The Miraculous Moka Pot
A Technique for Real Espresso Flavor
The Moka pot is implicated in more crimes against coffee than any device except the automatic percolator. Still, it can brew a splendid cup if you summon the right voodoo. Unfortunately, the internet is flooded with rubbish advice. Even the experts get it wrong. I’m going to explain how you can make something very much like espresso using this misunderstood and underrated device — and I mean good espresso.
The way it works is simple. Steam pushes hot water through a chamber containing a bed of ground coffee. But simple isn’t the same as easy. This is fiddly; the ground coffee has to present the right amount of flow resistance so that it forms a semi-solid puck that will allow thorough extraction without disintegrating. However, unlike espresso, we need a gradual, gentle, steady flow of water. Espresso is a sudden and violent process; Moka-pot coffee is not. In a Moka pot, the bed of coffee, or puck, is far less compressed, the water pressure is a lot lower, and the contact time between water and coffee lasts a good deal longer.
Most users accept it as inevitable that channeling will occur: that is, water will rush through little tunnels that it erodes in the puck. That process can and must be avoided because once it happens, a watery brew will flood the upper chamber and make the coffee weak. This is a completely avoidable defect. Moka-pot coffee can be very concentrated. If you do it my way, it will be about two thirds as strong as a double espresso, or exactly as concentrated as a classic single shot.
For that degree of concentration, the water has to saturate every particle and the puck has to remain intact through the entire process. However, during the brew, two opposing forces will act simultaneously. The dry coffee will begin absorbing hot water and expanding, which tightens and strengthens the puck. Meanwhile, that same hot water will begin dissolving soluble solids, and undermining it.
Preventing the puck from disintegrating during the brew isn’t complicated, but it does require practice. The three steps that you’ve got to master are: First, getting the right grind; second, prepping the funnel correctly; and, third, managing the flow of heat energy within the system during the brew. I call this the Voodoo Method, and it will transform your Moka pot into a stovetop espresso maker — only for real this time. I use a 6-cup Moka Express. Let’s begin.
A quality burr grinder works best by letting you make subtle adjustments and dial in precisely, but a simple blade grinder can also work because the contact time for the hot water and the dry coffee will be two to three minutes, which is long enough for thorough extraction. With espresso, the contact time is only 20 to 30 seconds, and there’s a lot of pressure, so the grind has to be precise and consistent. The Moka pot is far more tolerant of imperfect grinding.
If you do use a blade grinder, adjusting the grit size is a simple matter of changing the grinding time. To ensure that the various-sized particles are distributed evenly, I shake mine as I go. A small change in timing can result in a substantial change in grit size and quality, so you’ll need to watch the clock closely.
If you use pre-ground coffee, you might need to try several types and brands until you find one you enjoy that also works with the Voodoo Method.
I like it really strong. For each gram of dry coffee I use, I want to see 3 ml of brewed coffee in the upper chamber, for a ratio of 1 to 3, or the same as a classic single shot of espresso. A somewhat milder ratio of 1 to 4 works nicely too. Any ratio between the two that tastes good to you is ideal.
Let’s use 1:3 for our example. If the funnel were to hold, say, 30 grams of dry coffee, I’d let it brew until I’d collected 100 ml of brewed coffee in the upper chamber. If it were to hold 40 grams, I’d let it go until I got 120 ml out, and so on.
The right dose of coffee is whatever amount fills the funnel properly. Different coffees have different densities, so the weight is variable. The Moka pot funnel must be filled by volume, although you can weigh the dose and repeat it. Whenever you switch coffees, you’ll have to dial in the volume and weight again.
You have to settle the coffee evenly, but not compress it as you would for espresso.
Fill the funnel a bit more than half, then tap it sideways to level it somewhat. Tap it vertically to settle the coffee. Fill it further, and shake and tap again. Finally, overfill the funnel slightly and level it without pressing, then tap it vertically one last time to leave a bit of head space. Filling a Moka pot funnel is a bit like filling a portafilter; the technique never changes. You either get it right or you don’t.
Never tamp the coffee — not even lightly. Use gravity alone to settle it. If the puck is compressed, channeling is guaranteed: the coffee will offer so much flow resistance that the water can only find a weak spot, and surge through. That gushing and gurgling that people say signals the end of the brew is actually the sound of Moka pot failure. We want a steady, even, gentle flow throughout the entire process.
Place the little boiler on the stove, fill it with water to the bottom of the relief valve, and bring it to the boil. Always fill the boiler, even though you won’t use more than 2/3 of the water in it. The extra mass helps you to control the brewing time. And starting with a hot boiler full of hot water helps to ensure that the extraction temperature will be correct.
When you’re ready to go, remove the boiler from the heat, drop the funnel in, and screw on the upper chamber. Make sure it’s tight enough; if pressure escapes, the device will perform poorly.
Now put it back on the burner and heat it until the coffee just appears. As soon as it becomes visible, move the device to a cool surface and switch the burner off if you have an electric range. If you use gas, turn the flame to minimum.
We’re going to mimic the pre-infusion period often used with espresso and pourover. Let the liquid coffee climb into the upper chamber very slowly without adding any heat unless it stalls, and in that case, add only a little more heat. We’re letting the coffee particles absorb water and expand to fill the head space above the funnel. This helps the puck to resist erosion. This period should last between 30 and 60 seconds.
Once the pre-infusion is done, move the pot back onto the heat, but only for one to three seconds. Add only a little bit of energy to the system. The flow rate will respond to mild inputs, so take it easy here. You can move the pot to a cool surface nearby if things get too lively, or place it back on the heat source, or just hover over it when things are going too slowly. You’re going to “surf” the heat source to keep everything in the butter zone.
This is the main part of the brew. The rate of flow should be a bit faster than it was during the pre-infusion, but it must remain gentle and steady. It should continue like this through the entire process.
There is a timing sweet spot. Pre-infusion should take thirty to sixty seconds. The main brewing period should last from 90 seconds to two minutes. The entire brew should last a total of two to three minutes. Coarser grinding will speed it up, finer will slow it down, and your expert touch with the heat will balance it all out.
Once the coffee in the upper chamber is near the level you’re looking for, cool the boiler with water. You can eyeball the level. Just use measured amounts of plain water and make a mental note of where 100 ml is, and where 120 ml is.
With the Moka pot, the water temperature is fixed. It’s within a degree or two of boiling, which sounds like it would ruin the coffee immediately, but the ratio of hot water to dry coffee prevents disaster. The coffee can absorb considerable heat before it gets too hot. The puck temperature won’t approach boiling so long as you brew correctly. If you use a brew ratio of 1 to 3, or 1 to 4, and aim for a total brew time of two to three minutes, you needn’t worry about overheating the coffee.
The resulting coffee is about as concentrated as espresso. Of course, there’s no layer of mousse on top, which is a minor aesthetic disappointment. But the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel are all there, just as you’d always hoped. Many people call the Moka pot a stovetop espresso maker, and now, it actually can be one. It costs under 50 bucks. A competent, semi-automatic espresso machine costs thousands. Are steamed milk and a layer of mousse really that important to you?
Finally, while you’re learning to master the Moka pot, you should evaluate the spent puck from time to time. It should appear intact and resist light pressure. You should not feel any spongy, soggy areas. When you dissect it, you should not see any dry coffee inside.
If any of the instructions seemed unclear, I have a video demonstrating the whole process:
And once you feel comfortable with the technique, you might try some of my advanced Moka pot tips and tricks:
Now go forth and make awesome coffee. You’ll find heaps more coffee making techniques and tips, and in-depth gadget reviews, on my YouTube channel, The Wired Gourmet. So keep in touch!