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Probably a week doesn’t go by without someone asking me about the differences between frothed and steamed milk. And what type of milk do I use for which kind of coffee?
Many people don’t realize these two foaming techniques create very different textures that lend themselves to certain coffee drinks. If you want a great-tasting cappuccino or a milky latte choosing the correct milk is the key to perfecting each of these signature coffee drinks – get the milk wrong, and you can forget the rest.
But whether you use an electric frother, milk steamer wand, or other method, it helps to understand the contrasts between frothing and steaming.
In this post, I’m going to clear some of the confusion between frothed and steamed milk I will compare everything from temperatures to taste profiles, and recommend ideal uses for each. You’ll also learn clear indicators to identify frothed vs steamed milk and tips for achieving both types at home.
Let’s dive in!
✔ Quick Answer
Which Type of Milk Is the Best for Coffee?
I prefer my coffee black, but many coffee drinkers love the total opposite. Maybe a delicious milky coffee such as a latte, cappuccino, or simple Café au Lait.
Milk is a great companion to coffee, and milk offers an extra layer of complexity that helps to complement and bring out the earthy, natural, caramel and roasted notes of your coffee.
Milk, at the fundamental level, is comprised of various proteins, sugars, and fats. When the milk is heated, the sugar breaks down, which helps to sweeten the milk, the proteins contribute to giving the milk a frothed appearance by holding air in the milk, and finally, the milk fats melt down to create a creamy texture and taste.
When introduced to coffee, all of these components help create that much-loved texture and mouthfeel that milky coffee drinkers expect.
Let’s take a closer look at both ways to froth and steam milk.
What is Steamed Milk?
When milk is steamed, steam from an espresso machine’s wand is plunged below the surface, rapidly heating and incorporating air into the milk.
This creates a rich, velvety microfoam texture that’s a favorite addition for many coffee and espresso drinks.
There is quite a bit of skill required when heating the milk, and proper steaming relies on finding the sweet spot around 150-160°F.
Too hot, and the milk can scorch or separate.
Too cold, and you won’t achieve that finely bubbled, smooth consistency.
When I steam milk at home, I like to insert my thermometer periodically to ensure I’m in range, and I would recommend this technique to anyone just starting out. An inviting hissing sound during steaming signals those proteins are starting to bond.
Taste and Texture of Steamed Milk
Ever sipped steamed milk plain and found it strangely sweet? That natural sugar flavor gets coaxed out through high heat. Adding and stretching those milk proteins also develops some nutty notes too.
The more movement during steaming, the finer the foam texture will become.
Gently swirling the milk creates what baristas call “microfoam” – impossibly velvety with tiny, even bubbles. Too much turbulence, though, can push past microfoam into foamed milk which lacks that cohesive richness.
There are lots of different kinds of milk to use, such as almond and soy, to name a few, but I’ve found whole milk is almost foolproof and steams best, but lower fat varieties can work too, depending on your preferences. Just expect less sweetness and body.
Now let’s explore which drinks benefit the most from steamed milk!
Best Uses for Steamed Milk
That glossy microfoam is best poured into espresso beverages like cappuccinos and lattes. The milk seamlessly combines into the dark espresso base with pleasing contrast and the steamed milk’s subtle sweetness balances out the bitterness found in the espresso.
And don’t neglect the presentation!
With properly textured microfoam, you can even create latte art shaping gorgeous swans, rosettas, and tulips by gently pulling and swirling your pour with the frothing pitcher.
However, no matter how you serve it up, steamed milk remains a fixture in many café menus for good reason.
Now that we’ve covered steamed milk let’s take a closer look at its bubblier cousin – frothed milk. You may be surprised how distinctly different the taste and preparation compare.
What is Frothed Milk?
In contrast to steaming, frothing relies on much cooler milk temperatures at around 130-140°F. Using a steam wand and introducing a rapid incorporation of air creates a thick and airy milk foam topping rather than finer, more delicate microfoam.
It’s worth noting that both handheld frothers and steam wands can achieve frothing with some technique adjustments.
Taste and Texture of Frothed Milk
Without intense heat, frothed milk showcases more of the milk’s inherent flavor. The proteins don’t unravel and caramelize like they do when steaming, so you’ll find the sweetness is more subtle too.
The foam itself remains thick and quite stiff thanks to less fluidity from lower temperatures, and those bubbles don’t burst and break down like microfoam. Instead, frothing produces distinctive cloud-like mounds that float beautifully on the milk’s surface.
I suggest whole milk to allow ample fat for clinging foam. Skim and low-fat varieties can whip up as well, though won’t achieve as much loft and richness.
If you’re looking for a healthier option or simply fancy a change from regular cow’s milk, check our article: Best Milk Alternatives for Coffee
Now let’s consider which coffee based drinks will benefit from more frothiness rather than delicate microform.
Best Uses for Frothed Milk
While microfoam is the perfect partner for espresso, frothed milk is best suited for coffee drinks like macchiatos, beautifully showcasing the floating foam thanks to the sharp divide between espresso below and bubbly milk above.
Beyond visual appeal, that mounded milk foam also provides a pleasing mouthfeel with every sip. Your foam mustache game will be strong thanks to frothing’s fluffy peaks.
Frothing shines in cold milk applications too.
Blend it into iced lattes or simply top icy chocolate with mountains of froth.
Now that we’ve explored frothed and steamed milk let’s directly compare both methods to see the differences.
Determining whether to use steamed or frothed milk will help you to decide whether the steam wand attachment found on many of the best espresso machines or portable frothers will serve you best!
Key Differences Between Steamed Milk and Frothed Milk
Now that we’ve covered both steaming and frothing techniques in-depth, let’s directly compare both milk-foaming methods across a few key attributes:
The most obvious difference lies in temperature. Steamed milk exceeds 150°F to unravel proteins, while frothed milk stays below 135°F to maintain structure. Temperature impacts flavor and texture considerably, as I will discuss below.
Frothing vigorously whips air into the milk, increasing foam quantity. Steaming also aerates but focuses on finely incorporated bubbles rather than billowy mounds. So frothing makes milk appear greater in volume.
As touched on earlier, steamed milk becomes uniform microfoam – impossibly smooth, glossy, and liquidy. Meanwhile, frothed milk remains layered with foam floating above denser milk below.
Beyond sweetness developing during steaming, proteins in the milk also break down, producing nuttier and more toasted flavors.
Whereas, frothed milk offers a milder taste with flavors remaining truer to the original milk; the fat content significantly influences taste too.
Know The Difference Between Steamed Milk And Frothed Milk
To clearly visualize these key distinctions, see the comparison table below:
|Less increase in volume
|More volume increase due to air incorporation
|Microfoam – extremely smooth and velvety, with small even bubbles
|Thick foam, large noticeable bubbles
|Sweeter due to lactose breakdown, nuttier notes develop
|Retains true, subtle milk flavors
|Drinks where microfoam integrates seamlessly like lattes and cappuccinos
|Drinks where microfoam integrates seamlessly, like lattes and cappuccinos
|Challenging due to milk’s sensitivity to temps and wand movement
|Has nuance around monitoring foam consistency
Best Milk Choices for The Ultimate Frothy Milk
Choosing the right milk variety plays a huge role in frothing success. Striking the ideal balance between foamability and flavor takes some experimentation – but this guide will help narrow options!
- Whole Milk – Don’t attempt frothing whole milk as a beginner. The extra fat content makes incorporating air very difficult without proper technique. While delicious in coffee drinks, whole milk’s richness can also overwhelm other flavors.
- Non-Fat/Skim Milk – Skim milk froths easiest thanks to the lack of fat-destabilizing foam. You’ll achieve mounds of airy foam quickly. However, the flavor is quite lacking – almost watery. Non-fat milk won’t add much creaminess or taste to your drink.
- 2% Reduced Fat Milk – I recommend 2% milk for beginners seeking the “best of both worlds”. You get decent foam quantity and quality while retaining enough fat for a creamy, subtly sweet flavor. Start with 2% milk to grasp frothing fundamentals before venturing into other varieties.
The ideal milk choice depends on your specific coffee drink too.
For example, Macchiatos spotlight foam texture and height, so non-fat milk makes sense. Meanwhile, cappuccinos benefit from 2% or whole milk, lending delicate sweetness against bitter espresso.
Looking for non-dairy milk alternatives? Frothing almond milk is another excellent choice. For the best thick foam frothing results, consider barista-specific almond milk options such as Pacific Natural Foods Barista Series and California’s Barista Blend.
Remember – milk frothing and coffee combining require skill and are both an art and science!
After all this swirling, stretching, and aerating, let’s bring it home by recapping what truly distinguishes steaming from frothing.
Both produce foamy, satiny milk ideal for boosting coffee and espresso beverages. But if your priority is silken microfoam to meld flavors, opt for a steam wand’s power and precision.
Prefer showcasing floaty, fluffy foam? Milk frothers better emphasize bubbles with less breakdown.
Yet don’t resign yourself to just one technique! I constantly switch between methods depending on the beverage. Lattes call for steamed integration, while frothed milk stars in my breves and macchiatos. Experiment to decide what satisfies your personal taste and texture preferences.
And if you ever wonder why your drink always falls flat, scrutinize the milk first!
What will your next foamy, caffeinated concoction be?
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