Using a thermometer to gauge milk texture - or ditch it?

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
mandarling

#1: Post by mandarling »

So I've done the whole barista class thing to up my home espresso game, and the first thing taught in latte art was: never be too good to use a thermometer. Not only does it help with learning how to texture milk, but aids in getting consistent results. I fully adhered to this rule long after class was over.

The problem is, I was so focused on getting the exact temperature right that I found myself obsessed with the numbers and the math instead of reading my milk and knowing when to stop intuitively. Today I got so frustrated I decided to ditch the thermometer for once and lo and behold, saw a significant difference. The smaller blob was with thermometer, the larger heart-like blarb was without, with me focusing on watching the aeration.



My fun question is this: anyone swears by the thermometer no matter what? All the tutorials and videos I see don't have the thermometer. No doubt practice is what it takes, just curious.

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drgary
Team HB

#2: Post by drgary »

Victor, welcome to Home-Barista!

Hold the bottom of your steaming cup in your hand. When it starts getting uncomfortably hot or a bit before that, stop. This is much easier to monitor while watching the texturing process in the cup. If you have a target temperature in mind, you could steam to that temperature while holding the bottom of the cup to calibrate. Then you'll know how it's supposed to feel.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

mandarling (original poster)

#3: Post by mandarling (original poster) »

Hi Gary, thanks for the warm welcome! And great tip, I'll do that. :) Cheers!

macal425

#4: Post by macal425 »

I initially started off using a thermometer, however, I found that it gets in the way and also forces me to focus on the gauge rather than the milk/texture. I ditched the thermometer and now just go by feel. My usual practice is to hold the pitcher at the base with my free hand and get the swirl going. I should be getting my desired texture just before the pitcher starts to feel hot (on the higher side of warm). At that point, I put the wand down deeper to incorporate everything. Once the pitcher gets too hot to handle, I turn off the steam. The slight delay between the pitcher being too hot and the action of turning off the steam, usually gets the milk to the perfect temperature, without scalding it. This works for me, however, I can imagine a situation where someone else might have a different pain tolerance and could end up having too low a temp if a low pain tolerance, or scald the milk if a high pain tolerance.

Nunas
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#5: Post by Nunas »

macal425 wrote:<snip>I can imagine a situation where someone else might have a different pain tolerance and could end up having too low a temp if a low pain tolerance, or scald the milk if a high pain tolerance.
Exactly! I, too, thought using my hand to gauge the temperature was the way to go...until I took an introductory barista course. The instructor asked how many of us used thermometers; the answer was virtually none. He then challenged us to each heat a pitcher of milk to 60 C, just using our hands. The results were all over the map, not just small differences, but big ones. I've been using a thermometer ever since. I've no doubt that once can train oneself to become somewhat accurate without the use of a thermometer, but, why? I've no trouble whatsoever keeping one eye on the thermometer and the other on the milk (small joke...I've only got one good eye :lol: )

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BaristaBoy E61

#6: Post by BaristaBoy E61 »

I always use an analogue milk thermometer to get the milk where I want it to be. Your problem seems to be texture for pouring latté art - not temperature.

Just get the milk in the zone with the thermometer then pour whatever milk you have between the initial pitcher and another one (kept warm on the cup tray) between the 2-pitchers, back & forth till the texture and microfoam seems right for pouring - and that's it!
"You didn't buy an Espresso Machine - You bought a Chemistry Set!"

SutterMill

#7: Post by SutterMill »

Just a reminder to periodically calibrate your thermometer. I struggled for a few months until I realized the "espresso" thermometer I bought was -12F off. l now use a thermometer and ignore the reading until the cup starts to warm. Then shoot for 140-145f since my particular thermometer is slow to respond and it will coast 5-7 degrees up.

Mat-O-Matic
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#8: Post by Mat-O-Matic »

Rather than hold the pitcher for temp, I hold the handle with one hand, and lightly tap the side of the pitcher (under the milk level) with fingertips from the other hand. When the side is too hot to hold my fingers there for anything more than a quick, light tap, the milk is done. With not too much experience, I believe you can become quite accurate.
Years ago when I worked in shops, I asked new baristas to use a thermometer to check their work until they became used to the temp. And we calibrated our thermometers regularly.
If texture is the skill you need to develop, and the thermometer is distracting, ditch it. You have a band of acceptable temperatures and there is preference within that, anyway. Scalding is the only real no-no. But bring the thermometer back every once in a while to keep yourself honest.
LMWDP #716: Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Nunas
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#9: Post by Nunas »

SutterMill wrote:Just a reminder to periodically calibrate your thermometer. I struggled for a few months until I realized the "espresso" thermometer I bought was -12F off. l now use a thermometer and ignore the reading until the cup starts to warm. Then shoot for 140-145f since my particular thermometer is slow to respond and it will coast 5-7 degrees up.
Good points. I calibrate my thermometer using boiling water, since that's the closest reference temperature to what we're shooting for. Re coasting, all but digital thermometers with tiny tips coast. Most analogue thermometers have a red line short of the beginning of the green band. The difference in temperature between the red line and the beginning of the green bar is how far your thermometer will coast.

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BaristaBoy E61

#10: Post by BaristaBoy E61 »

SutterMill wrote: my particular thermometer is slow to respond and it will coast 5-7 degrees up.
That's why I prefer an analogue thermometer to a digital. It displays the trend of rise time so you learn how to anticipate when to cut the steam for any particular result you might be looking for.
"You didn't buy an Espresso Machine - You bought a Chemistry Set!"