The Milk Frothing Guide

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By Aaron De Lazzer

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Why foam milk? Because everyone else is doing it? Because you can’t drink straight espresso all the time? Because without pouring latte art you feel strangely unfulfilled… ?

No, milk is foamed and steamed for one reason and one reason alone, to enhance and elevate the sensory experience of coffee, and espresso in particular.

Let’s start there, the sensory experience. Coffee IS a sensory experience. We therefore want to do anything we can to maximize it. That thought, that thread of truth will be our manifesto on our journey to prepare the finest foamed and textured milk your kitchen has ever seen. (That includes attending to all the little details when pulling our shots of espresso but extends of course into taking the time to create beautiful milk to accompany and encompass the espresso in our macchiato or cappuccino)

It will be both the easiest and the most difficult (or is it easily the most difficult?) thing you have yet encountered. Hot milk with coffee is OK. It gets you somewhere but does not at all compare to the texture and full rich mouthfeel of properly steamed and foamed milk. Handled correctly the milk can be transformed. This is the direction we are heading. The achievement of this fabled foam is our reason for being.

Where Do We Go From Here? Or How to Use this Guide?

There are a bunch of different avenues you can travel along within our Guide to Steaming Milk.  Depending on your level of experience etc. you may want to jump straight to a particular section or meander along going from front to back, leaving no stone unturned on your journey to becoming a milk steaming superstar.

Tools of the Trade

What You’re Going to Need

Before undertaking the quest for perfectly steamed and foamed milk we’ll need to assemble a handful of tools and accessories to assist us in our pursuit of steamed/foamed/frothed milk perfection.

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Pitchers
There’s a gazillion styles out there – but we like the 20oz, ‘needle nose’ style the best.

Milk Pitcher

Sure, you could use a plastic cup, but then again, you could take coffee advice from a Safeway clerk. Let’s do it right. If you aspire to pour latte art it will need to have a sharply defined spout like the one in the picture. If you’re just steaming milk, any shaped pitcher will do, taking care to keep the size of the pitcher in proportion to the steaming capacity of your espresso machine. You shouldn’t need anything larger than a 20 oz pitcher in any circumstances and if you think you do I would rather see you steam two small pitchers than one big one. It allows for more control and in turn a better drink at the other end.

Thermometer

Unless your name is Sammy Piccolo, do use a thermometer when you steam your milk. It will allow you to be consistently great. Get a nice one too, with an easily readable dial. Not one of those cheap things they always sell home users with the dial face the size of a dime. A cheap thermometer will make you hate life, so find a good one. We will discuss the burning question of what temperature to steam the milk to a little further on.

Damp Cloth

This is for wiping off the residual milk left on the steamwand after steaming. Keep it clean and moist. Do not fall into the temptation of wiping anything else with this cloth.

Spoon or Spatula

To spoon or not to spoon that is the question. I generally aim to steam the milk in a way that I do not need a spoon. Ideally we want the milk to separate IN the cup, not in the pitcher after which you have to scoop the foam, or hold back the foam etc. Have a spoon around when you are learning. They can be especially helpful for building cappuccinos or when divvying up foam for multiple drinks.

Of Course, Milk

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Milk Everywhere!
Lots to choose from; I wonder how buttermilk froths.

Lots of choice. There is no right or wrong way to go although there are some preferences that I would like to suggest. Put out of your mind that some milk has more fat than others. We worried about that sort of thing in the late ‘80s and those days are over. Going back to our manifesto, coffee is a sensory experience and we want to have the finest one we can muster. A little fat in our milk gives us a running head start to a special coffee experience.

I would like to suggest that you make whole milk your default milk of choice. If you absolutely can’t bring yourself to do it or if you are Canadian you can use 2%. If you must use non-fat milk you may, just don’t tell me about it. If you’ve been really good and are going for a special treat I highly endorse the use of Creamo/10% table cream to soften and round out an espresso macchiato a la Seattle style. There are of course some alternative forms of milk (Any volunteers to milk the buffalo? “Hey there girrrrl, steady, steady…my wife needs a cappuccino this morning…”) but our focus will be on regular ol’ cow milk. The different properties of milk and how they influence the steaming and foaming process will be attended to further on.

Well that is pretty much the meat and potatoes of what is required. Beautifully simple. I assume that you have proper sized cups warmed and at the ready as well as the multitude of other obvious things that you require to make coffee (fresh roasted coffee, tamper etc.).

Drink Building

First, a word about the author.

The author of this document is not a big fan of certain aspects of the bastardized coffee culture that see in North America as introduced to us via the Big Bad Mermaid.

So with that in mind I will have a tendency to steer things in what I consider to be the more traditional direction with an emphasis on smaller sizes and the like. It is not to put a right or wrong on the way you choose to drink your coffee; only to suggest that there is another more elegant and refined way of doing things that I want to emphatically urge you to try.

Whether you knew it or not there is a certain underground ethic of what is cool in the world of coffee and particularly espresso. Small is cool. Small cups, small quantities of coffee and small quantities of milk are all very cool. The best part is that you can create cool in your own home.

The Recipes

These are the faves. I don’t have to tell you that there are many more “milk based coffee drinks” out there, but we’ll work with the standards.

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Latte
Just a big bowl of hot milk, with a lil’ bit of coffee to flavour.

Latte: This is a wildly popular drink in North America. Large quantity of milk, small quantity of coffee. Something the Italians might serve to their children.

It is a great introductory drink, the coffee is softened almost to the point of non-existence and it is topped by just a whisper of foam. Very approachable, perfect for non-coffee drinkers and and the warm milk crowd.

Café au Lait: The French version of a latte. Big and Milky. Something to dip your croissant in, to linger over or to wake up with. It is made with steamed milk and double strength, dark roast coffee in a 50:50 ratio. 50% steamed milk, 50% coffee. Foam is generally not a feature of this drink but I won’t tell if you don’t tell. Float a little foam on top if you want.

Typically served in a large bowl or anything that you can wrap your hands around in a loving embrace. Espresso is not a feature of this drink and so it could also be called a Poor Mans latte. Easily and inexpensively made with only a few simple instruments. See the Steaming Milk for Newbies section for more details.

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Mocha
Lots of chocolate, llots of milk, ots of whipped cream, little bit of coffee.

Mocha: Considered by many to be the gateway drink of the espresso world. A lot of people get hooked and stay hooked on these things. Ya got your chocolate, ya got your sugar, ya got your fat, and did I say you got your chocolate?

You make a mocha with quality chocolate syrup (think Guitard or Godiva, not Nestle Quick), coating the bottom of your cup. Use about an ounce worth of sauce for a 12oz drink, plus or minus to taste. Brew the shots of espresso on top, give it a quick stir, add steamed, lightly foamed milk on top of that and then the coup de grace is a generous pile of whipped cream to finish your arteries off…I mean your Mocha.

Use the same amount of coffee as you would for a latte. If you’ve got a steamwand that can really move the milk add the chocolate sauce to the milk before steaming so that the two mix a little more thoroughly. Some have been known to skip the chocolate sauce and just steam chocolate milk with good results. Nothing beats some really fine chocolate.

I don’t drink these because I wouldn’t want to seem weak or anything and I’m afraid I might like them.

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Cappuccino
The quintissential, “accepted’ milk based espresso drink – when done right.

Cappuccino: The undeniable classic and darling of the espresso world. It is the perfect example of milk and coffee done right. The cup itself should hold 5 to 7oz and no more. Sharing the space in the cup in one-third proportions is one shot of espresso, one-third steamed milk, topped by one-third foam.

This is the first coffee of the day. The espresso is softened by the steamed milk and also mingles with the voluptuous foam. That first sip is coffee wrapped up in and permeating the foam, which adds texture and mouthfeel followed by some soothing steamed milk. Everything is in balance. The coffee is not overwhelmed/smothered by the milk and there is enough foam to enhance the cup but not so much that I have to dig to find the coffee.  A true traditional cappuccino is a white cap with a ring of dark brown crema at the edge.  The above picture although lacking the ring nicely shows the proper proportion of foam to steamed milk and espresso.

Espresso Macchiato: An espresso macchiato is espresso with the corners rounded off by a little bit of milk. The classic is a shot of espresso with a dollop of foam on top. Macchiato means “marked” and the dollop of foam marks the surface of the espresso.

Personally my preference and the common preparation here on the West Coast is the shot of espresso marked with not just foam but a little bit of that steamed/foamed milk combo added to fill your demitasse cup. Use approximately a 1:1 ratio, half of your espresso cup is filled with espresso, the other half filled with your steamed and foamed milk.

A Note on Milk Drinking Times

That macchiato I just described? That’s the drink to have at around 10am, after that it should be espresso and espresso only – be the CoffeeGeek. Feel the CoffeeGeek. Live the CoffeeGeek!

Yes, it’s true: milk in quantity should not be consumed with coffee after about ten although this might come as a bit of a shocker for some. I’m not talking your drip coffee here, mind you – if you want to live the espresso lifestyle, listen to the choir.

The cappuccino is the first cup to linger over with your morning cornetti; the macchiato gets to be the encore performance with a little less milk around mid morning. After that it is all about espresso for the rest of the day. Latte? That’s training wheels for the uninformed, unwashed. Mocha? I’d rather have some tiramisu with an Americano. Café au lait? Only in Paris, and only with my morning baguette.

To drink a milk based espresso drink after mid morning is considered gauche, very poor form. To drink a milk based espresso drink with your meal, don’t. It’s just wrong. You’ll see people crossing themselves.

Hello Milk

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This section is a much more in depth look at milk and the chemistry of milk. Part of the interest in looking at things with this level of detail was to answer some of the following questions that I was curious about.

  • Why does the milk seem to get better (ie, sweeter), when you steam it? Is it a change in the chemistry? The incorporation of air? Both?
  • Why do some steamers make a “sweeter” milk than others do, even when using the same milk?
  • Great foam, good foam, and no foam – what is it about the milk that plays a role, or is all in the skill of the Barista?

Note, I don’t necessarily provide the answers in a specific way to these questions, but once you read this part of the guide, you’ll see I managed to answer them in a roundabout way. Oh, and there’s one more question:

  • What is wrong (or right) with me that I care this much about coffee and creating the perfect milk to marry with it?

Hrmm. That is a question!

Before we go racing off willy nilly to create beautifully textured milk lets have a quick look at milk in a way that you (or I) never thought we would ever need to. We’ll introduce ourselves so to speak and get to know the milk a little bit better

Sugars, Fats and Proteins oh my!

Bovine milk is fascinating stuff. Complex and very nearly a perfectly complete food. In addition to all the vitamins, minerals etc. we have three things that require our attention, as they will play a starring role in the final outcome of perfectly prepared milk. They are, in no particular order, fat, protein and milk sugar (or lactose).

Milk is an ever evolving product, with changes in its composition fluctuating slightly but consistently, due to the feed of the cow, the type of cow producing the milk, the stage of lactation etc. These will result in subtle yet potentially noticeable changes in the quality of the foam you can produce, and the taste and texture of the cappuccino/drinks you prepare. This is especially true with high grade, “microfarm” type milk – the kind you get from a farm or coop of farms, as opposed to that big name brand you see on the Safeway shelves.

With all of this said, I do not want to hear excuses that the drink you made today wasn’t as good or the foam not as tight because all of a sudden this milk is obviously from a Jersey cow and you’re used to milk from a Guernsey cow or that the cows are into the clover and alfalfa these days and we all know that dry feed produces the best flavoured milk…and so on. We’ll assume that the milk is generally stable and that if the foam isn’t there and the flavour isn’t there…well, it’s you.

Lactose

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Banana Milk!
Use this milk and you won’t have to worry about sweetness from lactose – it has added sugar! Milk and espresso, together at last!

The slightly sweet and pleasant taste we find in milk is primarily due to the relationship of lactose and chloride contents. Lactose is the milk sugar, a disaccharide of glucose and galactose to be precise. It is a solution (homogeneously mixed in a liquid) in milk. It is also less soluble (the ease with which it will dissolve in a liquid) than sucrose and therefore perceived as less sweet. Hmmm. On the scale of relative sweetness sucrose is 100, lactose rings in at a low, low 16.

However increasing the temperature of the milk (by steaming for example) has the effect of increasing the solubility of the lactose and in turn increasing its perceived sweetness, a good thing for us. That lovely increase in sweetness of steamed milk from the espresso machine or the hot milk your Mom made for you as a child is due to the increased solubility of the lactose at higher temperatures…in case you were wondering.

Wrap some tape around the middle of your glasses and push’em back up your nose. You’ve joined the milk science club and it’s only going to get worse.

Fats

I’m all about a little fat in the milk.

Milk is sold based on the quantity of fat it contains and can range from 0% in non-fat to approximately 4% in whole milk-Yum! Although not primarily concerned with the taste of the milk, milk fat gives body to the flavour…a fuller flavour so to speak. Fat can be a big player in the sumptuous mouthfeel and texture of our steamed milk.

Sure the foam is a big player too and we’re getting there but the fat lends and inherent richness to a milk based beverage (apart from the foam) that cannot be denied. Remember our mini-manifesto: richness is good.

There is some concern about dietary fat and it going straight to the hips. Milk fat is especially pernicious. This is where the size of the cup come into play and the logic behind the small is better ethos comes into focus. Do not drink 20oz lattes! If you do, you will need to use non-fat milk so you don’t get a fat ass and at the same time deny yourself the pleasure of sinfully rich whole milk. Think small. You are not a calf.

Proteins

I’ve saved the best for last.

Proteins are responsible for our milk being able to be foamed. Technically very complex little structures, milk foam bubbles and how they are created can be tough to get a handle on. Case in point:

“Foam formation is mainly based on the effect that in the boundary layers of the phases, liquid and air molecules are enriched due to a boundary layer activity and therefore stabilize the boundary layers.”
(Milk and Diary Product Technology, Spreer & Dekker, 1998)

Hmmm, do I ask the audience, call a friend or choose the 50-50?

When you are steaming milk you are incorporating air into the milk. Proteins are important because they are adsorbed (defined as the adhesion in an extremely thin layer of molecules to the surfaces of solid bodies or liquids with which they are in contact, so don’t email me saying I had a typo, and should have spelled it absorbed) by the thin film surrounding an air bubble giving stability to the entrapped air.

We want proteins. But it doesn’t end there. There are actually two types of foam in milk, which may appear separately or simultaneously. One foam appears to be a protein type and the other a phospholipid-protein type. So who cares?

Well the relationship of fat and protein can impact how easily the milk will foam and at what temperatures milk is most receptive to taking on air.

Proteins and Fats

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Treat Yourself!
Not only does half and half (10% fat) milk froth well, but it adds an entirely new layer of richness and vitality to milk-based espresso drinks.

Foam stability decreases reaching a minimum at about 5% (whole milk is 4%) fat and then increases rapidly as fat is increased to 10%, with highly stable cream-type foams forming when the fat content is increased to above the 10% level (table cream at 18% or whipping creams at 35% etc.)

Increases in fat content also cause a decrease in foam volume as well, up to a level of approximately 5% fat. Therefore skim milk offers the potential for the greatest volume of foam and most stable foam. This potential decreases gradually through 2% milk down to whole milk – it has the lowest potential to create heaps of foam but to create heaps of stable foam. Get it? Whole milk, while “foamable”, is more difficult than skim milk. Here’s where it gets weird again – go higher in fat than that 4% whole milk, (eg, beyond a fat content of 5%), and you once again see a steady increase in both foam volume and stability. There’s a reason why whipping cream is 35% fat content 🙂

Now if our goal is to create volumes of foam, non-fat milk gets the nod. It will create the most foam for us. Despite that fact I like a tasty drink and therefore recommend whole milk or fuller fat milk. This may confuse some of you. Yes whole milk will be more difficult to foam and work with but in the end massive volumes of foam is not the end all and be all, a fabulously satisfying drink is. The fat in whole milk will make for a tastier drink and in the hands of a skilled barista whole milk will create as much foam as you need.

Protein in Detail

There are two different types of proteins in milk; whey proteins and caseins. The later make up 80% of the total protein of milk, and both play an equally important role in the formation of foam.

Casein imparts good surface-active properties and thus plays a role in the functional properties of whipping/foaming. Whey proteins although offering less surface activity than casein, they offer far superior foam stabilizing properties creating a more rigid film at the air/water interface of the foam.

Once again who cares? If you’re serious about your milk foaming, you should, if only to shed some light on how slight differences in the components of the milk will affect the properties of the foam we create. In fact, your typical PBTC (person behind the counter) or manager of a typical chain café should take note of this… after all, those are the places and people who most often resteam milk. Here’s the scoop.

Of great interest is that both proteins are stable up to approximately 140F after which they become susceptible to denaturation. The proteins no longer maintain their native shape or charge and will not behave in the same way to facilitate the creation of foam. New proteins are needed, more milk must be added. By adding fresh milk to already steamed milk you introduce new, unchanged proteins and can foam again.

The above is a complicated way of explaining where the old adage that you can “foam milk once and steam it twice” comes from. To foam milk a second time won’t work because the proteins that facilitated the formation of the foam initially have become denatured. You can of course just reheat the milk a second time but even that is not recommended. Steam only as much milk as you need for a given drink. Start with cold fresh milk every time. Never resteam milk or add fresh milk to already steamed milk. It is considered poor form.

If you’re in a shop, and paying $3 or $4 for that cappuccino or latte, ask, nay, demand they only use fresh, cold milk to make your beverage. You will notice a huge difference. If they challenge you, quote the above chapter and verse, or take your biz elsewhere. It’s your hard earned money – why settle for denatured, reduced-charge milk!

Back on subject, it doesn’t end here. Foaming potential relates not only to the relationship of the proteins and the fats but is also influenced by the temperature at which the milk is foamed.

Effect of Temperature on Foaming Ability

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Other Milks
There’s a range of milks to try – some steam better than others. Soy can work well, but Buttermilk can be a disaster.

Low fat milk is most receptive to taking on air at low temperatures. This applies as well to both whole milk and cream, although to a lesser extent. So from approximately 40F (fridge temperature) up to about 100F, things are looking good for your milk and all the chemical changes you’re bringing into play.

However, at approximately 100F, on up through to 160F the trend is reversed with the higher fat dairy products consistently exhibiting a greater volume (as seen as a percentage increase in volume due to foam) of foam being produced at any given point. In general temperature trumps the influence of the fat on foaming. All milk, regardless of fat content, creates the greatest volume of foam at cooler temperatures.

The Take Home Message

All this science. My brain hurts. But we’re almost there.

Here’s the bottom line: To assist yourself in creating as much foam as you are going to need for your drinks, you should  start with cold, fresh milk and a clean, cold pitcher. Start with milk as cold as you can and create foam right from the gun to create the greatest volume of foam possible.

Ok pencils down; stop spinning your Erlenmeyer flasks. We’re about to skip on past the chemistry of things and get down to the process and the practical aspects of steaming milk. It’s about time!

Milk Steaming Guide

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Foaming, Frothing, Steaming…

It’s all the same thing…sort of. In a radical departure this article will not attempt to highlight the steamed portion (heated not foamed) as being a separate entity from the foamed or frothed portion (milk with air bubbles incorporated) of the milk. Why? It’s simple:

Properly prepared milk is always foamed. Even if you don’t want any foam in the drink you want to foam the milk just slightly. Incorporating air into the milk improves and sweetens the taste. Milk that has not been foamed at all tends to taste flat and dull by comparison.

So with that in mind, great milk properly prepared, whether it be for a latte, cappuccino or whatever has foam mixed in throughout the entire pitcher of milk. For a latte where less foam is required, the volume of milk will have expanded by approximately one-third due to foam. For a cappuccino it will have approximately doubled.

You will have incorporated foam into the milk but it will not be sitting on the top with the steamed milk underneath. Oh no, it will be intertwined and mingled all through the entire pitcher of milk. Ideally when you pour the milk into the cup that is where you will see a settling out of the foam on top. The quantity of foam you have incorporated into the milk will be dependent on how much is required for the drink and how aggressively you worked to incorporate air into the milk.

When you steam, you always want to foam for properly textured foam; that is what makes ordinary milk extraordinary.

Let’s get at it. Newbies, step up.

Excuse me but I’m new
Otherwise known as the Beginner’s Guide to Milk Frothing.

Welcome my friends. Much like Alice in Wonderland you are about to fall down the rabbit hole and into a completely new world. The world of coffee is a vast place with a never-ending list of choices and decisions to be made.

To help you negotiate the maze of specialty coffee and in particular how to steam milk to go with that specialty coffee at home. If you are new and know very little about creating a boutique style coffee experience at home you’ve come to the right place.

You may not remember quite where you caught the taste for the espresso and milk experience but smitten you are. Could have been on your travels to Europe, a local coffee house or maybe just a friend’s house. Now you want to create the magic combination of espresso and milk loveliness at home. Where does one begin?

May we suggest…

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Cheat!
Got someone who needs easing into coffee, and normal milk won’t do? Buy chocolate milk and froth that!

Where to Start?

Café au Lait. I guess we start with the café au lait. This is sort of like a latte but the French version. It is a big milky cup of coffee that is dead easy to whip up.

First a quick word about the coffee (I know this is article about milk…). Café au lait is made with double strong drip coffee not espresso like its cousin the latte. You can use a drip brewer but for the quintessential café au lait experience you want to use a French Press or Bodum. You may already have one but if not Aabree Coffee (the folks who ponied up a few bucks to make me sit in my home office typing all this up) has a great selection. Get a nice sized one, about one liter or so (32oz) and brew up a good strong pot using 60g (2.25oz for you Americans) of coffee per liter of water.

Warning to you girly-men out there: this’ll be a solid cup of coffee that’ll put hair on your legs and believe it or not that’s exactly what you want. Also to stay true to tradition use a dark roast coffee, ideally a French Roast or something with a smoky bite.

We want to combine this with hot milk in a ratio of 50:50 and poured into a nice big bowl that you’ll need two hands to grip. Pour the coffee and the milk into the bowl at the same time for extra style points and the best mixing of the two liquids

You can steam or heat the milk in a couple of ways. There’s the stove of course, but you must remember to always keep the milk moving. No one likes a thick skin of milk crust on his or her café au lait.

One step better is to use an auto, or regular ol’ manual frother that will not only allow you to heat the milk but to foam it as well. Although foam is not a feature of the café au lait normally, a little foam never hurts. Both types of frothers will work great although if you’re like me I think you’ll end up using the auto frother more in the long run. The Capresso frothXpress is a good choice and produces foam like a champ. Perfect for a café au lait, or of course a latte. Speaking of which…

Caffe Latte: Although very similar to the café au lait the latte uses espresso as the “coffee” base for a slight twist on the experience.

So you’ve got your auto frother and French press working to create café au lait perfection but are ready for a slight variation of the theme, ready for something new.

The easiest and most inexpensive way to create a true espresso experience at home is with a moka pot or stovetop espresso maker.  It’s what the Italians use at home for a coffee in the morning before they get out the door and head to their favourite coffee bar for more coffee. The Stovetop espresso maker is a classic little unit used all over the world and creates an intense coffee experience that will leave you wanting more. To get the best coffee out of these little things find an Italian Grandmother (Nonna), maybe your own, and get her to make the coffee. It you don’t have or can’t find one of those (deep breath) you’re going to have to make the coffee yourself.

My only advice when using one of these little guys is don’t use too much heat when brewing. Slowly and patiently make the coffee, don’t try to rush things. Use an espresso blend from your local roaster if you can.

The strength of the coffee out of these little things mimics espresso to a certain degree, and you will want to keep the proportion of coffee to milk similar to what you would in a coffee bar. About one ounce of coffee for six ounces of milk, two ounces of coffee for a twelve ounce latte and so on. This should keep the coffee from peaking through the milk too much. Adjust to taste.

The Next Level

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Beautiful Macchiato
A beautiful, apple-heart macchiato – latte art in a 2oz cup!

Ok so you’ve dabbled with coffee before (or as discussed above) but you’re not in college anymore and you’re ready to step up. Not way up mind you, just up to the next level. We’re talking baby steps here, people!

For a very reasonable amount of money you can get yourself a very capable espresso machine that will be fun to use and may be the first step into thinking about a career change and becoming a professional Barista. At the very least you’ll start talking with your hands, as all the Italians do.

As much as I would love to speak to the whole package (the coffee, the grinder, the machine etc.) at this point, this is just an article about steaming milk and we have a minor section coming up about the types of machines out there, and the milk they froth, so I won’t delve into that here. Our focus will be narrowed down to what you can expect when it comes to steaming milk on an espresso machine at this level – the beginner, newbie level. Don’t worry noob! You’re cool! We were all noobs once, after all!

Most of the espresso machines at this level are actually value packed. We’re talking a lot of performance in a very reasonably priced package. That said there are certain limitations and considerations with machines at this level.

For instance, they will almost always have a froth assistor on the steam  wand. This is a sort of device that is designed to compensate for the smaller boiler, lower steam pressure, and general milk steaming ignorance of the typical user. I mean this in the nicest way of course. Hey we all started here. Noob.

Enough sarcasm for a paragraph. I’m actually impressed with some of these machines. A fine, fine example of an espresso machine at this level is the delightfully designed Francis! Francis! X3, a machine I had the pleasure to work with recently. It’s no La Marzocco, but you can definitely work with it. And here’s what you can do with it.

Steaming milk on a machine like the little darling X3 can be as simple as:

  1. Show up (very important!)
  2. Turn the machine on (almost as important!)
  3. Press the steam button. This turns the element in the boiler on to create steam.
  4. When the ready light turns off/on you’re ready to go.
  5. Submerge the froth assistor deep into the pitcher of milk.
  6. Turn the steamwand open.
  7. Do nothing. The froth assistor will do it all for you.
  8. Turn the steamwand off at the desired milk temperature (150-155F).
  9. Pull your shots of espresso into some preheated and preferably stylish cups.
  10. Spoon or pour the steamed and foamed milk onto your shots of espresso.
  11. Bask in the praise of your guests’ oooing and aaaahing over your drinks, thinking that you are a coffee genius.

This is the intended design. Simple, easy to use and verging on foolproof. The problem is, the foam isn’t the greatest, but can fool most non coffee-achievers. Here’s a visual step by step of the auto-pilot style of frothing:

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Gears Up!
We’re getting ready to auto-pilot a cold pitcher of milk.

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Loose and Easy
Not much finesse, not much control – just drop the tip barely into the milk.

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Hum or Talk
Go ahead – hum a song, talk on the cell phone while you’re frothing. The machine’s doing the work

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If you can call it that?
Well, I guess you can’t complain at the results if you’re not workin’ it.

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Bubbly Mess
This is what most auto-frothers can do, at least on steam-wand machines.

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Dishwasher Soap
Now you have the visual – this is the stuff mountains were made of.

If you want more you can have more with these machines. The frother, if left to its own devices (i.e. submerged in the milk) will create volumes of big bubble foam that you can see in evidence above. Not what we want really, not that there is anything wrong with that but as budding coffee connoisseurs we know that there is something better.

The seductively smooth textured microfoam.

The stuff that latte art is made of. There is an improvement in taste and texture of a drink with this denser, finer bubble foam. To get this foam on an X3 and the like you need to be a little more attentive while steaming. And you may even be able to reach that holy grail: latte art calibre foam.

Latte art. Proper, micro-bubble sized, pourable foam will allow you to pour latte art. If you don’t want to learn how to do this it’s because you have never seen it. Once you’ve seen latte art and tasted the type of milk and coffee needed to pour it, nothing else in you life will matter. You will be on a mission and stop at nothing until you have learned to pour latte art on your drinks.

Ok, back to the better foam.

Do everything itemized above but rather than just sinking the tip into the milk and leaving it there we want to instead “surf the froth hole”. That hole at the side of the froth aiding tube is the froth hole and to create beautiful foam we want the surface of the milk exactly at the level of the hole. Essentially what pro Baristi do with a traditional wand (that is, surf the tip surfaces of the wand on the top of the milk), we’re doing horizontally with the froth aider steam wand.

If you surf the hole just right, the milk will be drawn in and foamed creating a denser and finer bubble foam than if we had just let the frother to do all the work.

You’re going to need to gradually be lowering the pitcher as the milk is being foamed and expanding. This is a very gradual process. The trick is to keep the surface of the milk at that hole. Let the hole do the work and be patient. If you rush things, bringing the pitcher down too quickly you’ll blow it-literally- blowing big bubbles into the milk.

Done right this machine can create beautifully textured foam that will let you pour latte art and create divine espresso drinks in your own home. Practice, practice, practice. Let me give you a visual walk through of what is possible on a machine like the Francis! Francis! X3, and its froth aiding tip.

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The Right Tools…
Have the tools – the pitcher, the therm, the ice cold milk – let’s go!

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Surfing the Hole
Here, the side-mounted intake hole is being “surfed’ to introduce controlled air into the milk.

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Tricky, but doable
Surfing a side-hole on a froth aider can be tricky, but microfoam is possible.

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Sink it!
At around 100F, you want to sink the wand deep to stop introducing air with the steam.

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Keeping it tight
Wand’s sunk in deep, we’re keeping those bubbles tight.

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Get ready
We’re getting ready to stop steaming – there’s not much ‘coast” on the X3, so we time it close to 150F.

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Finished!
Just a hair over 150F, our foam is looking damned good!

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Big Difference
Not quite the silky microfoam a traditional wand gives, but much nicer than the previous step by step.

Milk Choices

If you want the nitty gritty detail on milk, make sure you read our Pointdexter science review of milk. However for the novice things can be as simple as this.

  • Non-Fat Milk will be the easiest to foam. It will not however be as decadent a combination with your coffee and for this reason I don’t ever really like to use non-fat milk.
  • 2% Milk will foam quite easily and is a nice balance between ease of foaming and some fat in the milk making for a creamy and tasty drink
  • Whole Milk is going to be the most challenging to create foam with. It will however be some kind of tasty when combined with coffee. The extra fat in the milk makes your latte or cappuccino a special treat.

Remember that the creation of foam is an admirable goal but it is not the end all and be all. Especially the creation of huge volumes of foam, we need just a little bit. We do not want to create foam at the expense of the larger experience and so my preference is always for a fuller fat milk-always. 🙂

In Italy they use whole milk. If you were to order low-fat milk they’ll look at you like you’re some sort of bleeding heart, left of center liberal freak and obviously a tourist with no understanding of la dolce vita or proper café culture.

If you say nothing and drink the coffee as it is served to you, you will get whole milk, very likely enjoy the whole milk and come back home telling everyone how great the coffee is in Italy. It’s not just the coffee; it’s the milk too.

The milk is important, treat yourself.

Create the Coffee First or Steam the Milk First?

Each machine is slightly different.

Generally milk based drinks feature milk not espresso. We want to focus all our attention on creating great milk. To that end, pull your shots first into preheated cups and set them aside (on the Francis! Francis! machine, you actually want to steam first, make espresso second). Press the steam button and get the machine to create steam while you prep your cold fresh milk in a clean cold pitcher.

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Surfing the Air Intake Hole
When using froth aiders with side air-intake holes, this is where you level your milk to get microfoam action.

  • When the ready light comes on or goes off you’re ready to steam
    Blow out the steamwand to get rid of any moisture in the wand and confirm that you’ve got enough steam coming out of the machine for lift off.
  • Away we go. For the best results we want to make the froth aid work for us as discussed above. Get the surface of the milk right at the edge of the hole in the side of our frothaider
  • Hold it there as the milk is foamed and heated. As the milk continues to expand it will rise in the pitcher and necessitate a subtle lowering of the pitcher. Stay with it and never force things trying to stretch the milk too quickly. Big bubbles will tend to result.
  • Take the milk up to 150-155F. Depending on the desired quantity of foam you will need to have been foaming almost right from the gun and continue foaming until the temperature has reached 150F. At this level of machine you’re kidding yourself if you think that you are going to be awash in beautifully textured, slightly wet, hold me close, cappuccino foam. You might very well however have created some very fine Latte foam in terms of quality and quantity. Latte art can be yours.
  • There is very little coasting with a home machine in that the temperature you see on the thermometer is accurate and to shut the wand off at 150F will give you milk that finishes at 150F. Some prosumer machines and commercial machines heat the milk so quickly that you must shut the steamwand off approximately 10F before the desired finishing temperature, i.e. shut the wand off at 140F to finish at 150F.
  • Always give the milk pitcher a little knock when you’ve finished steaming the milk. This can break up any big or medium sized bubbles that may have formed during the process.
  • Follow the knock with an aggressive spinning of the pitcher. I like to keep the pitcher on the table and spin it while imagine making smaller and smaller circles as you spin. This helps to further texture the milk and you’ll see a change in the surface of the milk go from a dull luster to a smooth, glossy sheen. Very sexy.

More Advanced Techniques

Again, no real preamble, no real flowery words here. Let’s get into this. Time to hit the upper grades.

You’re now ready to ask the question, to free pour, or to spoon?

Free Pour or Spooning: that is the Question.

First, it’s not the kind of spooning you might be thinking of if your mind has a tendency to wander. Get it out of the gutter, okay?

Free pouring milk-based drinks are what all the rock star Baristi do. It is how you pour latte art and it is how you make cappuccino if you are a Barista demi-god.

To answer the question and make a choice starts with how you’ve steamed the milk. Properly steamed milk has foam mixed in throughout the entire pitcher so that thing is the smooth pouring, gorgeously textured, quicksilver sheened, viscously transformed milk. Yes please. It pours beautifully in one fluid motion. The foam and milk are one and it is in the cup where things will settle out.

Some machines allow you to create free pour quality milk but this is a tough place to start, it is however where we want to go.

For a new Barista and someone just learning to foam milk at home the spooning method is probably the best way to go, and there’s no shame in it. In fact, I like to spoon when building cappuccinos.

Instead of just pouring the milk onto the espresso, we’re going to use a spoon and scoop the foam out of our pitcher and onto the surface of the espresso. Just a little bit of foam for a latte and of course just a little bit more than that for a cappuccino.

We will then use the spoon to hold back any remaining foam, while pouring the milk out. The milk will/should punch through the foam in our drink, lifting up the foam and mixing with the coffee.

This is a much easier approach and is not as time sensitive as the free pour technique. To free pour you are generally pouring the milk right after pulling it off the steamwand.

Instead pause and let the foam settle out in the pitcher. You can then very easily spoon the foam out and pour the steamed milk. This is much more realistic with an entry level machine and even with pro machines and at the Barista competition level many people will still use the spooning technique for a cappuccino. It is much easier to get a consistent proportion of foam when making multiple drinks…like one for you and one for your wife.

Steaming with Serious Toys

The performance you can get out of espresso machines at the $300 to $750 level is really impressive. You will be very happy for a very long time…as long as you don’t visit someone’s house with a better machine.
More than that the need to upgrade (the time’ll come, it always does) will have less to do with the quality of the drinks you can make and more to do with some of the finer points that the upper end machines offer… (Hot water tap, steam and brew at the same time, professional portafilter…)

The machines at this level come with a few idiosyncrasies but we’ll consider those part of the charm of the whole experience.

Steaming milk on a Solis SL 70 and the like (Traditional Single Boiler Machine)

The performance of the steam wand on this bad boy will leave you pie eyed. Simply put, it does a great job. Perfectly textured milk and microfoam are only moments away, if your hand is practiced enough.

The Solis SL-70 is a champ. It has the perfect balance of speed and steaming pressure of (I’m going out on a limb here) any home machine I have tried. I prefer it to some of those fancy, schmancy prosumer machines with all their show and no go steamwand positioning and lame steamtips. (machines – you know who you are!)

The position of the steamwand on the Solis is great. It comes straight out and allows for a 12-20oz pitcher to fit in there no problem. It is also nice and stable, offers easy access and doesn’t flap around like multi-directional wands can sometimes. Let’s do a walk through, followed by a visual.

  • So you’ve pulled your shots. Remember we’re featuring the milk here. Normally shots sitting in a cup going cold should make you scream. Under these circumstances take a deep breath and know that you’re doing the best you can.
  • Hit the steam button to kick the element in the boiler on and create our steam. Bleed out some of the boiler water while it’s heating up.
  • The light will come on when things are ready to go
  • Blow out the steamwand into an empty cup or pitcher to get rid of the remaining moisture that has condensed in the wand.
  • Open up our steamwand. The Solis has a unique feature in that opening up the steamwand activates a switch that kicks the boiler element on again. With the element on we’ll have a steady flow of steam without having to worry about things tapering off towards that end of the steaming process-sweet. This explains partially why the SL-70 is great at steaming, and to be frank, more machines should feature this kind of microswitch action.
  • On any other machine after the ready light has come on/off you want to open up the wand and blow off just enough steam to have the element kick on again. Knowing the element is on we’ll jump into steaming out milk sure of the fact that we’ll have a nice steady production of steam for the entire steaming process.
  • Start with the tip deep in the milk
  • Open the wand up all the way. Equals a half turn on the Solis.
  • Bring the milk pitcher down so that the tip is just below the surface of the milk. You should hear a steady ch-ch-ch sound. This is called the sweet spot. If you hear no sound you’re not creating foam. If you see big bubbles and a higher pitched sound your tip is too high above the surface of the milk.
  • The tip is in the perfect position and foam is being created. Keep the tip towards the edge of the pitcher so that the milk swirls around in a whirlpool motion. This helps create the texture of the foam we’re looking for. It also helps to reduce/remove any of the big bubbles we may have formed looking for the sweet spot.
  • Note: the SL 70 is very likely the first and only machine at this price point level that can create a whirlpool action with the milk in both 12 and 20oz pitcher sizes-sweet. Thank the microswitch that activates the boiler any time you steam. However, if you have a machine that doesn’t create a whirlpool with the milk don’t despair. Carry on, following the instructions to the letter.
  • As the milk is heating and being foamed you will need to be gradually but steadily lowering the pitcher to keep the tip of the steamwand just below the surface of the milk.
  • Rest the edge of the pitcher on the edge of the steamwand for support. This will help keep the pitcher steady while steaming and allow you to make intentional and gradual movements of the pitcher downward. Sometimes it can be challenging to hold the pitcher steady without the steamwand to rest the pitcher against.

We also have this visual walk through, including pictures of (gasp) spooning action, for your visual enjoyment pleasure.

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Flushing First
First, you must purge the “top water” from the boiler and steam wand when steaming.

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Milk, Meet Wand
With very cold milk and a cold picture, gear it up to go.

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Find the level
Sink the tip as you begin, then quickly bring it to the surface of the milk as you continue

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Surf It!
Microfoaming requires deft control and a surfing or skating of the steam tip on the milk surface. Cchh Cchh Cchah.

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Hitting 100
As we hit 100F, sink the wand, and start the turbulating.

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Whirlpool
Even in this still, you can see the Solis machine does a great job whirlpooling the milk.

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Build it up
Whirlpooling continues to raise the milk a bit – a good thing.

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Getting Ready to Coast
We’re getting close to the “coasting” point of this machine – time to shut it off.

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Finished
We’re going to build cappuccinos, so we want our microfoamed milk to be as full as possible.

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Dense!
That’s some superior microfoam, rivaling a lot of stuff you see in cafes.

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Dose it out.
Yes, w’ere about to spoon. That shot came from the SL-70 as well – looking good!

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A Few Dollops
Spoon out ot the middle of the cup, going about half way up.

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Spoonin, Part 2
The spoon has multiple uses.

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Hold It!
The spoon holds back the froth as we pour in the steamed, aerated milk to finish the cup.

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Bellisimo
A cappuccino worthy of the grumpiest old Italian sitting on the Piazza at 9am.

How Much Foam?

First you want to be foaming right from the gun. Find that sweet spot, the point at which the milk is being foamed right away. In an effort to create the proper quantity and quality of foam you want to give yourself the most flexibility possible.

Milk foams up best at low temperatures. The cooler the milk and your pitcher are to start the more receptive the milk will be to taking on air and being foamed. Also the more time you will have to play with and create the quantity of foam desired before the temperature of the milk reaches the point at which you will have to shut off the steamwand.

With that said, for a latte you want to approximately increase the volume of milk by one-third to one-half. This should be accomplished by a temperature of 100-120F after which you will sink the tip of the wand deep into the milk and continue heating the milk up to the desired temperature of 150-155F. This should give you enough foam that there is approximately 1cm worth once the milk is poured into the cup and the foam has settled out.

For a cappuccino we need a bit more foam enough to fill one-third of the cup with foam. We’ll go after things a little more aggressively and for a bit longer.

Draw the pitcher down just a little quicker than you would for a latte. Really pushing things although this is quite subtle.

Also keep the position of the steamwand just below the surface of the milk for longer, up into the 140F plus range. Done right, the volume of milk in your pitcher will have doubled and you’ll be ready to create cappuccini and have to ask the question.

Steam Like a Pro

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Ok, so you’ve spent the money. You have in your possession a machine like the ECM Giotto or an Isomac Millennium. Don’t forget to breath some of the rarified air that leaks out when you open the box. You are in very special company.

These machines are little brothers of the commercial level machines out there, only they’re better. They have all the benefits of a commercial machine (professional portafilter, aquacalda tap, brew and steam at the same time) but are generally quieter and with a smaller footprint. So, can they match a commercial machines milk steaming ability?

Sort of.

This level of machine will heat your milk faster than any other home machine. These machines have steam capacity to spare and if you frequently entertain and need to create more than 2 drinks back to back you will be thankful to have the Giotto at your beckon call.

You cannot however, step up to one of these machines and create the beautifully textured milk we all desire and have talked about at length all throughout this (yes, very long) how-to segment. An odd comment I know, but hear me out.

I believe that the steam tip is an integral part of your ability in creating beautiful foam. In fact your ability to create beautiful foam hinges on the steam tip. You can have lots of steam capacity, you can have the perfect pitcher and flawless form but without a decent tip you will be SOL in creating velvety foam. You will be able to foam the milk yes but the texture will be lacking. I found it a challenge to create quality foam on this level of machine. This is exacerbated by the fact that you have almost as much steam power as a commercial machine at your disposal and things happen FAST. The windows of opportunity to create foam etc. become extremely small and you need to be on top of your game! That said, with a little practice a machine at this level will reward you with professional level performance. You’ll be thinking that all you need is a cash register and you could open you kitchen for business.

Steaming Milk, Prosumer Style

Steaming milk is a fairly straightforward affair, which we will speak to assuming an ideal situation, which means a proper tip, adequate steam pressure etc.  There’s very few “froth aider” tips found on machines in this class. Instead, you have a machine capable of doing the holy grail work: Latte art.

For many people this is getting foam worthy of pouring latte art and that shall be the end goal we have in mind. Latte art foam not only has the ability to create mouthwatering designs on the surface of your drinks but also indicates that the quality of the foam is of the desired, texture and density for a world-class taste.

Let’s get into the art of foaming milk with a high end machine. There’ll be a quiz at the end, so pay attention.

The Step By Step Serious Stuff.

First up, gather all the equipment. A carton of milk, the thermometer, the steaming pitcher and last but not least a clean damp cloth to wipe the steam wand. Oh, and the machine, of course.

We always want to start with a clean cold pitcher and cold fresh milk. You never want to try and re-steam already steamed milk. You can but that’s for amateurs. You also want a cold steam pitcher either frosting over just out of the fridge or rinsed under some cold tap water. The cooler everything is to start the longer you’ll have to play with and foam the milk. If you start with already warm milk or warm steam pitcher the temperature of the milk is elevated and the time with which you have to foam the milk will be cut down considerably. Don’t make it any tougher than it already is. Clean cold pitcher and cold fresh milk.

Use only as much milk as you’re going to need for the drink. Cracker Jack Baristi pride themselves on the meticulousness with which they attend to the details, and one such detail is finishing with as little milk in the pitcher as possible.

I find it helpful to pre-measure the milk filling the cup you will be using with approximately 75% milk, knowing that you will be adding a shot (or two) of espresso and that as the milk is heating and being foamed it will be expanding. This works well for a latte. For cappuccino things are a little tougher, expect to have some left over milk.

I generally use the same quantity of milk for two reasons. One is that to create foam you need proteins (if you read our Hi Milk section, you’ll see why). The more milk being steamed the more protein is available to create foam. To use less milk you have less of these key components to create the volume of foam you will need for a cappuccino.

The other catch is that if you go too small on the quantity of milk the milk will heat up too quickly for you to have time to create the quantity and quality of foam you need. This depends on the machine of course with smaller, slower steaming machines being able to steam and foam smaller quantities of milk without a problem. It is definitely a concern at the commercial or prosumer level of machines where too small a quantity of milk will almost flash heat on you before you can create any foam. It can of course be done but to start here would only add to the difficulty of learning to steam milk. The end result is that you will have extra milk left over when you steam for a cappuccino. Toss it, rinse the pitcher for the next drink

Next up, you blow out your steam wand to get rid of any of the water that has condensed up inside the wand. We don’t want that going into our milk. Most likely, your prosumer machine will have a heat exchanger system or a dual boiler, which means your machine is ready to produce steam as soon as it’s turned on and heated up.

If you machine is a single boiler / dual use boiler, you have to warm up the machine to steam production by pressing / flipping the steam switch. One machine that both fits the prosumer category and the single boiler category is the very capable Isomac Zaffiro – a great espresso machine, and a great steamer as well, but you have to wait a few minutes for the heat up time.

Machine ready to go, wand dried of all moisture build up? Good! Sink the tip of the steamwand deep into the milk and open up the wand all the way!

A word about “all the way.” On most home machines you get to this point pretty quickly with a half turn of the dial. The same happens on most prosumer and commercial machines BUT I often see two things that you want to avoid. One is that the valve does not get open all the way and nervous first timers are trying to steam milk with just a little gurgle of steam coming out of the wand. You won’t create foam this way. The second thing is that on most setups a half turn is enough to open the valve all the way. Four more turns to the left make no difference in the amount of steam coming out of the wand.

But if you crank it four or five turns, you run the risk of getting to the end of the steaming process and not being able to shut the wand off in time and the milk gets overheated. Find the point at which you’re getting maximum steam pressure out of the wand with the minimum number of turns of the dial.

Steamin’ steamin’, steamin! You’re on the way. Bring the tip quickly and expertly up to just below the surface of the milk so that you hear a ch-ch-ch sound. This is the point at which the milk is being foamed; we’ll call it the sweet spot. If you don’t hear any sound, you are not foaming the milk, you are only heating it. If you start to get big, big bubbles the tip is too high and needs to be lowered deeper into the milk.

This is one of the trickier aspects of steaming milk. Milk is most receptive to taking on air and being foamed when it is cold. If you’re putzing around trying to find the sweet spot the milk will be heating up and you will be quickly cutting down the time with which you have to create the greatest volume of foam with the milk. Not good. You want to find the sweet spot pronto, create as much foam as you will need and then sink the tip deep into the milk to continue heating the milk up to the desired temperature. How much foam do I need Aaron? What is the desired temperature? Read on comrade.

The type of foam we are trying to create is the kind that minstrels sing songs about. It is a homogenous mix of steamed milk and foam throughout the entire pitcher of milk. To pour latte art you actually need a smaller volume of foam than many people realize. Once finding their foaming legs many Baristi like to create as much foam as the can with the logic that foaming is a tough thing to learn, they’ve learned it and they are now going to show you just how good they are.

The fact is, too much foam and you will not be able to pour latte art. Starting to create foam right from the gun you should be able to create as much foam as you will need for a latte by about 100-120F after which you will sink the steamwand and finish heating up the milk to the desired temperature.

For a cappuccino you will be creating more foam and need to foam the milk for longer and a little bit more aggressively. I find that I’m foaming milk well up to 140F to create the desired volume of foam for a cappuccino.

Foaming the milk late in the game is a bit risky. If you accidentally break the surface there will be an instant creation of big bubble foam. Ooops. The worse part is that it will be at a point that it will be difficult to get it reincorporated into the rest of the milk. Ideally when you are steaming milk you position the steamwand so that it is at the edge of the steaming pitcher such that the milk is spinning in a whirlpool motion really quickly. This helps to create the texture of foam we are looking for but it also helps to reincorporate any big bubbles we may have created when initially finding the sweet spot.  And you’re looking for a whirlpool effect while steaming. Most, if not all prosumer machines should be capable of this.

Here’s a special Aaron-Tip™. I really like to rest the edge of the pitcher on the steamwand. It gives me stability and control to make the very small, almost imperceptible changes to the pitcher that are necessary for fabulous foam.

Now for a visual how to – a perfect macchiato being made, from start to finish. This one uses a 12oz pitcher, which requires a lot of deft handling on a powerful espresso machine.

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From start to finish
We’re showing this one all the way through – a macchiato is all about espresso – the milk is just to remove the edge.

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A proper tamp…
Don’t let anyone tell you that tamping is not part of the process of turning out great espresso.

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Technique – twist
Straight arm, level, tamp, knock, tamp, and a twist will do it.

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Multitask
On prosumer and professional machines, you can multitask – brew the shot and steam the milk

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Intensity
Get right into it – hold that pitcher tight, use your hands to gauge temps (this requires lots of practice with a thermometer).

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Swirl whirlpool
This is a 12oz pitcher – very small for a pro machine – but it can be done.

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The pour
The pour starts – as soon as the top “drop” of white was done, the decision to make an apple was made – on the fly.

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Hun’ percent foam
This is all foam – microfoam – coming out. Controlling the pour determines how much or how little foam stays on top of the crema.

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Apple forming
As you can see, the apple is forming with the stem. At this point, the decision was made to include a heart – watch for it.

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The ‘throw’
A little extra “nudge” (so barely perceptible) was made to throw a bit extra white froth into the middle of the cup. Then the pour was finished with a drag of the stream towards the index finger.

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The apple heart
This is about as perfect a macchiato as you can get – rich, luxurious espresso, perfect pour.

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It looks so good…
that we were hesitant to drink it. It was every bit as tasty and rich as it looked!

Temperature Concerns

How hot do we want to take the milk? Depends a lot on the application and how the coffee is being served. The ceiling for me is 160F. This is the maximum I ever take milk, unless you’ve got someone partial to the taste of scalded milk and then take it into the 170-180 range.

160F is ideal if the drink might be in a cup to go or if there is whipped cream being added etc. Not typical for home application.

The ideal temperature for you steaming milk is between 150-155F. This is when the milk is being poured into pre-heated cups and being served and consumed immediately…like all coffee should by the way.

And while I’m at it, allow me a small aside: The idea that if you don’t have 10 minutes for a coffee, guess what? Don’t bother. Take the time to make, serve and enjoy a coffee. I mean for all the effort that goes into selecting, roasting, brewing, steaming etc. Take a moment. Nothing in life can’t be put on hold for 10 minutes without the world coming to an end. Except of course if you have small children, then you are excused.

Ok back to our regular programming. Steaming milk up to 150-155F requires that you actually shut the steamwand off approximately 5-10F before the desired temperature. There is always a bit of a lag to the thermometer. Shutting the steamwand off at 145F will actually see the needle continue to coast upwards and generally settle at 155F, 10F higher than the temperature you shut that wand off at.

This will vary from machine to machine: the more entry level home machines will see less coasting of the temperature after the wand is shut off. The higher end prosumer and commercial machines exhibit more of a coasting effect, with a temperature of 10F higher than the temperature the wand was shut off at being typical.

Let’s have a look at our foam. How have we done? If milk is steamed to perfection the surface of the milk with be completely smooth with uniform, tight, small bubble foam. Achieve perfection and you can write an article on how to steam milk next time. 🙂

The next step up is a mix of the small bubble foam mixed in with some deceptive medium bubble stuff that looks sort of ok but is a sign that we’ve missed the mark a bit. Of course, if you’ve got dishwater foam, that big, big bubble stuff well you probably know that you’ve missed the mark and that you dramatically broke the surface of the milk while steaming to achieve (almost instantaneously) those big, bad bubbles.

If any big bubbles are visible we can try to save the day by knocking our pitcher on the counter, pounding it as it were. You should see the bigger bubbles break up and the settle in. Not all hope is lost. If you have those deceptive medium bubbles that are not so much on the surface but mixed in and more towards the outside of your pitcher of steamed milk with the inner portion of milk showing some nice tight foam… well those medium bubbles are a bitch. They are big enough to ruin attempts at latte art and yet are small enough not to really be affected by the knocking of the pitcher. You need more practice.

So you’ve knocked the pitcher a half dozen times and things have settled out a bit, the biggest bubbles are gone and things are looking pretty good. At this point you want to forcefully spin the milk. I like to keep the pitcher resting on a counter and spin it around making tighter and tighter circles as it were.

It’s much like whipping an egg in a bowl, you can really spin things without fear of the milk coming over the edge of the pitcher. What you want to notice is how the surface of the milk changes and goes from a dull luster to a beautiful luminescent sheen.

Oooooh, very cool.

The milk foam has a wet gloppiness to it if you were to spoon some out and is just begging to be poured in a cup and introduce itself it Mr. Espresso. You are standing on the precipice of pouring some latte art at this point.

How much foam did you create? Did your volume double? Perfect for a cappuccino or two but waaaay too much for latte art. If done right there should be a 33% to 50% max increase in the volume of milk. Too much foam, even perfect foam will tend to lump into your cup when you pour. If you suspect you have too much foam but dare to go for the Rosetta pour anyway, spoon a little foam out first, then you’re off.

Ideally I’m shooting for prepping my drinks in a way that looks like the following:

  • Get the milk measured and ready to steam.
  • Grind, dose and tamp your espresso, lock it in and brew away.
  • At the same time that the shot is pouring start steaming the milk.
  • Both should finish at the same time et voila milk goes on top of the coffee and the drink is served.

This is ideal but only works on prosumer or commercial machines. Depending on your particular set up you may want to steam the milk first or pour the shots first and then steam the milk…If you find that you are waiting for your espresso to finish pouring, keep that milk spinning in your pitcher. If you let the milk sit, the foam will settle out and there will be no hope of a free pour anything let alone an attempt at some latte art. Keep the milk spinning and the foam will tend to stay all mixed up and in solution so to speak. When the shots are ready you’ll be able to pour the milk in achieving the mixing of the espresso with the foam and everything will be right with the world.

Latte Art Guide

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You waited for it, now you got it. On top of my words, you’re also going to see a lot of examples of some really first rate latte art done by some of CoffeeGeek’s members. I’m just completely amazed, excited and impressed by what the cronies around here are capable of – serve me a drink anytime folks! You rock, and you show the rest of us that latte art is achievable.

So let’s get into it. The Holy Grail is here – Latte Art.

The Variables are Right

Ok, you read this guide, you know how to pull a killer shot of espresso, and you’ve done things: espresso perfection awaits at the bottom of your cup. You’d take a picture if you didn’t have a pitcher of pristinely foamed milk, with nanometer-sized bubbles and a quicksilver sheen in your hand. The proportion of foam is perfect. You want to pour latte art….

Much like rubbing your tummy and tapping your head, pouring latte art requires that you do two things at the same time. Pour the milk at a consistent and even rate AND shake the pitcher side to side with the even tempo of a metronome.

Use a wide mouth cup. Ideally I like a smaller size (6oz) but some might find a larger 12oz size to work better. The trick is with the wide mouth you will more easily see the design develop and if anything the wide mouth can assist in its development.

Here’s something you might not want to do, but should: Practice with water first. It doesn’t have the same viscosity of milk but it can give you a chance to get a feel for pouring and then shaking at the same time. You will also need to be gradually but steadily raising the pitcher so that the milk continues to pour at a steady rate. Later in the pour there is less milk in the pitcher and to keep the milk flowing you will need to tilt the bottom of the pitcher up.

To give you a further sense of what’s going on – any fly fishers out there? David Schomer, that maestro of the latte art, likes to compare the art of pouring to casting a line while fly fishing. Dave’s an avid fly fisher, you see, and he says there’s a similar rhythm in casting a fly line and pouring latte art.  You need to have patience when casting the line, letting the line drift back, waiting until it loads the rod before accelerating the line again with the snap of your wrist.  When pouring latte art there is a mimicking of this process swinging the pitcher side to side, waiting for the milk to “load” up in the side of the pitcher before changing direction and swinging it to the other side.  Typically new people oscillate the pitcher back and forth too quickly, trying to rush the process.  The side to side motion needs to be more rhythmical, almost lazy, much like the casting of a fly line.  Be patient and let the milk set the timing of the osciallations.

I’m assuming if you’re a fly fisher, this makes perfect sense. If you’re not go rent “A River Runs Through It” and you’ll get a bit of a better idea of what David is talking about.

Getting back to the practical, you’re ready to pour, and you need to position. Hold the cup on a slight angle, with the back of the cup being raised up and the edge of the cup closest to you sitting slightly lower. This fans the coffee out in the cup and helps in the development of the leaves for our Rosetta.

Pour starting in the center of the coffee, especially for small cups. Just start pouring straight into the middle of the coffee. I like to keep the edge of the pitcher resting on the edge of the cup at this point.

With the cup about halfway to 3/4 full give the pitcher a little side to side shake and you should start to see the leaves of the penumbra begin to form. Your wrist has also managed to do the “throw” that Schomer describes in his latte art seminars.

Continue the shake, continuing to pour in the center of the coffee. The leaves should move away from you on the surface of the espresso. After about 4-6 shakes you will need to begin moving the pitcher back towards you, continuing to shake side to side with a little bit of a tighter oscillation.

This movement is slower than what many people attempt initially. Don’t get nervous and try to rush things. It won’t work. Slow, steady, almost “natural” slow beat metronome movements are your goal.

As you near the edge of the cup having created lots of leaves or delineations in the surface of the espresso you want to then draw through those leaves with the pour of the milk. Do this slowly, and also elevate your pour just a bit to keep the center stem slim and complimentary to the leaves.

Do it too quickly and it will pull the leaves up tight making your Rosetta look like a Christmas tree that hasn’t had its branches come down yet.

Last bit of advice: Practice, practice, practice. Pro Baristi pour hundreds of drinks a day, and that’s their practice time. You have the luxury of no lineups to deal with. Use it.

Art Examples

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At CoffeeGeek, many of our regular members and forum participants are regular maestros at the whole latte art thing. We put out a notice some months back asking for these latte art virtuosos to post their best examples of their work.

As you can see below, the skill levels are high. Some of the machines used are some of the cheapest espresso machines on the market today; others are full prosumer machines.

Enjoy this pictorial of some of our CG members’ best work

Jim Schulman (CoffeeGeek Forums Modererator)

Jim has his hot and cold days when banging out latte art (as he says himself), but lately, he’s been on a roll!

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Tight macchiato
Macchiatos are often the most difficult latte art to pour.

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Rosetta
A very delicate, full leaf rosetta.

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Rosetta
Jim seems to have a nack for doing very slender leaf designs.

Bobby Ellis

Bobby recently got the hang of latte art, but he’s been showing off some great examples of etching as well.

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Etching
Etching is something that folks stymied by latte art can do – use a needle therm to drag patterns in the latte.

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Etching, part 2
Etching can also be done with chocolate syrup, giving some interesting contrasts.

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Rosetta
Wow – great, delicate, and beautifully formed.

Avi Zaks

Avi is another newcomer to latte art, but he sure is making up for lost time!

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Rosetta
One of Avi’s first published attempts

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Apple
Avi pounds out the apple!

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Heart
All of these were done on a budget consumer machine – not bad!

Robert Hall, MD

CoffeeGeek’s resident “amateur” latte art super expert and Forums Doctor, Rob has been setting the standard on our website for what is possible in latte art. Maybe it’s the steady hands…

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Rosetta
Funky wide leaf rosetta by Rob.

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Rosetta
Rob has some of the most unique leaf patterns I’ve seen.

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Rosetta
Is this one smiling at me?

Steve Wang

Steve, a stockbroker in Chicago, is definitely catching up to our latteart champeen Rob – he went from nowhere to these amazing designs in a few short weeks.

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Rosetta
One of Steve’s first published rosettas. Nice!

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Rosetta
A very well formed rosetta with intricate weaving.

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Vesuvius Rosetta
Beauty, with a cloud top.

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Rosetta
Wow factor is what comes to mind here.

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Rosetta
Happy rosetta, nicely done!

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Rosetta
A very nice, bottom balanced rosetta, more like a rose.

Chris Thompson

Chris is another amazing latte art technician who participates regularly in our forums. Here’s some of his art.

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Rosetta
Wow – super delicate leaves and a bold look.

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Rosetta
Another well defined rosetta build by Chris

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Rosetta
Another great rosetta. Darker flecks in crema come from chocolate powder.

Simon James

Simon cheats a little in this list – he’s a cafe manager in Australia – but his work is awesome.

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Super Etch
I don’t even know how he pulled this one off!

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Rosetta
Nice and tight rosetta pattern.

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Rosetta
Middle of the cup, using the crema as a big frame.

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