As you experiment with brewing craft coffee, you may find yourself interested in making the same specialty latte and cappuccino drinks from your favorite cafe at home.

There are two major ways to prepare your milk for these drinks. You can either foam the milk or steam the milk. And, like many other arguments in coffee, you will have varying opinions on which way is right.

In today’s head to head battle: Steamed milk vs. Foamed milk. What’s the difference? Which one is better?

Coffee + Milk = Love?

Milk pairs so well with coffee because milk offers a layer of flavor complexity that compliments 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. Milk is comprised of sugar, fats, and proteins. These three compounds help to develop the texture and taste we love in our milk and coffee drinks.

Sugar, when heated up breaks down and caramelizes helping to sweeten the milk. The Proteins help to hold air in the milk to give the milk a light body, and the fats melt to create a smooth and velvety appearance and mouthfeel.

On the Other Hand…

For as good as some people believe milk can make coffee taste, others argue that when you add milk or sugar to your coffee you will “dull” the inherent flavors of the coffee.

Because the natural aromas and flavors of coffee are so delicate, the complexity of the milk can often dilute and overpower any of what makes specialty coffee’s unique.

It all depends on...you! Personally, I boycott the milk 9/10 times…


Going Head-to-Head: Foamed vs Steamed Milk

So now that we know what makes milk taste so good let’s look at the two different ways you can prepare it at home.

Foamed Milk

Foamed milk, also known as frothed milk, is the result of taking heated milk and shaking or mixing it vigorously to add air and texture.

The rapid movement of the milk will introduce air and will separate the milk into two distinct layers. One layer will be milk, and the other will be a thick and frothy foam.

Notice in the above gif, as the milk is poured the milk has a very thick texture and large air bubbles.

Foamed milk is ideal for drinks like cappuccinos. The foam that is created will sit on top of the milk and coffee and create an interesting mouth-feel as you will be able to taste the separation.

Foamed milk does not require expensive or complicated tools. An excellent way to foam milk is a handheld milk frother. These little devices whip the milk around adding air and developing a layer of bubbly foam.

There are tons of ways to make milk foam, check out some of the tips in this video here:

Steamed Milk

Foamed milk can create body and thickness, but steaming the milk helps to develop texture and flavor.

Steamed milk uses pressurized steam to both heat milk and develop texture simultaneously. This combined process more evenly heats the sugars and breaks down the fat in the milk.

As the fluid breaks down and is equally stirred, the air bubbles that develop are uniform. This uniformity is known as “microfoam” and creates a velvety and silky texture that combines the foam and milk into one cohesive unit.

When comparing this gif to the previous one, you will see that the milk pours more evenly and has a reflective sheen. This sheen is the result of the breakdown of fats in the steaming process.

Unfortunately, to properly make steamed milk, one requires access to an espresso machine. Espresso machines have a steam wand and are the only way to create the microfoam texture desired for lattes.

For a quick tutorial, check out Chef Steps simple how-to guide on milk steaming.

When Steamed Milk’s a Winner…

Next time you are at your favorite coffee shop, ask the barista to steam you some milk. When you taste it, you will experience a sweet tasting textured drink, unlike anything you have ever had. Plus, steamed milk will give you the ability to produce beautiful latte art on your drinks.

With steaming milk, you can add as little or as much air as you want to create the amount of foam you prefer.

The major drawbacks to steaming your milk on a machine is that the espresso machine will cost a few dollar bills (unless you already have one) and will require extra equipment such as a milk pitcher and thermometer. These items are relatively inexpensive however, as you can see:

When Foamed Milk’s a Winner…

For the sake of convenience, nothing can beat foamed milk at home. You are not bound to just one way to make it as you are with steamed milk. You can use a frother, a blender, heck, even a closed container shaken to produce the foam for your coffee drinks.

As previously stated, a straightforward and elegant way to foam your milk is to use a handheld milk frother.

You can even use your trusty French press to make foamed milk at home, which is a nice and easy coffee hack:

More coffee hacks here if you’re interested.


Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk

Whichever way you choose to help you make milk based coffee drinks, always remember a 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, then 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.

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