Milk Frothing for Espresso – The Basics and Beyond

Allrighty then! Either you have FINALLY gotten your own home espresso machine and want to do the fancy “barista thing” for¬†yourself, your family, and of course, all of your guests (! ūüėÜ !) , or…

…maybe you are simply here because you are still considering buying one of them but want to know what the milk frothing part of it is all about.

In either case, you are likely here because you have some questions about frothing milk for espresso beverages. Hopefully the information below will assist you in learning correct technique for making frothed milk equal to that of a professional barista.

Latte art image

Milk Frothing for Espresso – The Basics and Beyond

This guide has been written for the sole purpose of assisting you in your frothing journey. Yes, it will be somewhat of a journey, although probably not one that will take you weeks and weeks to learn.

In addition, once learned, frothing milk is yet another of those things like “riding a bike.” Once you finally understand it, you will carry that knowledge with you always.

When taking into consideration that a large number of popular espresso beverages are made mostly of milk, the subject of milk frothing takes on a whole new light — one that is very important in being able to successfully brew up many different espresso drinks.

You can ask anyone who has experience making espresso, be it a professional barista or just someone who has used home espresso machines for awhile, that one of the keys to making great espresso is learning how to froth milk to the perfect consistency.

Frothing (also called “steaming”) milk to add to espresso beverages, is somewhat complicated at first and, like a lot of the great things in life, will require some experimenting. The process involves basically introducing high-pressure hot steam into milk, which results in foamed milk with a top layer of very tiny bubbles.

Another latte art image

When frothed properly, milk is transformed from its normal state to what is called “microfoam.”¬†This microfoam we speak of, while still being a “pourable” liquid, is at the same time a rich, creamy foam that is very sweet to the taste buds when compared to the taste of milk that has not been frothed.

Froth it too long and you end up with a tasteless thick foam very similar to what we would compare to drinking cardboard.

Froth it not long enough and you end up pouring your milk into your espresso beverage much like the same thing you did when you used a standard drip coffee maker with milk or creamer.

However, there is hope, pretty much for anyone who does want to learn how to successfully do this. By reading the following, you likely will have made a huge step toward learning the ins and outs of successfully frothing your own milk to perfection.

 

Important thing to note before reading anything else…

  • One extremely important thing to keep in mind when you are attempting to learn how to¬†steam or froth milk to the perfect consistency is that when you start out you will not be a trained barista who does this for a living.
  • Professional baristas, in most cases, have received training, most of the time one-on-one training from another person, that has allowed them to pick up the knowledge and skills needed to achieve this perfection you are currently searching for.
  • Not to say that this one-on-one training is the ONLY way for you to pick up these skills, or we wouldn’t even be writing about this topic here.
  • However, we cannot emphasize enough that you do need to be aware¬†it will take some practice before you will reach your goal of that perfect froth.
  • So that being said, if you truly want to learn how to correctly froth milk to the perfect consistency, read on! We are sure you will learn some valuable tips to help you find that perfect consistency.

 

Not that difficult, really!

When it comes to frothing milk for espresso beverages such as cappuccinos or to make drinks that have latte art, there are a few things to know that will help you succeed in taking on something that can at first be somewhat difficult to learn.

Keep in mind, however, that frothing milk to the correct texture is very easily done once you have learned — it just takes practice.

…but be prepared

Photo of incomplete milk froth

There are a couple of results you can come up with when attempting to froth milk. These are outlined below.

You will definitely want to read these before you try to froth milk, as it could save you a ton of time.

Runny, runny, runny…

If you have tried to froth some milk and it has a bubbly consistency that looks like foam, where the bubbles are large, like the photo to your right, sorry to say but this is not quite what you are looking for. This photo shows milk that has not yet been completely frothed to the right consistency.

Not frothing the milk enough will result in a runny texture that will not easily sit at the top of the beverage you have poured it into.

Rather, it will instead simply float to the bottom and sit there similar to pouring milk into a cup of coffee from your drip coffee maker, until you take a spoon and swoosh it around.

Excuse me…Is this meringue or what?

You might think that what you want to end up with is a very thick foam, close to the consistency of whipped egg whites/meringue.

However, this consistency is not the one you want. This is called over-frothing and will end up with not only a taste that will very closely resemble cardboard, it will also have the appearance of not something you are looking to end up with when it is poured onto/into your espresso (if it is even pourable at that point).

Summary: Foam that is over-frothed will not only be basically without flavor, it also will be very difficult to pour and get an attractive presentation to your espresso.

 

Now on to the perfect milk froth…

Milk that is frothed correctly has a very “smooth” appearance to it.

Not only does it have the right consistency to “float” on top of the espresso to some extent, it also sweetens the taste of the milk, much improving it from the “flat” taste of the milk before it was frothed.

A good frothing pitcher will help

There are many different things you could use to froth milk in. However, if you can afford an extra $20, you can get a great quality stainless-steel frothing pitcher made specifically for frothing milk for espresso drinks. There are a few that even cost up to $50; however, for $20  you will be able to have a pitcher that is of great quality and will last for many, many years. Below are some reasons that a stainless-steel frothing pitcher is the best choice.

  • Stainless steel is the preferred material for a milk frothing pitcher, primarily because of the good heat conductivity ability of stainless steel.
  • The shape of the container you are frothing in also is very important. Most, if not all, frothing pitchers have a diameter that starts larger at the bottom and gradually tapers to a smaller circumference at the top. This is very important to allow the milk flow to whirlpool the way it needs to in order to turn into froth.
  • In addition, most frothing pitchers have a spout, which makes pouring the completed froth into the espresso much easier.

What type of milk is best for getting the perfect froth, you ask?

There are quite a few different choices of milk available for you to choose from for steaming. Some are great and make frothing much easier, and some not so great. So before we get to the steps for frothing milk, let’s take a couple of minutes to review the good, the bad, and the downright UGLY regarding which types of milk you should consider for that perfect froth, and which types you should stay away from.

Generally, the rule of thumb when it comes to successfully steaming milk to a rich, creamy flavorful and light froth is to keep in mind the amount of fat the milk you are using has.

The lower the fat content, the easier it is to develop a froth (also great for your diet ūüėČ ). However, the milks with lower fat content, although easier to successfully froth, also provide much less flavor than the milks with higher fat content.

However, on the other hand, it is also important to note that if you raise the bar on the fat content to above 5%, the fat content then DOES allow for great frothing capability. In other words, nonfat, skim, and 2% milk work great, then 4% does not work good, but when you get to the dairy products that have higher fat content, the ones with 5% and higher, which include half-and-half and whipping cream, again these provide for great frothing, although you likely will want to stay away from the latter other than for very special occasions.

Here is a rundown of different milk options to consider.

  • The types of milk that likely first come to mind are the “normal” milks we buy in the grocery store – these would include nonfat and skim milk, as well as 1%, 2%, and 4% (4% is what we call whole milk).
  • Then there are half-and-half and whipping cream
  • Some other types of milk to consider include soy milk, almond milk, , organic, and lactose-free milk.
  • Then we also have almond milk, rice milk, and coconut milk.
  • Finally, there is milk (cream), which has fat content higher than 5%. This would include half-and-half which has a fat content of 10.5% to 18%, medium cream which contains 25% fat, and whipping cream which contains 30% to 36% fat content.

 

Here is a table that will help guide you through which milks work great for steaming, which don’t work so good, and some additional comments we thought were appropriate for each type of milk.

Type of MilkEasy to Froth?Additional Comments
NonfatVery easy to froth.Although, as stated, nonfat milk is very easy to froth, the froth produced will have significant lack of flavor due to the lack of fats within this type of milk.
Skim/Low Fat (1%)Very easy to froth.Like nonfat milk, the froth produced by low fat 1% milk, although simple to achieve, will have a lack of flavor.
Reduced Fat (2%)Also very easy to froth.With reduced fat (2%) milk, your finished froth will have more flavor to it than skim or nonfat milk.
Whole Milk (4%)More difficult to froth than reduced-fat milks, although with some practice this can be achieved.Because of the significantly higher fat content in whole (4%) milk, the "sweet" flavor of the froth produced is a definite improvement over those milks with less fat content. Although more difficult to froth, you definitely will taste the difference from milks with lower fat content.

Additionally, when you go to a Starbucks or other local coffee house that serves espressos, unless you specify which type of milk you want, the barista will generally make it with whole milk. Practice with frothing enables professional baristas to successfully and easily froth 4% milk.
Half and HalfBecause of its significantly high fat content, half-and-half is also very easy to froth.Half-and-half will provide you with extremely flavorful and sweet froth, although don't forget to keep that fat content in mind as it pertains to dietary concerns.
Whipping CreamAlso very easy to froth, due to the high fat content.You likely would want to keep the option of using whipping cream under your hat year-round, except maybe for those once-a-year, very special occasions.
Goat's and Sheep's MilkEasy to froth.Because goat's and sheep's milk contains protein very similar to that which cow's milk has, you will find that you can get a great froth with these milks also.
Soy MilkCan be frothed, but will quickly "unfroth." Great choice if you prefer soy in your diet as a dairy-free alternative; however, soy milk will need to very quickly be added to already-brewed espresso as soon as it has been frothed.Soy milk is much naturally sweeter than cow's milk, which will result in much sweeter froth.
Almond MilkVery easy to froth.Almond milk foams up wonderfully, and results in a long-lasting, very delicate froth that has a nutty flavor to it.

Some people have commented that almond milk has a strange "background" flavor to it, something similar to being sweet and bitter all rolled into one.
Rice MilkVery easy to froth.Rice milk will froth up pretty similar to fat-free (nonfat) milk, in other words very easily, resulting in a very "puffy" foam that "holds up" (keeps it texture for some time). However, like nonfat cow's milk, rice milk also does not provide much in the way of flavorfullness. Also like cow's milk, rice milk is very low in fat, for those of you looking for healthy dietary options.

Note that with rice milk, you will not get a "creamy" foam like you will with some of the bovine (cow) milks used, but instead a "foamy" type of froth.

Rice milk is a good consideration if you
Coconut MilkFairly easy to froth.Coconut milk froths up deliciously into what could be described as a foam that has a faint flavor of coconut enmeshed into it.

 

Basic step-by-step instructions for frothing (steaming) milk for espresso beverages

First off…be prepared that you most likely won’t be successful your first try, and probably not even for at least several, if not more,¬†tries after that one.¬† ūüėź

Step 1: Fill your chosen milk frothing pitcher or jug about half full. The reason you do not fill it more full than halfway is not only for the obvious reason of preventing it from overflowing, but also to save yourself from wasting milk.

Step 2: “Stretch” the milk. Doing a “milk stretch” simply involves turning the steam of your frothing wand on while the nozzle (end) of the steaming wand is just slightly under the top surface of the milk.

If you have done this correctly, you will¬† hear a type of “hissing” sound. This will gently introduce air into the milk. You should only perform this step for a few (about 5) seconds, just enough to inject a small amount of air into the milk. If you are doing this step correctly, you will see the milk spinning in a motion similar to what a whirlpool looks like.

Step 3: Slightly move the frothing wand down into the milk another TINY amount, about one-half to 1 cm and tilt your frothing container (pitcher) just slightly. You will continue to see your milk spinning in a whirlpool type of motion, but you will no longer hear any type of “hissing” sound. It is very important that you tilt your frothing pitcher/container slightly during this step, in order to complete what is called the “polishing” process. This is probably the most difficult step to learn. You will need some practice to find that perfect “spot,” which can only be described as a spot slightly off-center of the frothing pitcher and the place you will keep the steaming wand at for the remainder of the frothing process.

It is during this polishing process that the milk will continue to whirlpool and become heated, as well as further frothed.

One great thing to have on hand at this point is a thermometer

  • For latte art, you will want the milk to reach a temperature of about 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • For frothed milk that you do not plan on doing latte art with, raise the temperature somewhat higher (hotter) to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The maximum heat your milk should reach is 155 degrees Fahrenheit. Any hotter than that will result in loss of flavor, followed shortly thereafter by scalded milk.

Step 4: “The Thump.” Once your milk has reached the appropriate heat and froth level, you will need to give the milk container one solid “thump” on the counter. This will get rid of any of the larger bubbles present in the milk. It doesn’t need to be a bump that makes milk fly everywhere, just a single good, solid bump. This likely will also take some practice before you have “the thump” down. The milk at this point should have the appearance of something similar to wet paint in a can.

Step 5: Pouring. If the milk has been frothed correctly, the froth will sit at the top of the milk, and thus will pour first out of the frothing container into the espresso. The correct way to pour the frothed milk into the espresso is to rest the spout of the frothing container on the lip of the cup and then pour at a steady pace.

Recap:

Here are diagrams of the above first steps. Hopefully these (our feeble attempts at drawing what we have explained above) may also help.

Basic Milk Frothing Steps

 

Other important factors that will help you to get that desired froth

In addition to the type of milk you decide to steam, there are also a few other factors to take into consideration, to make steaming milk successfully much more likely to happen. These other factors include the following:

  • Milk temperature – The temperature of the milk is one of the key factors to getting a good froth. Always make sure the milk you are frothing is as cold as possible. A cold frothing pitcher when you start out will also go a long way toward a great end result.
  • Purging your milk frothing wand – Purging any residual water and condensation out of your steam wand should be done before each frothing session.
  • Cleaning your steam wand after each use – This is kind of along the same line as the suggestion above it. Keeping your frothing wand clean will definitely give you better results.

Common milk frothing mistakes to avoid

  • Not purging the frothing wand – Not purging the excess water in your frothing wand prior to frothing will result in the milk you are trying to froth being watered down. This is a very common mistake that many people make and is very easily avoided by simply lowering the steaming wand into an empty glass measuring cup or other type of cup and running the steam function for a few seconds.
  • Steam wand tip too low (immersed too deeply into the milk) – Not only will immersing the wand to deep into the milk not give you the results you are looking for, it also is the culprit responsible for that infamous “screeching” noise that you may have heard during your prior attempts. Having the tip of the frothing wand just below the top surface of the milk is the proper way to steam milk.
  • Steam wand tip to high – This will result in huge bubbles, as well as milk being sprayed everywhere.
  • Not allowing the milk to “roll” (whirlpool) – Part of whipping up great froth is allowing the milk to move in a whirlpool fashion while at the same time allowing the steaming wand to inject air into the whirlpooling milk. Simply settling down and relaxing will allow you to find that “sweet spot” you need to find to be able to whirlpool the milk while at the same time injecting air into the milk.
  • Over-heating – More is not always better, particularly in the case of frothing milk when it comes to the temperature of the milk. The optimal temperature for finished froth milk is approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit for small beverages and 155 degrees Fahrenheit for larger ones. When milk reaches a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit it loses flavor. Bring it up even higher to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and you will likely end up with scalded milk.
  • Clogged air-intake valve – There likely is an air-intake valve located somewhere on your frothing wand. An air-intake valve is a very small hole that literally sucks in air for ejection into the milk you are frothing, most likely located somewhere near the top of your frothing wand, most definitely up much higher than the tip of the wand that is immersed. If the air-intake valve becomes clogged, no air will be able to be gathered inside the frothing wand, and thus, no air will be injected into the milk.

 

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