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The Art of Frothing Milk. Beginnerís guide.

This is the typical talk of espresso newbies. Not because they are putting down the art of frothing milk, but because it's so easy to get frustrated by it all. Frothing milk for your cappas and lattes really is an art, but it's an art that can be learned. With enough patience and finesse, even a stovetop steamer or a "steam toy" (one of those budget espresso machines you see at Walmart for $39 by companies like Salton and Delonghi) can produce great foam and steamed milk. That's right folks, you don't necessarily need a Pasquini Livia 90 or a Rancilio Silvia.

The catch here is speed, and style. Speed is what you get on a $1000 machine. You get even more of it on a $10,000 machine like a La Marzocco. You won't get speed from a $150 machine, but where you lack speed, you can make up in style.

I actually have two styles, or ways, to froth milk. The beginner style is what you see on this page.

Step 1 - The Right Tools for the Job Start with relatively cold milk. I simply don't buy into the idea that your milk has to be ice cold, and only a certain type. I've frothed with near room temperature milk (about 60F) and with all sorts - skim, 1%, 2%, Homo, and even half and half. And I've managed to pull off some excellent froth... but there's a caveat. Very cold milk froths easier than not so cold milk. Also, skim milk and homo seem to froth easier.

I also highly recommend a stainless steel frothing pitcher, about 14-24 ounces in size, which can be bought at most kitchen supply stores for around $5-$15. Forget the wide-brim pouring models - get one with a long, narrow pour spout. And while you're there, pick up a needle thermometer, on that has a dial on top, it should read up to 220F or so.

Step 2 - Initial Technique Basically, you have to learn how to hover the tip of the steaming wand at the right point between the starting foam (which is usually very light and big bubbles) and the surface of the milk. Sound is key here. If it sounds like you're "blowing bubbles" through a straw, you're too high, or you don't have enough steam pressure.

If it sounds like a deep rumbling, "sum serious kinda shit is goin' on here" kind of sound, you're doing it right. Your milk also appears to be getting "bigger" in the frothing vessel... if it is, systems are a-ok. By the time you reach 100F, you should have at least half the total volume of foam you expect to produce.

Step 3 - Middle Technique Once you reach 100F and have lots of foam, you need to move the frothing vessel lower and lower, always keeping that balance between the surface of the ultra thick milk (the real froth) and the light airy big bubble stuff up top.

Step 4 - Finishing Technique Eventually, you'll hit about 130F, and hopefully by that point you'll have enough froth. Stick the wand midway down into the real milk, and froth to 155F. (you did remember to put the thermometer inside the frothing pitcher when you started?)

If you don't have a thermometer, go by feel. If the steel frothing pitcher is too hot to touch, then you are around 150F to 160F or higher. You should occasionally touch the sides as you froth feeling it. When it gets far too hot to touch, stop. The last thing you want is boiled milk.

Pour your froth in a nice even way - properly frothed milk never needs to be spooned out, it should be poured. The only time you use a spoon is if you're withholding froth, and pouring for a latte or cafe au lait that doesn't have a lot of froth.

Extra Notes On most budget machines or stovetop machines, this process takes at least 2 minutes for about 6-7 oz of milk, which is the normal volume you'd work on for two cappuccinos. On a more expensive machine, or one with a larger boiler, it can take as little as 25 seconds. On such a machine, you have to be really dilligent and cognitent of what's going on, because you basically have about 20 seconds or less to build up all your foam. And because larger boiler means more powerful steam, be careful not to send milk flying everywhere.

Another note - the above is a technique that applies to a) machines with a frothing wand with no gizmos attached to it, and b) applies to the steaming of about 6.5 oz of milk. Vary the volume, and the times and indications change.