Last time we looked at setting up your espresso machine and extracting the perfect shot of the first time. Now we must turn our attention to the often most problematic area for a budding home, or indeed a professional barista.
Milk texturing: it’s often the difference between a sweet coffee and one that is better poured down the sink. Once you’ve mastered the art of pulling a perfect shot, you need to get to work on developing your milk texturing technique.
Even if your preference is a short black, the shiny machine on your benchtop is going to attract plenty of visitors, all prepared to self-sacrifice and ‘let you practice’ on them. So you’re going to have to learn to texture milk, either for yourself or to show off to your guests.
You should always prepare your espresso shots first — the steamed milk holds the majority of the heat of your drink and if you steam first, the milk will lose temperature while you’re pulling your shot, and the foam and milk will also separate.
I am often asked “which milk is best for steaming?”. The answer, like many things in specialty coffee, is that this is largely a matter of personal choice. Common Man is very loyal in it's milk usage, and we give our customers full cream milk, unless specifically requested, because its creaminess complements coffee’s natural flavours; but the choice is really yours. As I say time and time again experimentation is key to perfection, so try different brands and varieties to discover which you like best.
You’ll notice that I keep referring to the ‘texture of the milk’. What I mean by this is basically the integration of the milk and foam, and the density of the bubbles. What you’re aiming to achieve is generally called ‘micro-foam’ — a foam with almost imperceptible air bubbles, a glossy sheen on top and a creamy, dense texture.
Although you’re not using the same quantity of milk as your local café, it’s still a good idea to make sure you don’t have too much milk left over after pouring your drinks to minimise waste. You can often use the inside of the spout on your 1L milk jug to measure how much milk is needed. For two traditional cappuccino sized cups (around 220‐250ml), fill cold milk to 1cm below this spout — we’re aiming for 1cm or less of milk leftover. You’ll learn how much milk to use pretty quickly with practice.
Milk steaming can be summarised in two steps — the Stretching Phase and the Rolling Phase. In the stretching phase, you need to position the steam wand tip right on the surface of the milk so that you can hear the distinctive “tch, tch, tch” or hissing sound. This sound indicates that you’re injecting air into the milk to create foam. During this process you’ll see the volume of your milk rise, hence the ‘Stretching’ title. Continue to lower the milk jug very slowly so that you continue hearing the same stretching sound, and create more foam. The more slowly you lower the jug, and the more gently you introduce air to the milk, the denser your foam will be. This will avoid those nasty, sea-foam-like air bubbles that uneducated baristas still produce.
Once you’ve created enough foam for your drinks, or if the jug is feeling too hot to hold comfortably, you should move into the second, Rolling Phase of the milk texturing process. Raise the jug till you no longer hear the stretching sound, submerging the steam wand approximately 1cm below the surface of the milk. Angle the jug slightly so that the steam pushes the milk around the jug in a whirlpool. This phase combines the milk and foam, and heats the milk to a good serving temperature.
To create a foamy drink like a cappuccino, stretch the milk for a longer amount of time. For a thinner milk drink like a flat white, you should only hear the stretching sound for a couple of seconds before submerging the steam wand tip in the milk.
In relation to temperature, for those using a milk steaming thermometer, cease the Stretching Phase at around 45C and turn off your steam wand at around 60C. The temperature of the milk will continue to rise to around 65C after you’ve turned off the steam wand. If you’re not using a thermometer, keep one hand under the milk jug, and stop the Stretching Phase when the jug becomes too hot to comfortably keep your hand underneath, then count to 15 before turning off the steam wand. Obviously, different home espresso machines will heat milk at different speeds, depending on their internal components. For example, we’ve found the Isomac range of espresso machines require a count to eight to bring the milk to a good serving temperature.
Once you’ve finished steaming, lower the jug and immediately wipe the steam wand with a damp cloth to remove all milk. Push the steam wand in towards the drip tray and turn the steam back on for a quick pulse to remove any milk that may be inside the wand.
To burst any larger bubbles on the surface of your milk, tap the jug a couple of times on the bench. Finally (and this is one of the most important steps, so don’t be tempted to skip it!) swirl the milk within your jug to fold in the foam that you’ve created. Initially, the surface of the milk in your jug is likely to look quite matt. Roll the milk up the sides of your jug until the contents turn shiny and glossy on top.
Once the milk and foam are well mixed together, keep the jug low to the cup and pour the foamy milk in one even pour on top of your espresso shot. If pouring more than one coffee from a jug, always pour the drink you want to be foamiest first and give the jug a quick swirl before pouring subsequent coffees.
After pouring your coffees, aim to have a minimal amount of wastage left over, allowing you to quickly rinse out the inside of your milk jug so that next time you can start with fresh, cold milk. Do NOT attempt to re-steam milk! This is one of the biggest mistakes an uneducated barista can make, you have already changed the chemical make up of the milk and will produce bitter, burnt tasting coffee if you attempt to re-steam. Just say no.
Those are the tips that should get you well on your way to producing velvety, smooth milk every time. Invite your friends and family over and use them as your guinea pigs to hone your skills — but be careful, no doubt they’ll be inviting themselves around shortly to ask for another couple of ‘test coffees’!
Next time we will be honing these skills and looking at creating some amazing latte art.
If you’re serious about coffee and want to hone your espresso making skills with a hands-on workshop, sign up for our Skills for the Home Barista class where you can hone your skills with the helping hands of our talented trainers.
Finally, don't forget you can shop for all your brewing requirements including gear, beans and more from the comfort of your own home using our online store - #getbrewingwithcmcr!