Foaming Milk: A Step-by-Step Instructional

How to Froth Milk with the Finest Microfoam

Just What is Frothed Milk and Microfoam Anyway?

Frothing (or foaming) milk properly is essential for creating a genuine espresso drink, like a cappuccino or macchiato. I can’t tell you how many times a glassy-eyed teenager has served me up a cappuccino with flat foam on top. Indeed, there is no sense in even distinguishing between a cappuccino and a latte if the foam is absent or corrupted. We are, after all, talking about what many consider to be an art, which is why we call it "Latte Art." Beverage artists take great pride in the ability to produce microfoam correctly. But it takes time. Usually, when we get employees in our cafes who have no prior barista experience, it takes a solid week until comfort sets in. Anyone who tells you they went pro in one day is lying. If you have been frustrated with big soap-bubble milk or stiff meringue-like froth, we are here to help. What you want to create is a thickened milk with foam throughout, something that will pour out like a sauce and tastes both sweet and rich. This kind of froth is called microfoam, and by micro we mean that the foam is truly part of the milk, not just a layer of foam on top. The layer method is the first stage of the learning process (perhaps where you are right now). With a little practice and the right equipment, you will soon be enjoying frothy concoctions in no time flat. Before we delve into the details, if you are looking for a quick fix without the learning curve, we recommend an automatic frothing device, or if you really want to go all out, a fully automatic machine that does it all for you.

What Equipment Do You Need?

First, you will need something that produces steam, and plenty of it, with a nozzle or tip to deliver the steam to your milk. This is typically an espresso machine starting at $100 and going up into the thousands. Price isn’t really pertinent to this discussion, but it should be noted that nicer equipment will yield the desired results more quickly. In addition to an espresso maker, you will need to get a hold of the following:

How do I do it?

Your frothing device will have a valve on it which releases the pressurized steam. Most of the time, the "frothing device" is the steam wand on an espresso machine, such as the perennial favorite Rancilio Sylvia. Check the bottom of this wand. If the tip is a very small hole (or multiple small holes) follow the directions immediately below. If the tip is a wide opening, or you see what looks to be misplaced hole on the side of the wand, you have a froth-assisting wand; skip ahead to the "Froth Assisted Directions".

Choose Your Milk

This is where a lot of arguments begin and friendships end, so we’ll just cut to the chase: you can froth any kind of milk, but each kind behaves a little differently. What never changes, however, is that milk with higher fat content tastes sweeter than skim or low fat when frothed, and fresher milk is always better. We recommend that newcomers begin with skim and mature to 2% or Whole. If you run into a gallon of milk that just won’t behave, move on; it might not be you.

Prepare Your Tools

Turn on your espresso machine and allow it to heat to normal brewing temperature. Fill your milk pitcher less than half way with cold milk, and fully submerge the thermometer into the milk. You can brew your espresso before or after, but we will get into that further on in this article.

Prepare Your Steam

With this step, you want to ensure that your espresso machine will dispense not only ample steam to froth your milk, but also the right kind of steam. You mean steam isn’t steam? Yes and no; there is dry steam and wet steam. Wet steam adds unwanted water to your milk, making it harder to froth and less sweet. To get the dry steam, you need to bleed out the water from the pipe that runs between the boiler and the valve that controls the flow of steam. When you turn on your espresso machine’s steam mode (for machines that do not have always-on steam), wait about 5 seconds and then open the steam valve briefly into an empty container until the water turns to steam. Wait about 20 seconds, and do it again. You now have dry steam. To keep the steam coming throughout the process, you need to begin frothing your milk before the heat turns off. If your machine is a heat exchanger or other kind with always available steam, this will not be a concern for you.

Where to Put the Tip?

This part is crucial if you demand perfect froth, not so much if you just want hot milk, but you need to think of the milk in your pitcher as having different depth zones (top, middle, and bottom). You can tell where you placed the tip of the wand by the sound that is made. At the top, it starts with a bubbling/gurgling noise that turns into a deeper sucking/tearing noise as you go farther into the milk. In the middle zone, things quiet down to a heavy rumble, and at the bottom it gets really loud like a roar or even a squeal. During the frothing process, you need to keep the tip at the upper end of the middle zone, so that you occasionally hear the sucking sound. As you practice, explore your milk to get to know the zones. You will also need to have the tip in the correct horizontal position. Who’d have thought it would be so complicated? If your tip has 1 hole, keep it to the outside and at an angle; if it has 3 or 4 holes, keep it in the center and pointed straight down. What you are trying to do here is create a vortex that folds the milk into itself, along with air, to turn large bubbles into small ones and small bubbles into microfoam. It is completely normal to move the tip up and down in small increments during the foaming process to stay in the zone.

It’s Go Time!

With the tip in place and dry steam at the ready, open the steam valve and begin the frothing process. Adjust your flow of steam to compensate for the amount of milk you want to froth (more power for more milk and vice versa). As the liquid becomes foam, you will notice the volume of milk begin to increase. This process is called stretching and is why you don’t fill your pitcher full of milk. Take note of the type of bubbles you see; if they are big and stay big, move the wand tip lower into the milk. Remember to keep that vortex whirling around as you go, and that you may have to dance the tip up and down some during this process. As the milk stretches up to 50% from its original volume, you will notice the temperature will be around 100° to 115°F. At this point, you can lower the wand tip to the lower end of that quiet rumbling zone so that you only occasionally hear the roar. Take the milk all the way up to a maximum temperature of 160°F. You don’t have to precisely hit 160°, but you definitely do not want to go over that mark because you will scald the milk and destroy all that yummy froth you just made.

C’mon! When do I get to Drink it?!

So now that you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into your milk, it is finally time to see the results in your cup. If you want to make latte art, you need wait between 10 to 20 seconds to allow the milk to thicken slightly before pouring. Wait too long and a spoonable cappuccino foam layer will settle on the top of the milk. Give your pitcher a swirl or two and tap it gently against the counter just after frothing and right before pouring. Latte art must be poured into the espresso, which is convenient when using equipment that can brew and froth simultaneously but creates a bit of an obstacle for owners of smaller espresso machines. Let us help you with that. If you must froth before making the espresso your milk will be waiting for you for about one minute. In order to keep the foam capable of making latte art, only stretch the milk to about 33% and frequently swirl the pitcher while you wait. You’ve got to dance all that time while frothing, so one more tango certainly won’t hurt ya!

How to Work it with a Froth Assisted Tip

To identify that you have a froth assisted tip, simply look for either some sort of contraption at the end of the wand or what looks to be a misplaced hole on the side of the tip. This is a breather hole, and steam should not come out of it. The purpose of this breather hole is to inject additional air into your milk to compensate for the reduced steam power that some smaller or fully automatic espresso machines possess. Every brand has its own specially trademarked name for it like Pannarello or Cappuccinador. In general, you will still want to place the tip in the milk in the same manner as directed above, but there are exceptions depending on the style of tip. If that breather hole is located closer to the end of the wand (usually a half inch or less), you will need to keep that hole just at the surface of the milk/foam as you froth. If you submerge the hole, it can’t breathe. Continue to monitor the temperature as you froth milk using one of these devices. After milk passes the 100° to 115°F mark, you still need to raise the pitcher so as to lower the tip into the milk and end the frothing phase of the process. You will likely have an easier time making your froth with this device and will enjoy more consistent results, but it will typically produce a slightly inferior microfroth. Most things in life involve a trade-off, and in this case you are trading a steep learning curve for a less artful latte. No big deal in our book. Please don’t lose hope if you cannot successfully pour the froth on your first few attempts. The silver lining is that you’ll enjoy drink after drink of espresso while you develop your skills. Word to the wise: late at night might not be the best time to start drinking your failed attempts. Give us a call at 877-554-8336 (JLHUFFORD), and we’ll be happy to provide assistance, but you must promise to share when you finally nail it!