I bought a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine about 5 years ago and have been slowly modifying my technique to make a latte. This is a great machine that can produce a very high quality shot and has enough power to make good quality micro-foam as well. It has only one drawbacks as far as I can tell; it only has one heat exchanger so you can’t pull shots and steam milk at the same time. However, for this price you won’t find a good machine with two heat exchangers. Unlike the full automatics, the Silvia lets you have lots of control over the quality of the coffee.
So here’s my technique – derived from many others I’ve read about out on the net and lots of experimentation and discussion with others. I think I’ve probably made at least 1500 drinks with my machine, and have constantly fine tuned my technique over the years.
Along with a Silvia, you need a coffee grinder. I have a Rancilio Rocky doserless model. The doserless model allows you to just grind the coffee you need for the shots you are making so you have very fresh grounds. You will also need a steam pitcher, a latte sized coffee cup (probably about 6-8 ounces), and a tamp. And of course, get some really good coffee. I’ve been drinking Coffee Ambassador’s Guatemalan Huehuetenango for the last few years. This year’s crop is quite good.
A Silvia has a power switch and three action switches – one for activating the pump for brewing, one for activating the pump for water out the steam wand, and one for steam. It has one light that indicates when the heat element is turned on.
- Turn on the machine. Warmup is essential, and I usually try to give it at least a 1/2 hour before making coffee.
- When the machine is warmed up and the heater light is off, place the empty portafilter in the machine and place your cup under the portafilter and turn on the brew switch. Your cup will fill with hot water. When the heater light turns on, immediately turn off the brew switch and leave the water in the cup.
- Remove the portafilter from the machine, pour out any excess water in the cup and immediately grind your coffee into the portafilter.
- When your portafilter is full of grounds, run your finger along the portafilter even with the top. Do this in two swipes, perpendicular to one another, ensuring the coffee is as level as possible in the portafilter. It should come up to the top.
- Now, you need to tamp it. I usually tamp once with about 30 pounds of pressure, turn the tamp over and use the handle to gently knock the side of the portafilter to knock any grounds off the side. Then, I tamp once more and do a quick spin or two lightly to knock any grounds off the tamp.
- While grinding and tamping the coffee, the Silvia is heating up. If you time it just right, you will be ready to put the portafilter in just as the heat light goes off. Now, turn on the steam switch, insert the portfilter into the brew head, place the cup under the portafilter and then turn on the brew switch. It is important to turn on the steam switch first – this causes your machine to immediately turn on the heater and keeps the water temperature high while the shot is being pulled. It also ensures you have the quickest turnaround possible when you steam milk. The longer your shot sits there waiting for you to steam milk, the more flavor it loses. From the time the pump is turned on to the time your shot is complete should be about 25 seconds. Getting this right is really a fine art, and there is a lot of information available, such as the CoffeeKid mini FAQ.
- Once the shot is complete, you should turn off the pump, remove the portafilter, eject your espresso puck (great for your compost pile!), and run the water switch for a few seconds to clean the brewhead. Then open the steam valve for a few seconds to clear the water from the boiler and allow some steam to build up for about 20-30 seconds. I let the hot water go into my steam pitcher, then rinse it in cold water so it doesn’t warm the milk in the next step.
- While the machine is building steam, pour your milk in the cold frothing pitcher and let a tiny bit of steam escape from the steam wand before inserting it into the milk. Frothing is also a fine art, and takes much practice. You want the foam to be as fine as possible, with no big bubbles. I used to use a thermometer, but now just use my hand to measure temperature. When I can no longer tolerate holding a finger to the bottom of the pitcher, then I know it’s done. I alternate two fingers touching the bottom and when I can’t hold one for a full second it’s hot enough. I start with the wand all the way in the pitcher, then move it to the top until it just slurps, then move it just a bit below the surface. The key is to get very good rotation of the milk in the pitcher, so it is best to aim the wand so the steam pushes the milk along the side of the pitcher. If the Silvia has enough steam built up, this will take about 20-30 seconds.
- Last comes the pour. Swirl the milk in the pitcher to help release any larger bubbles. It also is good to tap the pitcher on the counter a few times between swirls. Now pour the milk out into the mug. This is where you can do some latte art, which is another entire subject. Sit down and enjoy!
This entire process might seem a bit crazy. But once you have some practice and a good rhythm, you can do this (minus warmup time) in less than five minutes. In fact, I have used this method to make a nice latte every morning for years. When you consider that a Starbucks latte would cost me about 4 clams each plus time standing in line downtown, I’m sure doing this myself is thousands of dollars cheaper and I think the quality is far better. Finally, I think the ritual of making the drink adds to the experience, and it’s even better when you can share drinks with others.
Is it possible to make many latte or capucino with silvia?
Some said that we are limited to about two latte and than we have to wait for the next. How long?. Few minutes or more? Is it important for me to know this before to buy a rancilio because I like espresso but also latte and I consider that when we received people for dinner, it would be difficult to explain them that this wonderful espresso machine is unable to make more than two latte or capucino.
Thank you for answering
The Silvia is extremely well built and durable, and I often make 3-5 drinks in a row with no problems, and have made even more without any issues. It just needs to have the steam let out of the boiler between drinks and takes a bit of time to fully recover to full steam after pulling the shot so when you are making multiple drinks, there is a bit of a lag. The Silvia is a single boiler machine, so it can only steam milk or pull shots, but not both at the same time. I can make a drink in about 3-5 minutes, so if I have a large number of drinks to make, I can get a bit behind and not everyone gets to have their drink at the same time. I usually make one drink at a time, pulling the shot, then steaming the milk, then going back and starting over. Some people will pull two shots, then steam milk for two drinks, and do two at a time. I think this gets me out of my rhythm and results in drinks that aren’t as good.
If you want to be able to make drinks quicker, you have basically two options. You can get a machine with heat exchanger that let’s you steam milk while you pull shots. I haven’t checked lately, but they probably cost at least $1000. Or you can get a “prosumer” model that has dual heat exchangers. This will probably cost you about $1200 at a minimum, although I think most are about $2000.
If making multiple drinks quickly is really critical to you, you might want to go ahead and spend the money. If you are making 3-5 drinks for guests, then go with the Silvia and work on your technique. You can definitely make the drinks quickly and with high quality.
For me, it made more sense to spend the extra money on a nice grinder and since I typically make only one drink, the lag of having a single boiler is not a problem.
I was just wondering about your advice to turn the steam switch on just before you brew…the directions in the Silvia manual say that it causes the temperature to be too high, and burns the shot. So, what’s the real story, I’m a neophyte with my machine and still honing it in, but have been concerned about the wait for steam as the espresso goes bad, so I would like to do it, but don’t want to wreck the machine or burn the puck. Help!
I haven’t noticed that turning on the steam switch early causes any problem with burning the shot. It really is only on for 20-25 seconds, so it doesn’t really build up enough steam to cause any problems, as far as I can tell. I always run the pump for a second or two after removing the portafilter to clean the group head off, and it isn’t blowing steam yet.
You could try putting the steam switch on at the very end of the shot, and then work your way back until you notice too much steam.
I’m sure you won’t wreck the machine – I’ve been doing this for over a year and it hasn’t caused any problems. I did something similar with a Starbucks Barista and it didn’t have any trouble either. I kind of look at it as ‘double clutching’ for espresso machines!
Okay,…great to hear, thanks so much Matt. I will be giving it a try momentarily! Cheers – Mark
I have another question if you don’t mind – I am struggling with creating that silky smooth micro-foam, and am not even close to anything like your photo, which is beautiful by the way, so I’ve been experimenting with every steam I do, but as of yet only seem to be getting those bigger sophomoric bubbles and in just the upper 1/3 of the milk. Do you have any more detailed advice on how to create that exquisite silky texture foam?
Also, what if one were to turn on the steam switch before brewing as the main unit heats up, would that harm the machine? Or be too much for the brew? And the real question – would it help curb the lag time between shot & steam?
If you are getting too many large bubbles, you might be doing a few things wrong. First, make sure the steam is off first, then put the wand in the milk, then slowly start up the steam. Then, make sure you ‘stretch’ the milk by keeping the tip of the wand right near the surface of the milk, but be careful not to let it completely out of the milk or it will bubble too much.
I was thinking it would be better to make a video, but there are a few good ones on YouTube already. What this guy does is very close to what I do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuVoADCPZiM.
If you’re really serious about improving your steaming skills, you can always check with a local coffee shop and see if they offer lessons or will give you some tips. I know of a few local shops that do this in Chicago.
I also noticed this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUzEPpvCvdE), where the guy turns on the steam after finishing the shot, it looks like the espresso just sits there for about 2 minutes before the milk is ready. Anything you can do to decrease this time a bit will help, and I think getting the steam going earlier will help with that.
However, I don’t think putting the steam switch on earlier will make it heat faster, and it might be able to damage the machine and would probably not help the shot much. I know the manual said to always refill the boiler with water after steaming. I think if you want it to heat up faster, just run water through the group head into your empty cup when the heater turns off to keep the temperature up.
Thanks for all of your feedback, your wealth of information is much appreciated. I checked out the vids and they make sense. Just an FYI, I did try the method of switching the steam on early as the unit is heating up and I got a very spotty erratic shot with lots of steam, so I think you’ve got it right when you say to switch it on right before you brew.
Back to the honing.
Thanks again for all of your help – M
Glad I can be of some help. Good luck and keep perfecting your technique!
Matt – I had a dramatic improvement after watching the vids – I do have one other perhaps silly question, but does the top of your machine have a white film on it and the words Laser-Film written in red? What is that? Is that something that was there for shipping and I should peel off, or is it part of the heat shield for the machine? The manual, is as always, notoriously vague on this subject, and for some reason all the video or pics of the Silvia I’ve found online don’t show the top of the unit…it seems a rather bizarre conspiracy – no doubt hatched by that kaffeeklatsch down the street…anyway, I had to ask.
It’s been so long since I got my machine, so I don’t remember if it had any film on it but I’m guessing that it’s there to keep the stainless steel from getting scratched. I don’t know if mine had that – but I’m sure you can remove it. Lots of people will keep their espresso mugs on top of the machine to warm them up before using them and for convenience.
Just wanted to drop you a quick note thanking you for your write-up on your process for making the perfect latte. I’ve been battling this for quite some time. The lag between pulling a shot and steaming the milk has been my biggest problem and left me wondering if I should be steaming my milk first having heard from a barista that a shot can go stale after 8 sec of sitting. We ask a lot out of our Silvias and it seems like there’s finally a good way to pull a super efficient shot.
Not sure it’s helpful to anyone, but I formatted Matt’s instructions onto a single 8.5×11 for easy printing. Should make for a nice reference to throw in a kitchen drawer and grab when needed. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2374782/making_the_perfect_latte_mattwright.pdf
Wow Brian, that’s great. I’ll have to put one next to my Silvia for those foggy pre caffeinated mornings.
Good information needs to have some kind of permanence; the web doesn’t always offer that. Thanks again.
Not sure if you are still posting here or not but figured I would see if you can help a new Rancilio Silvia owner out. I literally just got the machine 3 days ago. I’ve watched every video and read everything possible on the web. Just having a hard time getting used to the machine, getting a good pull, and making good micro foam.
So my question is this. How long should the learning curve be here? I typically can learn these types of things quickly. Should I give it 1 week, 2 weeks, a month?? I’m not asking for perfection, but just some level of consistency in making a great latte.
I’m going to try your method tonight. Can’t wait!
Thanks so much for your help and time.
I am still posting here, although not very frequently. Glad you found the post. I have a few questions for you. What kind of coffee and grinder do you use? One key I’ve found to good creamy espresso is you need fresh coffee. Try one of the local roasters in your area.
The grinder is very important as well, it needs to be consistent and able to get a fine enough grind to have a 20-25 second pull. My older burr grinder didn’t have enough settings to dial in the grind to get right at 22 seconds. I also upgraded to a nicer tamp, the one that came with the machine didn’t cover the entire portafilter, so I found a bigger one helped with consistency. But definitely the grinder and coffee are most important.
In terms of getting good microfoam, my biggest improvement was getting lessons from a local barista. No kidding, it was a birthday gift. It was a lot of fun, I got to bring three friends, use a professional machine, and it was worth the time, in my opinion. You could check with local coffee shops for lessons. If you happen to be in Chicago, try Ipsento.
Let me know how it goes tonight. Don’t give up on a good latte!
Great to see you are still on here to help! Thank you for the quick response. Being new to espresso can be lonely. Ha. JK.
I’m using the Rancilio Rocky doserless grinder. Have it in position 7 right now. I think it might be coming out a little bit too quick still and getting just over 2oz in about 25 seconds.
I’m using brand new coffee from one of the best local cafes in San Francisco (Philz). I even asked them what coffee I should be using at home. Asked me a few questions and gave me the coffee they thought I would like the best. Medium roast, pretty smooth, so on…
I got a pretty nice/heavy tamp as well.
I’m not giving up. not even close : ) Going to try your method tonight and see how it goes. I’ll keep you updated.
One other thing I thought of today would be to spend some time not worrying about the milk part of this. Just focusing time on getting the espresso right, with the right crema, right amount/time so on… once I nail this down, then move to just focusing on steaming milk and getting the right foam. Maybe doing these indipendintly will allow me to focus a bit more and make sure each is “good” before doing both at the same time.
Interested to hear your thoughts on that approach.
Thanks again Matt!
It sounds like you have all the right stuff, with a Rocky grinder and good coffee. A few other things to double check is that your tamp pressure is good (30 lbs, you can test on a bathroom scale) and that your machine is adequately warmed up. I would say 20-30 minutes should do it. You can always run water through it a few times until the light goes on to get it warmed up faster.
I think focusing on espresso first is probably a good way to go. That way you can ensure you have the taste down and are consistent in your shots. One problem with working on the milk is that in the beginning it will take you 5 minutes or more to go through the process and your shots will be pretty stale. It might be better to just enjoy them immediately. These days, I can make a latte start to finish (minus warm up of course) in about 2 1/2 minutes, but it was much slower for me starting out.
I think the key is to not give up. When I had my lessons, the instructor said that a typical busy barista will make 120 drinks a day, so they get a lot of practice. We probably made 20 drinks in one night as we were learning. I only make 1-2 a day, maybe a few extra when friends are over, so it takes years before you have as much experience as a typical barista does in just one week. It took me a few weeks after the lessons before I was getting a decent microfoam.
There is one additional thing to all this helpful information that I have found that seems to make finer foam more consistently.
I reduce the water available in the chamber for making the steam. I think this is giving me a dryer steam since there is more space in the chamber for the steam to build.
To reduce the water, after the steam light goes off I bleed the steam from the chamber until the light goes on and then let the steam build up again until the light goes off.
The disadvantage of this is that another 20 sec is added to the wait time. I do use only fresh beans, however, that are never more than 10-14 days old after roasting and only kept in room temperature.
Wow. Just found this site. Have a new Silvia. I am in love with it but also very new. Pull 2-3 shots a day. Still learning to get the perfect temperature so the shots do not taste burned or sour.
Has anyone here upgraded their Silvia with the temperature gauge thing I have read about? Supposedly it ends the “temperature surfing” needed to get the best out of Ms Siliva
BTW- I have an upgrade Baratza Virtuoso grinder set to “7”
use only fresh coffee (have recently encountered Herriott’s in Champaign but will see if I can find Ipsento mentioned by Mark as I am in Chicago.
Still learning…. but having fun doing so
I haven’t seen a Silvia with the PID modification, but have been tempted to add it as a project.
Thanks for this posting. I picked up my Silvia last weekend, and bought a Cunill Tranquilo grinder. I haven’t had much luck this week because I did not have time to experiment while trying to get ready for work….but I have printed off the PDF of your technique which someone posted (thanks) and will try your tecnique tomorrow morning. Question though, on the Silvia School website they say the machine should always be primed as soon as it is turned on….do you think this is necessary? Because I want to be able to put Silvia on a timer so that she starts warming up about a half hour before we get up in the morning…if I have to prime machine as soon as it turns on then I won’t be able to put it on a timer! Thanks.
Okay, this is going to sound rudimentary, but when I begin each stage (such as flipping the brew switch and pulling the actual shot and turning the black knob to release the steam to froth the milk) is the light supposed to have turned off on the main boiler switch? Also, has anyone reading this blog had any luck frothing coconut milk? I didn’t have trouble with my Briel but with this machine so far no luck!! Thanks.
I’m not familiar with Silvia School, but what I do for priming is to always make sure that the pump is primed before I shut the machine off. So at the end, after steaming my milk, I vent off the steam and then prime the pump so that it is primed when it is shut off. I guess it makes sense to prime it when it is started again, but I’ve never done that. I think if you put it on a timer, it’s fine to let it warm up with whatever water was primed from the previous day.
In terms of the main boiler switch, it will probably be on for much of the process. You don’t need to wait for it to turn off to move forward, you just need to pay attention to when the steam switch is on and off. I think the main boiler will do different things depending on how hot the machine is, how many shots you are pulling, and how long it’s warmed up.
One thing I found with my Silvia is once warmed up if you run water through the brew head the first thing you get is a quick burst of steam, not straight water. I will usually run a quick blast through my brew head first to avoid this. This process seems to provide consistant results in the quality of shots.