Milk Steaming for the Home Barista

WRITTEN BY: ZOE DUMAS

So, you’ve mastered the art of espresso. You’re slinging shots faster than you can say “cappuccino.” Now, it’s time to upgrade your home barista skills: it’s time to steam some milk! This has always been my favorite part of being a barista. The sound is essential to the café experience, and the feeling of nailing the perfect milk texture for latte art is one that can’t be beat.  If you’re looking to learn and one day master this skill at home, you’ve come to the right place.

You’ll want to start by getting everything ready. You’ll need: a steaming pitcher, a clean towel that doesn’t shed, and your milk of choice. Keep in mind that the milk you choose may not aerate the same as dairy milk, and thus it may be impossible to completely replicate the taste and texture of a traditional latte. Optionally, you may also want a clip-on thermometer (like this one) to precisely and consistently steam your milk to the right temperature, but you can fairly accurately estimate your milk’s temperature on feel alone with enough practice.  

Once you have everything, it’s time to begin! Pour milk into the pitcher to just below the bottom of the spout. Next, purge your steam wand by turning it on for a couple of seconds. This removes any milk left over in the steam wand from previous use. Now moisten the cloth and use it to wipe down the wand.

espresso steam wand frothing milk

Depending on the power of your machine, it might take some time for your milk to steam to the desired temperature. If you’re using a thermometer, turn off the steam before the milk hits 160 degrees Fahrenheit as it will continue heating slightly once you stop. If, however, you don’t have a thermometer, you can get a sense of your milk’s temperature with just the palm of your hand. While you hold the pitcher handle with one hand, loosely hold the pitcher itself with the other. Once the pitcher gets too hot to touch, remove your hand and wait 3 seconds. This should get your milk to approximately 160 degrees, perfect for a latte. Once you’ve turned the steam off, take the pitcher from the wand and firmly place it on the counter.

Before you groom the milk, clean the steam wand by wiping it down and purging as you did before. Grab the pitcher by the handle and place your other hand over the top, covering it. Give the pitcher a good two or three taps on the counter to burst any of the larger bubbles that may have appeared during steaming. Then, with the pitcher planted on the counter, gently swirl it to redistribute the smaller bubbles, or microfoam, evenly across the top. If you still have big bubbles, give the pitcher another few taps and swirls until the milk has the look of wet paint – it should be glossy and smooth.

With the milk ready, it’s time to pour. Latte art is a fun way to make drinks more presentable in café settings, but it also indicates to the customer that the barista has done an excellent job of preparing the milk. Over-aerated milk will be a foamy mess, and under-aerated milk doesn’t have the structure to sit on top of the espresso crema. So, focus on perfecting your steaming and grooming technique if you want to make drinks that look and taste great.

pour steamed milk into a cup to make a latte

Once the cup is about half-full, continue pouring while moving the pitcher as close to the coffee’s surface as possible. While the milk you poured before should land under the crema, this milk should sit on top of it. Keep pouring until the cup is nearly full and the microfoam has formed a circle in the center of the cup. To finish it off, quickly pull the pitcher back up to create that thin stream again and drag it through the circle’s center. If everything goes according to plan, you should have poured a heart! If this is your first time, though, it might look a bit more like a peach or some other interesting shape, and that’s totally OK! Latte art is a difficult skill to learn and an even harder one to master, so don’t give up if this is part of your home-barista goals. Once you’ve mastered the heart, there are loads of guides online for other fun latte art designs like rosettas and swans.

And that’s it! Just like with espresso, you’re not likely to get this right the first time. In fact, it can take quite a bit of practice to master the art of milk steaming, and that’s OK. Relish the journey and enjoy the fruits of your labor –your latest espresso-based creations!

 


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