When you’re taking that first sip of any espresso-and-milk coffee drink, the milk’s texture and temperature can make or break your experience. The two most common milk preparation methods used in coffee are steaming and frothing. But what’s the difference between the two, and which one is best for your coffee?
As a former barista, I’d know when I over-frothed a pitcher of milk for a latte order or steamed milk too hot, and had to throw it out. But that knowledge came from trial and error (AKA lots and lots of practice).
There are classic drinks and their milk preparations, but then there are cafe specialties and actual people who request their drinks be made with less foam, thick foam, steamed to a specific temperature, made with plant-based milk (we’ll get deep into that)—and the list goes on and on.
So when I went to write this article, I decided it’d be the one I wish I’d had to read as a young barista behind the bar.
In that spirit, this article will explore steamed vs frothed milk to help lay a solid foundation if you’re new to the differences. By the end, you should feel confident determining the distinctions between steamed vs frothed milk and know which one to use for your favorite coffee drinks.
While they may look similar, frothed and steamed milk have distinct differences that impact taste, texture, and overall drinking experience. Let’s dive into the details.
What Is Steamed Milk?
Steamed milk is milk that has been heated and aerated using steam from an espresso machine. The process involves introducing steam into the milk, which causes it to heat up and create bubbles that add texture and foam to the milk. This results in creamy, silky milk that can be used in a variety of coffee drinks.
Equipment Needed For Steaming Milk
To steam milk, you will need an espresso machine with a steam wand, a milk pitcher, and a thermometer.
The steam wand is used to introduce steam into the milk, while the milk pitcher is used to hold the milk while it’s being steamed.
The thermometer is used to monitor the temperature of the milk to ensure it’s heated to the appropriate temperature.
The Texture And Flavor Of Steamed Milk
Steamed milk has a smooth, creamy texture that adds a luxurious mouthfeel to coffee drinks. You can adjust its texture by varying the amount of steam you release into the milk.
Steamed milk tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk, which works best with certain drinks, which I’ll get into below.
How To Use Steamed Milk In Coffee Drinks
Of course, there are endless variances in how you can use steamed milk. But usually, you pour steamed milk on top of espresso, topping it with foam or not. What’s different drink by drink is the ratio.
To make a latte, for example, pour the steamed milk onto the espresso and top it with a layer of foam. To make a cappuccino, pour equal parts of steamed milk and foam on top of an espresso shot.
Tips for Steaming Milk
- To steam milk, start by filling the milk pitcher with cold milk up to the halfway point.
- Then, insert the steam wand into the milk and turn on the steam.
- As the milk begins to heat up, move the steam wand up and down to create a swirling motion in the milk.
- Keep steaming the milk until it reaches a temperature of around 150°F.
- After steaming, tap the pitcher on a flat surface to remove any large bubbles, then swirl the milk to create a smooth, velvety texture.
What Is Frothed Milk?
Frothed milk is simply milk that has been aerated, creating a light and airy texture that is perfect for adding to coffee or other drinks. Essentially this means you add more air to the milk than when steaming.
Equipment Needed for Frothing Milk
You’ll need a couple of pieces of gear to froth milk at home. There are several methods for frothing milk, but the most common is to use a milk frother—either electric or manual.
Automatic electric frother: To make frothed milk using an electric frother, simply pour cold milk into the frother’s carafe, press the button to start the frothing process, and wait for the milk to become light and fluffy.
Manual handheld frother: If you’re using a handheld frother, you’ll need to warm the milk first, then use the frother to whip the milk until it becomes frothy.
You’ll also need a milk pitcher or carafe to hold the milk while it’s being frothed, as well as a thermometer to ensure that the milk is heated to the right temperature before frothing.
The Texture and Flavor of Frothed Milk
Frothed milk has a unique texture that is light and airy, with a velvety smoothness that is perfect for adding to coffee. The flavor of frothed milk is also slightly less sweet than steamed milk, making it a popular addition to top-off sweet coffee drinks (like lattes and cappuccinos) whose bodies consist of steamed milk.
How to Use Frothed Milk in Coffee Drinks
Frothed milk can be used in a variety of coffee drinks, including flat whites and macchiatos.
In a flat white, the frothed milk is poured on top of a double shot of espresso to create a velvety microfoam. The espresso and milk are meant to blend together, resulting in a creamy and smooth taste.
In a macchiato, frothed milk is added as a dollop or spot on top of a shot of espresso. This creates a layered look with a distinct separation between the espresso and the frothed milk. The frothed milk helps to balance the strong flavor of the espresso while adding a creamy texture to the drink.
Overall, frothed milk is used to elevate the texture of certain espresso-based drinks like these, which call for airiness and less viscosity over steamed milk’s thick, silky sweetness.
Tips for Frothing Milk
If you’re new to frothing milk, there are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure that you get the perfect froth every time.
- First, make sure that your milk is cold before frothing, as this will help to create a better texture.
- Second, be careful not to overheat the milk before frothing, as this can cause the froth to break down.
- Finally, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of milk and frothing techniques to find the method that works best for you.
Give it a try and start enjoying the creamy, indulgent goodness of frothed milk today.
Steamed vs Frothed Milk: Key Differences Explained
As you’ve learned by now, steamed and frothed milk are two distinct ways of preparing milk for coffee. While they have some similarities, they also have key differences that affect the texture, temperature, and overall taste of the drink. Let’s look at those closer.
Texture: Smooth vs Foamy
The main difference between steamed vs frothed milk is its texture. Steamed milk has a smooth, silky texture, while frothed milk has a lighter, foamier texture.
Steamed milk is smoother and creamier because it is heated up to around 150°F and incorporates tiny air bubbles. But frothed milk has a thicker and fluffier texture as it is aerated with a wand, which introduces larger air bubbles and creates a denser texture.
Usage: Base vs Topping
As we’ve touched on, steamed milk is commonly used in lattes and cappuccinos as it adds a creamy texture to the coffee and blends the espresso shot with the milk.
On the other hand, frothed milk is used in drinks like macchiatos and cortados as it creates a more pronounced foam layer on top of the espresso or makes the drink lighter and less sweet.
However, a “microfoam” or “micro-froth” can also be created with frothed milk, which is used in flat whites and preferred by many baristas, as it carries a lighter texture all the way through the drink, not just on top.
Most baristas I know classify microfoam as a subset of froth, so it’s really a consistency right between steamed vs frothed milk—only it’s used as a base throughout the drink in this sense.
Temperature: High vs Low
Steamed milk requires a higher temperature than frothed milk as it needs to be heated up to the point where the proteins in the milk break down and create a creamy texture.
It’s vital to understand that the hotter you steam milk, the more its structure dissolves and the less sweet it becomes.
Typically, steamed milk is heated to around 150°F, while frothed milk is heated to around 120-130°F.
Chart Comparison: Steamed vs Frothed Milk Characteristics
|Steamed Dairy Milk||Frothed Dairy Milk|
|Texture||Smooth, silky||Lighter, foamier|
|Preparation||Heated to 150-160°F and tiny air bubbles added||Aerated with a wand to introduce larger air bubbles|
|Drinks||Lattes, cappuccinos||Macchiatos, flat whites, cortados|
How to Factor In Your Milk Type
Different types of milk have varying effects on the steaming and frothing processes. Foamed milk can be made using any type of milk, but the quality of the foam may differ based on the milk’s fat-to-protein ratio.
For example, whole milk produces a creamier and denser foam when frothed, while skim milk produces a lighter and airier foam. 1% or 2% milk is usually a middle ground, still frothing nicely. Full fat or half-and-half takes longer to steam and froths thickly, because the fat-to-protein ratio is higher.
Non-dairy milk such as soy, almond, or oat milk can also be steamed or frothed, but they require using slightly different temperatures, depending on the specific milk type.
Non-Dairy and Plant-Based Milk
With a couple of exceptions (coughs coconut milk coughs), non-dairy milk steams and froths faster than dairy milk because they have more soluble proteins. This means they usually react better to lower temperatures.
If you’re vegan or simply prefer plant-based milk, look for options labeled “Barista” version next time you are at the store. These plant-based milk blends contain added fats and stabilizers like dipotassium phosphate to achieve the same texture as dairy milk.
That said, you may want to check out adding pea protein to flax and other thin kinds of plant milk that simply do not froth.
Chart Comparison: Steamed vs Frothed Milk By Types And Temperatures
Understanding the temperature differences between the three factors we’ve been discussing here—milk type, preparation type (steam vs froth), and temperature variances—is a super important foundation for crafting the drink you’re after.
Use this handy chart I made as a reference, but remember that practice makes perfect. Other elements— such as the elevation you’re at, milk freshness, and equipment types—all matter, too, and haven’t been accounted for here. So that’s where art takes over from science. 😉
|Milk Type||Steaming Temperature||Frothing Temperature|
|Soy and Hemp||145°F||140°F|
|Almond and Oat||135°F||130°F|
|Cashew and Flax||130°F||122°F*|
Steamed vs Frothed Milk: Pros and Cons
Both steamed and frothed milk have their own unique characteristics that make them suitable for certain coffee drinks. Here are some of the pros and cons of steamed vs frothed milk:
- Smooth, silky texture that’s perfect for latte art because it has fewer air bubbles than foamed milk.
- Enhances the sweetness and creaminess of the coffee.
- Ideal for espresso-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
- Can be difficult to achieve the perfect texture.
- Requires a high-quality espresso machine with a steam wand.
- Not suitable for light, airy drinks like macchiatos or flat whites.
- The light, airy texture tops classic espresso and milk drinks beautifully.
- Can be achieved with a handheld milk frother.
- Perfect for adding a layer of foam to the top of the drink.
- Not great for latte art.
- Can be difficult to achieve the perfect texture.
- Doesn’t bring out as much sweetness from the milk.
Steamed vs Frothed Milk – TL;DR
Ultimately, the choice between steamed milk and frothed milk depends on the type of coffee drink you want to make. Steamed milk is perfect for espresso-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, while frothed milk is ideal for light, airy drinks like macchiatos and flat whites.
Both steamed and frothed milk have their own unique characteristics that can enhance the flavor and texture of your coffee, so it’s worth experimenting with both methods to find your preferred milk preparation technique.
What Is The Difference Between Steaming And Boiling Milk?
Can You Steam Non-Dairy Milk?
Can You Froth Cold Milk?
Can You Reheat Steamed Or Frothed Milk?
How Long Can You Keep Steamed Or Frothed Milk Before It Goes Bad?
What Kind Of Milk Is Best For Steaming And Frothing?
That said, non-dairy milk such as soy or oat milk can also produce good results depending on the brand and quality. Use a “barista’s blend” for the best texture.