Beginning the Perfect Latte or Cappuccino Like a Coffeehouse Barista

What’s at the core of any great cappuccino, latte, or mocha? The perfect shot or shots of espresso. Read on to learn how to pull a shot and what affects how a shot pulls.

Pulling the perfect shot of espresso isn’t as easy as the baristas at the local coffee shop make it look. Many factors determine how a shot will pull: the temperature and humidity level, how fresh the coffee beans are, the fineness or coarseness of the grind, how hard or soft the tamping is, and the seal made with the espresso machine.

Starting Fresh


The fresher the espresso beans are, the more flavor they’ll have and the better they’ll yield to great espresso shots. Always grind the beans just before pulling a shot if possible: this will lead to the best crema.

Preparing to Pull a Shot

Pull a Shot of Espresso

Heat the portafilter handle before pulling the first shot by pulling a blank shot (a shot without the espresso). Next, grind the espresso beans and dose espresso into the portafilter, slightly overfilling it.

Loosen the grounds by hitting the portafilter from the side a few times. After the grounds settle into the portafilter, add more grounds if necessary to fill the basket. Once the basket is filled, hit the portafilter on each side a couple more times to settle the grounds again.

On a level surface rest the bottom of the portafilter and tamp lightly down on the grounds. Tap the sides of the basket once more to loosen any stuck grounds, and tamp again, this time harder with a quarter of a turn clockwise to seal the espresso grinds.

Now the espresso should be tightly compacted and level. Remove any stray espresso from the rim of the portafilter by rubbing a finger around the rim to ensure a watertight seal forms against the machine.

Pulling a Shot of Espresso


Now it’s time to pull a shot of espresso (or two shots, depending on the machine). Lock the portafilter into the machine, ensuring a tight seal to prevent water from leaking out of the highly pressured machine.

Press the button on the machine designated for pulling the shot(s), and either wait or time the shot if the machine does not have a built-in timer. The perfect shot is between 18 and 23 seconds, but an acceptable shot for a coffee beverage is between 16 and 26 seconds. The mark of a great shot is a golden-colored froth that separates on top of the shot — the crema.

Pulling a shot any longer or shorter will result in flavorless shots (too short) or highly bitter shots (too long). The shorter side of the acceptable shot range will result in a sweeter, less intense shot.

The longer a shot sits after being pulled, the more bitter it becomes and the more flavor it loses, so be sure to “save” the shot by adding it to steamed milk or flavoring or by drinking it within ten seconds.

Modifying Shot Length

If a shot pulls too quickly, use finer grinds and/or tamp harder. If a shot pulls too long, use coarser grinds and/or tamp lighter. Remember that many things affect the machine’s pressure including temperature, humidity, and usage, so pulling shots can vary from day to day or hour to hour.

Pulling shots is as much a science as it is an art. Making espresso can be frustrating at first, but through practice and experimentation of different techniques, you too can pull great shots of espresso to begin a coffeehouse-style beverage.