How To Steam and Froth Milk at Home: with or without a wand
As you experiment with brewing craft coffee, you may find yourself interested in duplicating the specialty latte and cappuccino drinks from your favorite coffee shop.
It's easy, after a little practice, and best of all you can control the amount of foam you create, from a light layer on top of your coffee to a fluffy cloud of milk froth.
Coffee + Milk = Love?
Milk pairs so well with coffee because milk offers a layer of flavor complexity that complements the natural flavors of coffee. When added to coffee, milk creates a profound and complex flavor profile that highlights the natural floral, caramel, and roasted notes.
This is because of milk’s chemical composition (1). Milk is composed of sugar, fats, and proteins. These three compounds help to develop the texture and taste we love in our milk and coffee drinks.
The way that these proteins react with air helps the creation of foam—preferably microfoam, or a collection of incredibly tight, small bubbles that form a creamy sort of matrix across the top of the finished liquid.
When sugar is heated, it breaks down and caramelizes, helping to sweeten the milk. The proteins, once heated, help to stiffen the bubbles, holding air in the milk to give it a light body. Finally, the fats melt to create a smooth and velvety appearance and mouthfeel.
What's the difference between steaming and frothing milk?
Do you like your espresso drink with a big, fluffy mound of milk foam piled on top? Or do you like just a thin layer of nearly microscopic bubbles over sweet, hot milk mixed with your espresso shot?
If you're using an espresso maker with a steam wand, the difference is as simple as how deep you place the tip of the wand in your steaming pitcher.
If you want a big head of foam on top of your drink, keep the tip of the wand just barely below the surface of the milk. This will draw air into the milk along with the steam, resulting in large bubbles that will create the frothy, floating island of milk.
You will need to move the wand lower in the frothing pitcher from time to time to heat the milk evenly, but mostly you need to leave the tip near the top of the milk. As you practice, listen to the steam drawing air into the milk.
When you are building up the froth, you'll see larger bubbles as the milk expands, climbing the side of your frothing pitcher. It's important to have a large enough pitcher to contain the expanding milk. Your pitcher should be large enough that you only fill it about 1/3 of the way with cold milk, to allow for expansion.
Some espresso machines have a style of wand called a pannarello, designed specifically to pull air into the milk as you steam. These make frothing nearly foolproof, but you can get a beautiful mound of froth with any type of wand. It just takes practice.
“You have to cook a thousand steaks just to suck at it.” – Chef Thomas Keller, The French Laundry
If you want steamed milk without the mound of foam, keep the steam wand fully submerged in the milk, with the tip of the steam wand at or near the side of the pitcher to create a spiral vortex, towards the bottom of the pitcher. This heats the milk, and results in tiny bubbles – sometimes called microfoam – that give the milk a silky consistency and leave only a tiny layer of bubbles on the top of your drink. If you're interested in latte art, this is the technique to master.
While steaming, you will notice that the milk in the frothing pitcher doubles in volume, even without the head of froth described previously. This is because of the microfoam bubbles incorporated in the milk (3). You'll taste that sweet flavor and creamy texture as you sip your cappuccino or latte.
If there are a few large bubbles remaining on the surface of the frothed milk, tap the pitcher firmly against a countertop or similar surface, then swirl the milk around the pitcher. This trick generally removes larger bubbles.
What Kind of Milk Works Best?
Always use fresh, cold milk – the freshest you can buy. As milk approaches its best-by date, the ability to make foam (whether microfoam or a big frothy head) deteriorates. You can bake with it, make chocolate milk with it, or pour it on your cereal, but it'll never give you the results you want in your coffee unless it's scrupulously fresh. Just as with coffee beans, buy only as much as you're likely to use in a week.
The fat content affects flavor and texture. If you want a lot of foam and stiff bubbles, go with skim milk or 2% milk. The relatively higher protein content creates bubbles that retain their air, and the higher proportion of sugar gives a hint of extra sweetness.
What about whole milk? The extra butterfat gives a thicker, creamier consistency. You can still get a lot of loft in your foam – it just takes a little more effort. And if you're looking for steamed milk with the lightest layer of microfoam on the top, whole milk is creamier.
If you drink plant-based milk, soy milk burns at a lower temperature than dairy milk. Coconut milk has a high fat content that makes it very creamy; it also adds a tropical flavor to your cappuccino or latte.
“Non-fat milk, 2% milk, whole milk, organic milk and lactose free milk will provide excellent results for your latte. Soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk can also be heated for a dairy free latte alternative.” – Capresso
How to Steam Milk Without an Espresso Maker
You've just made espresso, and need some frothed milk to top it off. But your espresso machine has no steam wand…what do you do? No problem. You can heat milk, and even froth milk, with a number of alternative techniques and (mostly) ordinary kitchen equipment.
In a microwave: Measure your milk out into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid – a Mason jar or jam jar will do (4). Then, shake the daylights out of the milk (you did remember to put the top on first, right?) When the milk is frothy, remove the lid and pop the jar in the microwave. This will heat the proteins in the milk and set your foam. Spoon this onto your coffee and enjoy.
With a French press: Measure heated milk (aim for 150 – 155 degrees F) into a French press coffee maker. Make sure the milk level is higher than the steel filter at its lowest point. Pump the plunger up and down quickly to create air bubbles in the heated milk. Pour or spoon onto your coffee.
Buy a milk frother: If you just want a way to heat milk and give it some bubbles, here's our review of the 5 best products for doing that. They range from inexpensive frothing wands (you'll need to heat the milk separately) to a slick dedicated milk frother with its own heating system and two frothing discs for different-size bubbles.
With a saucepan and balloon whisk: Measure your milk out into a small saucepan and place it on the stove over low-medium heat. As the milk warms, beat it rapidly with a balloon whisk (the kind you'd use to beat egg whites or whipped cream). You can use a hand mixer, but be careful not to splatter milk all over your stove.
Whichever way you choose to help you make milk-based coffee drinks, always remember that low and slow heating will develop the sugars and sweet taste in the milk. Too fast will lead to scorching and bad-tasting milk.
If you decide that you want to create genuine steamed milk with proper texturing and microfoam, though, you will want to purchase a real espresso machine like this one from Breville that comes with a good steam wand.
If you would like to make milk foam to add to your coffee, tools like the Epica milk frother will heat and whip your milk around giving that bubbly, foamed, and textured milk for your coffee.
Do you have any tips or suggestions? Which type of milk do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.
To steam milk for a latte at home, aim to create milk with silky microfoam and without the big head of froth you find on a cappuccino. Follow the instructions for steaming milk, above. If you’re looking for a cappuccino, follow the instructions for frothing milk.
Here’s how you can make a latte at home (with no machine).
How long you steam milk for a latte isn’t as important as the volume you get. Your milk should roughly double in volume as you steam it. For best results, fill your frothing pitcher only about 1/3 of the way full. That will give your milk room to expand as you incorporate microfoam into the milk.
Frothing milk and steaming milk are similar. The difference is that frothed milk has more air incorporated into the milk by keeping the tip of the wand closer to the top of the milk. This pulls in more air and creates larger, stiffer bubbles.
Yes, steaming milk makes it sweeter. The heat breaks down the lactose (milk sugar), caramelizing it lightly and adding sweetness. Just remember to heat gently – heating too quickly can scorch the milk and ruin the flavor.
Steamed milk should be kept between 150 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit (65-68 degrees Celsius). Milk proteins begin to break down at 170 F (5). If you don’t have a thermometer, here are a couple of tips: Froth just till the milk nearly doubles in volume. And a tip from a barista friend: listen for the sound to change. When the steam wand sounds like tearing paper, the milk is done.
- Hello Milk! (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coffeegeek.com/guides/frothingguide/milk
- Goodwin, L. (2019, May 20). How to Make Frothed Milk by Adding Steam. Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/froth-milk-with-steam-wand-766136
- How to Froth Milk for Cappuccinos in the Microwave. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/148337381452326472/
- How to Achieve the Perfect Frothed Milk. (n.d.) Retrieved From https://www.capresso.com/media/wysiwyg/How_to_Achieve_the_Perfect_Frothed_Milk_1.pdf