Do you know that delicious, creamy tasting milk that you get when you order a latte or a cappuccino? Rich and velvety, perfectly combined with a shot of espresso coffee— steamed milk. With a little practice and a little know-how, anyone can make smooth and delicious steamed milk right there at home.
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Whether you’re making a traditional cowboy coffee or a shot of espresso, the addition of steamed milk can boost your cup to the next level.
Let’s learn how!
What Is Steamed Milk
Steamed milk generally refers to milk that has been heated using the steam wand of an espresso machine. It is generally thicker than regular, warm milk, thanks to the addition of tiny air bubbles pushed into the milk by the steam wand.
The addition of air into the milk creates what is known as micro-foam— a creamy, velvety smooth, warm milk that is used in a number of espresso-based coffee drinks.
Benefits of Steaming Milk
The cappuccino is a favorite coffee of many people, as is a cup of cortado coffee. And steamed milk is an essential part of both of these coffees. The rich espresso combined with the velvety, creamy milk is a magic combination. If we were to add some plain, heated milk to a shot of espresso, we wouldn’t get the glorious flavor, nor the luscious texture that we’re looking for.
Richer and Creamier Than Regular Heated Milk
Steaming your milk— heating and aerating it changes your milk into something completely different. It goes from thin in texture to gloriously thick. Steamed milk, when done well, almost resembles cream. It is velvety and light while also being creamy. The flavor becomes more intense, and it becomes the perfect addition to coffee.
Steamed milk can be added to any espresso, hot chocolate, and matcha based drinks, just to name a few. You can even add a dash of steamed milk to a cup of instant coffee or to decaf coffee for the full coffee taste.
Good to Add to the Top of Cold Drinks
Steamed milk isn’t only for hot drinks. You can also add a dollop of creamy, thick steamed milk foam to the top of an iced latte or iced chocolate. Cappuccino style steamed milk adds a luxurious texture to your cold coffees.
How Does Steamed Milk Work
Next time you are in your local coffee shop, take a good look at the Barista’s espresso machine. On either end of the machine, you’ll see a shiny metal tube that might be sticking out at a 45-degree angle. Actually, the Barista might have this shiny tube dipped into a jug of milk — hissing and kissing away. This metal tube is known as a steam wand.
Within the espresso machine lies at least one boiler. This boiler contains very, very hot water. The steam created within this boiler shoots out of the steam want, which is what the barista will use to steam milk.
As the barista lowers the steam wand into the jug of cold milk, she will engage the steam wand, sending hot steam streaming into the milk. As the milk begins to spin within the jug, our talented barista lowers the jug, tiny bits at a time. As she lowers the milk jug, the tip of the wand sits just below the surface of the milk, allowing the steam to push small amounts of air into the milk. The milk slowly becomes thicker. When the barista turns the steam wand off and lowers the milk jug, she is left with some beautiful steamed milk, perfect for a flat white, a cafe latte, or a cappuccino.
While steamed milk is traditionally made using steam from an espresso machine, we can replicate it fairly easily at home using a few different methods. If you want a taste of the real homemade mocha coffee, you’re going to need some steamed milk. Read on to learn how!
Frothing vs Steaming Milk
The terms frothing and steaming are used somewhat loosely. Though not entirely correct, one can often be used in place of the other and there is no harm done in the same way that the term cold brew vs iced coffee is used. Sure, cold brew will usually end up consumed as iced coffee, but not all iced coffee is cold brew! Confused? That’s ok!
To call a certain milk ‘frothed milk,’ it needs to have had a significant amount of air added to it, making it frothy or foamy. This can be done by a steam wand on an espresso machine, or it can be done using a French press (more on this in a moment). Frothed milk is fairly thick, making almost meringue-like peaks out of the milk.
Steaming milk usually refers to heating milk using the steam wand of an espresso machine. Small amounts of air are usually added while steaming milk to create what we call micro-foam. This not-quite-froth micro-foam is creamy and velvety, containing tiny air bubbles. While technically, steamed milk needs to have been heated using steam, we can replicate the results fairly accurately at home, without the use of an espresso machine.
Methods of Steaming Milk Without an Espresso Machine
With cold brew, we could use a coffee machine for making a cold brew coffee. Or we could DIY it. The same thing goes for steaming milk. We could brew a homemade latte in an espresso machine, complete with steamed milk from the machine. But just like cold brew, we can also DIY both the espresso and the steamed milk without the machine!
Let’s take a look at how.
Automatic Milk Frother
Using a premium milk frother is an excellent, easy to use option. Costing far less than an espresso machine, an automatic milk frother will usually heat and froth the milk for you. They are super simple and require almost no effort to use. You do have to buy the device, but this is a small price to pay for the convenience that an automatic milk frother offers.
Another easy to use option is a handheld milk frother. While it does require a little more effort than the automatic milk frother, it is a fair bit cheaper, making it a good, budget-friendly option. Heat your milk over the stove in a saucepan to the right temperature, then transfer to a milk jug and use the handheld frother to create your desired amount of foam. A handheld milk frother is similar to a whisk that quickly spins.
The humble French press is an excellent tool to DIY some good microfoam! The filter on the French press is a great way of incorporating air into your milk. Add your warm milk to the French press and pump the plunger up and down repeatedly. Do this until the milk has reached the texture you are looking for.
Saucepan and Whisk
Say you don’t have any special equipment, but you still want to make some creamy, steamed milk. Try using a whisk to whip some air into the milk while you are heating it. Be sure not to whisk the milk too hard— it is easy to make a huge mess using this method!
How to Steam Milk
First, let’s look at the traditional way of steaming milk— using an espresso machine.
- Espresso machine
- Milk jug
Step 1 – Pour the milk into the jug
Measure out the correct amount of milk you want to steam and add it to the milk jug. Place the thermometer on the rim of the milk jug.
Step 2 – Start steaming
First, purge your steam wand to ensure there is no water in the pipe. Then, raise the milk pitcher, so the tip of the steam wand is fully submerged in the milk. Line the steam wand up with the spout of the jug, then tip the jug back and slightly to the left side so that the tip of the steam wand is facing the bottom right-hand side of your jug. Imagine you are trying to make the steam spin around clockwise in the jug. Turn on the steam wand.
Step 3 – Steam the milk
As the milk spins, slowly lower the jug tiny bits at a time so that the tip of the steam wand can push air into the milk. It will make gentle ‘kissing’ sounds. We want to keep these sounds very small and frequent. This will ensure we produce smooth microfoam. Allowing too much air will create meringue-like peaks in our milk, which isn’t ideal for modern-day coffee!
Step 4 – Spin the bubbles out
Continue allowing air in until the milk reaches about 45-50°C, at which point, raise the jug so that no more air can enter the milk. Keep the milk spinning clockwise until it reaches 60°C. Keeping the milk spinning will smoothen out the milk, removing any large bubbles. Then turn the steam wand off.
Step 5 – Pour
Give your microfoam milk a spin, then try your best at pouring some latte art into your coffee!
How to Steam Milk in a Microwave
For this method, we will use a jar with a lid to add air to our milk before heating it up using the microwave.
- A jar with a lid (a mason jar is perfect)
Step 1 – Froth the milk
First, measure out your milk and pour it into the jar. Screw on the lid of the jar and vigorously make the jar. Shake, shake, then shake some more!
Step 2 – Heat the milk
Once you’re happy with the amount of foam you’ve made, take off the lid and place the jar in the microwave. Heat the milk to your desired temperature. This should take around 30-40 seconds.
Step 3 – Pour the milk
Carefully remove the jar from the microwave (it will be hot!) and pour over your favorite coffee!
How to Steam Milk Using a Stove and French Press
In this next method, we’ll use the stove to heat the milk and a French press to create the foam.
- French press
Step 1 – Heat the milk
Measure out your desired amount of milk and add it to the saucepan. Place the saucepan over low heat to gently heat the milk. It is recommended not to heat your milk hotter than 60°C. Much hotter than this and your milk might start to burn.
Step 2 – Froth the milk
Once the milk has reached 60°C, transfer it to the French press. Add the plunger and pump the plunger up and down, repeatedly. Keep doing this until the milk has reached your desired consistency.
Step 3 – Pour
Give your steamed milk a good swirl, then pour it into a shot of espresso for a delicious, creamy flat white or into a hot chocolate. Enjoy!
How to Steam Milk Using a Whisk
The last method we’ll cover is great if you have almost no equipment. Most kitchens will have a saucepan and a whisk, making this a good option for beginners.
Step 1 – Add the milk to the saucepan
Measure out your desired amount of milk and add it to the saucepan. Now place the saucepan over low heat.
Step 2 – Whisk
As the milk is heating, use the whisk to beat air into it. The milk might not thicken up too much at first, but as the milk heats, it will take on more air and begin to foam up.
Step 3 – Pour
Once the milk has reached 60°C, remove it from the heat. Continue beating air into the milk if necessary. Once you’re happy with the texture of your milk, pour it into your favorite coffee!
Most Common Mistakes When Steaming Milk
Heating the Milk Too Much
Overheating the milk is an easy mistake to make. Depending on the milk, overheating might leave the milk less sweet or even make it taste sour.
Avoid overheating milk by using a thermometer. While digital ones are the best, pretty much any thermometer will do the trick.
If you are using the thermometer you use for cooked food, be absolutely sure it is clean before using it for your milk!
Not Frothing for Long Enough
The difference between a coffee with nicely textured milk and one with sub-par texture is huge. Taking the time to add enough air to your milk is worth it. Some of these methods take a little more time than others, but all will get you where you want to go.
Using the Wrong Kind of Milk
Some milk just doesn’t do well being heated. For one reason or another, they just taste strange and don’t add the sweet, delicious taste we are chasing. Many of the alternate milk options such as soy and oat milk taste sour when heated. Try Oatly’s Barista edition for a delicious plant-based alternative that steams just as well as old-school cow’s milk.
Do’s and Don’ts When Steaming Milk
- Do try different methods. If you aren’t happy with the results, try another method.
- Do keep working at it. Learning how to steam milk to an expert level can take years to master. Perfect latte art and delicious coffee is your reward.
- Do add steamed milk to a pod-based shot of espresso. The best single-serve coffee maker can produce a delicious espresso, perfect for making into a flat white!
- Do try adding steamed milk to low acid coffee. While milk won’t lower the levels of acid in coffee, adding it to low acid coffee will result in a very mellow, low acid drink.
- Do try adding steamed milk when mixing a coffee cocktail! It may sound strange, but warm coffee cocktails can be delicious!
- Don’t overheat your milk. Heating milk much hotter than 60°C might result in sour or burned milk.
- Don’t be afraid to try different kinds of milk. There are some delicious plant-based milk alternatives that steam and foam just as well as traditional cow’s milk.
FAQ About Steamed Milk
How hot should steamed milk be?
Heating milk to 60°C or 65°C maximum is a good benchmark. Much higher than this, the milk may exhibit burned flavors or become sour.
What kind of milk works best?
There are a number of different kinds of milk that work great for steaming. As far as dairy milk goes, full fat usually works the best. For non-dairy alternatives, you can’t go wrong with Oatly’s Barista edition oat milk or the classic barista favorite— Bonsoy soy milk.
How long do you steam milk for a latte at home?
The time you spend steaming all depends on the method you are using. If you are using a good espresso machine to steam, the process should take around 1 minute or less. If using a French press, the milk might take a few minutes to heat, then a few more minutes to froth.
Is steamed milk healthy?
Because pretty much all of the milk we buy has been pasteurized, steaming the milk has no real effect on the milk as far as our health is concerned. However, heating milk too much beyond 76°C will cause the proteins in the milk to breakdown.
Does steamed milk go bad?
You only want to steam as much milk as you can use. Because of the possible buildup of bacteria, it is not recommended to keep steamed milk.
Can you steam milk twice?
While it is possible to reheat steamed milk, it is not recommended due to bacteria and pathogens that may multiply in the warm milk that is left to sit.
Making your own steamed milk is a great and easy way of boosting your at-home coffee game. It requires a few bits of gear, doesn’t take too much time, and can produce delicious, cafe-quality results. Give it a try and enjoy a flat white at home!
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