Ok, so youíve spent the money. You have in your possession a machine like the ECM Giotto or an Isomac Millennium. Donít 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 theyíre 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?
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. Youíll 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 thatís 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 youíll 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. Donít make it any tougher than it already is. Clean cold pitcher and cold fresh milk.
Use only as much milk as youíre 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 donít 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 ďall the way.Ē 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 wonít 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 youíre 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; weíll call it the sweet spot. If you donít 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 youíre 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, theyíve 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 Iím 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.
| A proper tamp... |
Don't let anyone tell you that tamping is not part of the process of turning out great espresso.
| 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
| Intensity |
Get right into it - hold that pitcher tight, use your hands to gauge temps (this requires lots of practice with a thermometer).
| 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.
| 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.
| 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.
| The apple heart |
This is about as perfect a macchiato as you can get - rich, luxurious espresso, perfect pour.
| It looks so good... |
that we were hesitant to drink it. It was every bit as tasty and rich as it looked!
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 youíve 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 donít have 10 minutes for a coffee, guess what? Donít 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 canít 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.
Letís 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 weíve missed the mark a bit. Of course, if youíve got dishwater foam, that big, big bubble stuff well you probably know that youíve 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 foamÖ 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 youíve 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 youíre off.
Ideally Iím 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 youíll be able to pour the milk in achieving the mixing of the espresso with the foam and everything will be right with the world.