A basic manual to the Steam powered espresso maker

The Basics of Steam Powered Espresso!

Who hasn't passed by a garage sale and considered buying a coffee maker which shows promise as a source of cheap espresso coffee or cappuccino for the home?
Admit it. We all want a way out of paying for those four-dollar lattes and mochas at the corner Starbucks.

It might be a Salton-Maxim or a Delonghi, a Krups, a Braun, or maybe even a pump powered unit capable of producing acceptable espresso. It might take the name of a Bialetti, Elebak, Vesubio, Bellman, Benjamin & Medwin or Vesuviana, a stove top worthy of any Saturday morning brew session.

Basic Description

altA steam powered electric espresso maker generally has a thermal plastic skin with a aluminum boiler underneath, a knob or two, a two-way brew switch (offering the choice of brew or steam), a steam wand protruding from the main housing of the unit, a matching glass carafe, a handled coffee filter holder with a steel filter insert and a relatively robust screw boiler cap on top.

The super-cheap machines, which I hear about every couple of days, come from ebay bargains gone bad or a misguided garage sale purchase. Quite often these units have no brew select switch. If you are lucky your new coffee maker may have an on-off switch and, in some tragic cases, just a plug to put for electricity! Yes folks - some of these machine are so cheap they do not even have a power switch!

Let's look at the basics.

Step one: Fill the reservoir almost to the top with water. Do not fill the boiler with milk! You would be surprised how many people ask me if this is where you put the cappuccino beans and milk!
Screw the reservoir cap tightly in place. Consider a dry run. It's simple - run the unit a few times before even considering using coffee. This will give you the opportunity of understanding the basic functions of the unit and questions like

  • where does the water go?
  • where does the steam come from?
  • how long does this unit take to heat up?
  • to cool off?

altWhen you are comfortable with your brewer, proceed.
Plug the espresso maker in. In the event that your espresso maker has no power switch, have all your accouterments ready; fresh water, milk, carafe or suitable container, and mug or cup to capture the espresso coffee upon brewing.

Step two: (for machines with a two-way brew/steam switch)
If you have a machine without a two-way brew switch follow the instructions in step four regarding steaming milk, then proceed to step five below. If you have an espresso machine with a two-way brew switch, it is up to you whether or not you wish to brew espresso coffee or steam milk first.

In my opinion, I would suggest that you steam (foam) your milk first, set it aside, then brew your espresso coffee.

altPlace finely ground fresh espresso coffee in the coffee holder-filter. I cannot stress enough that fresh coffee, ground fine but not espresso grind, is very important. If you wish to get results approaching drinkable, make sure you have fresh coffee, finely ground. Use some tamping pressure to compact the ground coffee, but not too much pressure.
You have tamped the coffee too much if no coffee comes out during the brew cycle. (This is called choking the brew.

Step three: There should be a brew switch on the front or the side of your espresso maker. The two-way brew switch allows you to switch between brewing coffee and steaming milk. If your espresso maker has no two-way brew switch, then you possess the most basic espresso machine. If there is no brew switch, consider foaming the milk first, as in step four.

As your machine warms up, you will hear a rumbling sound. This is the sound of water approaching the boiling point and your unit is now ready to brew espresso or steam milk. If there is a valve adjacent to the steam wand, turn it. Steam should whoosh out.

Steam warnings!

Be very careful. Steam can scald and permanently scar skin tissue, cause injury and/or death in children and so on. Failure of the 'safety relief valve' of any espresso - cappuccino maker, stove top, electric or otherwise, can create an explosion hazard. I have seen an aluminum stove top espresso maker explode embedding the top components 4 to 6 inches through drywall! There is sufficient explosive force in any steam powered product to injure or harm bystanders or users of these products.

Step four: Open the steam valve on the side of your espresso maker. Heat your milk to 160 degrees (F) and no higher. Higher milk temperatures will scald and ruin the milk. Get a calibrated espresso cappuccino thermometer by Taylor. If you have read my tutorial on steaming milk, you have practiced and become quite successful at the art and science of foaming milk, and now have a suitable carafe of steamed and/or foamed milk standing by awaiting the addition of espresso coffee.

Step five: Put 2 tablespoons of finely ground espresso coffee into the metal coffee holder or coffee filter-holder. Tamp it down with moderate force with a coffee tamper, the back of a spoon, or something of suitable shape. Attach your coffee-filter-holder holder to your espresso maker. Place a clean carafe, mug or other suitable container under the coffee holder to catch the freshly brewed espresso coffee. Flip on the brew switch. Within a few seconds espresso coffee will come out of the holder into the carafe, mug or other container.

After 25 to 35 seconds of coffee brewing, switch off or unplug your espresso coffee maker or the espresso coffee will be bitter and over extracted. Add your steamed or foamed milk to the espresso coffee. Adding foamed milk to espresso coffee creates a cappuccino! Adding steamed milk to espresso coffee creates a cafe latte.

These rules work with all Salton, Maxim, Krups, Mr.Coffee, Braun, Delonghi, Betty Crocker and other similar espresso makers that are steam powered. Golden rule - Be careful!


Thanks to the following folks at alt.coffee for their kind assistance:
Additional credits: Timothy Reed, Jim Schulman, Bart Frazee, Richard Reynolds, D. Ross, and R.Vriesendorp.