Barista-worthy Steamed Milk : Microfoam for Beginners

There’s no experience more decadent than drinking a well-crafted latte. A good latte merries a perfectly pulled shot of espresso and textured milk. But textured milk is easier said than done. That’s why baristas painstakingly steam your milk to perfection. Properly steamed microfoam isn’t thick and foamy; it’s creamy and velvety, and its sweetness complements the espresso perfectly.

Latte Art

Proper microfoam is essential for latte art. At its core, latte art is an indication of a well-made drink. Both the espresso shot and the milk have to be executed properly, or you won’t get that beautiful latte art. The visual appeal of latte art will keep your customers coming back for more. As a barista, it’s a fun challenge that keeps you on your toes.

A note about foam

There are two main ideologies in the coffee world: Italian-style or “old-school” coffee, and third wave coffee. A lot of people order a cappuccino, expecting to see a thick cloud of foam on top. This is also referred to as a “bone-dry” cappuccino. When they get their microfoam cappuccino, they’re disappointed, and it’s not what they pictured.

The old-school coffee ideology is respected in its own right. But in this article, we’re talking about third wave coffee, to which flat microfoam is central.

What is microfoam?

Microfoam is a method of steaming milk where you inject tons of tiny bubbles into the milk, creating a textured milk. The bubbles run all throughout the milk, instead of the foam and the milk being separate from one another. Rather than having a thick foamy milk that plops right on top of your espresso, you get a continuous flow. This opens the door to latte art, and mastering microfoam lets baristas create rosettas, tulips, and even swans!

In addition, microfoam isn’t hot; it’s warm. Dairy milk has natural sugars (lactose) which complement the sweetness of espresso. Heating up your milk too much can burn and effectively destroy those natural sugars. You should aim for 120-140 degrees F. To get that optimal warm temperature, place your palm on the side of the metal pitcher while steaming. As soon as you feel warmth, stop steaming immediately. You can use a thermometer, but your hand is more intuitive.

Milk thermometer

How to make microfoam for beginners

To make proper microfoam, you’ll need a high-quality espresso machine with a precision steam wand. Pour your milk into a metal steaming pitcher until it’s about a centimetre below the spout. Place the pitcher at an angle, leaning down slightly to your right. Before you start steaming, lift the milk pitcher up to the steam wand. The steam wand should be slightly below the surface of the milk, about a centimetre.

Turn your steam wand on. If you’re at the correct angle, you should create a vortex effect. If you don’t see this affect, don’t panic. Gently move the pitcher side to side (not up and down), making sure the steam wand is just below the surface. Keep steaming until it starts to feel warm, not hot. Immediately switch the steam wand off.

steaming milk

The sound (or lack thereof) is everything. If the steam wand is too close to the surface, you’ll get a high-pitched screeching sound. If it’s too submerged, you’ll get a loud, low rumbling sound. If it’s in the right spot, it’ll make practically no sound at all.

It’s normal to get a few big bubbles. Let your milk sit for a few seconds and tap out the big bubbles on a hard surface before pouring.

How to make latte art with microfoam

This is probably the hardest part. Latte art takes practise. If all you can manage is a heart, you should call that a win!

Try to get better at microfoam before attempting latte art. You can’t make latte art if your microfoam is thick and foamy. It has to be thin and glossy, similar to wet paint in texture and viscosity.

Pour your microfoam directly over the espresso in a circular motion. Once your cup is about ⅔ full, pause your pour. This is when you’ll start your latte art.

Get the spout of the pitcher closer to your latte, and pour while rapidly swiveling the pitcher left and right, about half a centimeter apart.

Fratello Coffee Latte Art

Pro tip:

Pour a bit of microfoam in the espresso, stir it with a spoon, and then pour the rest of the milk. This helps prevent a bitter taste upon the first sip. The crema layer from the espresso is quite bitter, and it rises to the top when you do latte art. Integrating it early on disperses that bitter top layer.

Practising microfoam

Instead of wasting milk to practise your microfoam, practise with a pitcher of water with a drop of dish soap. When steamed, it creates a similar texture. It helps you gauge the correct position of the pitcher and the steam wand. It also helps you practise co-ordinating when to turn off the steam wand, which can be tricky at first.

pouring microfoam milk

Making microfoam with non dairy milk

Non-dairy milk doesn’t perform as well as dairy milk when steamed, but there are ways to improve the texture. Steam your non-dairy milk more vigorously than you would with regular milk. Because they have less fat content and are more watery, they heat up quicker, meaning you have to work quicker. After steaming, let it sit for a while to let bigger bubbles come to the surface. Then, tap the pitcher firmly on a hard surface to let the bubbles out and swirl vigorously to integrate.

Don’t cry over spilt milk

Creating that perfect microfoam can be frustrating at first. There are several factors that you have to be aware of, all at the same time. This includes the angle of the milk pitcher, proper submersion of the wand, temperature, and wand shut-off. It doesn’t help that a big, roaring espresso machine can be a little daunting to a newbie barista. But if you don’t get it perfect at first, the most important thing is that you try. Customers can taste care in a cup.

Looking to open a coffee shop, or just need a tune-up for your team of baristas? Get in touch with us about our cafe consultations, and drop us a line at .




Why Do I Need a Burr Grinder?

Blade grinders are not the best choice for grinding coffee beans. While they are inexpensive and easy to use, they don't produce the same quality of coffee as burr grinders. So why do I need a burr grinder?

The reason blade grinders do not produce high-quality coffee is because the blades heat up during operation and this causes a burnt taste. Burr grinders, on the other hand, use rotating disks that never get hot enough to cause this burnt taste.

There is only one grinder for coffee, and that’s the burr grinder. If your coffee doesn’t taste quite right on a burr grinder, at least you have the option of adjusting it. Consistency is everything when it comes to brewing good coffee.

Hand mill grinder

I can’t afford a burr grinder! I’m just a poor student.

We get it. Burr grinders can be expensive. But this is an investment, a piece of equipment that’ll make tasty coffee for years to come. A decent electric burr grinder ranges in price from $200-$1000. We recommend the Baratza Encore burr grinder as a great entry-level grinder. The conical burrs stay sharp for years with excellent precision. If you’re on a smaller budget, the Hario Ceramic Octo Coffee Mill  grinder delivers the same quality. The only caveat is that it requires good old-fashioned elbow grease. This is perfect if you only drink one or two cups a day, and as a bonus, it travels well.

If you still don’t want to buy a burr grinder, at the very least, ask us to grind it for you, but make sure to use it up quickly. When you order beans online, make sure to tell us what grind setting you want in the checkout notes.

Hand burr grinder

Why are blade grinders bad for coffee?

Here’s what blade grinders do to your coffee. They blindly cut it up, resulting in coffee particles of all sizes, from fines to boulders. When you’re brewing a particular method, whether it’s French press or pour over, you are looking for 1 particle size… not 20!

Blade grinders are particularly bad for pour overs. When you make a pour over with blade ground coffee, you’ll get a slow-pouring, clogged filter. The resulting coffee will taste bitter and sour at the same time. And, you won’t really get any resounding flavour notes. Just a flat, lifeless cup. Sounds like a waste of effort, doesn’t it?

To understand why blade ground coffee is not ideal, you need to understand extraction. Extraction refers to the amount of soluble compounds extracted from coffee in a given time period. Extraction depends on a few factors, namely temperature and grind size. Temperature is easier to control, but grind size needs a lot of attention. The finer the grind, the quicker the extraction time; the coarser the grind, the slower the extraction time. That’s why espresso pours in mere seconds and French press takes several minutes. A bitter taste indicates over-extraction, and a sour taste indicates under-extraction.

Now that you see why blade grinders can’t create consistency, it’s time to retire that sucker. You can clean it out and use it to grind whole spices, or you can donate it to someone else looking to enter the “fresh ground coffee world”.

How does a burr grinder work?

A burr grinder is essentially a coffee mill. It “mills” the coffee, much like how a pepper mill creates particles that are uniform in size. On a burr grinder, you can adjust settings from fine to coarse, and every particle will be the same size. You need a uniform grind to achieve even extraction. If your coffee doesn’t come out quite right, at least you can adjust your grind and try again. You will notice that this is especially important when brewing espresso. With a blade grinder, you don’t have this option–instead, you get what you get.

Espresso grinder

Are there ways to make good coffee with a blade grinder?

We certainly don’t recommend a blade grinder for making pour overs, aeropresses and espresso. However, some coffee methods are more forgiving than others. Immersion methods, like steep & filter and French press, tend to respond better to blade ground coffee. That’s because immersion methods eliminate that awful sour, weak taste, which is almost always down to under extraction.

If you’re using a blade grinder, grind it on the coarser side, and pause every few seconds to shake it. Immerse the grounds in the hot water for 4-6 minutes. This won’t make an incredible coffee, but it’ll make it palatable.

What to do with pre-ground coffee

Maybe you’ve decided that a burr grinder is not in your budget, and you need to rely on pre-ground coffee. In this case, we recommend using up your pre ground coffee as quickly as possible. Ground coffee goes stale very quickly, so try to use it up within a few days maximum. Store it in the bag in a cool, dark place.

Another way to quickly use up pre ground coffee is to make a big batch of cold brew so you can use your coffee up in a timely manner. Once brewed, cold brew stays good for 1-2 weeks in your fridge. This coffee method is deliciously smooth and foolproof, and it makes for a refreshing drink in the summer months. If you’re not into cold coffee, you can always heat it up later.

Coffee Burr Grinder

Is a burr grinder a good investment?

If you’re the type who drinks 4-6 coffees a day with lots of cream and sugar, you might not notice the difference. But, if you drink coffee more for the flavour than for the caffeine, a burr grinder is a good investment. When it comes to specialty coffee, it doesn’t make sense to ruin

it with a blade grinder. Specialty coffee is pricier than other coffees on the market, in part because of the complex flavour. Only a burr grinder will unlock those tasting notes!

Want to put your burr grinder to the test? Check out our foolproof pour over guide!