The traditional cappuccino involves three layers in equal parts: The espresso is the bottom layer followed by steamed milk followed by the milk froth (or foam). A simple steam wand attachment is enough to make the steamed milk—well, that and the milk. To make the foam froth, however, you’ll need a handheld frother (inexpensive) or you can buy a fancy accessory (potentially expensive). Either way, this frother provides that extra light and air-filled top layer. Some higher-end wands and accessory items will also steam and whip the milk simultaneously creating tiny air bubbles in the milk, known as micro-foam. Other shops, baristas, and aficionados will stick to more distinct layers of steamed and foamed milk.
Steamed Milk vs Foamed Milk
This is one of the most common espresso questions. There’s a long answer that involves chemistry and mechanical engineering, but if you’re just trying to keep it straight next time you get into a conversation at a party or a coffee shop, the short answer is pretty intuitive. Steamed milk is milk that’s been heated with steam. Foamed milk is milk that’s been whipped up into a foam with air bubbles of varying size. The steam wand on most espresso machines is designed to do both—albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Okay, now that you’ve got the basics, here’s an extra tidbit to impress your friends. The foam froth adds body and thickness to the milk, while the steaming brings out additional texture and flavor.
How to Make a Cappuccino
- Make Espresso Shot(s): Like any espresso-based coffee drink, making a good cappuccino starts with making good espresso shots. You need to know how to choose, grind, tamp, and extract the shots. It usually takes some practice. Even if the first shot is good, you’ll likely continue to pull shots with mixed results until you polish your habits. We’re working on our own guide for making espresso shots, but in the meantime, here’s a solid guide for how to make espresso shots.
- Steam and Froth the Milk: Again, either with a steam wand or a separate frother, steam and froth the milk. This is actually a two-step process, known as stretching (aerating) and texturizing (emulsifying). Basically you want to add volume through air bubbles and then evenly distribute this volume of air throughout the milk. This is probably twice as hard to master as pulling espresso shots. Here’s a great tutorial from ChefSteps.
- Pour the Milk: Start from a height of about 4-6” and aim for the middle of the cup. Gradually move the pitcher/jug of milk toward the cup so as to force more of the froth into the cup at the end of the pour. This can help compensate for any separation between the milk and froth, or just for personal preference.
Step-by-Step Guides for Making a Cappuccino
We’re not the only ones who offer step-by-step guides for making a cappuccino. There are subtle differences in these various methods, some of them catering to more commercial machines and techniques, while others may better serve personal use cappuccino makers.