If you are a latte lover or a cappuccino connoisseur then you’ll know that the key ingredients are steamed milk and espresso. Espresso coffee is a fine art and if you’re looking to hone your skills, check out our article on making espresso coffee at home.
Steamed milk is another tricky technique to master. There are loads of devices and gadgets out there that claim to steam milk for you yet fail to produce anything that closely resembles your usual coffee shop order.
To steam milk at home you need to use a real steam wand. These come with most espresso machines and take a bit of time and practice to get perfect. Any other device actually froths the milk and doesn’t steam it.
You may be asking what’s the difference between frothed and steamed milk and how do I go about trying these techniques for myself? Well, the answers are all here. Read on to find out how to make perfectly steamed milk as well as the many ways you can froth it.
What Is Steamed Milk?
‘Steaming’ is simply a method of preparing milk that changes its temperature and texture so it can be used to create a variety of recipes. Steam is created when water is heated to its boiling point and a steam wand uses a pressurized system to direct this through a small channel. This creates a fine jet of steam that flows out the end of the wand. If the wand is submerged in cold milk it acts to warm and aerate the liquid to create thick and frothy milk that’s around 60C (140F) or just too hot to touch.
Steamed milk is made up of a liquid portion and a foamy layer. The ratio of these layers can be altered depending on the barista’s technique. Some recipes will call for steamed milk first and then a layer of milk foam. This is simply referring to the different textured layers made from the same process.
What Is It Used For?
Steamed milk has a thick yet bubbly texture and is perfect for making all kinds of warm, milk-based beverages. If you pair it with espresso you can create a creamy latte, a bubbly cappuccino, a bold macchiato, or a smooth flat white. These coffee drinks are all made from a combination of steamed milk and a shot of espresso coffee but they differ in the ratio of steamed milk to milk foam used.
Another great use for steamed milk is to add cocoa powder to it and create a decadent hot chocolate. It can also be added to brewed tea to make a tea-based latte. Chai lattes combine black tea, spices, and heated milk.
Of course, you can just enjoy steamed milk as it is or add a pinch of your favorite spices and sweetener. I love to stir a teaspoon of honey in and a pinch of nutmeg. It makes the perfect soothing bedtime drink.
Steamed Milk vs Frothed Milk
A lot of confusion can arise between steamed milk and frothed milk. The two terms are often used interchangeably but the resulting drink can be very different. Steamed milk is made using a steam wand and has a creamy texture due to the tiny air bubbles (also known as microfoam) the wand is able to create.
Frothed milk is made by using something solid to beat air into the milk. It’s often made using a milk frothing jug or wand. They may or may not heat the milk as well. These devices often leave large bubbles in the milk so it has a lighter texture and doesn’t hold its shape as effectively.
How To Steam Milk
To steam milk, you need a steam wand and a jug to hold the milk. A stainless steel pitcher is ideal as this allows you to monitor the temperature of the milk by touch as you steam it. Choose a jug that can hold about twice the volume of milk you require and if you’re aiming for latte art then a longer spout will help with this.
Most espresso machines have a steam wand attachment although it is possible to buy individual steam arms. They come in electric or stovetop options but they can be very expensive.
Choosing The Right Kind of Milk
To get the best results when steaming milk you really want to go for milk with high fat content. Whole milk or even half and half works very well. Avoid skim milk.
If you’re vegan or lactose intolerant then there are loads of plant-based kinds of milk to choose from. Almond milk, oat milk, coconut, and soy work really well but if possible, choose a barista blend as they have stabilizers added to help hold the texture of the microfoam.
Keep it Chilly
Always start with cold milk straight out of the refrigerator. It may seem counterintuitive to cool the milk before you heat it but this really does make for better results.
It’s important to heat the milk to the correct temperature when steaming it. If it gets too hot then the proteins in the milk become damaged and they clump together causing the milk to curdle. This is especially true for plant-based milk. Around 60C (140 degrees Fahrenheit) is ideal.
Practice With Your Steam Wand
Start by filling the pitcher to around halfway full or just below the spout. The amount of milk you use will roughly double in size so don’t overfill the pitcher or it will spill everywhere!
Start by purging the steam wand into an empty cup or glass. This removes any condensation or stale water that may be left in the wand from the last use.
Insert the tip of the steam wand below the surface of the milk and open the valve halfway. Wait until the milk warms up to around 20-30C (just warm to the touch) and then lower the pitcher so the steam wand is about level with the surface of the milk. You should hear the characteristic “kissing” sound.
Angle the jug slightly so that the steam creates a whirlpool effect and you can use one hand on the side of the pitcher to check the temperature (a jug with a built-in thermometer is ideal). When it becomes just too hot to handle turn the steam wand off.
Lower the jug down gently and tap it firmly on the countertop to remove any larger air bubbles. You can now use it to make any milk-based espresso drink you enjoy best!
Make sure you purge the steam wand with fresh water afterward and wipe the exterior to remove any milk residue.
How To Froth Milk
Automatic Milk Frother
An automatic milk frother jug is the best way to get close to coffee shop quality milk but without a steam wand. These work by heating the milk and using fast rotating blades to aerate and froth it. They create warm milk that’s extremely bubbly but lacks the thick, creamy quality you get from a real steam wand.
Manual Milk Frother
A manual milk frother jug is a good option for a cost-effective solution to steam milk without a steam wand. It’s essentially a jug with a mesh plunger built into the lid. You press this up and down vigorously to aerate the milk. The jugs are often built to go on a stovetop so you can heat the milk as well.
A DIY version of a manual milk frother is to use a french press coffee maker instead. It works in a similar manner but doesn’t give quite such a good texture.
A frothing wand is another popular way to make frothy milk at home. It’s basically an electric whisk and they give a similar result to milk frother jug except they don’t heat the milk up. They’re cheap to buy and easy to use and a great option for making frothy milk at home.
A balloon whisk is the best choice for hand whisking milk as they create the smallest air bubbles. They won’t create that thick texture you’re after but will add a bit of air to the milk. If you’re really keen to create frothy milk and this is all you have then it can do the job in a pinch.
A hand mixer with a whisk attachment can also be used for a similar result just without the elbow grease.
The fast-rotating blades of a hand blender or upright food processor are another option if you need to froth milk but you don’t have any equipment to hand. It doesn’t create much microfoam but will aerate the milk and give it a bubbly texture. Some high-speed blenders can warm the milk as well.
A final, pretty poor way to froth milk is by using a mason jar (or any jar with a lid). You simply add cold milk, fix the lid in place, and shake the jar vigorously to aerate it. Next, remove the lid and microwave it to set the foam. This method isn’t the best as you end up with large air bubbles that burst easily. It is very cost-effective though and worth a try if you have nothing else to hand.
There’s only one way to make, barista-grade steamed milk at home and that’s using a steam wand. However, you can make frothy milk easily and inexpensively using anything from an immersion blender to a mason jar. Whichever method you choose, just make sure you clean the equipment thoroughly afterward!