Foaming Milk The Basics

A complicated area, at least it seems to be, so some basics.

Also see:

A little video to try and show the rights and wrongs.

Note, it can be useful for control to either rest your hand on the drip tray, or the back of the jug lightly against the steam wand, to help give extra control. My main problem was a camera stuffed up my nose while trying to foam milk <laugh>

Yes I did bleed the wand beforehand, this is just a short blast into another container to get the small amount of water (about 1/4 of a tablespoonful) out of the wand, so the steam is dry. Also this was done using a single hole tip (Expobar Tip). For tips with 2 or more holes a more vertical orientation of the steam wand may be required to prevent one of the holes breaking the surface and forming large bubbles.

Before you view the video, it might be helpful to read some of the basic principles

1. Cold Milk (from the fridge is fine, no need to go to any special lengths to super chill it or anything)

2. Full Fat milk seems to work best (well UHT works even better, but most people don't like the taste), lower fat content milks don't seem to give as good results.

3. Decent Milk jug, not too wide not too tall and the right size for the amount of milk, simply speaking small for small quanitities and large for large quantities. You usually see steel jugs for milk foaming and I suppose it's not critical, but thats what I use.

4. Wand tip to one side and fractionaly under the surface of the milk, you want to draw in air, but not form large bubbles.

5. If you have a 1 hole tip, have the wand at a slight angle to the surface of the milk, this will prevent roiling (movement) of the surface from exposing and submerging the tip of the wand. It also helps to spin the milk into a nice whirpool. Tip: don't have the firing end of the tip too close to the wall in the direction the steam is going, you tend to cause roiling and unneveness on the surface and less swirling!

If you have a 2 ,3 or 4 hole tip, you don't want the wand at an angle, as your much more likely to periodically expose the uppermost hole and cause bubbles, so a more vertical orientation seems to work best (but still to one side of the jug)

The temperature you should foam milk to is a slightly more difficult one. I don't use a thermometer now…I used to many years ago but not anymore. This isn't because I can tell what the temperature is, it's because I don't really care what a thermometer says. It's about the temperature you prefer your lattes, cappas or hot chocolate, etc. Too hot, it's unpleasant and burns the tongue, plus the milk separates out a bit. Often though I find the standard offerings a bit too cool. So you foam it to the temperature you and the people you are making it for prefer.

How much to foam it…well for a cappa, I foam it plenty and then bung it straight in For a Latte, foam it not so much and pour it in with a bit more refinement, to try and bring some of the crema colour/layer to the top. Also although i'm poor at latte art, you never know, I might get lucky. Normally though I've stretched (foamed) the milk far too much and far to long for latte art, but thats the way I prefer it and gives a nice silky drink right to the bottom of the cup.

You're trying to get the milk to swell, thicken whatever you want to call it and increase the amount of air, without any visible bubbles (it's called micro-foam). The milk ends up looking like single cream, but of course a lot lighter. The Micro-foam seems to serve two functions, it gives a rich silky texture and the increase in surface area because of all the bubbles spreads and explodes the flavour across the tongue. Once you have foamed the milk, it's a good idea to finish the drink preparation, by making your espresso shot for the latte etc.. and every 10 seconds or so swirl the milk, this keeps the whole thing incorporated and gives it a glossy appearance.

If I am making a hot chocolate, I actually add the (high quality) chocolate powder to the cold milk (just sprinkle it on top), and when foaming the milk, the swirling action mixes it and the micro-foaming process drags it under the surface and incorporates it… kids have no complaints.

There are some very cheap and very expensive milk jugs out there, some are better for latte art than others…the choice is yours, but I think it's best to be economical to start with, until you have lots of practice. Oh, try adding your sugar before foaming milk if you take it, saves ruining any latte art by adding sugar and stirring it afterwards.

Is it hard….no, anyone can do it. I have read that the time of year, brand of milk, feed of the cows even the breeed of the cows can make a huge difference to whether milk can be foamed, even how fresh it is (e.g. a few days old). I have found that none of the above to be that important, the success or the failure to microfoam is really down to technique.