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All frothed milk is not created equal


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It's true. Heated frothed milk can be simply that or it can be an entirely different substance with not only a different viscosity, mouthfeel and sweetness but the capability for blending with espresso in a manner that yields a drink quite unlike the run-of-the-mill capuccino or latte most folks have ever experienced.

I'll quote myself (from the Latte Art Video section of my own web site) as a place to start the discussion:

Many knowledgeable industry veterans, most notably David Schomer of Caffe Vivace in Seattle WA, have long been proponents and advocates for the improved steaming and frothing techniques that allow a blend of art and aesthetics. The result is an eminently drinkable blend of crema rich espresso and milk that has been optimized by the steaming process. Proper steaming and frothing techniques not only sweeten the milk by bringing out the natural sugars but also alter its texture. What was once a simple liquid becomes a viscous and silky substance that allows the crema and body of a properly pulled espresso shot to be emulsified into the milk, producing a drink that is far more than the sum of its parts.

Schomer has a good article on these techniques at his Espresso Vivace website

Milk Texturing Basics

I have also found the free pdf tutorial offered by Gimme! Coffee to be concise and very helpful

Milk Preparation Tutorial

I'm no expert.... heck... I can't even pour decent "latte art" despite having a really good machine and plenty of resources to study. What I do know is this: using manual frothers with heated milk is a worthy substitute if you're in a pinch but true microfoamed milk is a thing of beauty and the drinks one can prepare with it really are superior. There is no substitute but few cafes actually produce it.

Visit a really good cafe.... JJ Bean or cafe Artigiano in Vancouver BC, Vivace, Vita or Hines in Seattle, Intelligentsia in Chicago, Gimme Coffee in NYC or Ithaca.... you'll find that the difference between a latte and cappuccino is the espresso to milk ratio - lattes get more milk. There's none of this Starbucks style "scoop the extra foam on top and call it a cappuccino". Uh uh.... no sir.... all the milk they serve is microfoamed - it's been prepared so that the milk itself has been transformed in its entirety rather than having a separate layer of foam and milk.

I'll welcome and respond to dissenting views but I've had enough first hand experience to feel strongly about this.

Here are what I consider to be really "basic basics":

Start with cold milk - the colder the better - the longer the frothing time the better developed the foam (within reason)

Use an appropriately sized pitcher. Smaller machines in the sub $500 range generally steam no more than 5 - 6 oz of milk at a time properly. $500- $1200 units generally do well with up to 10 or 12 ounces.

Best results are obtained when the milk is at least 2" or 3" deep - thus we need a 10 oz pitcher for small amounts and a 20 oz pitcher for larger amounts.

Higher milk fat produces more velvety and longer lasting microfoam. I can get passable results with 1% but 2% or whole milk works better. I even know people who juice up their whole milk by adding half 'n half or condensed whole milk. Skim milk creates lots of dry, fluffy and light foam that separates from the milk - exactly what we DON'T want!

Purge the steam wand and then start steaming with the tip fully submerged. Immediately lower the pitcher so the the tip stays just under the surface of the milk - feel free to move it around a bit as the milk is "stretching". It will begin increasing in volume from the air being introduced but we're only looking to expand volume by 15% to 25% at most - what we're after is better texture.

At about 100 degrees, tip the pitcher or tilt the wand (or both)so that the tip is still just slightly submerged but the wand against the side of the pitcher, more or less parallel to it and get a swirling motion going. This is the process where the larger bubbles initially created are broken into the smaller bubbles of microfoam.

At about 130 degrees keep the same swirling motion going but raise the pitcher to fully immerse the tip so it's close to the bottom of the milk. Stop frothing at about 145 degrees. That's pretty close tro the sweet spot - literally. It's the point at which the sugars in the milk have been converted to produce extra sweetness from the milk but well below the level where scorching can occur.

Many people forego the use of a thermometer and work by the level of warmth on the outside of the pitcher and the sound that the foaming creates. Maybe I'll be at that level someday but for now I find that having the thermometer really simplifies things and helps me control the process

Yes... I know... it seems like a lot of hoo-hah and monkeying around for a coffee drink but if it wasn't worth I wouldn't be here :laugh:

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Thanks. You just gave me some ammo for my argument with those who insist that skim milk makes the best steamed milk. :retch: I'm always sneaking in a little 1/2 & 1/2 at a friend's house – nothing less than full-fat milk crosses the threshold at home.

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Glad to oblige. When they say skim milk makes the best foam they should be saying it makes the most foam. I drink skim milk if I want a glass of milk and use it or 1% on my cereal. 2% or better yet whole is the ticket for espresso. I used to cringe at the fat content issue (at age 48 with a desk job it is an issue) but a properly made latte or cappa with a double shot of really good espresso only needs 4 to 6 ounces of milk to build a complete drink. I can justify that amount of milk fat in pursuit of a better drink. Don't get me started on the gigundo 20 oz "venti" drinks at Charbucks - way too much milk and they end up giving true lattes a bad name. There's a place for that sort of thing and it's quite evident based on their popularity but they are more accurately described as flavored milk drinks rather than milk based espresso drinks.

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Caffe Trieste in North Beach makes great cappuccini, consistantly, and their price is a bargain. They were the first place I ever had a cappuccino and the standard to which I hold all others (even in Italy!). They use Berkeley Farms Extra Rich milk. I didn't find Intelligentsia to come close.

regards,

trillium

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Yeah... the milk used makes a big difference but so does the skill of the baristi. Even the best places can have wildly variable milk quality based on who's doing the foaming.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons I was usually uinable to find a good cappa in Central America or Mexico was the widespread use of Parmalat style milk. Not sure what fat content it had but they started foaming with room temp or slightly cooler milk and it never got the chance to properly develop. It can be done - one of the finer cappas I've had anywhere was at a small Italian restaurant on Caye Caulker in Belize.

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Yeah... the milk used makes a big difference but so does the skill of the baristi. Even the best places can have wildly variable milk quality based on who's doing the foaming.

That's the thing about Caffe Trieste. I've never had a bad cappuccini there...ever (10 years and counting, 4 of them when I was in school in SF). I gave up on Intelligentsia after 3 attempts. When I lived in that 'hood I loved their beans though. Anyway, I'm with you on the full fat milk and foam. The crappiest cappucino I ever had was in Sicily and it was for sure due to the canned milk.

regards,

trillium

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That's the thing about Caffe Trieste. I've never had a bad cappuccini there...ever (10 years and counting, 4 of them when I was in school in SF).

Wow. That is really truly remarkable. It speaks volumes to the way they are runnign the business and controlling process.

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Skim really does make some styrofoam. I shouldn't care, since I detest milked-up coffee in any form, but my paycheck once depended on it.

2% always worked best for me; whole milk was entirely too viscous, though tossed up whipping cream always made for great cold drinks.

Watch the pimple-jockey at Big Green next time you order your foofyfoamaccino;

I bet you they don't even purge their steam wands before plunging them into a pitcher of recycled moojuice. No wonder those Schmuckattle clones don't care about pulling a good espresso shot.

Nam Pla moogle; Please no MacDougall! Always with the frugal...

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It took me months to get anywhere near that good with my Gaggia. Then I got the Isomac and it took even more months to get it right with that. One of my challenges... in addition has been trying to do it in a cup that's a bit too deep and narrow. Those Camardo cups look like just the right shape. I recently got some Illy cappa cups that I'll break out this weekend and will give it another try.

I'm thinking that you need to have the heart perfected by Valentine's day - the rosettas can wait :cool:

Here's my lopsided heart.... or is it a mutant apple?

i2360.jpg

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It's all about the milk. Start with 2% or whole milk, bleed the steam wand before starting, start with the tip about 1/2 inch below the surface of the milk, slowly lower the pitcher so the steam wand is just under the surface - your looking for a slow shhh noise every once in a while, try and expand the milk by 1/3rd to 1/2 in additional volume (it should take about 5 seconds or so to do this) then move the pitcher again so the steam wand is 1/2 inch below the surface and try and find the spot in the pitcher where the wand causes the milk to move around as much as possible - hold the pitcher steady until it gets to 145*F, turn off the wand, tap the pitcher on the counter and swirl it to mix the whole mess together.

Take a cup (with the espresso in it already) tilt it at a slight angle and slowly pour the milk into the center of the cup - about 1/2 to an inch below the lip of the mug you'll get a white dot forming in the middle of the cup, slowly bring the cup back to level as you continue to pour. Your trying to fill the cup at about the same time as you bring it back to being level. You'll end up with a heart if you just keep a steady stream from the pitcher into the cup as you level it off.

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I think tomorrow, while the Challah is baking, i will crank up the Jura and try my had at steaming the milk. THe boss is out of town, so I can play most of the day.

I will also have to change to the 2% milk and see the difference. You all have inspired me.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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There are two videos in the latte art section of my web site (URL is in my signature line)- one on steaming and one on pouring, but the best instructional video I've seen yet is over at coffeegeek.com - its's footage showing thre latte art process as done by Sammy Piccolo, co-owner of Vancouver's Caffe Artigiano

Sammy Piccolo Latte Art Video

Click on the link to the .mov file - it appears in the middle of the first post on the thread. You'll need the free Quicktime player and a fast connection as it's a rather large file but worth the wait.

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this discussion is interesting to me as i worked in a cafe for about 4 years making lattes and the like. we always thought that skim made better foam. i guess you're right (theoretically), the skim did make more volume...but i felt that the foam i made was pretty damned good with skim...texture of shaving cream or pudding, no big bubbles, etc.

eventually, all the bubbles will separate and rise to the surface. i think that's the nature of it as it isn't cream. you can whip cream because the fat content creates a "network" which holds the air in the whipped cream. but even whipped cream "deflates" after a while (liquid on the bottom, foam on the top)...that's why pastry chefs have to make stabilized whipped cream with gelatin or creme fraiche as additives.

so, not to beleaguer this point...i still argue that you can make great foam with non-fat milk. it is in the technique and how immediately you use the foam. this doesn't argue the fact that you might also make "better" foam with whole milk or anything with a higher fat content...i'm just saying that technique is important.

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You're right that technique is crucial but if you've seen and tasted a drink made with properly done microfoam - you'll really see and taste the difference. The lack of milk fat in skim milk presents the challenge. The "network" that you describe is what holds the foam together typically for long enough to have a really pleasing drink with great mouthfeel. I've experiemented at home by mixing skim and 1% milk. I get passable results from my "1/2%" milk, noticeably better from 1% and really good results from 2%.

You're also correct that given time, the bubbles in any foam wil rise to the surface, separate from the fluid of the milk and dissipate. The problem, as I see it, is that it the separation process happens almost immediately with skim milk and takes longer when there's a bit of milk fat present.

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one good tip i learned (from doing a story on last year's champion barrista, heather perry), is that when you're stretching the milk, hold the pitcher at an angle. this exaggerates the "turning over" of the milk and really does a great job of turning any big bubbles into little bubbles.

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one of my problems as a "barrista" is that i don't drink coffee :blink: .

i loved making it though, so i must be some kind of heretic :biggrin: . theoretically, i totally agree with all of you. it just makes sense regarding the milk fat. i never really drank a whole latte (with anything other than skim) so i can't compare.

i'll have to use my restaurant's machine and do a comparison, risking the buzz :laugh:

p.s. i am proud of my foaming ability...now i just have to try some of that amazing coffee art! if i only knew about it when i was making coffee every day, i would have had something to show off!

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  • 1 month later...

My cappuccino art is coming along... here are the two drinks I just made, sweet maria's donkey blend (decaf) and 2% milk -

cappa1.jpg

cappa2.jpg

The milk is slightly overstretched, and the tamp wasn't hard enough so the crema is a little light - but overall, I'm happy with them. I'm just not sure which design I like better.

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Great foam pics! And thanks for the link on foaming techniques, very helpful. This thread has made me realise what an utter rookie I am. Latte art, could this be the new trial sport at the 2004 Olympic Games?

That said, I'm going to come out of the closet on this one and state my unapologetic allegiance for semi-skimmed milk. Admittedly, semi-skimmed may be more difficult to micro-foam than full fat, but hey, it's not just a question of mouthfeel and aesthetics, it's also a question of taste. Full fat is just WAY too rich a taste for us.

And it definitely is possible to micro-foam semi-skimmed milk to perfection. My wife consistently achieves magnificient results so fine and dense that you can sculpt it. Me, I have to confess in having, from time to time, some real bad foam days. I've even had to consult an analyst...

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i don't personally drink cappu's (i prefer espresso), but i make them for my wife and sometimes guests. even with our small krups machine (which actually makes a quite decent espresso), the technique described in this thread makes much more delicious results, they tell me. thanks a lot.

of course, we don't ever have skim or semi skim milk in the house!

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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I use exclusively 2% or 1% milk and in some cases even mix 2% and non-fat milk to yield something a bit lower than 1%. My best results seem to come from 2% in terms of a foam that has staying power. I'm still experimentign withpitchers but my best results have been coming from a bell shaped 12 oz pitcher with 5 - 6 ounces of milk in it.

Marco - if you're steaming small amounts of milk with that Rancilio of yours (i.e. 10 ounces or less), you may find a that a different tip will make things easier. There are some alternate steam wand tips available that slow down the foaming process.

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