Froth my milk up: cappuccino foam and how to get it right

One of my pet hates is a cappuccino without good froth, especially one for which I’ve forked out my hard-earned readies.

After I dropped many a hint, Lenny gave me an espresso machine for Christmas. Determined not to replicate the work of dud baristas who have been fleecing me for donkeys’ years, I went to work quickly to perfect my frothing technique. Now Crash Test Kitchen is ready to go public with the cappuccino tips you’ll find in this episode.

Too many of the coffee chains get away with selling fraudulently priced beverages with coarsely bubbled, over-aerated scum on top that has absolutely no body to it. Carry a coffee like this across the room, or up the street to your job, and you’ll find the foam has burst its bubbles and collapsed into plain old milk again. Really, really bad foam will discombobulate under the weight of the mandatory chocolate powder or flakes alone.

Good froth, I reckon, should be dense and smooth with lots of fine bubbles. It should be a silky layer that you enjoy for its taste and texture – not just decoration or a reason to gouge you an extra fifty pence.

And I argue that a dense froth does a better job of keeping the heat in the coffee.

My espresso machine (thanks Lenny!) has a frothing spout with a “snorkel” that draws in air from above the milk-line using the venturi principle. I don’t think it’s the best set-up. It tends to pull in too much air too quickly, frothing the milk before it’s up to the right temperature, which is about 60-75 degrees Celsius (149-158 Fahrenheit).

My solution is to cover the top of the snorkel with my finger, letting in a short burst of air every second or two. The very small intake hole gets blocked sometimes and I clear it with a pin.

On some other machines, the air intake is incorporated with the end of the spout and you let in air by dropping the jug to bring the breather holes above the surface of the milk.

Good espresso, as any even half-baked barista will tell you, forms a nice “crema” on top as it’s expressed. Pour the milk right and you’ll get a tasty and aesthetically pleasing ring of this brown coffee oil around the perimeter of the froth layer.

A note on our coffee cups. They’re actually tea cups that Lenny got at Value Village in Edmonton, Canada, for next to nix.

We know they’re not _proper_ coffee cups, but when has Crash Test Kitchen been afraid to improvise, even when it comes to the holy grail of a perfect cappuccino?

- Waz.

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27 Responses to “Froth my milk up: cappuccino foam and how to get it right”


  • Hey, My friend and I have recently discovered your podcast, and we love it! We think the two of you are hilarious, and really great chefs! We like to watch every episode and see you make new foods! Keep them coming!

  • Hi Waz, I have a similar model Krups and have removed the snorkel completely. Once I have my milk to temp I just lower the container so the steamer nozzle comes near the surface and can draw in a little air. Cheers! Dave

  • Right Dave. I’ve actually tried that with another Krups machine owned by relatives and it does work. Will give it a go with this one. One day I will get one of those huge brass and chrome jobs, like in authentic Italian espresso houses.

    Waz.

  • Hello Warren, I like what you’re doing with the website Warren. I’m sure some people find it entertaining Warren. What I would you like you to do for me is to provide a breakdown of all costs involved in producing a cup of coffee, including electricity, coffee, wear and tear on machinery etc. By tomorrow will be fine Warren
    sincere regards Paul

  • Hey guys, I discovered your podcast around Christmas time and I think it’s great. I made the steak and ale pie last night and it was delicious. You can go to my website, http://www.themire.com to see pictures of it taken from my phone. About this episode, I have a couple of espresso machines and am not very happy with any of them but I still make milk foams and put it on a cafe au lait or anything else. I do it a completely different way that makes the most velvety foam I have ever had. I take cold whole milk and put it in my French press and foam it up a bit. Then I take the glass insert out of the press and put it in the microwave to heat up and set the foam. It makes great, lasting foam. Don’t over do it in the microwave though or you’ll cook the foam and expand the bubbles too much.

  • Hey Timothy,

    Great! We’re always chuffed when someone tries out something they saw on CTK. A friend castigated us for using Guinness instead of a true English ale though.

    Your froth technique sounds innovative, but a bit too involved for my liking. By the way, what you call a French press (“cafetiere”), we know in Australia as a “plunger”.

    Waz

  • I work at a coffee shop here in the U.S. and I just wanted to give you a tip about pulling your shots of espresso. After you first pull them you have about ten seconds to add ether milk or water before the flavor of the shot takes a dramatic turn for the worst. All the sweet creamy part of the shot “dies.” What I would recommend doing is steaming the milk first then pulling the shot and immediately combining the two. This will keep your espresso from tasting bitter. Other than that I absolutely LOVE your cooking show, please keep up the good work!

  • Hi guys!
    Today was the first time I ever watched a video podcast – which was your chocolate cake! (found it on iTunes) I loved it and had to watch a couple of other ones right away! You´re absolutely brilliant!!! Especially the tajine episode, but I think I´ll try the steak pie myself next weekend. Thanks a lot for the inspiration! And I find it so funny seeing you two cook, because it reminds me so much of my boyfriend and me when we try to cook together and can´t agree on how to do it best… ;)
    Keep it up! Greetings from Bonn, Caren

  • Hey Guys

    Finally got broadband and it certainly makes a difference watching your clips immediately on-line (instead of downloading them for three hours on dial-up). Keep up the good work!

  • Jake and Rachel,

    I’m not so sure about the “30 seconds” guff. If I buy a plain espresso, does this mean I have to drink it within 30 seconds or it will go off? And how does the addition of frothed milk (within 30 seconds) protect the espresso from going bitter? Convince me.

    Jace, good to hear you have broadened your bandwidth.

    Waz.

  • Nice work. Seems slightly complicated though. Something you’re missing which I think is essential, is to RAP the milk jug down firmly and noisily on the bench after steaming the milk. Showmanship aside, all the large bubbles burst instantly, and the foam packs down densely. If you do this, you don’t have to be so precise when actually steaming, and you don’t have to bother with keeping the jug in the freezer. The thermometer will end up in the back of a drawer one day… I wrap my hand fimly around the jug and steam the milk by skimming the surface, then plunging down deep sporadically to warm the body of the milk. When it is fast approaching too hot to hold (with your hand gripping tightly) you are done! I learnt this in my stunningly brief career as a waiter, and after making about 50 coffees a day, you tend to strive for the best result with the least amount of fuss. And equipment! This is a great site. More please!

  • I’ve just discovered the wonderful world of Podcasts and watched your coffee effort! Fantastic! I was double happy to hear your Australian accents! I’m subscribed and look forward to the next episode. Greetings from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Nicole :-)

  • Hi. You might want to try sprinkling ground cinnamon on top instead of cocoa. I’d take jake and rachel’s advice to froth the milk first, then pull the shot. If you notice on the video, when you just finished with the spresso, there was a layer of crema on top. That is basically the essential oils that give the coffee much of its flavor, and unfortunately, it’s quite unstable and evaporates quickly. You’ll see on the video too, that when you started adding the frothed milk, there was no crema on the espresso anymore. The bubbles don’t keep the espresso from turning bitter, pulling the shot last just give you more time to enjoy the crema before it dissipates.

    Great work! I enjoy your podcasts very much. Thanks.

  • Yes very nice…bravo!…Kepp them coming.
    Cheers

  • Hmmm, Phil, I think the words “my stunningly brief career as a waiter” are incredibly instructive here. What you’re talking about is a quick-and-dirty, fast-buck method for churning out mediocre beverages en masse. I’m talking about artisan coffee my friend. Basically, you are the problem and I am the solution. And we all know that things dissolve in a solution. What exactly I mean by that is unclear.

    Waz.

  • I just discovered your podcast today, I must say its quite interesting. Almost like watching alton brown when you get into how things should be done and your opinion on them. I really enjoy your show, keep up the good work!

    JT

  • Just found this podcast today, and I’m glad to see someone who understands coffee. I’m an American, and back here in the States we’re overrun by Starbucks, which way too large and has almost ruined the beauty of what coffee shops are. Unfortunately, most Americans love Starbucks and don’t understand what a real cappuccino should be like, and end up settling for nothing more than a kind of cafè au lait. So, I’m always glad to see someone who enjoys a real cappuccino, understands how to properly froth milk, and doesn’t load up on those despicable flavored syrups (that Starbucks has made all too common over here).

    The tip about covering the intake spout was quite helpful, too. I tried to make a lattè on my friends home machine once, and like you said, the bubbles turned out a bit too big and inconsistent.

    One tip I have is this: since your cappuccino is espresso and foam, while you lattè is espresso and frothed milk, pull your shots for the different drinks at different times. Back at the coffee shop I worked at, we would froth the milk first for a cappuccino, set it aside and let the foam bubbles in the milk rise to the top as we pulled the shots. That way, you pour your shots into a glass, and scoop the velvety foam right off the top of the milk in the pitcher, adding some of the warm milk at the bottom, if desired. For a lattè we just reversed the process. We pulled the shots, poured them into a mug, and then frothed the milk. This way the bubbles haven’t had time to float to the top and should be dispersed evenly in the milk, so if you pour it on the shots as soon as you can, you pour out that perfect velvety foam.

    Alright, I’ll end the rambling now.

  • Wes and Chris in particular,

    Great stuff. I will definitely pull the shots last when making a cappuccino from now on.

    Waz

  • This is an absolutely brilliant blog that manages to be both wonderfully entertaining and informative. I work for Illy café North America so maybe able to provide some additional insight. It is true that crema it is extremely volatile and will dissipate, generally the sooner an espresso is consumed the better. However if you are making a cappuccino once the milk is added the crema has been broken up and distributed through out.

    About the beans, it’s a common misconception that different blends or types of beans are stronger than others. The strength is purely the result of the roasting process, beans from Brazil are no weaker then those from Ethiopia and visa versa. Being an east coast yank if I’m having an espresso I prefer a mild roast but for cappuccinos and lattés I find the dark roast holds up much better against the flavor of the milk.

    There are two main types of coffee beans the Robusta bean which is easy to grow but not very flavorful, and the Arabica beans which are much more expensive to produce, but has superior flavor. Here in the states most people drink brewed coffee (do people drink that in the UK?) that contains some Robusta as filler. Given the ratio of water to coffee in an espresso and the pressure of extraction the flaws in the flavor of the Robusta become overwhelming when making an espresso. You should only use a coffee that contains 100% Arabica beans.

    When making an espresso you’ll want to use a fine grind. If you find that when you tamp the fine grind it is so compact you cannot produce a shot of espresso, you’ve got a bad machine. The boiler does not produce the necessary pressure to properly extract the coffee, and your better off bringing your own foam to the corner café.

    Keep up the great work on this sight.

  • Well, here’s me thinking the guy is just here to plug Illy products, but I paused long enough over the “delete” button to realise the value of his comment. Great stuff, Jim. I have seen cafes with a brand of coffee called Mocca Arabica and it’s good stuff, so there you go.

    Many more people here in the UK would drink espresso coffee than brewed, if drinking REAL coffee, but I imagine that, sadly, even more drink instant. I’m afraid brewed coffee is largely a sad North American fixation (although I must say, I did get quite used to it in Canada due to its ubiquity).

    When I was a kid in Australia there was pretty much only instant coffee. A cappuccino was instant coffee with foamed milk on top. Weird – cafes have these cylindrical Haros boilers that both heat water and provide steam from a spout, but there is no provision for making espresso coffee. Then espresso seemed to arrive all of a sudden, in the late 80s to early 90s by my reckoning. Brewed coffee (what I call filter coffee or drip-o-lator coffee) has always been around in the background but the machines are more of a curiosity – something you’d find at a garage sale – than a mainstream item.

    My mum has an old, tall percolator that is all stainless steel and bakelite, with a clear knob on top where you can see the coffee bubbling up. She also has a coffee grinder like Billy Crystal scared the cattle with in that movie with Jack Palance. City Slickers. Hi Billy, if you happen to be ego-googling and find this.

    Waz

  • Hi There Boris and Leddy,

    Great watching you guys while enjoying the sunday afternoon drink with some french cheese. I will need to showe this to my friend who is the dutch cappucino specialist and will ask him for some more tips. We have not read all the email but cinamon is also a great flavor addition to it. B.T.W we are wondering if you can do a kids-crashtestkitchen in order to show a nice meal preparation to Lisa. Anywho we enjoyed this very much and it is good to see you and also Dave Rave live again.

    Cheers,

    Lisa, Jeannette en Johan

  • I’m more of a tea fan myself but I do agree that half of the people that work in the big brand coffee shops are just useless at what they do!!

    I might well buy a machine for home just so I can add froth to my hot chocolate!

    Thanks for all the shows and keep them coming

  • Thanks for this show! I have an espresso machine pretty similar to yours, and the foam I get out of it — two times out of three — just doesn’t have The Velvetness. Now that I have more clues, I’m sure I’ll get better.

    Thanks.

  • Just got back from Amesterdam and came upon your site while looking for advice on the milk used for Cappuccino…they were soooo excellent. Do you use whole milk, 2% or skim or coffe cream???
    Great site by the way..good job.

  • Hey Lilli,

    Whole milk. Each and every time. Accept no substitutes. Some people will tell you skimmed or semi-skimmed but I always use whole. I make a cappuccino every morning without fail and my foam is the best out there.

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  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve just returned to L.A. from a month in Europe, where I was introduced to cappuccino for the FIRST TIME. Prior to that I was an instant coffee addict, and stubbornly considered Starbucks-type-beverages an extravagance. My 2nd day home I bought a machine, but have been constantly frustrated with the lack of thick foam. Now that I’m an addict, I NEED my good cappuccino!

    So again, thanks!

    Good show, BTW. I do believe that I’m your newest fan…

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