Milk drinks are only a small part of Italian espresso culture;
whereas in most of the US, people have oversized milk drinks that even
an anthropologist would never classify as cultured. But in a few
cafés around the world, baristas are using milk as a paint and
espresso as a canvas to create beautiful and wonderful tasting latte
The best and most practiced professional baristas can create quite
stunning patterns that a home barista will not be able to emulate. But
with some months practice, you can learn to properly froth the milk, and
pour basic heart and rosette patterns in 6 or 12 ounce cups. There is no
easier way of convincing your friends of your espresso expertise than
casually serving them an artfully poured latte.
Correctly frothed milk = microfoam = wonderful cappuccinos
Proper cappuccinos and lattes require microfoam—a pourable,
virtually liquid foam that tastes sweet and rich. The pouring
consistency runs from completely liquid for latte art to a slightly
thickened sauce for traditional cappuccinos. If the foam becomes
thicker, like soft peak beaten egg whites, its taste turns to cardboard,
and its appearance in the cup suffers. Microfoam in the pitcher does not
look like a foam, since the bubbles are too small. The only distinction
it has from liquid milk is a soft, slightly spectral sheen in the right
light. If the frothed milk has visible foam, it was incorrectly
prepared. The picture below shows a bad foam (left) and a slightly thick
microfoam suitable for cappuccinos (right).
Contrasting texture of
poorly frothed milk (left) and properly frothed microfoam (right)
Frothing milk to a microfoam is very simple when you know how to do
it, but it does take time to learn. Two processes occur when milk is
frothed: first, when the tip is at the right depth, the milk is
converted to microfoam; second, the milk is heated. These two do not
happen at the same rate on every machine or tip design, so the point at
which you transition from foaming the milk to simply heating it varies
from machine to machine. Finally, the amount of steam varies from
machine to machine too, so the time spent to heat enough milk for a six
ounce cappuccino can go from 10 to 40 seconds.
Four things to learn
Where to put the tip:
There are three zones distinguished by sound. In the first zone nearest
the surface, the tip makes a bubbling noise and as it gets slightly
deeper, a sucking or tearing noise. In the second intermediate zone,
there is very little noise. In third zone near the bottom of the
pitcher, the milk begins to roar loudly.
The tip should stay in the second, silent zone for the entire
process. In order to create microfoam, position the tip at the top
boundary, so you occasionally hear a sucking/tearing noise. Too much of
the sucking/tearing noise and the foam will stiffen and not be micro
enough. To just heat the milk after the foaming is done, position the
tip near the lower boundary so you occasionally hear a roaring noise.
The milk in the pitcher should whirlpool or form a standing wave of
turbulence in order to fold foam into liquid. With a one hole tip, angle
the entry, and keep it close to the edge of the pitcher to rotate the
milk into a whirlpool. With a multi-hole tip, point it straight down and
keep it near the center of the pitcher—the hole dispersion pattern
on a properly designed tip will create a whirlpool or a standing wave of
turbulence for you. If your multi-hole tip does not do this, change it
for another, or block some holes and convert it to slower, single hole
How long to foam:
As the liquid turns to foam, the volume of the milk increases. This is
called stretching. Keep foaming until the milk has gone up about 50% in
volume. If you foam more than that, you will get a light microfoam for
the classic cap-on-top cappuccino, but latte art will be impossible.
Typically, the side of the pitcher will be lukewarm (40°C,
100°F) at this point. However, volume increase is a far more
reliable indicator, and with some frothing setups, one even keeps the
tip at the foaming point until the milk is fully heated.
How much longer to heat the milk:
The milk should be heated to about 70°C (160°F), which is just
below the point where protein curdles and the foam is destroyed. The
easiest way to do this is to hold one hand on the side of the pitcher
and stop when it gets uncomfortably hot. If the milk suddenly increases
in volume, the proteins are curdling, and you've gotten it too hot. With
experience and a slower frother, you can hold the pitcher by the side
rather than the handle and have your other hand free (it also helps to
have a higher pain threshold!).
How long to wait before pouring: This topic is treated fully in the next section, Pouring Latte Art.
Next page: Pouring latte art...