How to steam or froth milk for coffee

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Fat, protein, and lactose are the three main components of milk. To create the perfect micro-foam milk for coffee, these components need to work together with applied temperature to produce a result that is smooth and consistent in texture. The more protein milk has, the more stable it will be when you froth or steam.

Frothing and steaming are both options for improving the taste and consistency of your milk. Adding textured milk to your coffee will change the mouthfeel, making it creamier and smoother.

When steaming and frothing, air is introduced into the milk, which increases the volume and creates foam. This process is followed by “texturing”, which involves incorporating the micro-foam into the rest of the milk in order to end up with a result that is consistent and creamy.

So, what is the difference between steaming and frothing and how can you do each at home?

Steaming vs Frothing

Steaming milk involves using a steam wand (commonly found on an espresso machine). The steam wand releases hot pressured air through either one or four holes in the base, allowing bubbles to form on the surface of the milk. This is the technique most commonly used by baristas.

If the technique is correct, the steam will create a whirlpool movement in the milk jug. Steaming is the most commonly used method at coffee shops thanks to the efficiency of this method in producing micro-foam. A steam wand also serves as a way to heat the milk.

Frothing usually involves an electric milk frother or a handheld frother that spins at a high speed. Milk frothers are easier to use than steam wands and importantly are an affordable option for people who don’t have an espresso machine.

Milk frothers try to replicate what a steam wand does. They introduce air into the milk while texturing it at the same time. Some frothers also have a heating element and a temperature control dial.

How to steam milk like a barista

What you need:

  1. Your milk of choice (you can use non-dairy alternatives as well)
  2. A milk jug or pitcher
  3. A clean, wet cloth
  4. Your cup of choice

Step 1:

First make sure you have everything you need close to your workstation. This will make the whole process easier. Before you begin on the milk, pull an espresso shot as you would normally.

Step 2:

While your coffee is being extracted, pour cold milk into your pitcher, making sure it reaches the bottom of the spout’s indent. You can always experiment with the milk quantity depending on your preferences, just remember that the quantity can affect the whirlpool when steaming.

Step 4:

Place the steam wand just below the surface of the milk and open the valve. You will start to hear a “hissing” sound, this is air being pushed into the milk, creating foam.

After a few seconds have passed, submerge the wand (making sure it doesn’t touch the bottom) and tilt the pitcher a few degrees until a whirlpool starts to form. This process incorporates the bubbles from the foam into the rest of the milk.

Step 5:

Place your hand on the side of the jug to check the temperature. The milk should start to feel warm (around 65 C) but shouldn’t be too hot to touch. You can use a thermometer for this step until you get the confidence to do it by touch.

Close the valve and pull out the wand. As soon as you finish steaming, purge the wand once again, cleaning the tip with a wet cloth.

Step 6:

Bang the jug lightly on a solid surface and swirl it steadily. This ensures that larger bubbles of milk incorporate into the textured milk, resulting in a smooth and glossy finish and a creamy texture.

To make latte art, place the tip of the pitcher in the middle of your cup and start pouring the milk into the coffee.

Use a small movement of the wrist to create a rippled pattern until the cup is full.

To be successful with latte art, you’ll need to practice your technique regularly. Practice does make perfect on this one.

How to froth milk (using a milk frother)

What you need:

  1. Your milk of choice
  2. A milk frother (can be a handheld model or an electric one)
  3. Your cup of choice
  4. A container (if using a handheld model)

Handheld Milk Frothers:

Step 1:

Heat the milk and place it in a jug or container. Make sure the milk doesn’t boil as it will adversely affect the taste of your coffee.

Step 2:

Hold the container at a slight angle and place the tip of the frother on top of the milk. Turning on the frother and move it up and down until bubbles start to form (between 15 to 30 seconds).

You will hear a slight “hissing” sound similar to when using a steam wand. Once the milk has acquired a creamy consistency, turn off the frother and tap the container to get rid of most bubbles.

Step 3:

Pour the milk into your coffee. Remember you can customise the bubbles depending on your drink of choice: for a cappuccino, you want larger bubbles, which means incorporating more air. Lattes and Flat Whites have smaller bubbles, or “micro-foam”.

Electric Milk Frothers:

Step 1:

Pour milk into your electric frother. Most electric frothers can hold up between 120 to 240 ml of milk. If you want to make a latte or a cappuccino, use around 180ml.

Step 2:

If you are using an electric milk frother that has a temperature dial, adjust the temperature to suit your taste and let the frother do the work. If your frother doesn’t include a temperature dial, heat the milk first before pouring it into the frother.

Step 3:

Once your frother is done, pour the milk into your coffee. You can also make latte art with this method but it will be slightly more tricky due to milk frothers not being able to achieve the same consistency of microfoam as an espresso steam wand.

Things to keep in mind when steaming or frothing milk

  • Temperature matters. If you burn your milk, the fat, protein and lactose will transform and you will end up with something that won’t work for latte art and will affect the flavour of your coffee.
  • If latte art is your aim, spend time practicing the way you pour (Youtube is your friend!)
  • Milk that has a higher fat content tends to work better and is easier to handle.
  • Dairy-free alternatives can work as well. I like to buy the ones that are catered to baristas (like oat milk) because they are easier to work with.

Milk Steaming FAQ

How do you steam milk for a flat white?

The aim for a Flat White is to steam milk so that it does not have a lot of foam. You need to place the tip of the steam wand just under the surface of the milk, introducing air for only a few seconds. Once the jug feels a similar temperature to your hand, submerge the wand into the milk and position the jug so that a whirlpool is created. When the milk reaches around 65c, or is hot to touch, turn off the steam valve and remove the wand from the milk jug. Before pouring, bang the jug on a counter to break any large air bubbles and swirl the milk around to create a smooth finish.

How do you steam perfect milk for latte art?

You need to be using cold milk, as this will ensure you have a longer time frame to introduce air and raise the temperature. The amount of air that you introduce to the milk will depend on the drink that you are making, however, don’t overdo it or the milk will be too heavy. Make sure your milk never boils, the milk jug needs to feel warm in your hand without burning. Lastly, practice this technique with different types of milk so that you get used to each one.

Does steamed milk taste different?

Yes, steamed milk tastes different. Hot milk tastes sweeter than cold milk because our tongue tends to be more sensitive when coming into contact with hot liquids. Milk that has a higher lactose content will end up tasting sweeter when steaming than lactose-free or vegetable milk.

Why is my milk not steaming or frothing?

As mentioned above, fat is a very important component of milk when it comes to steaming. If your milk is not foaming properly this may mean that the fat content is either too high or too low and you need to adjust the amount of air that you are introducing. Another reason could be related to not purging the steam wand regularly. Not purging causes the steam wand to clog up and start losing pressure over time. A third reason could be the storage of your dairy and dairy-free products: products that have been exposed to daylight may not foam as well.