How to make better coffee at home, simply and without expensive gear

A coffee pro spills the beans on how to get coffeehouse quality in the comfort of your home

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 12, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

A woman's hands holding a cup of hot latte coffee in her hands (Getty Images)
A woman's hands holding a cup of hot latte coffee in her hands (Getty Images)

So, you want to make a better cup of coffee at home. Whether it's because you're spending too much money on daily lattes or you'd simply like to be able to recreate your coffeehouse favorites without changing out of your pajamas, there are a lot of ways — both simple and more involved — that will let you really up your at-home coffee game. 

Salon spoke with Ren Doughty, the outreach and customer support coordinator at Batdorf & Bronson Roasters (and at-home coffee enthusiast), for his tips for beginners. 

Up your home coffee game with different — maybe better — beans

This is a really simple suggestion, but one that I definitely needed to consider, especially when I first started working from home. When I worked in a physical newsroom, part of my daily routine included trekking two blocks from the office to the coffee shop to get a caffeine jolt before morning meetings. The only time I thought about having "good coffee" at home was when I had company staying overnight, and even then I was more likely to suggest we grab a cup while we were out. 

But when I started working remotely, it was time for a new routine that included sourcing better beans. 

Doughty recommends trying a little bit of everything to find what you like. Not every kind of coffee is going to be what you want to wake up to, but variety is fun. 

"It's like a cheap world tour," he said. "You can decide that you want to try something from Papua New Guinea, Guatemala or Ethiopia — just something that you wouldn't normally purchase." 

Try a new brewing technique

"Take advantage of some of the spare time you've got right now and try that new brewing method that you haven't before," Doughty said. 

For example, if you are part of the Keurig crowd, maybe give a French press a try. 

There are a lot of benefits to the French press method. A big one is the texture or mouthfeel of your coffee will actually be different — velvety and more sumptuous — because the oils from the coffee are preserved in the brewing process. More broadly, a French press is great to experiment with because it really puts the person in charge of the final product instead of a machine. You can vary the amount of time that coffee grounds are steeped, the type and size of grounds used, and the temperature of the water. 

Experimenting with those variables are a great way to get acquainted with your new beans, too. 

Mimic your favorite coffee shop drinks with a moka pot 

Most of us don't have an espresso machine at home (and if you do, you probably don't need this guide to making better coffee). But since espresso is a key component of most coffeehouse favorites — lattes, cappuccinos, cortados — you might find yourself a little stuck trying to recreate your daily order without a way to brew the base. 

That's where the almighty moka pot comes in. A moka pot is a stove-top or electric coffee maker that brews coffee by passing boiling water, pressurized by steam, through ground coffee. Doughty is partial to the Bialetti brand. 

"A lot of people are fond of calling a Bialetti a stovetop espresso machine," Doughty said. "I'd call it a  stovetop deliciously-strong coffee device. I say this because the espresso that you get at your neighborhood coffee shop is made with a pump that is pumping water at nine bars — that's a unit of pressure, about 135 pounds per square inch of water — through your tightly-packed or tamped finely-ground espresso in the portafilter, the component of the espresso machine that holds your ground beans." 

Your stovetop set-up can't quite do that, but your moka pot can make a passable at-home substitute, especially if you grind your beans just slightly finer than you would for drip coffee. (Doughty recommends "maybe a six on the normal 1 to 11 grind scale"; grind 8 is the standard for regular drip coffee.) 

Once you have that going, grab a small saucepan, a whisk and your milk of choice. Bring your milk to a light simmer. Do not let it boil. Whip until frothy. 

Then simply combine with your coffee based on your preferred ratio of milk to espresso. For reference, a latte tends to be 1 part espresso to 3 parts milk. 

Brew extra-strong coffee for iced coffee beverages (and grab your ice cube tray)

A big mistake that a lot of people make when first making iced coffee at home is making it too weak. Remember, ice waters coffee down. Doughty recommends brewing your coffee a little stronger than you typically would if you were going to drink it out of the pot — maybe use that French press he recommended? — and letting it come to room temperature before sticking it in the refrigerator in an airtight container. 

Another option: ice your coffee with coffee ice cubes. 

Simply add some of your room temperature coffee to an ice cube tray. You can add these to your cold coffee without worrying about diluting the flavor. They're also handy for making at-home Frappucino knock-offs. 

"I know that when I was first starting to experiment with these kinds of drinks at home, I would put milk coffee and ice cubes into the blender and, inevitably, by the time I got it to the consistency I wanted, my coffee would be way too watered down," Doughty said. "So the key is to put your milk in the blender, maybe some sweetener like Sugar in the Raw or a squirt of honey, get that going, and then start adding your iced coffee cubes until you reach your desired consistency." 

Take a note from the cocktail world

Maybe it's just my friends' quarantine activity of choice, but I've seen a lot of Facebook and Twitter posts to the effect of: "I've got a jigger of coconut rum, Amaro, two sprigs of wilting rosemary, a pint of blackberries and a full spice cabinet. What should I make?" And I get it. 

The possibilities inherent to cocktails seem boundless and the combinations of their components  — spirits, liqueurs, fruit, simple syrups, herbs and spices — are almost endless. Will all your creations be home runs? Nah, but that's part of the fun in experimenting. 

And according to Doughty, more people should approach coffee-based drinks in the same way. Play with or up the notes of your coffee much in the way you would build a cocktail or mocktail around the natural flavors of a spirit or juice. 

Start simple: you probably have already had a coffee drink sprinkled with cinnamon or mixed with cocoa powder. Try clove next; its distinct warmth and slight astringency is a perfect mate for a cup of coffee. 

Then maybe steal from the world of cocktails and try a dash or two Angostura bitters next. I know it sounds weird — I thought so too when Salon's Erin Keane gave me this tip — but the spiced flavor of the bitters that lean heavily towards clove and cinnamon notes make it a winning addition. 

And since, as Doughty said, it's getting to be the season for cold coffee drinks, get creative with muddled herbs and fruit. 

Adding fresh mint to your iced coffee, with coconut milk and just a touch of sweetener, instantly ups the refreshing qualities of the drink. Frozen fruit in iced coffee — either as ice cube substitutes or blended in — can be a fun way to add dimension to your drink. Blackberries or blueberries parallel a brew's sweetness, while more tropical fruits like mango and pineapple highlight its acidity without being overpowering. Same with the essential oils from citrus peel, which you can add to your drink by twisting the peel over your glass (and even rubbing the peel on the rim for extra flavor). 

Speaking of acidity, Doughty says we shouldn't be afraid to play that up. 

"In America, people think acidity in your coffee is a bad thing," Doughty said. "But I prefer to think of it as the treble notes in a musical chord. Part of a good coffee journey is allowing yourself the psychological freedom to expand the aperture of your lens and increase your flavors you tell yourself you will enjoy." 

One of the ways you can do this is, obviously, drink more coffee. Take notes on what you like and don't like (there are some nifty notebooks meant to help you track this). When you're doing this, it's helpful to have some background and terminology to help you put words to your discoveries; Doughty recommends the book "The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide for Everyone" by Sprudge founders Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen as a good place to start. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coffee Cooking Editor's Picks Interview Ren Doughty