Steaming Milk :: Useful tips

Latte art for steaming blog

Pouring nice looking latte art is a goal for many home baristas and an essential skill for professionals in the café. Creating a pretty espresso drink will impress your guests and enhance the overall experience of enjoying your coffee. However, getting a heart or a rosetta to look right takes lots of practice (and lots of milk) at first, but once the techniques become comfortable it’s very satisfying to produce attractive drinks every time. It definitely takes patience and the right touch during the pour, but most importantly you’ll need to start with nicely textured milk or no amount of finesse will help while you’re actually making the drink.

For a latte, you want to produce milk that mimics the consistency of house paint – thick, smooth and creamy, not foamy like a bubble bath. As described below, a little extra aeration will provide denser foam for a cappuccino. Well-steamed milk will have a uniform texture, a glossy shine on the surface and nice sweet flavor that will support and complement the qualities in your espresso. Whole milk works best but these techniques can be adapted for use with 2%, skim or your preferred dairy alternative.

Read through and practice these guidelines. The steps outlined below will get you on the right track toward steaming for smooth, sweet lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos.

1) Before you steam your milk, purge the steam wand. Point it toward the drip tray or into a cup and slowly open the valve by turning the knob to release the water that’s built up in the wand until you get nice dry steam without much water in it.

2) Bury the steam tip under the surface of the milk but only slightly, not all the way to the bottom of the pitcher.

3) Gradually turn the knob until you get adequate steam pressure into the milk, not so much that it explodes, but enough to get a nice swirl in the surface of the milk.

4) Very early in the steaming process, before the milk begins to heat up, you want to aerate (or “stretch”) the milk by gently lowering the pitcher until the steam tip emerges from the surface and injects air into the milk. Again, not enough to make it explode everywhere, but just enough to get that ‘tsst tsst’ sound. After a couple seconds of giving it air, bury the tip back down just a little and hold the pitcher so that there’s a swirl of milk dancing around the surface. Note that low-fat and skim milk will get extra-foamy if you’re not careful with your application of steam pressure.

5) Use a thermometer in the milk to ensure heating to the desired temperature. OR: use your hand on the outside of the pitcher to monitor the heat as it’s steaming. Just as the outside gets almost too hot to touch, close the steam valve by turning the knob, remove the pitcher, and always immediately purge and wipe your steam wand clean.

6) When you’re done steaming, there will probably be bubbles trapped near the surface of the milk. If you’ve done well, those bubbles will disappear when you knock the bottom of the pitcher firmly on a sturdy countertop. Give the milk a good swirl to integrate the denser foam at the top with the thinner milk underneath and keep a uniform texture throughout the pitcher.

If you give the milk air after it begins heating, you’ll find tons of tiny bubbles that are impossible to get out by swirling or tapping the pitcher after the steaming is done. With practice you can get the hang of aerating the milk (couple seconds for a latte, couple seconds longer for a cappuccino) before it starts getting hot, then maintaining that swirl for a nice consistent texture in your drink. Depending on your steam pressure, you will have to adjust how much air your give it, how far you open the valve and for how long in order to get that rich consistency for pouring the drink.

Keep in mind that milk steaming takes some time to learn well. As with any new skill, the three best ways to improve are practice, practice, and practice. Stay tuned for pointers about pouring the latte art, coming soon.