How to Properly Steam and Foam Milk


Steamed or foamed milk is an essential skill to learn when working in the coffee industry. Milk is the second most common ingredient in espresso drinks, second only, of course, to espresso. Steamed milk is simply milk that has been heated by using steam and foamed milk is milk that has been expanded into light foam with the use of steam as well. The difference is the placement of the steam wand in the milk. Milk is present in lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas and it takes some practice to get it right. It takes a combination of the right tools, the right timing and the right motion to get milk perfectly steamed.

In This Article You Will Learn:

  • Selecting the proper tools before getting started
  • Preparation before the milk is placed in the steam
  • How to steam milk
  • How to foam milk

The Proper Tools

There are several tools that are absolutely essential to getting the perfect pitcher of steamed milk. Make sure that you have all of these supplies on hand before you get started steaming your milk.

Milk Pitcher
Stainless Steel Coffee Pitcher

A milk pitcher is the most important tool to have on hand as it will contain the milk as you are in the process of steaming or foaming it. Though plastic or stainless steel can be used, it is preferable to use stainless steel, as it is a better conductor of heat. Also a barista can use the heat of the container to determine when the milk is properly steamed.

Steam Thermometer.
Steamed milk is ready between 150° and 155°F. Any more and you will scald the milk. Any less and the milk will not be properly steamed and will mix with the espresso drink improperly. A steam thermometer will help you read the temperature of the milk as it steams to take the guess work out of knowing when the milk is properly steamed. With practice, you may not need the thermometer and may be able to tell by feeling the temperature of the pitcher as mentioned above.

Damp Rag.
Keeping your steam arm clean is incredibly important when steaming or foaming milk. If the residual water is not removed from the arm before and after the milk is steamed, there is the risk of too much moisture being added into the milk, resulting in half-steamed, watery milk. Use the rag to clean off the arm after every step.

Espresso Machine.
While you will not need this to extract any espresso, you will need an espresso machine to use the steam wand, attached to the side of the machine. Without the steam wand, foamed or steamed milk cannot be made.

Getting Started

Now that you have all the right tools to get your milk frothed or steamed properly, it is time to get everything ready for steaming. Here are some tips for getting started:

Do not overfill the milk pitcher. Depending on whether you are foaming your milk or just steaming it, you will want to fill the milk pitcher one-third of the way full or two-thirds full, respectively. Foamed milk expands more than milk that is merely steamed, so remember not to fill the pitcher too full if you are foaming your milk.

Expel any excess steam from the nozzle. Turn the wand on and get the water build-up out of the tip. If done correctly, the water will shoot out in a small, but powerful burst that will last around one to two seconds. Once the water is expelled, wipe the nozzle clean with a damp towel. Doing this ensures that the steamed milk doesn’t turn out watery.

Attach the steam wand to the pitcher. This will allow you to keep an eye on the temperature of the milk as you steam it and make sure it is properly attached before you begin steaming, ensuring that there is no mid-steam catastrophe.

Steaming the Milk

Steaming milk for drinks like lattes or mochas only takes about a half a minute, and the steamed milk is designed to mix with the shot of espresso.

  1. Start with the wand on the surface. When you turn the steam wand on, make sure that it is placed just level with the milk in the pitcher. Bubbles should be blown in the first two to three seconds before you begin submerging the steam wand to heat the milk.
  2. Submerge the steam wand completely. To get the milk fully steamed, it is crucial to make sure that the steam arm is almost touching the bottom of the milk pitcher. Making certain that the wand is fully submerged will prevent large bubbles from forming near the end of steaming.
  3. Keep an eye on the temperature. The milk will heat quickly as the steam being injected into it is exceptionally hot. Keep an eye on the thermometer to make sure that the milk is not overheated.
  4. Remove the steam wand from milk. Once the milk has reached its proper temperature, between 150° and 155°F remove the steam wand quickly, but smoothly, from the milk. Do not shut the steam wand off while it is still submerged in the milk, since this will cause milk to become lodged in the steam wand. You want the wand blowing steam until it has been removed completely from the milk.

When you turn the steam wand on, make sure that it is placed just level with the milk in the pitcher. Bubbles should be blown in the first two to three seconds before you begin submerging the steam wand to heat the milk.

Foaming the Milk

Foamed milk is extremely light and designed to sit on top of the espresso shot, not mix with it. This is a very different process than steaming and it involves expanding the milk until it is light and airy enough to sit on top of a liquid. It is generally used in cappuccino drinks.

  1. Insert steam wand below milk’s surface. Opposite from steaming milk, it is best to start with the steam wand submerged before the steam is turned on to ensure the proper circulation and prevent large bubbles from forming immediately.
  2. Bring the wand tip nearly out of the milk. To begin the foaming process, bring the end of the steam wand to a point where it is nearly out of the milk. This will begin forming the small, velvety bubbles that are desired for foamed milk.
  3. Listen for the sound of foaming. This is the most important thing to hone in on when foaming the milk. When the steam arm has reached the proper depth, it will make a percussive “tssss, tsssss, tssssss” sound. The milk should make this sound the entire time the milk is being foamed.
  4. Watch the foam form. The foam will form and expand the milk rapidly, so keep a close eye on the foam forming in the pitcher. Once the foam is nearly to the top, then it is time to stop foaming.
  5. Submerge the wand. Right before finishing, dip the wand completely into the foamed mixture to heat the foam up before serving it. Remove the wand before shutting off the steam.

Once you have properly steamed or frothed the milk, you can use it to add to either lattes, cappuccinos or mochas to make espresso drinks that are even more enticing due to the smooth texture of the milk enhancing the strong flavor and velevety texture of the espresso shots.

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1 Comment

  1. I think this article is really insightful and helpful. I’m very new to the Barista World and I don’t drink coffee at all (more of a tea person) but sometimes I wish I was a coffee enthusiast so I could understand how coffee drinks are supposed to taste.

    At my workplace I was taught to steam milk to 120 degrees Fahrenheit but the other day one of the customers complained that her latte was not strong enough. I thought maybe it was because she wanted decaf espresso but now I’m wondering that it was because the milk was not steamed hot enough and as a result, the espresso didn’t mix well with the milk.

    I feel a lot more comfortable with making Americanos (it’s just water and espresso shots) but I want to improve my confidence in making the other drinks while being economical with my time, paying attention to the customers, etc.

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