Thinking about introducing an espresso machine into your kitchen but worried about the health and safety implications?
While industrial espresso machines found in coffee shops and restaurants cause some ergonomic issues for the staff who are repeatedly using them, domestic espresso machines are generally relatively safe.
Of course, all espresso machines are electric, use hot water and steam so there are some risks to be aware of when using your machine. An while there have been some reports of faulty machines in the past, technology is continuing to evolve to minimise these sorts of incidents occurring.
In this article, I’ll be covering the factors to consider when purchasing and using an espresso machine to ensure it’s as safe as it can be for you and your family.
Best Espresso Machine Materials
There are two main materials that may be used in a given espresso machine: metal and plastic.
Determining which of those materials to use depends entirely on what that individual part needs to do. For example, the water tank of an espresso machine needs to be easily removable, to be carried to the sink and filled up. For that purpose, plastic is best as it is light and easily removable. Plus, it would be cheap to replace if you dropped your water tank.
Plastic does have its downsides, though. It can be prone to staining as well as poor aging and deterioration with exposure to heat. The body of an espresso machine can get hot, and the last thing you want is for a body made of plastic to warp as it heats. For that purpose, metal would be a better choice.
For a water boiler, for example, you need to use metal. Typically, stainless steel is used both for its resilience to water damage as well as its strength. In the boiler of an espresso machine, you’ll regularly be heating water to the boiling point, or very close to. Therefore, you need to sue a material that’s resistant to heat and pressure changes. Namely: metal.
Can An Espresso Machine Make You Sick?
An espresso machine itself is unlikely to make you sick. The things that will make you sick are, essentially, down to human error.
For example, let’s say you decide to heat some milk with the steam wand on an espresso machine, and then neglect to purge the steam wand when you’re finished.
As the milk inside the wand cools, it will condense and be drawn back to the boiler. If it is then allowed to stagnate at room temperature and go uncleaned, the presence of milk in the boiler will encourage bacterial growth. In turn, using this water to make drinks will make you sick.
The other thing to be wary of is where within the kitchen the steam from your machine is going. It can be the case that an espresso machine fits conveniently under a cabinet or in a corner. In this case, the steam can be condensing on surfaces and encouraging fungal growth.
Spores and toxins from these fungi can be especially problematic in very well insulated modern homes, where ventilation has been reduced to only what is necessary. To avoid this, simply make sure to regularly clean the area around your espresso machine with a powerful, but food-safe, kitchen cleaner.
How Often Should You Clean Your Espresso Machine?
Different parts of your espresso machine need cleaning on different timescales.
For example, the steam wand of an espresso machine should be cleaned after every time that it is used. If this doesn’t happen, then dried milk can build up in or on the steam wand and lead to increased bacterial growth.
The rest of your espresso machine can be given a cursory wipe down after every use, but it remains relatively fine. That said, after every use, remember to empty and clean your portafilter basket: otherwise, you may be inviting mold spores into your espresso maker.
On a semi-regular basis, your espresso machine will need a deeper clean. There are two parts that will need this monthly clean: the water tank, and the shower screen.
The water tank, and any pipes which carry water through the machine, are liable to face a buildup of limescale if you’re using hard water. These limescale deposits aren’t great for your health, the flavour of your coffee, or the pump in your machine, which will have to work harder to pump water into your cup.
The shower screen is a little-thought of part of an espresso machine which also benefits from a monthly clean. If you take a look at the group head of your espresso machine, you’ll see a piece of metal a little smaller than a CD with lots of little holes in it.
This is the shower screen. It should be held in place by a bolt in the center, which can be easily undone. With time, the coffee in your portafilter will begin to clog up the small holes in your shower screen. This means that other holes in the screen will see more use, leading to uneven water distribution, and poor espresso.
How To Clean Your Espresso Machine
Thankfully, cleaning your espresso machine is a simple job.
For your everyday cleaning tasks which should be down after every use, a wet cloth will do the trick. By and large, you’re hoping to physically remove something from the machine, so if your cloth is a little abrasive, a little elbow grease should work wonders.
When cleaning your steam wand, don’t forget to let it heat up before purging for two or three seconds. This will ensure that the incredibly hot steam completely sterilizes the inside of the want. Let it cool before you approach it again.
For your monthly clean, it’s wise to first clean the shower screen. Unscrew the bolt holding it in place, and then wash it thoroughly with hot, soapy water. This will unclog the holes. Remember to dry it completely before screwing it back on.
In order to descale your machine, a wide variety of consumer products are available. Typically, they will be a powder or a sachet of liquid which you mix with water in order to make a descaling solution. Typically, I fill the tank of my espresso machine, add the sachet or powder or liquid, and then wait a few moments to allow the chemicals to dissolve.
Then, I pump half the tank through the group head and the other half through the steam wand. To rinse it out, I then fill the tank with clean water, and pump, again, half through the group head and half through the steam wand. After that, your espresso machine will be perfectly clean and ready to use!
How To Safely Use An Espresso Machine
Using an espresso machine safely is really important. At the end of the day, they’re essentially pressure vessels which are plugged into mains electricity. When you put it like that, their true danger becomes a bit more evident. The two great dangers of an espresso machine are electrocution and burns.
Avoiding electrocution when you’re using one is the same as when you’re using any other piece of electronics. Don’t use it in a damp environment, and make the plug is fully in the socket before turning it on. If the plug gets particularly hot or starts to make a buzzing noise, turn the switch off, unplug it, and walk away.
With regards to burns, the advice is a little more specialist. There are two ways in which an espresso machine could burn you: with hot water and with steam.
If you’re cleaning out the group head, for example, you may have you hands in the path of where hot water will soon come out of the machine. In this case, make sure the machine is turned off and unplugged before getting started. If that’s not the case, you may knock the pump switch unknowingly, and accidentally pour hot water on your hands.
If you’re using the steam wand, you can easily burn yourself with the hot steam. Steam burns are particularly nasty, so do everything you can to avoid them.
Always have the steam nozzle pointed away from you and down at the counter, and never, ever have your hands in front of the wand. Because steam wands work using a valve which progressively opens and closes, there’s a chance that they may not be fully closed when you switch the machine off.
In that case, there’s a chance that as the machine heats up water to produce steam, you may be faced with a steam wand that is leaking very hot water and steam. In that case, using a towel or a cloth, push the steam wand until it’s in a safe position, and turn the dial completely closed. In order to avoid this happening, always make sure you close the steam valve completely.
For burns, whether they’re from steam or water, make the item safe as quickly as you can, and then take the burned part of your body directly to a tap.
Apply cold water directly to the burn until the heat has been drawn out from it. Then, depending on the severity of the burn, you may need to go to a hospital and get it treated by a doctor.