Using your Moka to make an ‘almost’ espresso

Written by on October 7, 2020 in Italy Stories

moka best way of making an espresso at home


For a proper espresso, go to the Bar

People have given me espressos made with their home or office espresso machines but it is never nearly as good as the ones served in the average Italian bar.

At home it’s the Moka

For coffee at home we have relied for years on a trusty Bialetti Moka. The Moka is a cute little bit of kit that is very quick and easy to use. It is cheap to buy and is small enough to travel with you in the suitcase. It works on any kind of heat source, including camp fires.

Moka made coffee is strong and rich. Fine for a latte or cappuccino and also an Americano. More than passable as an espresso too, but it is more watery and doesn’t have the magical ‘crema’ that characterizes a real espresso. For that oily emulsion texture you need very expensive professional grade equipment and the skills of an experienced barrista.

moka espresso at a campsite

What is a ‘Moka’

A Moka brews coffee by passing boiling water, pressurized by steam, through coffee grounds. Named after the Yemeni city of Mocha, it was invented by Italian engineer Alfonso Bialetti in 1933. It quickly became one of the staples of Italian culture.

The Moka pot itself consists of three chambers and brews espresso using the basic principles of physics. Its bottom chamber is reserved for water, the middle chamber, or filter basket, holds the coffee grounds, and the top chamber is where the brew is collected. Once assembled, the pot is placed over a heating element bringing the water in the bottom chamber to a boil. The resulting steam then increases pressure in the chamber forcing the water up and through the filter basket. While the hot water travels up through the basket to the top chamber it extracts the coffee from the grounds on the way.

moka and napoletana espresso at home

As opposed to a ‘Caffettiera Napoletana’

Before Sig.Bialetti had his Moka moment, Italian families were familiar with another kind of stovetop coffee making contraption, the Caffettiera Napoletana, or “cuccumella”. Invented in 1819 by a Frenchman, J.L. Morize, who was in love with a girl from Napoli at the time, hence the name, the Napoletana is a bit more complicated and involves a slightly longer process than the Moka. Rather than using steam pressure to force the water up through the coffee grounds like a Moka, it uses gravity instead. The Napoletana is still widely used in the south of Italy, especially around Napoli.

We’ve been doing it all wrong!

We have been making our coffee at home for as long as I can remember using the Moka. An early morning breakfast coffee, long in a big mug with hot milk. Then after that short and neat in little espresso cups, sometimes with a drop of cold milk. To make a weaker and longer Americano, say to put in a thermos for a picnic or for a long drive, we just add some boiling water.

That’s thousands of cups of coffee and all the while thinking we were doing it right. But it turns out that we have been doing it mostly wrong, at least according to coffee experts I have discovered while writing this piece. They say that the way we are doing things means we will be pulling out too much from the coffee grounds, resulting in unnecessarily bitter coffee. They say our goal should be to extract less, which will give a more pleasant flavour.

The coffee grounds

At least we are buying the right kind of coffee, which tends to be Lavazza Crema e Gusto Classico. It is prepared especially for the Moka, more coarsely ground than what you would use in an espresso machine. We know this because of the Moka shaped label on the packet.

Having said that it’s the right coffee, I mean it’s the right one for our budget. The experts actually say that if you’re not spending big bucks on superior grade, freshly roasted coffee beans, grinding them yourself using a high-quality machine just before brewing then you are never going to make great coffee with your Moka. Its always going to be too bitter!

Moka espresso the coffee is just coming through

Brew it, don’t cook it

We always just use cold water from the tap. We also set the gas on the lowest temperature, mainly so that the coffee doesn’t spurt out all over the place if we don’t get to the hob in time. Apparently both of these errors mean the coffee grounds get cooked before the brewing process begins, resulting in bitterness. The answer is to boil some water in the kettle and use that instead and also set the gas on high, so it brews quicker.

Don’t use hard water from the tap

Tap water in our area is very hard, full of limestone. This is not good for the flavour so we should be using bottled water instead.

Keep your Moka clean

For some reason we got it into our heads that not cleaning out the old coffee residue from the top chamber of the Moka is good for the flavour. But the experts say this only causes more bitterness and that the thing should be thoroughly cleaned between brews, although just in warm water without using washing up liquid.

Take it off the heat immediately

When the water has made its way up through the basket and has filled the collecting chamber the Moka makes a gurgling sound. It turns out that immediately the gurgling starts you have to take the thing off the heat to stop the coffee from over cooking. The experts even suggest that you run the base under the cold tap, or wrap it in a wet towel to cool it down. Excessive cooking again results in unnecessary bitterness. We had always thought that we should leave the Moka on the heat until the gurgling stopped, and then some, to give it a chance to complete the process and maximise the flavour. Which links back to the low gas setting we always use.

Don’t over-fill the basket

We were even getting it wrong in how we filled the basket, pressing it down hard like you see them do in the bars with that special plunger attachment they have. While this is the right thing to do on a high-pressure espresso machine where the water can easily force its way up through the coffee grounds, it is dangerous on a Moka! Due to the much lower pressure it operates at, even though it does have a release valve, steam gets trapped in the bottom chamber and the whole thing might explode.

how to fill your moka with the coffee ground

But always fill the basket

We have a 3 cup Bialetti which makes just the right amount of coffee for the two of us. I now know that it is not the right thing to do to put in half the coffee grounds and half the water if I am just on my own. You have to always fill, but not compress, the basket and fill the water up to the level of the safety valve, otherwise the Moka doesn’t function properly. Likewise, if you want a weaker coffee, still stick with the full measures and dilute the coffee down with boiling water afterwards.

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