Right now, it’s a bit harder to enjoy lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos made by our favourite baristas. But that certainly doesn't mean you can't enjoy an excellent specialty coffee drink at home.
Making your own decadent steamed milk drink at home is a lot easier than you think and doesn't necessarily require any expensive or intimidating equipment. All you need is your favourite coffee, milk (dairy or not), and quick instructions on how to put it all together. We've got some top tips to help you become an expert and make delicious drinks at home.
Why Add Milk to Coffee?
When you add milk to your coffee, it can enhance the flavour profile of your brew, adding a touch of creaminess. When you heat the milk, it takes it a step further, caramelizing the sugar in the milk — which will sweeten your coffee slightly. The proteins in the milk expand when heated, building microscopic air pockets, which give the drink body. The fats in the steamed milk then add a gentle smoothness to your coffee.
How Can I Steam My Milk?
If you're lucky enough to have an espresso maker at home with a wand attachment or an automatic milk steamer or frother, you're all set! These machines are designed to get the perfect amount of foam for your drink and are quite easy to use. You simply have to play around with how deeply you submerge the wand to vary the amount of froth you get. If you think you're going to foam milk often, you can also invest in a pump milk frother. These are typically reasonably priced.
But if you don't have a fancy machine to steam your milk or any kind of milk frother — don't worry! Here are a few home methods you can try to froth milk:
Use a French Press. Measure your heated milk (about 60 degrees Celsius) and pour it into your French Press, making sure the milk level is higher than the steel filter. Gently pump the plunger up and down, gradually getting quicker until you get your desired level of froth. This is remarkably effective!
Use a saucepan and whisk. Place your measured amount of milk into a small saucepan and gently heat it over low-to-medium heat. As the milk heats, whisk it quickly with a proper balloon whisk until it's light and foamy. Just make sure you don’t burn the milk or get a skin across the top of the surface.
Use your muscles and microwave. Grab a Mason jar or old (clean!) jam jar with a tight-fitting lid and place your milk inside. Shake it vigorously until it froths up nicely (this can take a bit of time), then put it into the microwave to heat it up.
Once you’ve heated your milk, you can pour it into your drink directly or transfer it to a small pitcher (measuring or steam pitcher), give it a vigorous swirl to integrate your light foam into the denser milk, and try your hand at latte art. There’s a lot of fun to be had… and at a fraction of the cost, why not try a couple?
What Type of Milk Is Best to Use?
No matter which type of milk you ultimately choose, always use the coldest and freshest milk you can find. This is key to a good latte or cappuccino because the older the milk gets, the less foam it will produce.
Take a look at the milk's fat content as this determines its ability to foam. Skim to 2% milk will produce the most foam and stiff bubbles, while whole milk will give it a creamier consistency but will require more effort to get a foamy top.
As for plant-based milk options — each milk is a little different, but we love oat milk! It’s easy to work with and doesn’t impart any unwanted flavours into your coffee. A lot of non-dairy milks come in sweetened and unsweetened versions that will also impact the flavour of your coffee, so just be aware when you’re reaching for one in the store to make sure it’s the version that you want!
Another note about non-dairy milk alternatives, is that some blend and heat well and it might not be the ones you’re used to drinking. Also brands and versions can have a big impact. Some of the bigger brands, are making ‘coffee’ or ‘barista’ specific versions as they heat and blend better. It can be a bit of process but so worth it when you find the one!
Our Director of Coffee and Quality Control, Joshua, wrote a few of his thoughts on different non-dairy alternatives he’s tried working with.
There are so many reasons that someone might want to switch out the regular dairy in their coffee ritual – those reasons are your own! What I’d like to offer here is some feedback on what alternatives to cow-based dairy taste like in coffee – from my professional perspective.
One usage note about almost all milk alternatives – separation is a real thing. This is when your coffee is suddenly littered with lots of little lumpy bits when you’re hoping to have a nice, brown/creamy coffee experience. One golden rule of nearly all dairy alternatives: Add IT to your coffee rather than adding your coffee to it. Even hot coffee poured onto it can cause separation.
Oat Milk – Oat based milks are a fantastic alternative to cow milk in coffee. They often present with a very creamy texture, the most neutral flavour, and are widely available. I have preferred using oat milks in our Tasting Room as they pair well with coffee, do not “get in the way” of the coffee experience, and in some cases are an enhancement to the enjoyment of the coffee – with an expression very similar to cow dairy.
Earth’s Own – Barista Series Oat: This is the dairy alternative that we’re presently using in the Level Ground Tasting Room. The protein profile allows it to steam very closely to cow-dairy, and the flavour is sweet, nutty, and quite neutral while maintaining a flavour that is complimentary to the coffee. When prepared with darker coffees, the oat-like flavour gently gives way to the coffee notes, while supporting the darker, sweeter impressions. With lighter coffees, the sweetness supports the brightness presented without creating a diametrically opposed “negative”. It’s a very balanced dairy alternative that plays well with coffee.
Minor Figures Oat: This is a very tasty and popular dairy alternative. The branding is too cool for school, for sure, but the milk is delicious. The flavour profile is balanced, nutty, sweet, lightly creamy. In our experience, it did not steam perform strongly when steamed and became either very chalky, was quite thin, or didn’t compliment the coffee. With darker coffees, there was very little flavour support, and in lighter coffees, the lack of sweetness amplified the tartness and salinity (in many cases) of the lighter coffee. While this milk was delicious on its own and even adequate when poured into a brewed coffee, it didn’t stand up to our bar – both in everyday use and steaming range.
Pacific Barista Oat: As with the other two specific oat brands I tested, this milk was creamy, delicious, but decidedly more ‘oaty’. The texture when heated was remarkably heavier and quite chalky. When kept cool in steaming, it paired well with darker coffees. It did not compliment the taste profile of lighter coffees. As with the Minor Figures product, it did not have a wide enough range of serving temperatures and steaming styles (read: not flexible). While good tasting in the cup, it did not work well with bar service
Almond Milk – any brand: From fresh to barista series milks, the taste profile of almond milk did not assist coffee. It was quite nutty and added either a fruity sweetness, or an acrid bitterness. Either of these impressions were not complementary to coffees. While some have acquired the taste for almond milk, I can’t advocate for its use in a pure coffee experience. It can be quite tasty on its own, but as a coffee additive, it doesn’t play nice.
Cashew Milk – A gold standard for coffee pairing, if you can find it. There are very few cashew milk products on the market for general consumption. If you are in the know and can make it or access a well-prepared source, you are in luck. When well filtered, this milk product offers a flavour and texture that is quite similar to the performance of dairy. As with any homemade product, it can denature when heated too high, so caution must be used when applying steam heat.
Soy – it had a real heyday when it came onto the market! The protein profile and its resilience in steam made it relatively easy to work with in a coffee shop setting or at home. Unfortunately, the taste profile of it always seems to work against the coffee. It’s either very ‘beany’ in its unadulterated state, or very false and “non-food” tasting when it has a sweetener or flavouring added to it. My honest advice is to keep this one for your cereal or porridge. If you’re looking for it in a hot drink – it pairs very well with a chocolate and makes a great hot chocolate or mocha-style drink.
Rice Milk – The flavour is always a bit dry and unpleasant with rice milk. It has no protein to stretch with steaming, always separates with coffee, and is so close to water than it really doesn’t add positively to the coffee experience at all.
Homemade milks – you can make a dairy-like suspension/extraction with just about any grain, pulse, or bean. The internet is littered with long winded recipe blogs explaining just how to make these types of beverages. Maybe your perfect milk is out there?
What We Use at the Level Ground Tasting Room
When we opened our Tasting Room in 2018, we did a taste test to see what our non-dairy milk would be. Oat milk was the winner (Earth’s Own – Barista Series Oat). Testing the various forms of milk alternatives and testing what worked best for heating and blending with our coffees was a rigorous and detailed process. As a company that focuses on reducing our impact on the environment (we have a zero waste facility!), we chose not to use soy or almond milk due to the large amounts of water that are needed for both of these crops.