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I love espresso. That thick, honey-like texture, bold mix of flavors, and rich crema floating on top give you a taste sensation that lasts for hours after the coffee is consumed. It’s perfect served black for an intense start to the day or top it up with steamed milk and enjoy a creamy latte or cappuccino.
If you’re a fan of espresso then you’ll probably know that brewing this kind of coffee doesn’t come easily. The thick texture and wonderful aroma that’s locked away in those beans is only released with high-pressure brewing methods and to do this, you need specialist equipment.
An espresso machine is the key to unlocking these delicious flavors but a lesser-known, equally important consideration is the portafilter basket you use. These come in pressurized and non-pressurized forms and the truth is, one of these performs a lot better than the other.
Although a pressurized portafilter sounds better (you need high pressure to brew espresso right?) they’re actually a poorer choice for quality coffee. They work by creating crema in already brewed coffee by forcing it through a small hole. This gives a thin and poor-quality espresso and is best avoided.
A non-pressurized portafilter basket is the better choice all round and here’s why.
An espresso machine is the essential piece of kit you need to really emulate a baristas espresso shot. The pressurized pumps force hot water through the ground coffee to help extract all those delicious flavors and aromas.
Of course, there is more to it than this. To get a really rich crema on top you need to understand grind size, tamping, and which filter basket to choose. The kind of espresso machine you use will also affect your results. A manual machine gives you all the control and you pull a lever to create pressure manually. A semi-automatic machine has a pressurized pump but the timing is all down to you as you have to switch the brew cycle on and off. An automatic machine only requires you to press a button and it does all the work for you.
The more control you have over the coffee machine, the better chance you have of producing really good espresso but it does take a lot more practice for perfection.
What is a Portafilter?
The portafilter is the brew basket where the pre-ground coffee is placed. It’s a stainless steel cup-shaped attachment that fits in a holder. This attaches to the espresso machine and acts to help create a build-up of pressure. The brewed coffee then trickles out a spout in the bottom of the device and into your cup.
Portafilters come with the option of pressurized baskets or non-pressurized baskets, single or double shot sizes, and a spout outlet or bottomless type of portafilter.
Pressurized vs Non-Pressurized Portafilter
Pressurized portafilter baskets, also known as double wall or dual-wall filter baskets are often sold with home espresso machines. The idea is that you don’t need to worry about the exact espresso grind or the tamping step. You can even use pre-ground coffee.
Simply add the coffee and the machine creates the pressure by forcing the espresso through a tiny hole in the base of the basket. This creates crema in already brewed coffee so isn’t the best for taste and quality. It’s kind of a quick-fix way to brew espresso coffee.
A non-pressurized filter basket is the method of choice for coffee enthusiasts. The coffee has to be evenly ground using a burr grinder and tamped into place precisely using the right amount of pressure with a level finish.
These single-wall baskets create pressure during the brewing process so the crema that’s extracted is thick and of good quality. The coffee gently trickles out through a mesh base rather than being forced through a single hole.
A step up from using a non-pressurized portafilter is a bottomless portafilter. These hold the brew basket in place but have an open base so the coffee flows straight into your coffee cup, without traveling through the spout beforehand.
These are a pretty advanced addition to your coffee brewing procedure and allow you to tweak and refine it until you have a shot of espresso close to perfect. The idea is you can watch the coffee as it passes through the puck and notice any inconsistencies that come from channeling.
Why Choose a Pressurised Portafilter?
The general advice is don’t. A pressurized portafilter basket may be the typical choice with most at-home coffee makers but this doesn’t make it a good one. They’re easy to use and make a consistent espresso but it’s typically consistently bad.
The benefits of the design include the small hole that doesn’t allow the espresso to be served until the basket reaches 8-9 bars of pressure. This means you don’t have to be an expert tamper and it’s a forgiving brew method if a coarser grind size is used.
The downside is the crema isn’t extracted from the ground-up coffee beans themselves so lacks texture and quality. The coffee is prone to tasting thin and under-extracted.
The non-pressurized options may require a lot of practice plus a burr coffee grinder to really ensure a decent fine grind but the espresso you’ll end up with more than makes up for this.
How To Use a Pressurized Basket
To brew your espresso, start by determining what size of portafilter basket you have. A single shot will hold 7-12g of coffee and a double will hold 14-21 grams. Weigh out your coffee beans and grind them up to a fine grind. If you’re using pre-ground coffee then select an espresso grind size. Add coffee to the basket and level it out using your finger or a spoon. Tamping is not necessary.
Fix the portafilter in place and start brewing your espresso!
Enjoy your espresso black or add some steamed milk to make a latte or cappuccino.
Popular Espresso Machines
The Barista Express by Breville is one of the most popular choices for at-home espresso makers and this is for a good reason. This machine comes with four basket options for the portafilter so includes single and double shot versions of the single and double wall options.
The DeLonghi La Specialista is another perfect example of an at-home espresso maker that you can use to become a barista. The machine comes with everything you need to get stuck in straight away and has two single-wall baskets, a single and a double shot option.
Simple, clean, and effective the Gaggia is a step away from a professional machine just a bit smaller so it will fit comfortably in your home. It’s a semi-automatic option with a commercial-style brew group and it comes with commercial brew baskets as well as a pressurized option so you can choose which is best for you.
Pressurized portafilter baskets are easy to use and require little practice. The issue is that they limit your coffee brewing scope in the long run and if you don’t work to improve your coffee game then it will stagnate. These baskets don’t brew good-quality espresso so put in some time to get better with the single-walled ones and you’ll never look back. Best of luck with your espresso brewing journey, I wish you a thick and tasty crema every time!
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