Ristretto Shot vs Espresso Shot: Is There a Difference?

The “new normal” has changed old coffee habits and fewer people are frequenting coffee shops after COVID-19. Many coffee enthusiasts are seeing this as an opportunity to hone their barista skills. If this is you, you may be encouraged to take barista courses, to learn how to froth milk, and try your hand at latte art. Not to be overlooked is learning the art of pulling perfect shots. You may do alright pulling a good espresso. What about a good ristretto?

Even a well-seasoned barista has to seriously practice his skills to pull these shots well. What is involved? What is a “Ristretto Shot”? What is “ristretto”? What is the best coffee for a ristretto? Do you need a specific roast? These are a few questions that will be answered in this article. First, though, it is good to know what these words mean. 

The Meaning of the Words “Ristretto” and “Espresso”

Seeing as espresso was developed in Italy, it is only fitting that the names for these brewing methods be Italian. Espresso has its roots in “pressed” explaining the method of a pressed coffee. It is also related to its speed as in express. 

The Italian word “ristretto” can be translated as limited, narrow or restricted. All adequately define the shot as a “restricted” or “limited” espresso shot.

The Mechanics of the Espresso Shot and the Ristretto Shot

As to be expected, there are a number of similarities between both shots. 

  • Same size portafilter
  • The same amount of coffee
  • The same amount of pressure 
  • Same temperature.
  • Both use espresso machines
  • Both fit inside a demitasse cup.
Ristretto Shot
A portafilter containing ground coffee to produce a shot of ristretto.

The differences in the shots are:

  • Water levels vary. An espresso shot can be between 30-37 mls whereas a ristretto shot can be between 15-25 mls.
  • Time pulling the shot may be different. An espresso shot runs between 25-35 seconds. Depending on the method used a ristretto shot could run for about 15 seconds.
    • It could be the same time as an espresso if the grind is finer.
  • The most preferred method of pulling a ristretto shot is to use 15 grams of coffee and run it for 15 seconds. This is the most preferred method. You could actually call it, the “sure shot”.

What is the Best Coffee for Espressos or Ristrettos?

The answer to that question is super easy! Whatever you like. It is kind of like a psychology class, there is no wrong answer. The challenge is trying them all. That is the fun part, too. Naturally, you would want to use high-end coffees to maximize all the flavours you can.

While choosing coffee for ristrettos and espressos, take your time to read the flavour notes and type of roast etcetera. Lighter roasts can be favourable to maximize the flavour notes you enjoy. Too light, can taste green, too dark can taste burnt. Washed arabicas (milds) may be brighter and “naturals” may possibly be a bit more bodied, less bright and very fruity. What’s the lesson? You cannot just try one and expect to know what they are all about.

A Barista Challenge: Nailing the “Sweet Spot”. 

Selecting the right coffee and roast is very important. Now it is up to the barista to take this drink over the finish line. Pulling a ristretto shot takes practice. The grind has to be right and so does the ratio. The window is short and the extraction has to be precise.

Risteretto Shot Barista
A barista pulling a ristretto shot

Special care has to be taken to not finish the shot too soon. That would be “under extraction” which is sour and unacceptable. The other end of the spectrum is “over-extraction” which leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. The ristretto shot finishes as the extraction is finalizing the awesome dark orange colour.

With the restricted shot, the time is reduced which prohibits the flow of all the compounds the coffee contains to the cup. However, what you get is a highly concentrated, soft and sweeter drink with no bitterness. 

An espresso shot will be a bit larger and contain the full range of flavours and chemical compounds. Thus enchanting you with a more complex drink than the sweeter and concentrated ristretto.

How Do You Drink It?

Many coffee purists prefer to drink a ristretto or even an espresso straight up, like a good scotch. However, coffee is about taste, personal taste. This gives you, the consumer, free reign to decide how you want to drink it. There is a wide range of espresso-based drinks and one can do a lot of fun things with them.

Since ristrettos are restricted, this could restrict the number of ristretto based drinks. Flat whites are popular with ristrettos. The smaller bubbles in comparison to the ever-popular cappuccino, make this a logical choice. You may want to keep in mind that ristrettos are already creamier and sweeter than espressos. Adding milk to it will increase the sweetness. 

Are You Ready?

Clearly, the ristretto has earned a spot in the barista repertoire. Where does one begin to explore this vast world of ristrettos and espressos? Reading about them is nice, but it isn’t as good as drinking one. 

Why not try ristrettos in different cafes? Talk to the baristas about the things we discussed in this article. Taste for differences. Explore your coffee parameters. If you are a home barista, you will have a lot of fun entertaining your friends, family and yourself as you master the skills of pulling excellent espresso and ristretto shots.


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