Steaming milk (or texturing, heating, frothing or whatever else you call it) can make or break a great espresso. Before we look at the simple secrets to good quality milk, let's look at what to avoid. Here are some common mistakes that I see every day, that are holding people back from good quality milk.
1. No circa 1980's cappuccino bounce
It took me years to get my parents out of this habit! The 80's bounce is created by "bouncing" the jug up and down leaving you with big airy bubbles. Even babycino's are questionable with this method. Avoid at all costs!! Try to keep the jug as still as possible and let the wand do all the work for you!
2. Using the wrong size jug
Having the right amount of milk in the right jug can make all the difference to your milk. Try to fill your jug to the bottom of the spout or about half full in every jug. Typically what happens is under-filled jugs end up being extra fluffy and over-filled jugs are flat, without any silky creaminess. Use 300-400ml jugs for one cup, 600ml for 2 cups.
3. Searching for sweet spot
People tend to move the jug around a lot while steaming, but this action doesn't mix the milk together well. Ideally, you shouldn't have to move the jug at all once you turn the steam on.... good baristas barely look at the milk once its started. Aim to have the steam wand about 1-2mm below the surface, pointing to the opposite bottom corner of the jug, with the tip entering the milk just off centre. A whirlpool should start straight away.
4. Steam tip too deep
Does it sound like a cat dying every-time you steam milk? Having the steam tip in too deep results in flat, hot milk. Try lowering the jug slightly until the squealing stops. The milk is trying to tell you something, listen to it!
5. Steam tip too high
Do you have oodles of frothy milk?? Keep running out of room in your jug? Do you have big air bubbles in your milk? this is most likely the cause. The sucking, crackling sound of putting air into the milk should only last a few seconds at most before stopping. If most of your milk time is spent in this sucking stage then raise your jug level higher, thereby lowering the steam tip into the milk more. Aim to stop the sucking after a few seconds and create a whirlpool as soon as possible.
6. Not enough pressure
Another common error is being scared to turn the steam wand on properly, resulting in another one of those squealing cat scenarios we all want to avoid. Many people hear the sound and go more cautiously, but to fix this you actually need to bite the bullet.
Turn the steam wand on until the sound stops. Make sure the steam tip is not too deep though as this will also cause the squealing cat sound we talked about in no. 4.
7. Not Purging the steam wand
Purging the steam wand before and after steaming your milk is essential for proper milk texture. Cool water gathers in the wand between uses, meaning your first seconds of steam may only be water, which will do no good for milk and create big air bubbles in your milk right at the start.
After use, the steam wand also needs to be purged as a vacuum is created in the steam wand after use, which draws milk up into the wand. If you do no purge this out after use, the milk will dry in the wand and block it up resulting in reduced or, in extreme cases, even no pressure.
8. Not wiping the steam wand
It seams such an easy thing to do but so many baristas forget this simple maintenance. It takes a fraction of a second to do and saves you time later. If left untouched, the milk will continue to build up and up and will eventually break off in chunks into your milk. mmmm... yummy... Be sure to wipe the bottom of the wand a swell and not just the arm. I suggest twisting as you wipe and come under the bottom of the tip as well.
9. Making the milk too hot
This may seem like an obvious one but over heating milk is very common. The milk changes texture once it's overheated, as the proteins denature in the milk. This ends up in a very fluffy texture that although hot, tastes and smells like off milk. To make drinks hotter, I recommend preheating your cups with hot water and using good quality cups that will retain heat for longer.
10. Leaving the milk sitting on the bench before pouring
Although this is not about the actually steaming of the milk, this mistake can undo all the the good work you did avoiding the previous 9 mistakes. As the milk sits there, it settles and separates. This makes it very hard to pour properly. To test if your milk has separated, tilt the jug 45 degrees, and see if the milk separates. Swirling or jiggling the milk will prevent this separation and keep it all together. Another good tip is to pour the milk into another jug to remix it all again. Just be sure that jug isn't cold!
So how is your milk going? Is it silky and smooth or fluffy and bubbly? If you can avoid these mistakes then you'll be well on the way to making milk perfection.