Smart Buying

5 Things to Ask About Espresso Makers

Get a coffeehouse-quality brew at home.

1. Can home machines deliver Starbucks-quality espresso? Yes. These machines hiss and pop like coffeehouse devices, and deliver the same hazelnut and orange-peel aromas. Espresso is brewed by quickly forcing near-boiling water through ground coffee at high pressure. The machines here brew espresso that's rich and mildly acidic (not watery and bitter). They also make espresso-based drinks, such as cappuccino and caffe latte.

2. Which type of maker is the best value? The moka pot, a stove-top device that looks like a teakettle. Fill the detachable reservoir with water, insert ground coffee into the basket, close the lid and heat the pot on a burner. In five minutes, you have a brewed shot. Moka pots start at about $15.

3. Which makers are the fastest? Single-serve machines, which use pods, or packages of ground coffee. Just add water and insert a pod, then watch the device brew a cup in about one minute. Single-serve machines can cost between $120 and $800.

4. Do expensive machines pour a better brew? Pricey kitchen espresso makers costing as much as $3,000 have powerful boilers and heat exchangers, which keep the steam at a stronger and more consistent pressure than cheaper ones. Connoisseurs say these features deliver the "god shot," the perfect brew. Trouble is, the palates of mere mortals won't notice the difference. And much like Ferraris, these high-performance machines are temperamental. "If only an Italian engineer could drop by once a month to tune them up, then they'd be worth it," says Marc DeMarchena, a teacher at top culinary school Johnson Wales University.

5. How can you tell you've got a perfect shot? Your espresso should have a surface layer of bubbles, called crema. Ideally, the crema will be tiger-striped with caramel and amber colors.

Three buzz-worthy devices

Fastest and easiest:Tassimo Hot Beverage System Tassimo.comPrice: $170

This device uses pods marked with bar codes, which it scans to determine the right amount of water, brewing time and temperature to concoct your espresso, hot chocolate or other drink.

Best value:Bialetti's Mukka ExpressBialetti.comPrice: $90

This moka pot, which arrived in 2005, is the first stove-top espresso maker that can also steam milk to make cappuccino and latte.

Most stylish:Francis Francis! X6 TrioFrancisfrancis.comPrice: $430

New last year, this Italian device works with pods of coffee from Illy, a premium Italian brand. It features a wand that shoots steam into milk to make a variety of espresso-based drinks.

Need a bigger buzz? Discover what makes a perfect drip coffee maker, plus see some other top models.

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