If you have an espresso machine, you probably know the struggle of a clogged portafilter basket. The portafilter, which acts as a reusable metal filter designed to be used with ultra-fine coffee, can quickly become clogged by larger ground particles.
You can unblock a portafilter basket by soaking the basket in vinegar, burning the coffee grounds off, scrubbing it with a brush, or even using the steam wand to push the coffee particles out of the filter.
Some of these methods work better than others, and I’ll be sure and detail which methods work best. Let’s get started!
1. Clean the Portafilter Basket With Vinegar
There are two ways to go about cleaning your portafilter basket with vinegar. You can soak the basket or perform a backflush on your espresso machine if it has a three-way valve.
We’ll talk about both ways to utilize vinegar, but first, let’s talk about how much cleaning power this standard household solution has.
Vinegar and baking soda have been a clean-all for years. Vinegar specifically is built for cleaning in addition to its many uses for food. So, why does vinegar clean so well?
Mostly it has to do with the acetic acid in it. This is the same acid found in several household cleaners, and it’s why when you use vinegar in foods, they end up tasting extra tangy. The acetic acid in vinegar is enormously powerful. It dissolves mineral deposits, dirt, and grease. It even solves some of the coffee particles stuck in your basket.
So, what happens to the coffee when it’s exposed to vinegar? For the most part, the vinegar helps to loosen and dissolve the stuck coffee grounds. You may find the coffee grounds are released into the vinegar or seem to evaporate.
Performing a Backflush
Backflushes are good to do about once a week to clean the portafilter baskets thoroughly. However, remember that the espresso machine should have a three-way valve to perform this, and you shouldn’t try to do so otherwise.
To perform a backflush, here’s what you’ll need to do:
- Measure out ½ teaspoon of white vinegar.
- Pour the vinegar into a blind filter or a filter with no holes.
- Place it in the portafilter.
- Turn on the pump.
- Run the pump until it begins to quiet down.
- Turn off the pump.
- Wait for the vinegar to be forced through the machine and into the dip tray.
This should push the majority of the trapped coffee grounds through and allow you to remove the rest with a brush easily.
If you’re looking to learn more about how to backflush your espresso machine, make sure to check out the video below:
Soaking the Basket in Vinegar
To soak the basket in vinegar is a relatively simple process. You’ll simply fill up a bowl with cleaning vinegar and place the basket for about thirty minutes. An hour is even better.
During this time, the vinegar will dissolve many stuck coffee particles and release them. Once the basket has had the chance to soak, most of the time, you’ll be able to run some hot water through the basket and see almost all of the grounds come loose.
You may need to scrub the basket with a brush for a few minutes afterward; however, at this point, the process shouldn’t take much time or effort.
2. Push the Coffee Particles Out of the Filter
You can use the high heat and pressure from the steam wand to remove many of the coffee particles from your portafilter basket. As you may be aware, the steam wand works by shooting very hot and highly pressurized air through the end of the wand to produce air bubbles in the milk.
When using it to clean the portafilter basket, be extremely careful not to put your hands in the way of the steam accidentally.
The steam and pressurized air will shoot through the holes in the basket and push most, if not all, of the coffee particles out and into the dip tray. To use the steam wand to clean your portafilter basket, hold the filter with tongs and move it thoroughly beneath your steam wand.
Afterward, you’ll want to rinse the basket thoroughly and scrub any other particles with a dish brush.
3. Clean the Portafilter Basket With a Brush
This is the original way portafilter baskets were cleaned, and it’s also the least effective. However, it does remove a large portion of the coffee particles. Cleaning with a brush works best when combined with other methods, though.
To clean with the brush, remove your portafilter basket and run it under hot water. You can choose to use soap or another cleaner to loosen the particles, but don’t expect them to come loose immediately. Make circular motions with the brush to release stuck coffee particles.
When cleaning with a brush, you’ll find that the coffee will tend to spread rather than come loose. It can help to have a toothpick or a needle on hand to push some of the stuck coffee particles out of the way.
What Kind of Brush To Use
Usually, you can simply use a dish brush to clean the portafilter, but there are many other options you can try as well. You want to look for a brush with long and flexible bristles to reach inside the basket’s holes.
A toothbrush will also work pretty well and, in my opinion, works better than a dish brush since it’s smaller and can reach more into the holes in the basket. Toothbrushes and dish brushes are often relatively inflexible, and reaching some holes can be challenging. Instead, you may want to look into using a more flexible brush.
However, you can generally use whatever brush you have on hand. A word of caution here – do not use a metal brush on the portafilter basket. Metal on metal will scratch your basket, leaving you with a worse mess than what you started.
4. Clean the Portafilter Basket by Burning the Grounds
I’ve saved the best for last here, and I’d be willing to bet it’s not something you’ve even thought about doing. Portafilter baskets are made of metal and can withstand heat without any issue. Coffee grounds, on the other hand, burn.
Cleaning the portafilter basket by burning requires caution, but it is the quickest and easiest way to remove all stubborn coffee particles.
Here’s what you’ll need to do:
- Grab some tongs and remove your portafilter basket.
- Light a flame on your stovetop if you have a gas stove.
- Holding the basket carefully with the tongs, move it over the open flame.
- Turn the basket from side to side, tapping it with the tongs here and there.
- Wait for the coffee to burn off completely.
- Cool the basket in the sink or other fire-retardant area.
When the coffee particles initially catch fire, they can spring into a larger flame. You should be cautious, and it’s best to wear fire and heat-resistant gloves. It should also go without saying that you should use metal tongs for this event, as plastic will melt in an open flame.
This method works enormously fast as coffee grounds burn relatively quickly. It should take about ten minutes of turning the filter for all the coffee grounds to burn off.
Something that you’ll want to make a note of is to burn when the grounds are dry. If you attempt to burn wet grounds, it will take significantly longer, and chances are likely that you won’t get the result you’re looking for.
Will It Cause Damage to the Basket?
If you have a stainless steel portafilter basket or something similar, the basket isn’t at risk of damage.
If you have an aluminum portafilter basket or another metal that would easily leave markings, I wouldn’t risk putting it in the flame.
What if I Don’t Have a Gas Stove Top?
Therein lies the difficulty with this method. You almost need a gas stove top to make this work, but other methods exist to produce an open flame.
One thing that I would look at is getting an oil lamp if you are consistently using this method to clean your filter. You can also do so by using a blowtorch or even a lighter. However, I would expect the lighter to take significantly longer.
In any case, please be extremely cautious when using this method, be it on a stovetop or through another fire source. While it works tremendously well, oftentimes, it can result in burns pretty quickly.
Regularly cleaning your espresso machine helps extend its lifespan. I’ve written an in-depth guide on espresso machine cleaning techniques and provided a step-by-step process. [How to Remove Coffee Grounds from an Espresso Machine]
Cleaning a portafilter basket comes with some difficulties. All the tiny holes make it enormously challenging to get the basket cleaned well, and the coffee grounds seem to love getting stuck inside them.
The quickest and easiest way to unclog your basket is to put it over an open flame for about ten minutes. If this isn’t an option, I recommend using vinegar to dissolve the coffee particles. Beyond that, you could try the steam wand on the espresso machine and, of course, the brush.
Whatever you choose, there will always be a way to unclog the basket!