The Bialetti brand is well-known—particularly in Italy where it is ubiquitous—for their stove-top espresso pots. Stove-top espresso is a bit different from espresso produced by a machine with a pump. These little pots use the pressure of steam (built up in the base) to push water through the coffee grinds into the upper pot. A pump-driven espresso machine uses an internal boiler and a pump to produce a significantly greater amount of pressure. The extra pressure produces a generally superior espresso shot with a tasty “crema”—the light-brown layer of foam on top, similar what you’d see on a well-poured Guinness.
(There are also many espresso machines, usually sold in department stores, which do not have a pump but use steam pressure just like the stove-tops for producing espresso. These machines rarely, if ever, produce a crema and also are very weak at producing enough pressure to steam and froth milk.)
The Bialetti Mukka works in the same fashion as their other stove-top models with the notable exception that it also froths milk, producing a cappuccino instead of simply an espresso shot. I should note that I own one of the older Starbucks Barista machines (which I don’t see sold in their stores anymore for some reason) which I’ve used continuously for years. The machine is great—works flawlessly and has enough power to produce a cup of espresso with good crema and steam a pitcher of milk. So you may question why I bought a Biletti Mukka Express in the first place.
It looked pretty neat!
So I bought one.
I thought, since it works on the stove-top, it would be a simple way to produce a cappuccino without the fuss of firing up the Barista and going through the pre-heating and priming, etc. Plus, it could be brought on car-camping trips and used on the gas stove.
At a price of $120.00 (for the glass pot model, produced exclusively for Williams-Sonoma—the other models have aluminum pots and sell for ~$100.00) it was expensive enough that I did some research before plunking down the cash. Reviews were actually quite mixed: many people loved their Mukka and others had nothing but frustrations. Since I tend to be very methodical and detailed in the way I produce coffee (whether in a French press or vacuum pot) I figured I would have more success than the casual user and took the plunge.
MAKING THE FIRST POT
When I got home I read the detailed instructions and went to work at making my first pot:
The base was unscrewed from the pot and the metal funnel taken out of the base. The little plastic beaker of water was filled to the mark and poured into the base. The funnel was inserted back into the base and some espresso-ground coffee placed into the funnel, taking care to ensure no coffee grinds were on the threads where they might cause the gasket to leak. The base was screwed tightly onto the pot and then the milk poured in the pot just up to the mark. The electric range was set “7” and put on the stove. Then I waited for the fun.
For the first 5 or 6 minutes, not much seemed to be going on except the appearance of some brown coffee seeping into the milk. When finally there was enough pressure from the steam building in the base I heard a loud pop from the valve and a hissing as the milk in the pot frothed.
First try, and success! Amazing.
True, the frothed milk was overly bubbly (compared to the fine, smooth froth produced by the Barista) and brown—but it was still quite an impressive feat from such a tiny device.
I poured the coffee into a cup and was astonished at how little cappuccino was actually there. Wasn’t this a 2 cup machine?? Ah. Yes. Not 8 oz. cups, but the much smaller “coffee cup measures”. (You know the ones – where your drip machines shows “8 cups” on the glass pot and you can only ever seem to fill just a couple of mugs from it.) I repoured the cappuccino into one of the smallest cups I had and it filled it to about 75% of the capacity, including the foam.
Well. I guess I won’t be drinking big cappuccinos with this device, let alone sharing it with anyone.
Cleaning the little thing is a bit of a drag, as it turns out. You need to scrub the inside of the pot with a brush in order to wash off the milk that has burned itself onto the aeration post. (Mind you, this is something you also have to do with the steaming wand of the Barista.) And you need to take off and rinse out the valve. And then, after it has cooled, unscrew the base and scrub all the coffee grounds from the bottom of the pot and then out of the funnel and finally rinse out of the base and leave everything to dry.
So the “simplicity” of making a stove-top espresso is actually not quite as laissez-faire as I initially thought. In fact, the clean-up probably takes a more time than after using the Barista—and I can produce two huge mugs of cappuccino for a smaller amount of clean-up.
I wonder if, on a camping trip, it would be so easy a task to clean without the scrub brush and sink (with hot water) handy.
I made a second pot the next morning, which I was eagerly anticipating. I followed all the steps that produced the first successful results.
It didn’t work.
Just sat there, pumping a few meager bubbles into the milk.
Okay… maybe I did something wrong. But I was beginning to fear that the problems I read about from frustrated owners were coming true for me, also.
The third pot also didn’t work.
Boy, was I getting peeved. Fortunately Williams-Sonoma has an excellent return policy. You are actually supposed to discard the first 3 pots, though. So technically these two unsuccessful pots shouldn’t have been for consumption anyway. But I promised myself that if the next pot didn’t work, either—it was going back to the store post-haste.
The fourth pot brewed up perfectly. Not only that, but it was actually superior to the first pot—the froth was much less bubbly than the first pot, and a bit whiter, too.
I continued using it for the rest of the week. In the next 5 days I had one more pot fail to brew properly, and it seems that I may have installed the valve incorrectly on that one. Overall, not a too shabby success rate—especially if indeed I had done something wrong.
Interestingly, the instructions state that the more you use it, the better it will work. Personally, I find this puzzling. It’s made of metal and glass. Why on Earth would continued use improve performance? In reading the reviews, it would seem that the gasket is the likely reason—it apparently hardens when not kept supple by repeated and continued use. This gasket is also the prime complaint of owners: it often fails, causing a huge mess on the stove or simply leaks enough steam so that it can’t build the pressure to produce the cappuccino.
A couple of hints came from my reading that seemed to have success for others. One was rubbing a bit of mineral oil around the gasket before each use to improve the seam and (presumably) help protect the gasket from drying out. Another person suggests keeping or placing the gasket in a little bowl of water to soften it should it begin to dry and harden.
- Keep it clean! Rinse and scrub the aerator post and valve right after pouring.
- Put a thin layer of mineral oil on the gasket before each use.
- Use 2% milk or lower—higher-fat milk doesn’t froth as well.
- Use the smallest burner—a setting of “7” seems to work well.
- Don’t let the gasket dry out. If it does, try soaking it in warm water or oiling it before putting it away.
- Make sure to use an espresso-grind—the finest grind possible.
A worthwhile purchase if you’re the sole coffee drinker in your household, want a little treat over-and-above a normal cup of coffee, and don’t want a full-sized espresso machine sitting on your counter top. (And you are fairly attentive to detail in both preparation and clean-up.) If you already have an espresso-machine or are a true aficionado of cappuccinos or espresso you’d be hard-pressed to justify the fairly expensive $100-120 purchase price.