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The Fuss about Milk

Simply put, when making cappuccinos, flat-whites, lattes or other espresso based milk beverages, the milk must be correctly steamed to produce a consistent foam. If you can't master this art, you can say goodbye to you dream of winning the Latte Art Championships. But it is easier than you think...

Let's start from scratch.

What is the aim when steaming milk?

This means, forcing air bubbles into the milk, which then attaches to the proteins in the milk as it heats up. The lactose, or sugar, in the milk becomes slightly sweeter as the temperature rises which results in a silky smooth, luxurious texture and a pourable, almost liquid foam that tastes sweet and rich.

Microfoam: What’s this?

The quality of the steamed milk in which the bubbles are so tiny and so abundant that they can’t be seen but felt on the palate (also known as “mouthfeel”) specifically as a texture is known as the perfect microfoam, or heaven in a mug. Instead of separating into different layers of liquid that might lead to stiff froth that lays on top of the coffee, this type of steamed milk will combine seamlessly with the espresso.

But which one?

Various trial and error based experiments have been done by baristas and coffee lovers to determine the best type of milk (whole, 2%, skim, fat-free, almond, soy etc.) to use to create the perfect foam for your cuppa. Ultimately, it all depends on personal preference. Pick your bet and start practising.

Our two cents:

While non-fat milk is the easiest to foam (great for practicing your technique) it will not give the over-all creamy decadence that is desired.

Soy milk and other plant based products are not recommended as it tends to collapse and separate.

Skim milk or 2% create a more balanced palette between ease of foaming and some fat in the milk making for a more flavorsome beverage.

Whole milk, however slightly trickier to create into a foam, will produce the best and most consistent microfoam which results in a satisfying flavor and feel. Although, the creaminess might distract from the flavor of the coffee.

Practice Makes Perfect

It’s true, the only way to getting the milk right is to work at it! That is the only way that you will achieve that velvety smooth perfection. The determination and practice will definitely be worth it when you sit back and enjoy your delicious and satisfying handiwork.

Hein and Brigid Stapelberg, Owners of Snobs Coffee Johannesburg, provide their professional opinion on a couple of FAQ’s for novice baristas. See their answers below:

Which is the best type of milk to use to get the perfect foam?

Choosing the right milk can be dauntingly pesky process and is sure grounds for a long debate in the coffee making world. Personally, we always opt for full cream milk as we appreciate its decadent richness swirled in a fantastic roast. But milk preference is subjective and people have different needs. To us, the focus is more on making that perfect cup that suits YOU and if that means that we have to spend more time at the steam wand understanding how to get the best froth, foam and natural sweetness from the milk that best suits your needs, then so be it! Let the challenge be ours to conquer.

Do you have a SA milk brand preference and why?

In an ideal world, it would be fantastic if you had a very close and personal relationship with a dairy farm owner and could tell them exactly what type of milk you needed. But for us average Joe’s looking for an everyday commercial choice then the milk that we can always rely on and have yet to be disappointed in is…(drum roll please)…SPAR’s Fresh Milk, with extended shelf-life, Ultra Pasteurized, 2l cartons - which are hormone free. From the full cream to the low-fat, the protein in the milk is incredible and always yields such great results. This milk is always consistent which makes for a happy barista!

What advice do you have for home baristas who want to improve their skills?

Just practice, practice, practice! Watch. Try. Practice. Repeat. But don’t forget to enjoy it! The secret ingredient is that a barista should never be afraid. Coffee should always be treated as a creative expression of who you are. Become passionate about what you create because I can ensure you that the ultimate taste will be that of a liquid miracle.

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