For many coffee lovers, one of the most satisfying reasons for visiting a good coffee shop is the exquisite flavor, texture, and mouthfeel of the espresso-based milk drinks on its menu.
But how can you reproduce that all-important steamed milk in your home-brewed beverages? Many people assume the answer to that question is to have professional barista-level skills and expensive machinery.
However, while those qualities are undoubtedly helpful, there are some steps you can take to perfect your milk-steaming prowess.
This article examines the main aspects of milk steaming, offering advice and steps to ensure your efforts soon rival those of your favorite specialty coffee shop.
Coffee And Milk Are The Perfect Match
Most coffee lovers agree that there is little more satisfying than a beautiful espresso-based milk drink with perfectly steamed milk. If prepared correctly, coffee with frothy milk is beautiful to look at, with a gorgeous texture, sweet flavor, and a satisfying mouthfeel. Indeed, with a velvety microfoam, you can even pull exceptional latte art for your espresso drink.
Put simply, milk and coffee go together beautifully.
Many coffee drinks have two main ingredients – espresso and milk. However, the ratio and textures determine the precise espresso-based milk drink you have, whether it’s a cappuccino, latte, flat white, macchiato, or something else.
What Is Steamed Milk?
There is a difference between steamed milk and hot milk.
When you’re steaming milk, the high pressure of the steam pulls air into your milk while heating it. You can create either microfoam for latte art or thicker milk foam, and this is determined by how much air you introduce into the milk.
But how do you create the steam? This part is usually straightforward, as most espresso machines have a steam wand, with the machine’s boiler creating the steam.
Of course, you can simply add milk to your coffee. However, the mouthfeel and texture won’t be as appealing as your favorite specialty coffee drinks. Nor will your beverage have the aesthetic appeal of, say, a beautifully prepared cappuccino. Therefore, steaming your milk is important if you want coffee shop-quality milk-based espresso drinks at home.
The Milk-Steaming Process
There are three key elements to steaming milk. Let’s break them down.
1. Heat Milk
The first aspect is making the milk hot. This will happen as long as steam enters the milk. However, you need to ensure the milk doesn’t get too hot. Aim for no hotter than around 149 F (65C). That’s because higher than 154F (68C), the milk proteins change, leading to a more unpleasant flavor.
2. Create Air Bubbles
As you begin steaming the milk, you need to create bubbles. To achieve foamed milk, you need to inject air into the milk, which you can do with the steam wand tip. When the tip sits on the milk’s surface, the steam pressure from the wand pulls air into the milk, creating bubbles. The more bubbles your milk has, the foamier the milk.
3. Texture Milk
Finally, the steam wand takes the bigger bubbles and whisks them increasingly smaller until they’re virtually invisible. These tiny bubbles are called microfoam, and the effect is a smooth and velvety liquid that looks like melted ice cream – perfect for creating latte art and enjoying beautiful coffee with a gorgeous mouthfeel.
How To Steam Milk With A Steam Wand – Step-By-Step Instructions
Now we’ve looked at the general approach you need to achieve perfectly steamed milk, let’s examine the process more closely with step-by-step instructions.
Step 1: Pour Milk
First, ensure you have a stainless steel milk jug. Now, pour your milk into it, but don’t overfill it. You need to remember that the milk expands as you steam. If your jug has too much milk, it will overflow, creating a mess. In general, aim for the bottom of the spout as the maximum level.
Step 2: Position The Steam Wand In The Milk Jug
You can usually move the steam wand on most espresso machines. Begin by positioning the steam wand so it points towards you. Next, take your milk pitcher and line the steam wand up with the spout. Then, slide the steam wand into the groove of the spout. Ensure the tip goes no deeper into the milk than the tip on the end of the wand.
Step 3: Pull Air
With the steam wand correctly positioned in the milk jug, tilt the jug a little to the left or the right, depending on the direction you find most comfortable. Next, ensure the tip of the steam wand remains on the surface of the milk and begin steaming on full power. You’ll know the steam wand is at the correct depth as you’ll see, hear, and feel the air being pulled into the milk.
Most noticeably, there’ll be a slurping noise. Lower the jug to reveal more of the wand if the wand sits too deep. Continue steaming until you have the foam you need.
Step 4: Texture The Milk
Raise the jug, so the tip sits around a fifth of an inch in the milk, allowing the milk to churn and create a vortex. This is when the larger bubbles become smaller to create microfoam. Aim for a creamy, paint-like texture.
Step 5: Stop Steaming
If you don’t have a thermometer, place a hand on the side of the jug until the heat causes mild discomfort. This happens around 122F to 131F (50C to 55C). If you continue churning and heating milk for a few more seconds, you’ll reach between 140F and 149F (60C and 65C), which is ideal.
Now purge the steam wand and wipe it with a clean cloth.
Step 6: Pour The Milk Into Your Coffee
Allow the milk to sit in the jug for a few seconds, so any remaining bigger bubbles become weaker. Then tap the jug to remove them and gently swirl it to leave a glossy creamy texture. Finally, pour the milk into your coffee, and enjoy.
Tips For Steaming Milk With A Steam Wand
1. Start With Cold Milk
Always begin with cold milk. You have more scope for creating bubbles and texturing before the milk reaches the perfect temperature.
2. Steam Wand Types
Most entry-level machines have Panarello wands. However, these create larger bubbles for fluffy foam – ideal for cappuccino but not for microfoam. In contrast, the more expensive machines usually have steam wands with tips with one to four holes.
How Do You Steam Milk At Home Without A Steam Wand
Steamed Milk vs Frothed Milk
You may not own an espresso machine with a steam wand. If that’s the case, all is not lost. However, the result will usually be frothed rather than steamed milk.
But what’s the difference? Both frothed and steamed milk has air bubbles, but their sizes differ. Frothing milk creates large bubbles. Most milk frothers use whisks for frothing, while some heat and froth simultaneously. However, if you’re using a handheld frother, we suggest you heat the milk before frothing.
Steam And Froth
There are many different types of a milk frother. Some steam and froth milk at the touch of a button using whisks. Meanwhile, others create foam with cold milk. Some let you choose the foam type – like flat or thick – and some let you choose the milk temperature.
Whichever you select, automatic milk frothers are the easiest way to steam milk at home if you don’t own an espresso machine with a steaming wand. However, you won’t have much control over the result. Nevertheless, there are options to suit most budgets.
Here are our best-picked milk frothers.
Heat Milk Then Froth
Manual frothers don’t heat your milk. Therefore, it’s recommended you either microwave your milk or heat it on a stove before frothing.
1. Handheld Milk Frother (Hand Mixer)
Handheld milk frothers are basic appliances that are usually inexpensive. They’re normally battery-powered and have a whisk. You place the whisk on the surface of the heated milk to drag air into the milk, then move it deeper to blend the small bubbles with the milk.
Most handheld frothers only create large bubbles. However, frothers like the Subminimal Nanofoamer are designed to create perfect steamed milk for latte art.
2. French Press
The French press’s mesh filter is great for frothing milk. Pour milk into the French press a third or half full, then plunge until you achieve the milk foam you desire.
3. Mason Jar
Add heated or cold milk to a mason jar and seal it. Next, vigorously shake the jar for 30 to 60 seconds to create your foam.
Steaming Milk Troubleshooting
There is a range of common issues you can encounter when steaming milk. Let’s examine them.
1. The Milk Foam Is Too Thick
If you pull air into the milk for too long, it can cause the milk to become too thick. Try raising the jug sooner to stop the air from reaching the milk.
2. The Milk Is Too Watery
This problem occurs if you don’t have enough air in the milk. When you’re pulling air into the milk, ensure you can hear the hissing sound. Lower or raise the just until the steam wand’s tip is just under the surface. When the tip is too deep, you’re heating the milk without creating bubbles.
3. The Milk Is Too Hot
Anywhere between 131F and 149F (55C and 65C) is the correct temperature for steamed milk. If the temperature goes above 154F (68C), the proteins in the milk irreversibly break down, causing unwanted flavors to present themselves. We consider 149F (65C) the ideal temperature to aim for.
Milk sweetness is temperature-related too. In dairy milk, the sugar is lactose. It’s at its sweetest at room temperature. The further away from room temperature in either direction, the less sweet the dairy milk is. Therefore, very hot cappuccinos aren’t as sweet as cooler ones.
4. The Milk Foam And Milk Split
Sometimes, the liquid might pour into your cup, but the foam might not. As we mentioned earlier, after steaming your milk, it’s good practice to let the jug sit for a few seconds to weaken the bubbles. Next, tap the jug on the countertop, then gently swirl it to ensure a glossy, wet paint-like liquid.
5. No Whirlpool While Steaming With A Wand
If you begin steaming and the wand fails to create the necessary vortex to produce bubbles, try tweaking the angle of the jug and the position of the steam wand until the milk spins.
I listed the 10 common milk steaming mistakes and the solutions here.
What Is The Best Milk For Steaming?
Skim milk foams more easily than whole milk, but why? It’s because usually, fat content destabilizes foam, making it harder to produce the air bubbles you need for steaming.
Other things to consider with dairy milk are the length of time until the milk’s use-by date and ensuring the milk is stored properly. For example, the closer milk is to its use-by date, the harder it is to foam because of the breakdown of fats in the milk. Similarly, if it is exposed to sunlight, the milk is also harder to foam.
Dairy alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. For example, you can buy coconut milk, oat milk, soy milk, almond milk or other plant-based alternatives. However, some foam is better than others, so it’s good to try a few options to determine which is best for you.
Another thing to remember is that the texture and mouthfeel of the milk can vary between types and brands. Some brands, like Oatly, have barista editions specifically made to foam more easily than the standard version.
Whichever alternative you choose, follow the steps we outlined earlier until you find a product that creates the best frothy milk.
Practice Steaming Without Wasting Your Milk
It’s a good idea to practice your technique before committing to steaming milk. But how do you do this without wasting milk? There is an easy answer. Pour cold water into your milk jug and add a drop or two of washing detergent. Now can go step-by-step through the process. The liquid will have an almost identical appearance and texture to steamed milk.
If you observe a professional barista steaming your milk, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s straightforward. However, there are many elements to consider, including the position of the steam wand in the milk jug and the ideal milk temperature. Not only that, but considerations including the type of milk and steam wand you use also affect the outcome.
Nevertheless, you can employ some best practices to ensure that you steam exquisite milk more often than not.
We hope this article has helped break down the process to make your future home milk-steaming attempts a success.