Stove top espresso makers, also commonly known as “moka pots” originated in Italy in the 1930’s as a way to bring great espresso into the home. Before the rise of moka pots and espresso makers, espresso was only consumed in public at cafes and coffee bars - and while percolator-style coffee makers were available for domestic use, the coffee produced was thinner and much less flavourful than espresso.
Stove Top Espresso Makers: A Brief History
The first stove top espresso maker was patented and produced by Alphonso Bialetti in 1933 at his factory in Piedmont. It’s widely thought that the inspiration for the design comes from old, steam-powered laundry machines - water was heated in a base chamber and the steam produced would force soapy, sudsy water up through soiled laundry. Bialetti took this basic principle, and applied it to making espresso - while the pressure produced in a stove top espresso maker is much less than that used in commercial espresso machines, it is still able to produce a rich, robust espresso - in the comfort of home, no less.
Featuring a unique, eye-catching octagonal design, the stove top espresso maker remains largely unchanged from its original design - in fact, Bialetti still uses the same design for their line of aluminum moka pots - complete with their iconic cartoon caricature inspired by Alphonso Bialetti himself.
While many aluminum stove top espresso makers use the classic, angular design there has been a new trend in stainless steel stove top espresso makers using a softer, more rounded profile - the Giannina stove top espresso maker by Italian manufacturere Giannini is a perfect example of this aesthetic.
Across brands, styles, and designs, all stove top espresso makers share a notable quirk - different sizes are distinguished by their “cup size”, however “cup” in this instance refers to the number of 50ml (2 fluid ounce) espresso servings it produces, NOT the 250ml standard cup size designation used in cooking and baking!
Stove Top Espresso Makers: How they Work
Unlike percolators (which drip water over top of ground coffee), stove top espresso makers use pressure from the steam created when heating water to force water up through the grounds, creating a thicker, stronger beverage with a less bitter and more robust flavour.
Once the water passes through the grounds, the espresso is forced upwards through a filter plate before exiting the spout into the top, serving portion of the espresso maker. By including the filter as part of the process, stove top espresso makers create a beverage that is ready to serve and enjoy.
Stove Top Espresso Makers: Parts and Components
Stove top espresso makers share a couple key features across brands, styles and designs - all will separate in the middle (most screw together, though there are those like the Giannina that use a unique locking design) into two key pieces - this allows you to fill, use, and clean the espresso maker.
Whether aluminum or stainless steel, all stove top espresso makers have several key parts and components:
Base: Also casually referred to as “the bottom”, the base is the bottom portion of the stove top espresso maker (where you put the water).
Steam Valve: A small pressure valve on the side of the base, the steam valve is both a safety feature and handy guide for using the stove top espresso maker - when filling the base with water, always be sure to fill to just below the steam valve.
Funnel: The funnel nests into the base of the espresso maker, and is where you fill your grounds.
Filter Plate: As the name implies, the filter plate is responsible for filtering the espresso once the water has passed through the grounds - it sits nicely in the very bottom of the top half of the espresso maker.
Gasket: Since stove top espresso makers use internal pressure to force the water up through the grounds, it’s important to have a good seal - this is where the gasket comes in. It often surrounds the filter plate, holding it snugly in place. With time and use, stove top espresso maker gaskets will wear and need replacing.
Though not universal, some stove top espresso makers also include a reducer filter - the reducer is a reversible filter that sits in the funnel of the stove top espresso maker, and allows you to switch between two different brew sizes. For example, the Giannina 6 cup espresso maker includes a 6/3 cup reducer filter, allowing you to make either 6 or 3 servings simply by flipping the filter over - just remember when using a reducer filter to adjust the amount of water you use accordingly.
Stove Top Espresso Makers: How to Use a Stove Top Espresso Maker
Just as all stove top espresso makers share similar parts and components, they also share fairly standard instructions on how to use them. While it may seem daunting at first if you’ve never used a stove top espresso make before, it’s fast and easy to figure out - with these simple steps you’ll be a pro in no time!
Water: All great espresso needs two key components - espresso and water! The first step in using a stove top espresso maker is to fill the bottom with water - as mentioned above, you’ll want to fill to just below the safety valve. If using a reducer filter, be sure to adjust the amount of water accordingly.
Adjust reducer filter (if using): If using a reducer filter, here’s where you’ll want to adjust it. As mentioned above, a reducer is a reversible filter that allows you to adjust the amount of espresso you’ll make by physically reducing the amount of ground espresso you can add. If making a full pot, orient the reducer so that it gives you more space for espresso - if making less, adjust the reducer filter to give you less space.
Add ground espresso: Gently add the ground espresso - no tamping required. With manual espresso machines (like the Gaggia Classic, for example), you need to firmly tamp the espresso into the portafilter to get a nice, even extraction - this is not the case with stove top espresso makers! Since stove top espresso makers produce less pressure than espresso machines, you need to make sure the water has space to come up through the grounds evenly - so be sure to loosely fill the ground espresso, and press (gently!) into place.
Reassemble: Put the two halves of your stove top espresso maker back together - most espresso makers will have two halves that screw together, though some models (like the Giannina) will have a unique locking mechanism. Regardless of your stove top espresso maker’s design, you’ll want to put the two pieces back together firmly and securely.
Heat: Heat the stove top espresso maker over low-to-medium heat - this is almost always done on a stove top, however most sturdy aluminum stove top espresso makers can be used with small camp stoves when camping or out for a picnic.
As the water heats up, you’ll begin to hear the espresso bubbling up through the spout - at this point, you can reduce the heat and let the brewing process finish.
Serve: Your espresso is now ready to serve and enjoy!
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