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Intro to Milk Steaming and Latte Art


Intro to Milk Steaming and Latte Art

Why we steam milk:

  • Quick, efficient heating of milk
  • Enhance milk sweetness
  • Texture
  • Presentation

How we steam milk:

  • Fill milk pitcher to appropriate level for each drink to reduce waste and increase consistency 
    • 4.5oz for a 8oz latte
    • 7.5oz for 12oz latte
    • 10.5oz for 16oz latte
  • Purge and wipe off the steam wand with a dedicated steam wand wet rag before steaming. The steam wand rag is the only rag to be used for the steam wand.
  • Insert the steam wand into the milk pitcher just below the surface of the milk.
  • Turn on the steam wand and lower the milk pitcher, raising the steam wand tip just above the surface until you begin to hear a noise similar to that of paper tearing. During this part of the process you are pushing air into the milk and adding texture (foam). This process is commonly referred to as ‘aerating’ or ‘stretching’ the milk.
  • While you’re adding air to the milk, you’re also adding volume. Keep the steam wand tip just out of the surface until the milk volume has increased by one third. For example, if you’re making a 12oz latte you should start with 7.5oz of milk and aerate until the volume reaches 10oz. Note, there isn’t a specific amount of time to aerate. How far you raise the steam wand from the surface of the milk will affect how gently or aggressively you aerate. Aerating gently will achieve significantly less texture (foam) than aerating aggressively.
  • After you have increased the volume of the milk by one third, raise the milk pitcher up, submerging the steam wand tip below the surface. 
  • Keep the steam wand submerged and once the milk has reached 140 F, turn the steam wand off. This temperature is generally right around when the milk pitcher becomes uncomfortable to the touch, BUT NOT PAINFUL. We recommend using a thermometer, or at least calibrating frequently to a thermometer.
  • Purge and wipe the steam wand clean.

How we “groom” the milk:

After you steam the milk it is ideal that your espresso and other ingredients in your drink are ready to go. Regardless of whether the ingredients are ready to be poured or not, you should still take a moment to ‘groom’ your milk before pouring.

  • Tap & Swirl. There are usually at least a few large bubbles after steaming. This is ok. Tap the pitcher gently on the counter to collapse large bubbles. If they don’t collapse immediately try swirling and tapping. Repeat until the milk looks smooth and silky, like wet paint.
  • Swirl aggressively until the second you’re ready to pour. During the steaming process you added foam to the milk. The foam will naturally gather at the top and the milk will sink to the bottom. It’s important to keep the milk and the foam a homogenous mixture. This homogenous mixture — sometimes called ‘microfoam’ — is crucial to pouring quality latte art. 

What’s Wrong With My Milk?

  • Too much foam. Signs of too much foam are the milk being too stiff and not smooth and silky. Too much foam is the result of aerating too long.
  • Too big of air bubbles. Perhaps you have achieved the right amount of foam, but the milk has large air bubbles and is not smooth and silky. This could be the result of aerating too aggressively. It could also be the result of aerating too late in the steaming process. You should not aerate the milk after it reaches 100 F. A good way to know that you have reached 100 F is when the milk pitcher begins to feel warm.
  • My milk is “stiff.” As mentioned above, too much foam can cause milk to be stiff.  Steaming the milk too hot can also cause milk to become stiff and hard to work with. Use a thermometer to confirm that you are only steaming the milk to 140 F. Milk can also get stiff from not enough grooming. Remember, keep swirling the milk until the very moment it is poured to prevent the foam and milk from separating.
  • My steamed milk doesn’t look like it has foam. This can only be the result of aerating too little. Make sure you’re lowering the pitcher until the steam wand tip is just above the surface of the milk and you begin to hear a noise similar to that of paper tearing. Keep the steam wand just above the surface until the volume of the milk has increased by one third.

Why we pour latte art:

But why? Latte art doesn’t necessarily mean that the drink is going to taste good. However, most of the time if a barista can pour quality latte art it means that they care about the drink.  Latte art is a source of credibility. It’s a way to communicate that the drink has been prepared with skill and care.  

What we’re looking for in latte art:

  1. Symmetry
  2. Size of design (does it fill out the drink surface?)
  3. Centeredness and direction of design
  4. Contrast
  5. Clarity
  6. Complexity (not applicable for solid hearts or monk’s heads)
  7. Overall aesthetic (could be complex but poorly executed)


How we pour a “monk’s head”:

    • Pour espresso into the cup. Tap out bubbles and swirl to create a homogenous texture.
    • Hold the cup at a 30 to 45 degree angle. Orient the cup so that the handle of the cup will be perpendicular to the direction of your pouring.
    • Begin pouring the milk in a small circular pattern into the deepest point of the espresso.  Keep the milk pitcher about 3” above the cup. At this height, the milk should flow through the surface, retaining the surface’s brown color, which is necessary for achieving quality contrast in the end design. If it feels uncomfortable to start the pour at this distance, start closer and quickly bring the pitcher up to 3” above the cup. If this results in some white foam showing on the surface, pour over the white to sink it under.
    • Continue to hold the cup at a 30-45 degree angle. Once the liquid in the cup gets within a ¼” from the lip of the cup, stop pouring.  
    • With the cup still at a 30-45 degree angle, begin pouring again into the deepest point of the liquid with the pitcher about a ¼” above the surface. It may be helpful to touch the side of the pitcher to the rim of the cup to achieve this distance. From this distance, the foam should begin laying on the surface, creating a crisp white design. Not getting the pitcher close enough to the surface will result in a beige/off-white design, and therefore the final design will have less than ideal contrast.
    • At this point, you will need to begin slowly un-tilting the cup as you pour in order to avoid spilling as you fill. As you pour, the round, white design will continue to grow and cover more of the surface of the drink. Surface tension increases as the cup fills.  As the surface tension increases, the flow rate necessary to continue the design growing also increases. Therefore, in order to keep your design growing at a constant rate, the flow rate of your pouring must increase as the drink fills. 
    • Continue pouring until the cup has been completely un-tilted and the drink is completely filled.