Foaming, Frothing, Steaming...
Itís all the same thingÖsort 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 donít 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 Iím 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 youíve 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 friendís house. Now you want to create the magic combination of espresso and milk loveliness at home. Where does one begin?
May we suggestÖ
| Cheat! |
Got someone who needs easing into coffee, and normal milk won't do? Buy chocolate milk and froth that!
Wow, is there a lot of fancy schmancy coffee equipment out there. Grinders, espresso machines, all different prices, different colours, different brands. It can all be a bit intimidating. Just one visit over to the Consumer Reviews section can give one the willies. But that's where you should go, to find out the best products for your needs - read what consumers have to say, and make an informed purchase choice.
This article is about steaming milk and making milk based drinks, so we shall start with the simplest possible approach to creating a fabulous espresso and milk experience and work up to slightly more complicated options as we go.
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 milkÖ). 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: thisíll be a solid cup of coffee thatíll put hair on your legs and believe it or not thatís 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 youíll 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 olí 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 youíre like me I think youíll 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 whichÖ
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 youíve 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. Itís 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 donít have or canít find one of those (deep breath) youíre going to have to make the coffee yourself.
My only advice when using one of these little guys is donít use too much heat when brewing. Slowly and patiently make the coffee, donít 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
| Beautiful Macchiato |
A beautiful, apple-heart macchiato - latte art in a 2oz cup!
Ok so youíve dabbled with coffee before (or as discussed above) but youíre not in college anymore and youíre 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 youíll 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:
- Show up (very important!)
- Turn the machine on (almost as important!)
- Press the steam button. This turns the element in the boiler on to create steam.
- When the ready light turns off/on youíre ready to go.
- Submerge the froth assistor deep into the pitcher of milk.
- Turn the steamwand open.
- Do nothing. The froth assistor will do it all for you.
- Turn the steamwand off at the desired milk temperature (150-155F).
- Pull your shots of espresso into some preheated and preferably stylish cups.
- Spoon or pour the steamed and foamed milk onto your shots of espresso.
- Bask in the praise of your guestsí 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.
| Loose and Easy |
Not much finesse, not much control - just drop the tip barely into the milk.
| 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.
| Bubbly Mess |
This is what most auto-frothers can do, at least on steam-wand machines.
| 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 donít want to learn how to do this itís because you have never seen it. Once youíve 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.
Youíre 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 youíll 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!
| Surfing the Hole |
Here, the side-mounted intake hole is being "surfed' to introduce controlled air into the milk.
| 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.
| Keeping it tight |
Wand's sunk in deep, we're keeping those bubbles tight.
| 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!
| Big Difference |
Not quite the silky microfoam a traditional wand gives, but much nicer than the previous step by step.
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 donít 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 theyíll look at you like youíre 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. Itís not just the coffee; itís 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.
| 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 youíre ready to steam
Blow out the steamwand to get rid of any moisture in the wand and confirm that youíve 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 youíre 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 youíve 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 youíll 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.
Youíre now ready to ask the question, to free pour, or to spoon?
Free Pour or Spooning: that is the Question.
First, itís 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 youíve 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, weíre 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 donít visit someoneís house with a better machine.
More than that the need to upgrade (the timeíll 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 weíll 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 (Iím 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 doesnít flap around like multi-directional wands can sometimes. Let's do a walk through, followed by a visual.
- So youíve pulled your shots. Remember weíre 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 youíre 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 weíll 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 weíll jump into steaming out milk sure of the fact that weíll 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 youíre 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 weíre 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 doesnít create a whirlpool with the milk donít 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.
| Milk, Meet Wand |
With very cold milk and a cold picture, gear it up to go.
| 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.
| Hitting 100 |
As we hit 100F, sink the wand, and start the turbulating.
| 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.
| Getting Ready to Coast |
We're getting close to the "coasting" point of this machine - time to shut it off.
| 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.
| Dose it out. |
Yes, w'ere about to spoon. That shot came from the SL-70 as well - looking good!
| 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...
| Hold It! |
The spoon holds back the froth as we pour in the steamed, aerated milk to finish the cup.
| 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. Weíll 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 youíll be ready to create cappuccini and have to ask the question.