Chances are that if you’re shopping for home espresso equipment, you’ll want to steam some milk eventually. You might even enjoy a nice latte with some pour over of drip coffee instead of espresso. But between flat whites, lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos, milk frothing can be confusing! We’re here to help demystify the process of steaming milk here!

The Basics

Frothing milk is actually pretty simple. A milk steam wand simply uses hot air to heat a frothing pitcher of milk. By positioning the steam wand at the surface of the milk, you can incorporate the air into the milk, creating microfoam. By keeping the steamer wand at the surface as more foam is created, or plunging it into the milk, you can control the total amount of foam. This means that if you want hot milk for a hot chocolate or Cortado, you can just steam the milk to heat it, and produce less foam. If you want a cappuccino, you might produce more foam to fit the drink. It also gives you control of your foam amount for yourself! Want something halfway between a latte and a capp? Go for it!

Types of Milk Frothers

So we’ve covered the basics, now let's talk about options for getting that milk froth you’re looking for. The most common and basic option is to use the steamer wand on an espresso machine. This gives you the kind of control we talk about above. Some more affordable machines have what’s called a pannarello wand, which controls the airflow for you. The upside of these wands is that you don’t have to carefully position them to create the foam, they just do it themselves. The downside is that you lose fine control over foam production, and they usually just create a cappuccino appropriate amount of foam.

There’s also the various automatic milk systems found on superautomatic espresso machines. These frothers run the gamut from heating systems to full on steamers that can produce high quality microfoam. If you know you love lattes but you don’t want to learn to manually steam milk, these machines are a great option.

Finally, there’s tools like the Breville Milk Cafe and handheld frothers that looks similar to immersion blenders. While these devices can be very good at heating milk, they usually rely on agitation to create foam. This can lead to a passing similarity to steam-frothed milk, but you generally will not get the higher quality microfoam that you can get from a traditional steam wand.

The Drinks

Then there’s the drink types. Generally, different types of milk drinks just use different amounts of foam, and different ratios of milk to coffee. A macchiato, for example, is traditionally a double shot of espresso with a dollop of milk foam on top and very little hot milk. A latte, by comparison, is a shot or two with mostly hot milk, and a thick layer of microfoam on top. A Cappuccino, of course, is mostly milk foam on top of a shot or two of espresso.

There are more milk drinks than ever coming into fashion, with things like cortados, half milk half espresso with little to no foam, and flat whites, basically lattes with less milk and less foam, becoming more popular. If you’re ever confused about what a drink actually is, just know that if you like milk and espresso then you’ll probably like just about anything on your cafe’s menu. 

Once you know how a drink works and you’re a practiced pro at steaming on your home espresso setup you’ll be slinging lattes and macchiatos for friends in no time!