How to create the best foam for latte art
Channel your inner barista.
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No matter how much you might adore your Nespresso machine or cold brew maker, some days you simply crave a latte at your local coffee shop. Besides the delightful heart-shaped milk foam topping, lattes and cappuccinos poured by a barista always taste a bit sweeter, creamier, and smoother than the ones we make at home.
As a latte is essentially espresso with steamed milk, the foam quality can have some serious impact on the taste and texture of the coffee drink. As hot steam breaks down the lactose in cold milk, it also helps the milk release its sweetness.
Whether you own an espresso machine with a steaming wand or you have one of the best milk frothers, frothing the creamiest, smoothest milk foam takes a lot of practice. Like many of us who are curious about latte art and milk frothing techniques, I started experimenting with my beloved De’Longhi to get to the bottom of milk steaming. While I’m still not perfect at it—I can occasionally pour a passing heart-shaped topping—my lattes already taste much better than before, as I learned about the optimal temperature and amount of aeration for milk foam.
If you follow these steps and practice with patience, you can learn to improve your coffee drinks and even impress friends with latte art.
Step 1: Pull a fresh shot of espresso with crema
Regardless of the type of coffee drinks you make, a fresh, aromatic shot of espresso is always the most important component. Crema, in this case, is necessary as it’ll let the milk foam float on a velvety, dark brown surface. A well-balanced, full-bodied shot of espresso should be extracted in under 24 to 26 seconds.
Step 2: Clear the steam
To clear water condensation, run the steam wand for five seconds so it’s clean and slightly warmed up. Wipe down any residue.
Step 3: Pour the milk
Fill cold milk (preferably whole milk to stabilize the foam) into the jug to just under the spout. You may want to swirl the milk a little to burst any air bubbles.
Step 4: Start steaming
Position the steam wand at a 10- to 15-degree angle straight out from the machine. Insert the wand into the milk jug just below the surface of the milk. Then, make sure the wand is aligned with the spout of the jug. Start steaming until the milk feels warm (about 40°F), then lower the wand into the milk, about one inch. When the jug feels too hot to touch (140°F to 150°F), slowly remove the wand from the milk jug. Wipe the wand with a damp towel immediately and run steam to clear any milk residue.
When it’s over-steamed, the high temperature will cause the protein compounds to collapse, which flattens the milk. When it’s under-steamed, there won’t be enough aeration to stretch the milk, which gives the milk foam its volume to create latte art. If the milk is too flat, it’ll become limp and sink to the bottom immediately when poured into the cup. If the milk is too foamy, it’ll be too stiff to pour latte art.
Step 5: Tap and swirl
If there are small bubbles formed on the top of the milk, tap the jug on a flat surface to let the air escape. Then, swirl the jug vigorously to let the milk stretch and relax. At this stage, the milk foam should have a velvety, silky texture.
Step 6: Pour the latte art
Tilt the cup forward at a 45-degree angle. Position the milk jug about three inches above the surface of the espresso, then start pouring the milk into the espresso until the mixture reaches the rim of the cup. Slowly tilt the cup back and lower the spout of the jug to the level that almost touches the mixture and start pouring again. The closer the spout, the easier it becomes to let the milk foam float on top of the surface. To pour heart-shaped latte art, you’ll need to pour a large circle, then move the spout forward or pour a straight line to cut through the circle.
This is how you can create latte art, theoretically. I’m still figuring out how to improve my pouring skill after weeks of practice, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it well on the first try. If you’re unsure about the timing and temperature, I find this milk thermometer to be extremely helpful at determining if I have under- or over-steamed my milk.
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