I’m a long black coffee drinker first and foremost.
Whether I’m at home or at the office, my AeroPress is never far away.
But while I love a vibrant, flavorful medium roast, sometimes I enjoy mixing it up with a smooth, decadent latte.
For the aspiring home barista, making a quality cappuccino or latte can seem daunting.
Pulling a proper shot takes time to master — unless you prefer a Nespresso machine — and then you have to deal with making the foam.
You can steam milk at home like a professional.
(Really, it isn’t that hard.)
Sure, it may take many bad batches to get the perfectly creamy texture that a seasoned barista nails every time, but that’s part of the fun!
If you want to learn how to steam milk at home, you’ve come to the right place.
Before we get into the process, let’s clear up a common misconception:
Steamed milk and foamed milk are not the same thing.
Steamed milk is created by heating the milk to the appropriate temperature, generally by submerging a steam wand into a pitcher. In our steps below, the steaming portion happens in steps 5 and 6. Steamed milk is characterized by a creamy smoothness but is not whipped up.
Foamed milk, on the other hand, is whipped up. It’s created by incorporating air into your milk, generally by placing the tip of the steam wand on the surface of the milk. In our steps below, the foaming milk portion is in steps 3 and 4. Foamed milk is much lighter and less dense than steamed milk, and the goal is to create microfoam (see the next section).
Why is knowing the difference between steamed milk and foamed milk important?
Because they give two different experiences and some recipes call for both! Consider a cappuccino:
Learning the nuances of making both well will take your specialty beverage game to the next level.
Editor’s Note: In this guide, we’ll be using a frothing wand to make a pitcher with both steamed and foamed milk. For ease of explanation, I’ll usually just refer to this combo as “steamed milk” henceforth, but the finished final product will have both components.
Properly steamed milk is lusciously light and creamy, seemingly frothed to velvety perfection. When combined with quality espresso, it’s a complete sensory experience. A coffee lover’s nirvana.
Microfoam is the hallmark of well-steamed milk.
What is microfoam?
When steaming milk, a barista has two tasks:
Microfoam is what you get when that first task is done well; the barista is able to whip in air bubbles so small they’re almost invisible and the resulting foam is creamy and smooth.
Therefore, well-foamed milk is characterized by a consistently smooth and creamy texture that feels light without the visible presence of bubbles.
When you hold a pitcher of steamed milk up to your ear, you shouldn’t hear the pitcher fizzling. It’s not a bowl of Rice Krispies after all!
The only difference between whole milk and skim milk is the fat content.
But the air bubbles in foam have nothing to do with fat!
Instead, the air bubbles are supported by proteins in the milk, meaning the amount of air you can whip into your foam is the same with either whole milk or skim milk.
However, fat does play a role in the quality of your foam:
A general rule in the culinary world is that more fat means more richness, and that certainly is true with espresso.
Me, personally? I like the creaminess whole milk affords. Your tastes may differ.
As mentioned above, the tiny air bubbles in microfoam are supported by milk proteins. These milk proteins begin to denature at 154°F, meaning above that temperature they lose their structure and don’t function as well.
This means you get some pretty weak foam, which doesn’t taste that great.
For this reason, target 140°F when steaming milk at home.
Unsurprisingly, this means it’s really hard to create a fantastic cappuccino or latte which also is piping hot.
I used to work at a restaurant where I made espresso beverages for some very snobby people. I remember one lady in particular. Let’s call her Gretchen (she looked like a Gretchen).
Gretchen would come in every Tuesday night. After dinner she would order a single shot latte with whole milk, extra foam, extra hot.
As a barista, I was in a tough spot.
The only way to make Gretchen a piping hot latte with extra foam was to heat the foam up as hot as possible, except every time I did this the foam was just blah. It didn’t have that characteristic milky sweetness. And I was watering down a great espresso shot with weak, sub-par foam.
Of course, Gretchen would complain and I’d have to make her a new latte with wonderfully flavorful foam. This time it wouldn’t be hot enough.
Gretchen rarely was pleased with her lattes.
The moral of the story? You can have a great latte or a hot latte, but it’s very hard to have both.
Home espresso machines have all kinds of frothing accessories these days:
If you have one of the three frothing options above, there’s probably some manufacturer instructions that tell you exactly how to use it. Follow those instructions.
What we’re talking about here, though, is how to steam milk at home with a basic frothing wand.
You know, one of those metallic things hanging off the side of your machine?
Heres’s what you’ll need:
Here we go.
Point the steam wand over the drip tray or into one of your damp cloths and briefly open the valve. This gets rid of any condensation in the steam wand and preps it for your next use.
Make sure not to fill it much more than halfway.
Only submerge the tip, not the whole wand.
Open the steam valve to full and gently lower the pitcher until the tip of the wand is almost out of the milk.
This part is all about feel. You want to hear the sound of the steam wand whipping air into the milk.
As air is incorporated and bubbles form, the volume in the pitcher will rise. Keep lowering the pitcher slowly to keep the tip of the wand right on the surface until you reach the desired volume of foam.
When you’ve reached your desired volume of foam, it’s time to heat the milk to the desired temperature.
Please note you aren’t submerging the tip of the wand all the way to the bottom of the pitcher.
Instead, you want it just below the surface off to the side of the pitcher. This will create good circulation in the pitcher, ensuring the milk is heated evenly.
And no, I don’t mean by sticking your hand in the milk. Place your hand on the bottom of the pitcher and gauge the temperature. When the pitcher gets too hot to keep your hand on it, you’re almost there. Steam for 3-5 more seconds to reach the optimal temperature: around 140°F.
Grab the cloth and wipe down the steam wand. You should also purge the steam wand of any milk particles inside by briefly opening the steam valve and catching anything that comes out in the damp cloth.
There may be a few undesirable large bubbles on the surface. Don’t fret! These will pop pretty quickly, but you can gently tap the pitcher on the counter to give them some help.
Now that you have luscious microfoam and properly heated milk, you want to make sure they’re mixed evenly. Swirl the pitcher as you would a glass of wine — and don’t be afraid swirl vigorously! Your desired final product is a creamy, glossy foam that almost looks like marshmallow.
And there you have it! That’s how to steam milk at home. Enjoy!