We Tested It: Moka Coffee
As with many things food-related, the Italians are peerless in the art of making coffee. Just walk into any bar on any street in any town in Italy and ask for a caffé, and you'll know what I mean. The espresso you get will be made with a machine that costs about as much as a gently used Ferrari, so you can forget about replicating this brew at home. What you can do is what most Italians do at home: make coffee in a Moka pot. If you own one of these, it's probably languishing in the depths of a distant kitchen cabinet. That's where mine was, before a recent visit to Italy forced me to learn how to use the maker properly. Now back at home, I've put my pot to the test using local coffees and different techniques to find a reliable way to make a buono cup of Moka Joe.
What Is Moka Coffee?
It's not really espresso, even though it's commonly thought to be. It's also not regular coffee, at least not in the American sense. Moka coffee is thick and potent, intended for relatively small portions, not for filling a Venti-size travel mug. Through extensive testing (and failure) I've determined that Moka pots effectively make coffee in two strengths: espresso strength and what I call "breakfast" strength, because that's what many Italians drink in the morning. Either way, it's much stronger than standard drip coffee and will have you sprinting to the finish line like Marco Pantani.
The original and quintessential Moka pot is the Moka Express, first sold by the Bialetti company in 1933. This is the cool aluminum model with the two faceted vessels that screw together. It's available today in a range of sizes: the standard 6-cup, plus 1-, 3-, 9- and 12-cup models. "Cup" in this case means espresso cup, not your average #1 Dad mug. Bialetti and others have come up with countless variations on the original, offering special benefits like frothing or plug-in convenience. But if it brews like the original -- by forcing steam up through a filter basket -- it's Moka-style coffee.
Cleaning tips: If you have an original aluminum maker, never put it in the dishwasher; it'll come out with a hideous gray film and a ruined finish. Regular cleaning requires only a thorough rinsing and maybe a swish with a dish brush. You don't have to pry out the round filter held underneath the top vessel by a rubber washer. Let all parts of the maker dry thoroughly before reassembly and storage. Any dampness left in the bottom vessel will create white spots that look like mold, but they're actually deposits of aluminum salts; just scrub it out with soap and water. If you have problems with spots on your dishware, you might want to check out these tips on removing hard water stains.
The first lesson I learned about Moka coffee is that it's best to make a full pot every time. This means adding cold tap water up to the line on the interior of the bottom vessel. Old makers may not have a line or it may be obscured by crud or discoloration, in which case fill the vessel to just below the release valve. Trying to make smaller amounts of coffee by adding less water yields inconsistent results, usually in the form of a weak, ill-flavored brew.
The good news is Moka coffee is ideal for iced coffee because it's stout and doesn't sit and overcook like the coffee in auto-drip makers. So one person can have a cup or two in the morning and save the rest in the fridge for an afternoon or pre-boozer boost (the first half of what a friend of mine calls the "push-pull buzz").
To make espresso-strength coffee, fill the filter cup to the top with espresso coffee (more on that later). Don't pack it down like they do in coffee shops; just gently level it with a spoon. For lighter, breakfast-style coffee, fill the cup 1/2 to 2/3 full of coffee (you'll learn to adjust this to personal taste). Screw the maker vessels together snugly -- there's no need to torque it like a lug nut and you don't need the muscle strength of a Minneapolis roofer to put it together -- and set in on the stove burner.
Use high heat for electric stoves. With gas, the flame should cover the bottom of the pot but no more (just ask my melted handle -- and consult a gas plumber if you're having problems with the gas supply to your stove). Let the maker do its thing, but stay close by; if you leave it on the burner too long you'll ruin the batch. Turn off the gas (or remove the pot from an electric burner) once a good head of steam is coming out of the pot's spout. At this point, the upper vessel is still filling with coffee, so wait a moment for it to finish, then serve immediately, as there's no burner plate to keep the coffee warm while you blow-dry your hair.
Those leftover grounds can head for your compost pile.
People complain about the cleaning and non-automatic aspects of Moka pots, but to me their biggest drawback has nothing to do with the makers. The problem is that good espresso coffee is one of the most overpriced commodities in America. In Italy, a half-pound brick of everyday-grade espresso coffee grounds costs under $3. In the US, a comparable product can easily cost $8 or $9, and premium espresso runs about $12 to $14.
So I spent some time looking for alternatives and concluded that the only coffee that does the job in a Moka pot is decent-quality espresso (or better). I tried good dark-roasted coffee with regular-to-fine grinds, but the brews taste like overly strong drip coffee. Basic grocery-store coffee from a can yields an undrinkable slurry. Even "espresso" beans from a bin that you grind to "espresso" fineness at the store tend to produce coffee that's not quite fine enough and a flavor that's not quite balanced enough (if you want freshly ground, it's best to grind at home).
Other coffee freaks may offer differing opinions, but I'm sticking with pre-ground espresso for all Moka coffee and clinging to the hope that some big grocery chains will private-label espresso to bring the price down. (Although I have little hope here because coffee is like beer: when the good stuff became popular the price didn't drop; it just made the old, cheap stuff more expensive.)
Phiilip Schmidt writes for Networx.com.