Well-steamed milk doesn’t necessarily make the latte but it can certainly break the latte.
Latte milk should resemble wet paint when swirled. It should have little to no bubbles and achieve a defined contrast on top where the micro-foam sits in the crema.
The result is a naturally sweetened and creamy taste that compliments the espresso and perfects the drink.
Steaming great milk, however, takes time, practice, and finesse. If you’ve tried it before, you’ll know it’s not as easy as it sounds. To help, here are the top five mistakes I see that make me mutter a eulogy to all the lattes that could’ve been.
1. Aerating the milk too little or not at all
When the steam wand screams (that screeching sound that makes the hair on every customer’s neck stand up?), I immediately regret my purchase because I know something is wrong. That something is the barista’s failure to aerate the milk properly.
Start the tip of the steam wand just below the surface of the milk and immediately lower your pitcher so that you hear a pleasant tss tss noise. That sound is the result of the steam wand introducing air into the milk, creating a collection of tiny bubbles (known as microfoam) that come together in silky goodness.
2. Aerating the milk too much
I often see lattes with chunky milk (really foamy) or milk with large bubbles. If you’re guilty of this, you need to scale back your aeration.
Bubbles could mean you are too aggressively introducing air into the milk. Try not to lower your pitcher so much after turning on the steam. You’re looking for a pleasant tss tss sound.
Chunky milk is telling you to not aerate the milk for quite as long. Three to five seconds will provide the right amount of micro-foam.
Some bubbles are easily fixed by swirling and gently tapping the milk pitcher on the counter.
3. Failing to roll the milk
Once you’ve properly aerated the milk, immerse the tip of the steam wand and tilt the pitcher so that you achieve a whirlpool. This rolls the beautiful micro-foam into the milk, making it a unified success. Not doing this will make your latte less cohesive.
4. Steaming too hot
A good barista knows how hot to steam a Latte — a great barista knows the temperature differences between a Cortado and a Latte.
Often, I pick up my latte from the counter and I can tell it’s too hot.
A latte should be steamed to between 140 and 155 degrees. This should allow the customer to immediately sip a creamy and subtly sweet beverage. If it’s steamed too hot, not only will it scorch your tongue, but the barista has chased away the natural sweetness of the milk. But it gets trickier…
Different drinks call for different temperatures. For example, a Cortado (my personal favorite) should be between 120 and 130 degrees. If it is hot to the touch when picked up in its traditional Gibraltar glass, it’s too hot for a Cortado.
There’s no shame in using a thermometer to keep yourself accountable, but always feel the side of the pitcher while you steam so you can train yourself to know what perfection feels like. It should be noted as well that milk steamed too hot is harder to control when it comes to pouring.
5. Pouring incorrectly
Don’t worry too much about latte art until you’ve mastered milk, but you should try for contrast on the top. Follow the low-high-low principle.
Start with the spout of your pitcher close to the cup. Quickly raise the pitcher, allowing the milk to dive beneath the crema. Then, when the cup is about half to two-thirds of the way full, bring the pitcher low again.
When you’re ready to try latte art, keep in mind, it’s less about “drawing” and more like inflating a balloon. You’re pushing the foam into the crema and letting gravity work with you.
In the end, the quality of your steamed milk is what takes your mediocre latte to great. Take the time to get it right so that it looks and tastes absolutely amazing.
What’s your favorite milk-steaming tip?
Point number 4 was added 2/10/2020