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.