I don’t know how many times I have been at work, pouring someone’s cappuccino or latte, and they are amazed at the design I pour for them. Even when it’s art that I don’t think is my best, people are usually impressed! Back in my early days in coffee, I was obsessed, like most baristas, with perfecting my latte art. And since I find myself explaining it on the regular, why not post about it?
What you’ll need: an espresso machine with a steam wand, coffee ground for espresso (freshly ground is preferred!), a milk pitcher, and a milk of your choice! Keep in mind, however, that whole milk will result in the best latte art due to the higher fat content. Another thing to note is that latte art is only possible with coffee brewed as espresso. So how does it work? Let’s start with espresso.
Espresso contains three distinct sections: the heart, the body, and the crema. A good shot of espresso (or technically double-shot, as most cafes do) should be about 1.5-2 oz and there should be a distinguishable color variation starting with a dark brown color at the bottom and getting lighter on the top, with a lighter layer of foam on the top. The heart and the body are beneath this layer of foam, and contain the more bitter notes of the coffee, as it is the most extracted portion of the grounds. The crema is the layer of foam on top, which contains the brighter and more acidic notes of the coffee, and is also what allows us to pour latte art.
Now, let’s talk milk. There are all kinds of milks on the market today, and latte art can be poured with any of them. Alternative milks, such as almond or oat milk, require a bit more technique to steaming and pouring, and skim milk almost never looks good as latte art (although it can look decent with a lot of practice). In this post, we will be focusing on whole milk, as we mentioned earlier it’s the best to work with because the higher fat content creates the best milk foam.
The most important factor in creating the best latte art is the steaming. The key is in the microfoam. Milk, once steamed, should be perfectly integrated throughout with tiny bubbles of air, giving it a lighter texture. The top of the milk should look smooth and glossy, with no visible air bubbles, resembling a can of white paint. (I know, not the most appetizing descriptor, but definitely accurate!)
To begin steaming the milk, you’ll want to fill the pitcher to just below the spout. Insert the steam wand just under the surface of the milk. in the middle of the pitcher. The depth of the steam wand in the milk is essential at the beginning because that is when you are adding the air into it. Once you begin steaming, you will hear a chirping noise that some say resembles the sound of paper tearing. This is the steam wand coming above the surface of the milk and is what adds the air in. But remember that you are not moving the pitcher in any way, it is only because of the fact that the steam wand is close to the surface. Once you have heard about five chirps, you will submerge the steam wand about 1/2 inch into the milk so that air will no longer be added. It is important that the air is added first because once you submerge the steam wand, the rest of the time is spent incorporating that air throughout the milk as it heats up. One other note about this stage of steaming, is that to best incorporate the milk, you will want to create a whirlpool within the pitcher. You can either use a thermometer to keep track of the milk, and stop when it reaches 155 degrees, or when the pitcher is just over being too hot to the touch for a few seconds.
To achieve the best latte art and flavor, you will want a freshly pulled shot, and milk that was just steamed and not allowed time to set. If the espresso is an older shot, the crema disintegrates over time, leaving little for the milk to rest on, so that your latte art will be difficult to control and will most likely have a mind of its own, going every which way in the cup. If the milk is allowed to set, it will separate into a layer of liquid warm milk on the bottom and foam on top. If you attempt to pour latte art with milk like this you will find that all the liquid milk will come out first and pour into the coffee, and the milk foam will come out last in a big unappealing plop.
So, you have a good shot of espresso, and some silky steamed milk. How do you turn it into a design? To preface, it will take time and practice, but there is technique involved. You will want to have your milk pitcher in your dominant hand. With the hand that is holding the latte cup, tilt it towards the milk pitcher at about a 45 degree angle. Pour a small amount of the milk in and stir in into the crema until it is a solid tan color (no streaks of darker crema, about 3 swirls of the cup). This will help give you latte art better contrast and also improves the flavor by making it even. Next, pouring straight into the middle of the cup, from about 3”-5” away, fill the cup half way.
Next is without a doubt the trickiest part. As you begin to pour your art, bring your pitcher all the way to the cup, where the tip of the spout is basically touching the espresso, this allows the milk foam to sit on top of the crema and create a design. The best art for beginners is to pour a heart. To do that, with your pitcher lowered, focus the pour in the middle of the cup, keeping your pour steady. As you continue to pour, you will have to start tilting the latte cup back into an upright position. Once it is upright, and the drink is almost full, you are going to pull you milk pitcher back away from the cup as it was before while pouring. As you are bringing it away from the drink drag the milk stream through the center of the dot you just poured. With the milk being further away, it creates more pressure and forces the milk underneath the crema, which in turn, creates the point at the bottom of the heart.
That is the basics of how to pour latte art! From there, it is mostly practicing and getting into a pattern of muscle memory. Once you are pretty consistent with a pour, it won’t be too hard to start branching out and trying new things. Happy Pouring!