When you step inside a specialist vendor or even a large electronics store, you might feel overwhelmed by the number and range of different semi-automatic coffee machines available. While not as completely automated as some other (usually more expensive) espresso makers, a semi-automatic Espresso maker offers you a greater degree of control in getting your chosen type of coffee “just right”, without requiring the skill of a barista just to use.
The first thing to remember is that the quality of your ingredients matter. Water should be soft (low mineral content) and pure, and it seems to make a difference if you leave it in the machine’s reservoir for too long. Milk, by which I do not mean any skimmed rubbish, should be extremely fresh for best foaming results. Most importantly, grind your beans as you are about to use them. This is perhaps the easiest way for many people to instantly improve the quality of their coffee. An electric grinder can be bought for under $10 and last a lifetime. There are also major differences in flavor between various types and roasts of coffee, so by all means experiment to find what works best for you.
Patience is a Virtue
All espresso makers need some time after being switched on to get up to speed (well, up to temperature). One useful secret to know is that the little green light that says “ready” is often a liar. It probably means the boiler is nominally ready to make a drinkable coffee, but allowing the temperature to stabilize for a few minutes more will lead to a much better brew. Also, semi-automatic espresso makers are typically either of single-boiler or double-boiler design. If the same boiler is used both for making the coffee and foaming the milk, you are actually talking about one supply for two different temperatures, and switching from one to the other implies taking time while your coffee gets cooler. The better models will have a gauge instead of just a light.
The Mysteries of Milk Foam
A very significant part of cappuccinos and lattes, as well as adding a little something extra to beverages such as hot chocolate, a milk foamer is one of the most important parts of any espresso machine.
They are of two general types: one is completely automatic, where you just pop in the milk container, adjust the temperature slightly and press a button. While this is convenient, it’s not very versatile. The other is called a steamer wand. You will pour your milk into a separate jug, blast the steamer want a little to get rid of any water in the pipe, then insert the steamer wand into the milk and manually steam or froth the milk. While this takes some practice, it’s not difficult and is much more rewarding.