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Steam queen

December 24, 2011

I’m writing today for all those people who are about to receive, or who have just received, fancy espresso machines with milk steaming functionality but who have no idea how to actually steam milk. You too can become a steam queen (or king)! A little background first.

When I wrote earlier about my friend the coffee douche, I mentioned that in high school I worked as a barista at Coffee Connection in Lexington center (Massachusetts). At the time I was considered kind of fancy (or at least I considered myself kind of fancy) because I knew the difference between a cappuccino (just foam) and a cafe au lait (foam and steamed milk). Just to be clear, there was no such thing back then as a “latte”, and the sizes were, “small”, “medium”, and “large,” and nobody used the word “barista”.

It was a pretty repetitive job, but I liked it. I liked the hustle and bustle and meeting all the strange people who would be grumpy or friendly, who would talk to me like a human or order me about. I got to know lots of people that way whom I never would have met otherwise. I enjoyed explaining the different roasts and beans, and asking people about their tastes to try to match it their coffee beans. I was a kind of coffee douchy matchmaker.

To make things more interesting for myself and the customers, I’d compute people’s bills in my head, to the penny. Massachusetts sales tax back then was 5% so it’s not as hard as it sounds (now it’s 6.25%, what a pain). As long as you can add things up in your head, and know the cutoffs for rounding that the cash register uses, then it’s a piece of cake. I did enjoy every now and then telling people that if they bought their two cappuccinos separately, instead of together, then they’d save a penny. If they asked me how I figured it out I’d say, after all it is a step function, so it stands to reason!

I also enjoyed the manual labor of it, and on a wet day, when the light grey stone floor would get filthy with mud people had tracked in, I enjoyed mopping clean it after everyone had left, listening to Allman Brothers, Tracy Chapman, and Sinead O’Connor mixed tapes really loud.

Now to the point of this post: I got really good at steaming milk. In fact I formally designated myself the Steam Queen of Coffee Connection, and as far as I know nobody has ever challenged me on that. Let me tell you the secret to awesome steamed milk. It’s essentially an interplay between fat content and temperature.

First, use really cold milk, and please don’t let it be skim. Yes, we all think you look really good in your size 2 leather pants, but if you want steamed milk with those leather pants then you should just go for lowfat and spend an extra hour at the gym or something (or whatever it is you do). Because the crucial yumminess of excellently steamed milk bubbles is, you guessed it, butter fat.

If you can go with whole milk, you won’t even need these instructions because whole milk will practically steam itself if left near a steaming apparatus. Come to think of it, steaming half and half should probably be left to small children exclusively as an ego booster.

So I hope I’ve made my point: lowfat milk, at least, and super cold. Now put it into one of those silver cans. For some reason you really do need a silver metallic can, it doesn’t work as well with ceramic cups, probably because you are less aware of the internal temperature. Fill it up between halfway and two third of the way. So, like 60% full. The process of steaming will expand it to be full.

They key is that it’s easier to make excellent bubbles when the milk is cold. So do that first: put the steaming nozzle, which is on full blast, just below the surface of the milk, as high as possible without it spitting milk out of your can. You want to create a hydrodynamical feedback loop, where the milk is rotating below and around the nozzle tip, luxuriating in its steaming process. As the milk get steamed, it expands, so be sure to lower the can to keep the nozzle just below the top.

You want small bubbles, but don’t worry about a few large bubbles, we will deal with them later. Focus on creating that feedback loop, until the expansion is done, and the can is full.

A huge mistake I commonly see is that people think they’re done at this point. You’re not done! The milk below the bubbles is still relatively cold, and nobody wants to drink a cold latte. This is the time to put the nozzle to the very bottom of the can and use your fingers on the can to determine when the milk is sufficiently hot. People are way too impatient at this stage. Wait til it’s hot (by the way, contrary to the advice you may receive from various sources, you don’t need a thermometer for this if you can use your sense of touch)!

Finally, one more thing. Take out the nozzle and let the can sit for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes next to the coffee machine, and in the meantime get the coffee cup and espresso ready. When everything is ready, pick up the can of steamed milk an inch, and drop it to the counter once, firmly. This pops the big bubbles that haven’t popped themselves, and leaves you only delicious little scrumptious bubbles for your delicious latte. Yum!

Categories: rant
  1. Dylan Thurston
    December 24, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Ceramic cups have much higher specific heat. That’s presumably related: you want it to start out cold and then get warm at the end.

    (One trick I learned recently is to put boiling water in a mug before putting any sort of hot liquid in it. The drink stays much hotter that way.)

  2. JSE
    December 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Did you and Marc Maron work there at the same time??

    • December 24, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      Are you talking about the Jewish stand-up comedian from Queens? Why do you think he worked at the Lexington, MA Coffee Connection?

      • JSE
        December 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm

        Oh, sorry — he DID INDEED work at Coffee Connection in the late 1980s but it was the Harvard Square one.

        • JSE
          December 24, 2011 at 3:55 pm

          By the way, I’m drinking instant coffee right now. Black.

        • December 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm

          I just swallowed a nodoz.

  3. December 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Now I wish I were opening an espresso machine tomorrow…

  4. Bertie
    December 24, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Damn I’ve just finished making my morning latte, now will have to wait until tomorrow to try out this nozzle-at-the-bottom concept.

  5. December 28, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial! Now, how do you make a leafy pattern in the top…?

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