LATTE ART for BEGINNERS
The pinnacle of the cappuccino and the barista's skill combined is the presentation of a delicious cup of espresso with latte art. It entices all the senses- sight, smell, taste, and with the added texture on the palate, even touch. If you include the sound of the steaming process, we have hit all five. More than just a sign of great skill and care, latte art is the barista's signature on a masterpiece showing the maker's pride in what was just produced, just for you. In much the same way, as your skills develop at home, latte art is a way to demonstrate your skill in the art of making espresso and steaming milk, and your pride in the product you just produced.
A cappuccino is a combination of espresso and stretched milk. The espresso, as long as it has a nice layer of crema will do as a canvas for latte art. The rest of the equation is the texture of the milk and the skill of the barista in its placement in and on the espresso.
The espresso should be pulled directly into a preheated cappuccino cup before stretching the milk. Espresso will lose little sitting for a few minutes while the milk is prepared, but the milk will lose a lot of texture if allowed to sit while the espresso is prepared, so espresso first, then steam milk is the preferred order. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have a dual boiler or heat-exchanger machine you can steam the milk while the espresso is being extracted into the cup.
Cappuccino cups are specifically shaped for the purpose of holding a cappuccino. They tend to be wider then tall and so offer the best space to work making it easy to get the pitcher close to the surface of the espresso a larger canvas, if you will. Although I have seen a professional barista instructor pour latte art in a small paper cup, a nice, heavy, thick-walled ceramic cup is a delight to hold. The ACF cups are my favorite for everyday use because they have a great shape, are heavy and hold heat well, are tough, and are relatively affordable..
Whether cow or soy, not all milk is created equal. With cow juice there can be a wide range of quality. Even the time of year can affect the ability to properly stretch milk. In the winter months, in regions where cows are fed fodder instead of being able to graze, the protein quality is apparently affected, and that changes the way the milk reacts to being steamed. The best advice is that if you are having difficulty, try another milk.
For soymilk, the best I have found is Kirkland (Costco house brand) vanilla soymilk. It not only tastes good right out of the carton cold, the sweetness of the milk increases when steamed, and the textural quality of the stretched milk is excellent. But like with cow milk, the ability of soy varies. I have had variances from carton to carton of soymilk in the same case.
I use the terms "stretching" and "steaming" interchangeably. I originally differentiated the "stretching" phase as the later part of the process as did most of the early resources I read. That caused me to do a lot of things wrong. In particular, I mentally differentiated between the early phase of adding air and the later phase of just adding the steam's force and heat. So I added too much air and then "stretched" for far too long, overheating the milk and producing far less "microfoam." All I ended up with was hot milk and stiff foam. The microfoam is what we are looking for. It is a pourable foam with paint-like viscosity and microscopic bubbles. This adds body to the beverage, increases the sweetness of the milk, and allows you to create latte art. So the appearance of latte art is more than just something pretty to look at. The flavor and body of the beverage benefits as well.
One of the more misunderstood processes of making a decent cappuccino is the steaming of the milk. It is very difficult to describe in words, and even videos of the procedure do not always show what is involved. I finally got the idea by watching a pro barista, having the opportunity to stand right over the pitcher as he worked. Here are some tips I picked up from those observations as well as learning from my own mistakes... gallons and gallons of mistakes:
LESS AIR: One of my major mistakes early on was trying to add too much air to the milk. That is fine if you are making a latte where lots of stiff foam is what you desire, or if you like that thick, spoonable foam that sits on top of the cup like a big, white Hershey's kiss. But stiff foam does little to enhance the flavor or texture of the beverage. And in my opinion, if stiff foam is seen on top of a cappuccino it is the mark of an amateur barista.
And my stating that you should add less air is an understatement. I would urge you to begin by adding no air at all. I have often stated that when making espresso, the new barista should start at a too-fine coffee grind that chokes the machine and work towards coarse to find the correct grind. In much the same way, when adding air to the milk I suggest that you start with adding little or no air, and add a bit more air in subsequent sessions until you find the right amount.
LESS TIME/LOWER TEMPERATURE: Most of the instructions I read when I started out on this long path caused me to apply steam for too long a period of time. This causes a too-high temperature which will decrease the amount of microfoam instead of increasing it. I have modified my technique, and now I have even stopped using a thermometer. Instead, I place my hand on the side of the pitcher and sense the temperature by touch. If the pitcher is too hot to hold comfortably when the steaming is done, then you probably went too far. This will vary depending on the gauge of the stainless steel used to make the pitcher.
The pitcher has a lot to do with the entire process including the stretching as well as the pouring. The size of the pitcher is the first consideration. The bell-shaped pitcher I currently use stated its capacity right on its factory package as "20 ounce," but it only holds just over 16 ounces if filled to the brim. In that pitcher, for two drinks, I start with about 8 ounces of milk, which, because of the bell-shaped bottom, fills it about 1/3 of its height leaving plenty of room to work, yet still creates enough depth of milk to begin. If the pitcher is too large for the volume of milk, the milk will be too shallow and the force of the steam will cavitate the milk and draw in far too much air at the beginning of the process. If the pitcher is too small there will not be room for the milk to expand and you will end up with milk on your shoes.
So the point here is that you need to match the amount of milk to the number of drinks you are making, and then you need to match the size of the pitcher to the amount of milk you are steaming. And even before that, you need to consider the length of the wand and the amount of room you have to work. The basic rule (if there is one) is to get the smallest pitcher you can use which creates a sufficient starting depth of the milk while still leaving enough room for the milk to expand. Unlike being a new swimmer, you want to start at the deep end of the milk pool....
The other factor to consider is the shape and size of the spout which is critical to the pouring of the milk. The "economy" pitcher I am using is actually unsuited to pouring latte art which was a big part of my problem early on. The spout is short and very wide which makes controlling the milk a lot more difficult than it has to be. Latte art pitchers have long, narrow spouts, and the best have a little "flange" or flare at the pouring lip. The spout continues down about half the height of he pitcher. Still, as you will see, it is still quite possible to create latte art even with pitchers not intended for this purpose.
Creating latte art can be divided into two parts- the first is the stretching phase of the milk. This is difficult to describe in any exacting way because of the variables involved. These include, in no particular order of importance:
The power of the steam your machine creates
How controllable the steam pressure is
How dry or wet the steam is
The number of holes in your steam tip
How well matched the tip is to the machine
The length and shape of the steam wand
If the wand on your machine has an enhancing device attached that aids in the stretching of the milk, either get rid of it or stop reading this article. These are designed to add air to the steam using a venturi and the one or two I have used only work to create stiff foam, and that is not at all what we want.
Most of those factors listed above are out of your control, and even some of the ones you can control do little to change the effectiveness of the machine, and may actually make things worse. As an example, there is a four hole tip being sold for Silvia, and in actual use I found it to be less effective than the stock, one hole tip.
While on the subject of steam wand tips, start by taking for granted that the tip that came with the machine will work. Manufacturers carefully match the tip to the machine's ability to create steam, balancing the power of the steam from the wand against the machines ability to supply steam to the wand. Too large an opening (or too large a total area of all the openings) supplies more steam but at a lower force.
This process of applying the steam to the milk needs to be done gently. If at any point you feel like you need to "push" or force the process, then there is something wrong. The heat and force of the stream should do all the work.
The first part of the actual process of creating latte art begins with the application of steam into milk. With all the misinformation I have run across over the years, I think that getting down to basics is a good idea.
Start by clearing the steam wand of all water so that the stream of steam is as powerful and as dry as possible. This will not only give the best stream of steam possible from your machine, it also preheats the steam wand so that the least amount of heat energy is dissipated. Use a spare pitcher to hold under the wand can serve to catch the water and contain the moisture while clearing the wand, or if your drip tray is large enough and the wand reached, you can clear the wand into the tray. If located next to a sink, that works too. Depending on the steaming power of the machine, after clearing the wand you may wish to wait for a predetermined amount of time to allow the machine to create more steam. This is most important with small, single-boiler machines.
Having the steaming pitcher already dosed with milk close by during this clearing phase is a good idea. This way, as soon as the wand is cleared you can turn off the steam, immerse of the tip of the wand into the milk, and turn the steam back on. Some recommend placing the pitcher in the freezer to chill it further to add more time to work the milk, but this will increase the chance that you will push the process too long. It is not so much how long the process goes but how well it is done that counts. If it works for you, fine, but I have never found a need to pre-chill the pitcher or milk.
Hold the pitcher with two hands. One on the handle and one against the side of the pitcher. This gives you control as well as the ability to sense the temperature of the pitcher.
So, to put that all together:
- Milk is in pitcher close by
- Clear steam wand
- Allow machine to recover if necessary
- Give a quick blast to clear any remaining water
- Put pitcher under wand with tip submerged in milk
- Turn steam on and begin stretching the milk
Here is where there will be some experimentation over the next few days... or weeks.... or longer. How much air to inject, for how long, and when? There is no one answer to that. It depends on oh so many factors. My advice, as mentioned above, is to stretch a number of pitchers and do not add any air at all none. Just relax and let the machine do the work. As you discover that you are getting consistent results, add a little air and work that for a week or so, and continue to do so until you get a good feel for the process. The more air that is added the greater the chance of ending up with too much stiff foam, or worse; lots of big bubbles.
HOW TO ADD AIR: Adding air is done by lowering the pitcher so that the steam tip is closer to the surface of the milk. The action of the steam pulls air from the surface as seen below:
As you can see, the tip of the steam wand is very close to the surface. The force of the steam pushes the surface downwards and the flow "cavitates" drawing in air at the location indicated by the arrow. The closer the tip is to the surface, the more air that can be drawn in. Too close to the surface and too much air is added to the point that milk can be splashed out of the pitcher. The difference in depth from effective to tragic can be as little as one or two millimeters! As the steaming session progresses, the same depth that was effective early on will be too shallow. At the beginning, 1/4" below the surface might be fine. Later on at least double that may be necessary.
From my experience, If there is a rule, it would be to only add a very small amount of air, during the first one or two seconds, and do so gently without creating any bubbles that appear on the surface of the milk. The sound should be a slight, muted, distant hiss. If it becomes more of a slurp or growl, or like ripping a sheet of heavy paper it means that you probably drew in too much air because the tip was too close to the surface of the milk.
While a lot of folks recommend using a thermometer, I find they tend to get in the way as well as being a distraction. If you need one as a learning tool feel free to use it, but you can do quite well without one. Hold your hand on the side of the pitcher. Since the temperature when it is best to stop adding air is around 98 F. (37 C) you can sense this easily since your hand is right around that temperature, more or less. When the temperature feels like it is going from cold to neutral to hotter than your hand, that is the time to stop adding air. There will be slight variances to that. For example, if you have a thick-walled pitcher it will take longer for the temperature of the metal to transfer the heat to your skin so you will need to top adding air a little earlier.
The angle of the tip is also important. Like much of the rest of this process, there are too many variables to tell you exactly where to hold the tip in relation to the area of the surface of the milk as well as the necessary angle.
I find that with my two hole tip, a mixing vortex is best created as seen here.
If you have a one-hole tip, the best effect is achieved by holding the tip at an angle to the surface, near the side of the pitcher, to get a circular motion akin to the water going down in the bowel of a flushed toilet (sorry for the visual).
As with much of the rest of this process, experiment to find what works for you. If you have difficulty trying to find the best angle to get the milk moving, try using a heat-resistant, clear-glass measuring cup so that you can see the water moving as you adjust the location and angle of the wand.
When to stop is the next decision. Once again, this is learned by experience. It is not a matter of time but a decision to be made based on what is happening in the pitcher. The hand on the side of the pitcher is the best indication. I can say that what you are looking for (or more accurately, feeling for) can be described as comfortably warm or delightfully hot. If it becomes uncomfortable to hold or too hot to hold, you went too long. Some prefer to have hotter milk in their cup but we are looking for the correct consistency for latte art. Another sign that it is time to immediately stop is if the sound of the steam goes from that of fast-flowing air to more of a rumbling. To me, that is a sign it went too far.
There is science to this as well. One of the things that you accomplish when stretching themilk is that the sweetness is increased, so you want to protect the sugars in the milk. If the milk is allowed to get hotter than about 172 F. (72 C.) the sugars will be damaged much as it would be when making candy or tempering chocolate for candy. If you go to about 160 degrees and no hotter than you are going to be fine. As mentioned above, that is just about the temperature that the pitcher will feel hot, but it is not uncomfortable to hold. Additionally, if the milk gets to hot it will "collapse" and you will lose the texture you are trying to create.
When you reach the desired temperature and it is time to stop, turn off the steam, and as son as the steam flow decreases (like 0.5 seconds later), lower the pitcher. If you remove the pitcher too soon you will create a bunch of large bubbles and take a good chance of slashing hot milk all over. Leaving it in the milk to long will increase the chance of drawing milk up into the wand as the steam in the wand cools creating a partial vacuum in the wand. Remember to wipe the wand with a wet rag immediately after removing it from the milk. Then give a blast of steam to clean the wand's tip of any milk that may have entered.
After you remove the pitcher you will notice that its exterior continues to heat up a few degrees. This is to be expected and it is one of the reasons that you remove the pitcher earlier than is often recommended. As soon as you remove the pitcher, wipe the steam wand with a wet rag to remove all traces of milk from the exterior of the wand, then give a blast of steam to clear the holes of the wand.
As mentioned above, many like to use a thermometer to judge the correct temperature but this adds a number of problems. it adds just one more thing that is a distraction to a process that goes very fast as it is. Many of those thermometers are not that accurate, they have a very small scale that is difficult to read accurately, and they react relatively slowly when compared to the speed of the process. Yes, I did use the thermometer early on (years ago) but abandoned its use when I discovered the methods I am sharing here.
To demonstrate how misunderstood this process can be, I was in a coffee shop before I ever purchased my first espresso machine. I noticed that the shop owner was steaming some milk and using a thermometer. To relieve my ignorance, I asked him what the thermometer was for, and he told me that it to make sure that the milk got hot enough to kill the bacteria so that it would be safe to drink. The previous owner of the shop probably told him that, and so that was what he believed. He never went any further in his coffee education, he reportedly got involved with one of the female employees, ended up with a divorce, the shop eventually was sold, and then closed down a year or two after that. So if anyone asks why you don't use a thermometer, tell them it is because you love your spouse and don't want to have to sell your house.
EVALUATING THE MILK
Examine the surface of the milk once the stretching phase is complete. It should look somewhat like white paint in a bucket. It should have a viscous texture, looking "thicker" than it did when you first poured it into the pitcher. There should be no visible bubbles. If there are a few small ones you can tap the pitcher downward, gently, onto the counter to pop them. If you have good lighting you may even notice the surface looks like glimmering silk. These are just interim checks. The real test is coming up.
Swirl the milk around by moving the pitcher in small, quick circles. If you look closely, the shape of the "dome" of milk will indicate how well you did. It should look like a large, flat mushroom. If the center stands up too high and takes some time to settle down when you stop swirling, it indicates that the foam became too stiff from being stretched too long, or that too much air was added, or both.
If the stretched milk seems to lack texture or the proper viscosity has not been achieved, do not assume that you didn't add enough air or didn't go far enough. A thin viscosity or inability to produce art can be a sign that you didn't go far enough, but it can also indicate that the process went on too long and the milk was overheated. On the other hand, it is very easy to see when too much air was added. You will start trying to create latte art with "a pencil" and the art looks like it was drawn with an industrial size "marker pen" which will be explained below. Thick, heavy, viscous foam on the cappuccino is a sign that to much air was added.
The same can be said for large bubbles as in soapy water or a bubble bath. In that case, it could be that too much air was added all at once or was added too late in the process. It is possible to draw foamy bubbles back down into the milk during steaming by lowering the pitcher and using the venturi created by the force of the steam as mentioned above, but this is difficult to control and more often than not you will end up making things worse instead of better. Practice not creating bubbles so that you don't have to practice eliminating them.
As with the steaming of the milk, pouring the art is also a skill that takes finesse. Once I gained the skill to pour latte art I found that it takes a lot less effort and necessitates a lot more subtlety than I had originally thought.
Here we go! This is where it all comes together- the pitcher, the shape of the spout, the quality of the milk, the design of the cup, and your effectiveness when steaming.
There are all sorts of patterns that can be created from ferns to flowers to hearts and more. I am going to assume that you are new to this and so we will just begin with a basic pattern and once you have control over that you can advance to more ambitious art projects.
Just before you begin to pour, swirling the pitcher can help get a more consistent, homogeneous viscosity in the milk. The longer it takes to get from the steaming phase to the pour, the more important this becomes. The photos that follow are screen captures from a video done in poor lighting, so I apologize for their low quality.
Begin at the far side of the cup, with the cup's handle on the LEFT (for a right-handed drinker) because you are actually pouring the design upside down. At this time the height of the pitcher is most important. Too low and you get a white puddle on top of the espresso. Too high and too much turbulence is created in the cup. The rule is that the height increases proportionately to the viscosity of the milk. As the level of liquid in the cup rises and the viscosity is correct you will see the signs of "art" begin to form as a small white spot. Tip the cup so that you can get the spout as close to the surface of the espresso as possible and start pouring about two inches above the surface, and lower the pitcher until things start to happen. As with so much more in this, as your skill and experience increases you will know just how high off the surface the pour should begin.
As you begin to pour you will know right away if you created too much stiff foam. As seen above, this milk had too much stiff foam that just sat (floated) on top of the espresso. I would have needed to pour from a height of at least one foot to have even a slight chance to get this pitcher of milk to create anything resembling latte art. You can see that I was attempting to make it work, but all I ended up with is a picture of a... well, use your imagination.
Once the "art" begins to show and the level of the coffee is rising, begin a GENTLE side to side motion of the pitcher.
During the pouring phase it is important that the motion keeps the pitcher parallel to the surface of the espresso as shown here, with the spout of the pitcher close to the surface. It should be within about one inch or less at this point. If you have trouble doing this, using the edge of the cup as a guide for the pitcher is a good learning aid.
From my experience I can say that the side-to-side motion is more subtle than you might think. The lateral movement, as seen in this low resolution animated gif image, is probably not much more than 1/2 of an inch or so. Pour gently, and let the milk do the work.
As the art begins to grow, move the pitcher towards you, continuing the side to side motion. This is all done with a fluid motion. The rate of the pour, amplitude of the arcs, and the height of the pitcher is all governed by the way the milk is holding the pattern. Thick lines could mean that you are too close to the surface or moving too slowly. Thin lines can mean that you are moving too quickly or pouring from too great of a height. All these factors are interrelated. This is art, after all, in the truest sense of the word, and it takes practice and experience to get good at it (and from these pictures it is clear I need more practice and a better pitcher!).
When you reach the near-side of the cup, pour a thin stream away from you, right across the pattern in the cup. In the same motion, raise the spout and lower the bottom of the pitcher so that the stream gets thinner, ending just before reaching the far side of the cup.
If you did all that decently, the table is still coffee-free and your shoes are unstained, and there is some sort of "picture" in the cup.
I make it sound so easy... of course, it isn't. In the first attempt to document this process photographically, I had my wife set the shot up with our pocket camera, and I did the pouring. Not only did the milk not stretch well, but in my attempt to pour some art and at the same time stay out of the way of the camera, a good portion of the milk and some of the coffee ended up on the tabletop. If there was a competition, the judges would have had a difficult time deciding on which was superior (or least inferior) the latte art spread across the birch table or what was in the cup. Literally, it was the worst result I experienced in a year. It happens, and will probably eventually happen to you. Don't get discouraged.
The Internet is littered with video of latte art pours. If you do a search on YouTube alone you will find hundreds. Once you get a handle on the above process you can check some of those videos and they will begin to make more sense and you will be able to see some of the subtitles involved in pouring latte art.
This entire article is not written in stone, or even latte art. It is a beginning guide- a foundation from which to begin learning how to create latte art. So many of the things I related here are variable to a great extent including temperature of the milk, size of the pitcher, quality of the milk, steaming power, etc. You will have to adjust the amount of milk you use, how much air to add, the height of the pour and so much more as you progress.
The accomplished baristas who pour such beautiful latte art probably pull more shots and pour more milk in a day than you do in a month or two. Remember, Leonardo, Mr. Piero da Vinci's little boy, didn't create a masterpiece with his first set of finger paints. And just because a painting is signed down in the corner does not make it a masterpiece, and in the same way, just because a cappuccino has latte art across its surface does not mean that it will taste good. It is up to the barista to ensure that the espresso lying under the layer of art and crema tastes good. A story by Hemmingway is not necessarily a classic if it was written by Ralph... only if it was by Earnest.