only alter the taste and texture of your coffee, it can generate build-up in your machine. Coffee tastes best, and your machine will last longer, if you use fresh, filtered water.
• Use freshly ground beans. Using beans within 30 minutes of grinding is the best way to ensure fresh-tasting coffee. Some super-automatic machines have a built-in grinder, however, those that do can easily cost $700 or more. If you’re going for a machine without that feature, a good coffee grinder is a worthwhile investment.
• Tamp correctly. As we said above, when it comes to espresso, pressure is everything. Once your coffee grounds are in the portafilter, make sure to tamp down firmly, packing the coffee tightly enough to where the grains aren’t moving around.
• Find the right grind. Espresso requires finely ground coffee, much finer than regular coffee does. Trying to make espresso with regular coffee grounds, in fact, is a sure recipe for frustration. It’s important to note, though, that grounds will be affected by atmospheric temperature and humidity. If you live in a very humid place, investing in a good coffee grinder — one that lets you adjust the grind with a high degree of precision— might be crucial. You might also want to experiment with the amount of coffee you put in the filter and just how tightly you pack it, until you find it creates the perfect shot for you.
• Heat up the cup. Run a hot water cycle through your machine and let it fill up your cup. Pour out the hot water and then run your coffee cycle. A cold cup will cool down your espresso as soon as it makes contact and impact its taste.
• Descale your machine. If you want your machine to last for years (and many well-built espresso makers can), you need to give it proper maintenance. It’s important to clean the machine out properly after each use, and descale as frequently as the manufacturer recommends. Descaling simply means running a specialized solution through the machine to clean out any limescale, or hard water, deposits.
Best espresso machines
1. Best overall: DeLonghi La Specialista Espresso Machine with Sensor Grinder
Material: Stainless Steel / Weight: 29.7 lbs / Max. Pressure: 19 bars / Dimensions: 14.48 x 12.48 x 13.98 inches / Limited Warranty: 2 years
De’Longhi’s La Specialista gives you everything you need to get that ideal shot of espresso every morning (or afternoon, or evening, if you’re immune to insomnia).
The Italian brand has been making some of the best coffee makers around for decades, and La Specialista is one of its top-ranked machines.
While certainly not cheap (around $800 unless you can find it on sale), La Specialista is as feature-packed as they come. It includes an excellent built-in burr grinder, dual boilers with independent temperature control (so you can steam milk and brew coffee at the same time), a dedicated hot water spout for Americanos and tea, and an adjustable steam wand. It also features a no-mess tamping system, so you won’t have to remove the portafilter to tamp the grounds. The machine automatically directs the grounds from the grinder to the portafilter, and you simply push a lever to pack the grounds in tightly.
The beautifully designed La Specialista has a distinctive “Italian café” retro look with a pressure gauge on the front. This gauge lets you check whether the machine is reaching the nine bars of pressure espresso needs — if it isn’t, then you’ll know you need to make certain adjustments in the amount of coffee you put in, the grind, or the pressure you apply in tamping.
While this is called a semi-pro machine, it’s definitely beginner-friendly. It has pressurized baskets, which are more forgiving of uneven grinding or tamping. Its steam wand is also designed for baristas in training. You choose either “flat” or “foam,” and it will produce either the silky steamed milk needed for lattes and flat whites, or that drier, cloud-like consistency necessary for a cappuccino.
Finally, La Specialista also offers a 2-year warranty, a full year more than most other machines of this kind.
2. Best overall runner-up: Breville BES870BSXL The Barista Express Coffee Machine
Material: Stainless Steel / Weight: 23 lbs / Max. Pressure: 15 bars / Dimensions: 13.25 x 12.5 x 15.75” / Limited Warranty: 1 year
One of the top names in kitchen appliances, and specifically in espresso makers, Breville is often at the top of many “best of” lists, and for good reason.
While slightly less expensive than the De’Longhi La Specialista (about $100 cheaper), the Barista Express offers pretty much everything you need to make coffee-shop worthy espresso-based drinks at home.
Like La Specialista, the Breville features a built-in burr grinder and no-mess tamping, since it directs the grounds directly to the portafilter.
Unlike De’Longhi, however, Breville has a commercial-type wand which might not be as beginner-friendly as La Specialista’s pannarello wand (a plastic-encased wand that’s considered easier to use). However, Breville’s wand is powerfully effective, once you get the hang of it.
The Barista Express is, in fact, exceptionally intuitive, and many find it easier to use than La Specialista.
3. Editor’s pick: Gaggia RI9380 Classic Pro Espresso Machine
Material: Stainless Steel / Weight: 20 lbs / Max. Pressure: 15 bars / Dimensions: 9.5 x 8 x 14.2”/ Limited Warranty: 1 year
A favorite of devoted coffee lovers around the world, the Italian brand Gaggia has been making the same style of machine for decades. This revamp on the old classic garners high praise for improving on what was already a great machine.
Although not exactly aimed at beginning baristas, the Gaggia is certainly easy to use. It features a powerful, commercial-style wand that — once you get the hang of it — can produce steamed milk with the perfect “wet paint” consistency, microfoam for latte art, dry foam and/or any combination thereof.
Unlike La Specialista and Breville’s Express — which only have pressurized baskets — Gaggia comes with two different types of filters: pressurized and non-pressurized. With pressurized baskets, you can use pre-ground coffee (it should be a fine grind for espresso) and still get excellent results. With the non-pressurized basket, you will need a very precise burr grinder that grinds evenly and finely. This will really give you the type of espresso you can enjoy even without milk and sugar.
The Classic Pro is, at its heart, a professional machine adapted for domestic use, powered by commercial-quality components. (This includes the much-desired three-way solenoid valve, which can help machines last longer and make it easier to remove the coffee from the filter.) Given the quality of craftsmanship involved and the high-quality coffee it provides, the price — often between $450 and $499, depending on the color and latest sales — is a great deal.
Its retro industrial look is also a plus in our book, especially since it now comes in an assortment of colors: red, white, midnight blue, stainless steel, black and gray.
If the Gaggia is out of stock — or you’re short on counter space — De’Longhi makes the fantastic and even more stylish Dedica machine. It features 15 bars of pressure, three pressurized portafilters (including one for capsules), and a versatile, easy-to-use steam wand, and can get a shot ready within 40 seconds of pressing the on button.
If you have a bit more barista experience under your belt and you’re passionate about your coffee, take a look at the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine. Rancilio, another Italian brand with a long tradition, is considerably more expensive than the Gaggia and De’Longhi’s Dedica (it sells for about $700) and not as beginner-friendly. There’s no arguing with Rancilia’s quality, though — it consistently gets top ranking in third-party taste tests.
4. Best for Low Prices: De'Longhi EC155 15 Bar Espresso and Cappuccino Machine
Material: Plastic / Weight: 6.67 lbs / Max Pressure: 15 bars / Dimensions: 12.2 x 19.3 x 15” / Limited Warranty: 1 year
De’Longhi is undoubtedly one of the top names when it comes to espresso, and many of its high-quality machines are very pricey.
However, for about $120, the De’Longhi EC155 offers what a lot more expensive espresso makers do: 15 bars of pressure, three filters (including one for pods), a top-notch heating system, and a removable water tank for easy filling and cleaning. (Many budget machines have a small, un-removable water tank, which makes it awkward to fill and clean out.)
Its small size makes it perfect for those of us with little counter space and, weighing only 7 pounds, it’s light enough to take with you to your next Airbnb. Though the EC155 is made from plastic, it’s a pretty heavy-duty material and many users report having the machine for years.
The steam wand is beginner-friendly, making it easy to get pretty good foam right off the bat. Most importantly, while most budget-friendly espresso makers make so-so espresso at best, this model has enough pressure for you to pull well-balanced, crema-topped shots.
Note, however, that this model is pretty small, and will only fit small espresso cups. Additionally, while the steam wand is a decent choice for beginners, people with more experience steaming milk might be a bit frustrated at the lack of versatility. Users report that it pushes too much air into the milk, which is okay for froth, but not for the creamy texture needed for many drinks.
If those two issues are deal-breakers, take a look at the similarly priced De'Longhi Stilosa Manual Espresso Machine, which we’ve seen on sale for about $99. It’s slightly bigger than the EC155, and has more space for larger cups. Experienced users might also find the steam wand a tad more effective than the EC155’s.
5. Best for capsules: Nespresso VertuoPlus Deluxe Coffee and Espresso Machine by Breville
Material: Stainless Steel / Weight: 10 lbs / Max. Pressure: N/A / Dimensions: 8.7 x 13.7 x 12.8” / Limited Warranty: 1 year
If you want virtually fool-proof espresso, but also just like a regular cup of joe every once in a while, you can’t go wrong with the Nespresso VertuoPlus. While there are plenty of capsule models in the market, the VertuoPlus really stands out thanks to the quality of espresso it provides.
As with other capsule machines, there’s no need to grind coffee precisely or tamp it correctly — you just pop the coffee pod into the podholder and select the drink you want. You can choose from espresso, double espresso, gran lungo, coffee and alto (that’s 14 ounces of coffee, about 2 ounces more than a “tall” drink at Starbucks).
One big drawback to this machine: it can only use the Nespresso VertuoLine pods, which are not as easily available as ground coffee or whole beans are. This means that you’ll have to make sure to buy them regularly or get a subscription so they can be sent monthly. This is also an added expense as they can end up costing more than beans would; however, at a little over $1 per pod, you’d still be spending much less than you would on any espresso drink at a coffee shop.
On the pro side, if you’re a fan of flavored coffees, then the VertuoLine should have you covered. Aside from regular coffee, the pods feature flavors like caramel cookie, vanilla custard pie and hazelino muffin, among others.
Finally, if you’re worried about the waste this produces (you will end up with a lot of used pods), Nespresso has a recycling program specifically for capsules and discarded coffee.
These machines are incredibly popular and are frequently out of stock. Fortunately, Nespresso has several models in the same line, and all garner solid reviews. Some, like this VertuoPlus and the Vertuo Next, are made by Breville, while others, like the Nespresso Vertuo Coffee and Espresso Machine, are made by De’Longhi, another top name in espresso making.
Take note that these machines don’t have a steam wand. So if you’d like lattes and cappuccinos, you might want to spend a bit more (about $50) and get a package that includes the Aeroccino milk frother to go along with it.