The Secret to Latte Art

30 May 2014 by Mathias Meyer

I've been practicing my latte art at home as of late. I have a Rancilio Silvia machine, which packs a decent punch regarding pressure and steam, much better than the Gaggia Classic I had before.

The Gaggia had a nozzle that pulled in air to steam to make up for the lack of pressure, which lead to foam that's still far from that glorious micro foam you need for pouring that nice rosetta on your flat white.

Pressure is an important part of getting that micro foam action at home.

Beyond that, though, the most important ingredient for great micro foam and the essence of latte art is: fresh, whole milk.

None of that low fat crap, unhomogenized full fat milk. Unhomogenized is rather important, as homogenized has a different taste, overshadowing the aromas coming from the espresso. Plus, the foam it creates is stiffer than what you need for good latte art.

That makes pressure and fresh, full fat milk the two most important ingredients.

But how do you steam the milk, in a cup? No, you need a nice jug, one that lets the milk flow gently into the cup. In Berlin's coffee shop, the steaming milk jugs from Rattleware are fairly standard. So I got one for myself, and it makes a big difference.

Now that you have the main ingredients in place, how do you make the actual latte art? Steaming the milk is an art on its own, so I ended up asking my local baristas for some advice on how they're doing it.

You start by getting some air into the milk. How much air depends on the amount of foam you want to have. I only put in a little air for a flat white, as it only has a thin layer on top.

While foaming, you want to keep the nozzle right underneath the milk's surface. Initially, you can pull it out slightly to get air in. Make sure to not do that for too long, as the foam gets stiffer and the bubbles will be bigger the longer you let air in. If you hold the pitcher at a slight angle, you'll notice that it only takes pulling the nozzle out a little bit to let air flow in on one side of it. Nifty!

Then, once an initial amount of air is in the milk, keep the nozzle on the side of the pitcher at an angle that lets the milk swirl around. That way, you fold the air that's now in the milk over and over, building a nice layer of microfoam on top while reducing the size of the bubbles more and more.

That turned out to be the one secret and tip that I needed to start pouring some nicer rosettas at home.

Three steps:

  • Get some air into the milk by keeping the nozzle just at the surface
  • Keep the nozzle right under the surface for the remainder of the steaming
  • Keep the nozzle close to the pitcher's wall at an angle to cause a swirl

The colder the milk initially, the more time you have to fold the milk.

Repurcussing the initial requirements for a good microfoam:

  • Cold, fresh, whole milk (no low fat, unhomogenized, in short: real milk)
  • A pitcher that supports pouring the milk flowing thinly
  • Steam with good pressure

When is the foam done? I keep one hand under the pitcher while steaming the milk. When the pitcher gets too hot to hold in your hand, that's when the milk is done. The longer you'll leave the milk to steam, the hotter the foam will be, eventually not making for good microfoam pouring material anymore as it's too stiff. If I'd want a burnt latte I could go to Starbucks instead. Make sure to knock the pitcher flat on a surface a few times to get rid of the bigger bubbles.

Once you have the foam ready, the last step is the pouring into the cup.

Another trick I learned from my local barista friends is to pour the milk in a swirl, ever so slowly in the beginning. That way you don't pour your entire foam into the cup initially, but you spread a nice layer on top of the espresso. When you're close to filling the cup, leave the pitcher on the opposide side, shaking it to and fro with a steady hand, letting the milk swing into the beverage while slowly moving your hand back. The movement of the milk should move white milk stripes through the cup as if by magic.

Finishing off the master piece, you take one swing across the rosetta to give it that nice little finish.

You need to practice the above quite a bit, so be ready to pour lots of milk in the near future. But heck, who doesn't enjoy drinking one good coffee after another? Helps to have your friends or colleagues around too.

One more thing I've learned: crema matters less for a good microfoam experience than I thought. In fact, it doesn't matter at all. A good espresso stands on its own, whether it has a thick crema or not.

Tags: coffee
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