If this pandemic has taught me anything, it's that the little, everyday joys can make the biggest difference. How do you get through a year where you can't really go on vacation, all your friends' weddings have been postponed, and the only plans you have are Zoom happy hours? Fancy coffee drinks. (And if you're a parent, you really deserve a fancy coffee drink.)
By coffee drinks, we mean espresso drinks. Sure, they both come from the same bean, but the difference between coffee and espresso is how they are prepared. Making espresso requires a finer grind and higher pressure so that it becomes more concentrated than coffee. Some people prefer to drink espresso as a straight shot while others like it incorporated into the aforementioned fancy coffee drink, like a latte, flat white, or cappuccino.
If you want to make any of the above at home, a coffee maker won't do; you need an espresso machine. Here's the thing about espresso machines, they're expensive—often four-digits expensive. That's why you want to make sure you do your research and get tips from someone who knows what to look for. Zac Cadwalader is definitely that guy. As the managing editor at Sprudge, which has been covering coffee culture since 2009, he knows a lot about espresso machines.
Here, Cadwalader shares his best tips on what to look for and also gives his recs for eight espresso machines for any budget.
Coffee and espresso aren't just delicious—they come with tons of health benefits:
What to look for in an espresso machine
The sticker shock that comes with espresso shopping is real, which is why Cadwalader says that one of the first factors you need to consider is your budget.
If your budget is limited, he suggests a manual espresso maker. "The difference between a manual espresso maker and an espresso machine is that a manual one is human-powered; you're the one applying the pressure to [make the espresso] as opposed to a machine," he says. (This feature contributes to the higher price tags on espresso machines—they're doing more work!) "Also, many espresso machines come with a milk steamer, which a manual espresso maker won't come with," he says. So if you go the manual route and you're a latte or cappuccino drinker, you'll want to hook yourself up with a milk frother, too.
If you're ready to invest in an espresso machine, Cadwalader says it's important to look for a temperature control feature, which a good espresso machine will have. He says that a water temperature between 195°F and 205°F has been determined to be ideal for best extracting the grounds' most desirable compounds.
Beyond water temperature, the milk should be a different temperature than the espresso, ideally between 150°F and 155°F. Because of this, he recommends espresso machines with a double boiler so you can heat the water for the espresso and the milk at the same time but at different temperatures. Espresso machines that just have one broiler require more work. (Although if you sip your espresso straight, it's a moot point.)
Many espresso machines come with a built-in grinder, but this is one feature Cadwalader says is okay to live without. "The grinder is really the most important factor when making espresso; its's like the engine of the car," he says. He says most of the ones built into a machine just aren't all that great and to opt for a separate grinder. His fave is the Baratza grinder ($149).
If you're looking for a shortcut to your espresso shopping, check out the below list of manual espresso makers and espresso machines, vetted by Cadwalader.
8 manual espresso makers and espresso machines to consider
1. AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker ($39)
If you're going manual, Cadwalader says this is your best bet. "AeroPress has a big cult following in the coffee world," he says. Cadwalader likes this one because it works well, is versatile, and doesn't take up a lot of space. "Whenever I go camping, this is what I bring with me," he says.
2. Flair Espresso Maker ($159)
"The Flair is a step-up from the AeroPress because it's more of a whole machine with a crank that serves as a lever you just pull down, which provides the pressure," Cadwalader says, adding that this makes it a bit easier to use. "It has a cool Jetsons's look to it, which is kind of cool too."
Shop now: Flair Espresso Maker ($159)
3. Aram Espresso Maker ($454)
Yes, the Aram is pretty pricy for a manual espresso maker, but Cadwalader is into it because it combines form and function. "This is an espresso maker that really makes a statement on your kitchen counter," he says. "It's just really beautiful."
Shop now: Aram Espresso Maker ($454)
4. Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine ($735)
This is actually the espresso machine Cadwalader has depended on at home for the last nine years. "I like it because it's very mechanical, so if there ever is a problem, you can open it right up and can easily identify what's wrong," he says. Another reason he's into the Rancilio Silvia is that it comes with a milk steamer, so you can make all your latte dreams come true. (Insider tip: If the price tag is way out of your budget, he recommends finding a pre-owned one for around $400, which typically work just as well because of their durability.)
Shop now: Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine ($735)
5. Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine ($500)
Full disclosure: Cadwalader prefers the Breville Dual Boiler (next on this list) to the Breville Bambino because it has two boilers and not just one, but Well+Good's senior food editor Jessie Van Amburg has this baby and she is in love. "It does the key things my fiancé and I wanted it to do: make a single or double shot of espresso, and also steam and froth milk. That way he can have Americanos and I can have lattes," she says. "Plus, it’s a compact machine that fits on our tiny Ikea kitchen cart while still leaving room for the blender and the coffee grinder."
6. Breville Dual Boiler Espresso Machine ($1,500)
As mentioned, Cadwalader likes this espresso machine because it has two boilers, which allows you to heat up the espresso and milk at the same time, at different temperatures. "It's also really user friendly," he says.
7. Rancilio Silvia Pro Dual Boiler Espresso Machine ($1,690)
If you like having the latest and greatest, the Rancilio Silvia Pro may be the one for you. It comes out next month (you can pre-order it now), and has all the features Cadwalader loves about the Rancilio Silvia, but with two boilers instead of just one.
If you're looking for the Ferrari of espresso machines, this is it. Not only does it double as a statement piece (I mean, look at it), but it comes with all the bells and whistles. "It can be plugged into a waterline, which is such an amazing feature for an espresso machine," Cadwalader says. Most espresso machines work from a reservoir, where you fill up the reservoir with water and pull from it, but by plugging into a waterline, you can leave it on 24/7. (Cadwalader says there are energy efficient ways to do this.) "That means you can set your espresso machine to start heating up at certain times, like if you have espresso every morning at 8 a.m., and you don't have to wait 30 minutes for it to warm up, like you often have to with other machines," he says. And if your budget is truly unlimited, you can even have your La Marzocco custom designed to match the interior of your kitchen.
Shop now: La Marzocco GS3 ($7,100)
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