The relationship between espresso and milk is one of the most important things to consider when it comes to creating the perfect latte, cappuccino, or any milky coffee drink.
After all, the combination of espresso and milk is a classic one enjoyed the world over and, in many cases, milk makes up the majority of the drink.
The two work so well together because milk balances the natural bitterness of espresso and introduces sweetness, and although many of us enjoy the intense hit of a double espresso or a punchy americano, coffees that combine espresso and milk are by far the most popular choice for most coffee lovers.
The history of milk in coffee
The history of milk in coffee dates back to the 17th century. Some report the first use of milk in coffee to a Dutch ambassador in China in 1660, and others date it back to a café in Vienna in around 1684. In any event, the trend for using milk in coffee appears to have started with Europeans, and it seems that we’ve not looked back since.
Cold vs. steamed milk — what’s the difference?
Cold milk is the easiest to use, of course, and adding as much or as little as you like to an americano or long black-style coffee is every bit as straightforward as adding milk to a cup of tea.
Steamed milk is where things get really interesting, and tasty though.
Aside from temperature, the main difference between cold milk and steamed milk — milk that has had steam forced through it, usually by a tool called a steam wand — is in texture.
Steamed milk has a smooth, almost velvety texture, and a luxurious mouthfeel, and when well steamed milk is combined with a perfectly extracted espresso shot, the results can be delicious.
Steaming milk: here’s what you’ll need
In order to steam milk, and to do it well, there are a few key pieces of kit you’ll need. Some are more specialist than others, and others you might even have access to already, but none should be too difficult to get hold of.
The first thing you’ll need is a steaming pitcher, which is basically a jug to steam the milk in. Stainless steel is always a good option, and it’s best to find one with a sturdy handle to protect your hands from heat, and a nice spout to pour from (this will come in handy for latte art).
Specialty coffee shops tend to have a selection of sizes of steaming pitchers to hand, but the size you choose for home brewing really depends on your specific purposes and preferences.You can find a range of steaming pitchers at specialist retailers such as Coffee Hit, as well as more mainstream home shops like Lakeland.
Steam wand (and alternatives)
The second thing you’ll need is something to steam the milk with, and a steam wand is definitely the best tool for this. A steam wand is a small, solid metal pipe attached to an espresso machine which provides live steam for texturing milk. Most espresso machines, including commercial and home models, tend to come with a steam wand built in.
If you don’t have access to a steam wand, don’t worry — there are other options, including standalone milk frothers from the likes of Dualit and Lavazza, which are easy to use even if you’re not a trained barista.
You can get these from mainstream retailers like Fenwick and John Lewis, and they offer a more cost-effective option for steaming milk that can be used alongside a stovetop espresso maker, for example.
Looking after your kit
You can’t create delicious espresso, or milk, with dirty equipment, so regular cleaning of steaming pitchers and steam wands is absolutely essential. Keeping everything clean and looked after means you are less likely to run into issues with your equipment down the line, and it also lessens the likelihood of any costly maintenance being needed. As with so many things, prevention is better than cure.
It’s worth getting into the habit of rinsing steaming pitchers after each use, as this will prevent any used milk from building up and, for steam wands, a damp microfibre cloth is really useful.
We’d also recommend purging the air out of your steam wand before and after each use, as this removes any milk that may be trapped in the tip which, if left, could cause problems.
Which milk should you use?
As for milk itself, this is an area in which there’s been lots of change in recent years. For cow’s milk, many coffee shops use milk from a local dairy, and some dairies even produce ‘barista’ milk, which has been created with baristas and, specifically, espresso-based drinks in mind.
Cow’s milk is probably the best option for creating the velvety texture you should be aiming for, as when steam is forced between cow’s milk’s natural proteins it creates a fine microfoam on the surface, and it is usually the most reliable for producing latte art.
That said, over the past few years, diet and lifestyle changes have seen demand for alt milks like almond, oat, and soya, increase.
Almond milk generally doesn’t contribute much in terms of taste, and it doesn’t provide as smooth or velvety a texture as some of the other alternatives, but it’s a safe option to pour cold into a hot coffee as it tends not to separate or curdle.
Soya milk tends to add, perhaps unsurprisingly, a strong soya bean taste, and although it is generally easier to texture than almond milk, it can often curdle when combined with espresso.
Of the currently available alternatives, it’s oat milk that seems to have enjoyed the biggest surge in popularity, perhaps because it behaves the most like cow’s milk in terms of how it steams, and how it tastes. Many think the creamy texture of oat milk is similar to that of dairy.
A look at espresso-to-milk ratios
Popular espresso and milk drinks tend to combine a double espresso shot as a base, with different volumes of added milk depending on the specific drink. And, broadly speaking, the less milk there is, the stronger that drink will taste, and vice versa.
There will sometimes be a difference in how the milk is steamed, and whether it’s more ‘wet’ or ‘dry’, as we’ll explore next when discussing the components of a few of the most popular espresso and milk drinks.
Before we get into the components of these drinks, it’s worth bearing in mind that definitions can vary from place to place, and that what one coffee shop considers a cappuccino could go by a different name at another.
So although the following descriptions are not hard-and-fast definitions, they should serve as a good guide.
A macchiato, which is also known as a piccolo or cortado, is one of the smallest espresso and milk drinks. As the name macchiato comes from the Italian word for ‘marked’, it is said that you’re supposed to simply mark the espresso with a small quantity of milk foam. (And, by specifying foam, it’s implied that the steamed milk should be on the drier side).
Less prescriptive definitions allow you to simply pour the milk as you would for any other drink. In any event, a macchiato is usually a 4oz or 113ml drink, composed of equal parts espresso and milk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a macchiato has a strong, concentrated flavour, especially when compared to a longer drink such as a latte.
A latte is a long and smooth espresso and milk drink, and it’s probably one of the most accessible. Lattes can be anything from 8oz to 20oz in size, although in the speciality coffee world they tend to be on the smaller side, to let the taste of the espresso shine through.
To make a latte at home, prepare a double shot (2oz) of espresso, and steam 6 -8oz of milk to a ‘wet’, velvety texture, without too much foam. Pour a dash of milk into the espresso shot, swirl to mix the two, and pour out the remaining milk evenly until the cup — ideally 8 or 10oz in size — is full. A standard size mug or cup should be perfect to accommodate.
A cappuccino sits somewhere between a latte and a macchiato in terms of strength. It is also, for some reason, the espresso drink that carries the most debate: some say that a cappuccino should be about 5oz in size, with the espresso being the dominant component, while others feel they should be closer to 8oz, or even as large as 12oz.
People do tend to agree about what the texture of the milk should be like - that it should be drier, or more foamy, than the milk in a latte. (A ‘dry’ cappuccino would need to be drier or foamier still.)
To make a cappuccino at home, simply ‘stretch’ the milk for a little longer, giving it more air, and then pour slowly over an espresso shot until you are left with a cup that’s approximately one third espresso, one third steamed milk, and one third foam. Ideally, this would be in an 8oz cup or smaller.
Finally, the flat white, which is said to have been invented in either Australia or New Zealand. There’s still some debate as to which of the two nations gets to claim it as their own.
A flat white is similar to a cappuccino in strength but more like a latte in terms of texture. An easy way to understand it is as a small latte, but with a more intense flavour, and with a nice balance between espresso and milk. Although some chains sell larger flat whites, the ideal size should be around 6oz.
To make a flat white at home, simply follow the recipe for a latte, but use a smaller, ideally 6oz, cup. Again, you want to steam the milk to a ‘wet’, velvety texture, avoiding creating too much foam (or else you’ll end up with a cappuccino.)
Milk has the power to transform your coffee
The addition of steamed milk to the humble espresso creates a world of beverage possibilities that have become renowned worldwide.
With so many different types of milk and different recipes, there are plenty of drinks to try and find your favourite.
Whether you enjoy espresso with or without milk, using milk effectively is a must have skill for any home barista.