The Science Behind Making the Perfect Espresso

Espresso lowdown

The Espresso Grading

The Science

Espresso is approximately one ounce of a dark, smooth, heavy-bodied, aromatic, bittersweet coffee drink topped by a thick reddish-brown foam of tiny bubbles.  The foam, or crema, that captures the intense coffee flavours is as important as the liquid coffee underneath.

In more technical terms, espresso is a colloidal dispersion produced by emulsifying the insoluble oils in ground coffee. These oils don’t normally mix with water, but under the intense pressure (9 to 10 bars – 130-145psi) and heat generated by commercial espresso machines, these oils are extracted from ground coffee, formed into microscopic droplets, and suspended in liquid coffee concentrate. It is this emulsification of oils, which forms the crema, that distinguishes ‘espresso’ from strong coffee.

Crema markedly alters an espresso in terms of its mouthfeel, density, viscosity, wetting power, and foam-forming ability, making it the single most important indicator of espresso quality. If there is no crema, it means the oils have not been emulsified, and hence it is not an espresso.

Crema also captures the volatile vapours produced during the espresso extraction process. These aroma molecules, later released in the mouth as the espresso is consumed, find their way to the nasal cavity through the pharynx. They also attach themselves to the taste buds and slowly release volatile compounds until after the espresso is long gone. This accounts for an espresso’s aftertaste, an important quality indicator.

The remarkable thing about a properly made espresso is that maximum flavour is extracted from the ground coffee while much of the caffeine and excess acids are left behind. The high pressure of the extraction and the small volume of water that passes through the ground coffee is mostly responsible for this feat.

The information I found came from a website called josuma. If you’re interested in an even more detailed overview click here for A Crash Course in Coffee Science

How we grade our tours?

Espressos are synonymous with cycling and have been an integral part of pretty much every tour we’ve run. There is no better way of getting the group back together than a well-timed coffee stop and the guide teams take great pride in scouting out the best options when they are setting the tours up beforehand

On our Hannibal Tour for example we get to sample the respective delights of the espresso across 3 countries – Spain, France, and Italy. We’re a bit of a traditionalist in terms of our preference and will generally always lean towards the Italian option particularly in the morning when a cappuccino is hard to beat. That said we still appreciate the merits of the French and Spanish options.

It seemed only natural that our grading system for the tours should be based on the coffee. Indeed, it is titled the espresso grading system with the logic being the harder the tour the more espresso’s you’ll need. At the opposite end of the scale, we consider our easiest tours to be ‘cappuccino’ tours.

“Cappuccino”Ride and Seek Bike Tours Espresso Cup

Who am I? I’m relatively fit and am comfortable with steady hills that are less than 750m in length.
Distance: 30-50km (18-30miles)
Altitude gain: 200-500m
Time in the saddle: 1-3 hours
Terrain: Flat to undulating

“Due espressi”Ride and Seek Bike Tours Espresso Cup

Who am I? I ride my bike on a regular basis either for fitness, to commute, or just for fun. I enjoy an active lifestyle, as well as a physical challenge.
Distance: 50 -70km (30-45miles)
Altitude gain: 600-1000m
Time in saddle: 2-4 hours
Terrain: Undulating terrain, with hills up to 2 km in length.

“Tre espressi”Ride and Seek Bike Tours Espresso Cup

Who am I? Fitness is a central part of my life. I ride my bike on a weekly basis and am comfortable with rides of 2 hours or more at a relatively strong tempo. I like a physical challenge and like to get my heart pumping.
Distance: 70-115km (43-71 miles)
Altitude gain: 1000-2000m
Time in saddle: 3-5hours
Terrain: All terrain, with hills averaging 3-4km, but up to 10km in length.

“Quattro espressi”Ride and Seek Bike Tours Espresso Cup

Who am I? I ride my bike an average at least 160km per week and enjoy riding at a fast pace for an extended period of time. I love to push myself to my physical limits.
Distance: 100-160km (60-100miles)
Altitude gain: 1500-4000m
Time in saddle: 4-8hours
Terrain: Whatever is put in front of me!


Conquest of the Moors Food Safari

The culinary experience is a fundamental element of our tours and is one of the reasons we are so excited by our Conquest of the Moors Cycling tour. On our Epic cycling tours, we travel through multiple regions, experiencing the very best of each locale. Eating on tour not only refuels us but gives us a true sense of place as you travel to each special region of a country. Our routes are primarily steered towards riding the most picturesque, quiet roads, but often we also route plan to experience a particularly wonderful dish, wine, or restaurant.

With this in mind, we give you three delicious recipes, chosen to represent some of the incredible yet distinct cuisines of three special countries that feature on this tour – Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.


Morocco- Fruity lamb tagine (serves 4)

Lamb tagine

What trip to Morocco is complete without a tagine? Subtle in flavour and so satisfying, this dish can be used anywhere from on a weeknight to a dinner party. We have also frozen excess quantities of this dish and confirm that is freezes well for those who like to prepare ahead.

For those who prefer a vegetarian option, we have also made this dish without the lamb but added chunks of potato and zucchini (courgette). It was just as delicious.


Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 600g lean diced lamb
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 large carrots, quartered lengthways and cut into chunks
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp ras-el-hanout spice mix
  • 400g can chopped tomato
  • 400g can chickpea, rinsed and drained
  • 200g dried apricot (sultanas/raisins can be substituted)
  • 600ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • Large handful of almonds

Method

  1. Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Heat the oil in a casserole pot (one that preferably has a lid) and brown the lamb on all sides. Scoop the lamb out onto a plate, then add the onion and carrots and cook for 2-3 mins until golden.
  2. Add the garlic and cook for 1 min more. Stir in the spices and tomatoes, and season. Tip the lamb back in with the chickpeas and apricots (or raisins). Add a handful of almonds. Pour over the stock, stir and bring to a simmer.
  3. Cover the dish and place in the oven for 1 hr. If the lamb is still a little tough, give it 20 mins more until tender.
  4. When ready, leave it to rest so it’s not piping hot and serve with couscous or rice. If you have some, you can also sprinkle on a handful of chopped fresh coriander before serving.

Spain- Andalusian Huevos a la Flamenca (serves 4)

This specialty is from Seville and would make an excellent breakfast or lunch. Add some fresh bread (gluten-free if desired) and a green salad to make it a meal. For vegetarians, omit the ham and chorizo.


Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 100 grams serrano ham, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 3 tomatoes (about 750 grams), peeled and chopped
  • 8 eggs
  • slices of chorizo sausage (gluten free if coeliac or intolerant)
  • cooked peas
  • cooked asparagus tips or a few cooked green beans
  • strips of tinned red pimiento
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped parsley

Method

  1. In a frying pan heat the oil and add the chopped ham, onion and garlic. Sauté a few minutes, then add the tomatoes.
  2. Continue cooking on medium heat until tomatoes are very reduced, about 15 minutes.
  3. Oil four (or eight) oven-proof ramekins and divide the tomato sauce between them. Break one or two eggs into each ramekin. Put chorizo slices around the eggs and sprinkle on a few cooked peas, asparagus or beans.
  4. Criss-cross the eggs with strips of pimiento. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and chopped parsley. Put in a hot oven (200ºC) until whites are set but yolks still liquid, about 8 minutes.

Portugal- Pastéis de Nata (makes around 40)

Portougese tart

If you have ever been to Portugal, the chances are that you have tried the traditional custard tarts, named Pastéis de Nata. These incredible little custard tarts are so delicious they will not last long. If you would like to cheat a little, you could use pre-prepared puff pastry and start at step 4 in the method for preparing the pastry.


Ingredients

For the pasteis de nata dough

  • 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons 1ll-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
  • 1/3 teaspoon sea salt
  • 225 grams (8 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature, stirred until smooth
For the custard
For the garnish
  • Icing sugar (confectioners’ sugar)
  • Cinamon

Method

For the pastry
  1. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt, and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that pulls away from the side of the bowl, about 30 seconds.
  2. Generously flour a work surface and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn’t sticking to your work surface.
  4. Brush the excess flour off the top of the dough, trim any uneven edges, and, using a small offset spatula, dot and then spread the left 2/3 portion of the dough with a little less than 1/3 of the butter being careful to leave a 1-inch plain border around the edge of the dough.
    Neatly fold the unbuttered right 1/3 of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks) over the rest of the dough. Brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left 1/3 of the dough. Starting from the top, pat down the dough with your hand to release any air bubbles, and then pinch the edges of the dough to seal. Brush off any excess flour.
  5. Turn the dough 90° to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the dough and flour the work surface. Once again roll it out to an 18-inch square, then dot the left 2/3 of the dough with 1/3 of the butter and smear it over the dough. Fold the dough as directed in steps 4 and 5.
    For the last rolling, turn the dough 90° to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface of the dough.
  6. Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge of dough closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or preferably overnight. (The pastry can be frozen for up to 3 months.)
Make the custard
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and 1/4 cup milk until smooth.
  2. Bring the sugar, cinnamon, and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F (100°C). Do not stir.
  3. Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture.
  4. Remove the cinnamon stick and then pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk-and-flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. The custard will be thin; that is as it should be. (You can refrigerate the custard for up to 3 days.)
Assemble and bake the pastries
  1. Place an oven rack in the top third position and heat the oven to 550°F (290°C). Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it’s about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant 3/4-inch pieces. Place 1 piece pastry dough, cut side down, in each well of a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan (2-by-5/8-inch size). If using classic tins, cut the dough into generous 1-inch pieces. Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.
  2. Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs in the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about 1/16 inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about 1/8 inch above the pan. The pastry bottoms should be thinner than the tops.
  3. Fill each cup 3/4 full with the cool custard. Bake the pastries until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes for the mini-muffin tins, 15 to 17 minutes for the classic tins. Remove from the oven and allow the pasteis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm.
  4. Sprinkle the pasteis generously with confectioners’ sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard. They taste best when are eaten the same day.
Bon Appetit. Leave us a comment or send us a photo of your creations with the hashtag #rideandseekers