In this post I’m sharing the most valuable latte art tips I’ve learned over the past 18 months of trying to figure out how the heck to pour latte art using a standard domestic / home espresso machine.
The first time I tried to pour Latte art was when I was writing the Sage Oracle review, which was Jan 2016, and you can see in this image below what my Latte art skills were like to begin with! 😉
You can clearly see that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing at this point – but at least I managed to get the milk in the cup, that’s a start?
Shortly after this I wrote my Gaggia classic review, using the pre-2009 Gaggia classic I bought off eBay for a hundred quid. I went for the pre-2009 model as I’d read quite a bit about it, and what I’d discovered is that they were made in Milan pre 2009 using higher grade materials, although it has a much smaller boiler which is a trade off, but I’ll come to that in a bit. Anyway, the machine is great – and about 18 months later I’m still using it, and it’s this machine that I’ve been using to learn to pour latte art.
My Latte Art Attempts:
I started searching Google for Latte art tips, and watching Latte art tutorials, and after some practice, the photo below is of the first time I got anything slightly resembling Latte art using the Gaggia classic. I was quite happy with myself when I did this, but I couldn’t do it consistently. I’d been watching various youtube videos at this point, and I had a better idea of what to do, but sometimes it seemed like I was doing exactly the same thing as the guys in the video, but it just wouldn’t work. Occasionally though I was getting fairly good results, which was encouraging but also frustrating.
Below is my first semi-successful rosetta, this was April 2016. Again you can see that I’m learning, I kind of know what to do – and sometimes it works to at least some degree at this stage.
After about four months of practicing, you can see that I was getting better results:
I’m well aware that I’m not going to win any awards with the above Latte art ;-), but to get to that point took a lot of practice. I’m not talking just one attempt per day either, I really got obsessed about it at one point and I was doing latte art sessions where I’d make several attempts, probably up to about 10 in one session.
It amazes me how well my little home setup of the Gaggia classic and my trusty Sage smart grinder pro has coped with this kind of use, as this isn’t really what domestic machines are made for.
These are some of my latest attempts:
These four above were done with my new frothing jug the Espro Torid 2, which I’ll talk about shortly.
Tip 1: Use the steam at it’s prime.
This tip is particularly important if you have a pre-2009 Gaggia classic with the smaller aluminium boiler – but it may be helpful with other brands of espresso machine too so it’s worth reading.
I was getting some results, the thing that was missing was consistency. I’d have one success followed by several failures, and I couldn’t figure out why – until I noticed a throw away comment someone had made in a review video. This comment mentioned that it works better if you ignore the steam ready light and just start steaming seconds after pressing the steam switch. And just like that, my consistency improved a lot!
Prosumer machines tend to have boilers from 500ml upwards, and many are dual boiler meaning that there is a boiler purely for steam pressure, which means you can steam the milk and pull the shot at the same time. Some dual boiler machines have 1.5 L boilers or above, that are solely there to produce steam pressure.
Cheaper domestic espresso machines have a much smaller single boiler, they’re not made for kicking out gallons of steam on demand. The pre-2009 Gaggia classic that I have has a boiler with a tiny 80ml capacity, the newer machines have 250mm boilers, so although the pre-2009 machines are though to be better made, the smaller boiler is a con, and depending on who you listen to so is the fact that its an aluminium boiler vs., the stainless steel boilers in the newer models. Rancilio Silvia, which is generally regarded as on the entry level of consumer to prosumer, have 300ml boilers and are probably the next step up from the Gaggia Classic, although they do appear to be a bit more temperamental, which is why I decided on the classic initially. They’re more expensive too, about £450 new although you can usually pick them up on eBay for £150-£220, click here to see the current eBay listings. The classic is about £300 new for the latest model, you can usually get it here for about £250, or on eBay for around £80-£150.
So just try using the steam wand at the first sign of steam even if it’s not full steam yet, for me it’s about 10-20 seconds, and I find I have a lot more steam power this way than waiting until the light comes on to tell me its hot enough for steam.
Tip 2: Don’t follow YouTube video instructions re steaming
One thing I’ve realised now looking back, is that the people I was watching pour latte art, and those who were giving the tutorials on Youtube, all had one thing in common – they were using either prosumer, or commercial espresso machines.
As I mentioned in the previous tip, there’s a big difference in steam power in prosumer and commercial espresso machines, and they also also deliver the steam differently. Consumer machines usually deliver steam via either a single hole steam tip (as is the case if like me, you modify your Gaggia classic by fitting a Rancilio Silvia steam wand), or via a Pannarello steam wand AKA “Turbo Frother” which is a plastic or metal sheath over the steam pipe with openings on the side.
Commercial and prosumer machines often use a multi holed tip which helps to create a vortex in the jug, and they tend to use more powerful steam also due to having higher temperature boilers. Some of these machines are capable of steaming the same volume milk in just 5-10 seconds that it would take me over a minute to steam with the Gaggia!
Following the instructions when it comes to the pour is fine, but following the steaming instructions watching someone using a commercial machine doesn’t work if you have a domestic machine. If you can find someone giving a tutorial on steaming with the exact same model of espresso machine you have, and they seem to be getting great results, then great.
Tip 3: Use the right sized jug
This relates to the last tip, in that when you watch tutorials from Baristas online, many of them are using bigger frothing jugs as they’re working in commercial environments and will often steam enough milk for more than one cup at a time. Also, they tend to have machines which have the steam power to texture larger volumes. When you’re working with less steam power, and you’re mainly making one cup at a time, it makes more sense to use a small jug, around 350ml / 12 ounce ish.
I was struggling along until literally just a couple of days ago using a 600ml jug, and I’d learned that it worked best when filled up to the beginning of the indentation of the spout, which meant that I was always using too much milk. It was taking me about 1 minute 20 seconds to get to 60C, and I was wasting milk. I have just switched to a 340ml jug, and I’m kicking myself for the time and milk I’ve wasted so far now that I realise I can steam in less than half the time, and not waste milk…. Doh.
I was looking for a smaller jug, and I know the Motta jugs are very popular and are known for being good jugs for latte art, but a jug called Espro Torid 2 caught my eye, so I read this review on coffee geeks which suggested that although it’s not the best jug for commercial / prosumer machines with a lot of power and multi hole tips, it’s particularly good for lesser steam powered machines with single hole steam tips, which includes the majority of consumer espresso machines. The coffee geeks review also mentions that beginners to latte art seem to take to it slightly quicker with this jug instead of a regular jug.
The Espro torid has a convex indentation in the bottom, as if someone really strong has pushed the centre of the bottom up in the middle. The idea is that the steam is directed towards this, which in combination with the contour of the jug leads to the vortex required to distribute the micro foam. So instead of having to hold the jug at an angle and find the sweet spot in order to get the milk swirling, you would act as if you’re using a commercial multi hole steam tip and just point the wand straight down.
It sounds good in theory, and I can tell you that in practice it works!
I’m not saying this jug will lead to instant perfect latte art, but it definitely makes it easier to get the texture right. Well it does for me anyway, using my Gaggia classic with the Rancilio silvia steam wand, but I wasn’t sure whether it was just down to using a smaller jug. So to be sure before writing this post, I ordered another more standard frothing jug the same size, this one, it’s only £6.49 and it’s about the same size. I’ve been experimenting with this jug today, and the results are just as mixed as with the standard 600ml jug, so it’s clearly not just the fact that I’m using a smaller jug now which is making the difference. When I switched back to the torid 2 the results were instant, almost perfect texture every time.
I think this is because the most difficult part of steaming, for me at least, is first of all judging how much to stretch the milk, and then getting the milk rolling enough to distribute the microfoam properly. I think I’m just about there now in terms of being able to judge how much to stretch, although I don’t get it right every time it’s usually about right, but I still struggle when it comes to finding the sweet spot in order to get the milk rolling properly to distribute the micro foam. I’m not sure how much of this is down to lack of steam power on a domestic machine, and how much it is to down to user error, I suspect a bit of both – but with the Espro torid jug, this doesn’t matter, as the sweet spot is just straight down towards the centre, and the jug creates the vortex.
As well as the clever design aiding with the microfoam distribution, the spout seems to give me more precision, and this is something that I’ve seen mentioned in other reviews including the coffee geeks review.
Tip 4: Use quality milk
I usually use full fat milk (4%), and I find that the fresher the milk is, the better the latte art and the better it tastes. We have milk delivered by the milk man, but we mainly use semi skimmed, so at one time I was buying the whole milk from the supermarket.
As soon as I started to get the whole milk from the milk man too (from a local dairy), I noticed an improvement, especially in taste but also in texture. If I do run out and need to buy milk from a supermarket I look for the highest quality whole milk.
Tip 5: Stay Cool
The cooler the milk is when you start to steam it, the better. I’m assuming this is because milk won’t stretch once it reaches a certain temp (somewhere around 40C) and starting with it cooler gives you more time to stretch. Whatever the case, pros usually say the cooler the better, and I seem to get better results when I start off with a very cold jug. If I remember, I put my jug in the freezer, and if I forget – I get a few ice cubes and swirl them in the jug for 30 seconds or so until the jug is cold, it doesn’t take long.
Tip 6: Listen
Over time I’ve learned what sounds the milk should be making when I’m steaming it, and I’m partly guided by these sounds now. If the milk screams at me then I’ve not aerated it enough and the milk needs more air, so the tip needs lifting closer to the surface. If there’s a sound like lots of stones being dropped into water, that’s the sound of larger air bubbles being created, and the tip needs burying more. The sound you’re listening for when you’re stretching the milk, I would describe as being like someone making small rips in a piece of paper.
Tip 7: Look
Properly textured milk has a very distinctive look, it has a very smooth shiny & silky surface, similar to white gloss paint.
I know as soon as I start to swirl the milk just before pouring if I’ve done a good job with the steaming, if it shines in the light and has a silky surface, then I know the texture is good so I have a good chance of pouring semi decent art. If the texture is poor the latte art will be poor.
If you see a few big bubbles, this is normal and giving the jug a few knocks on the worktop should pop them.
Tip 8: Use a thermometer
I find that the best results come for me when I stop stretching the milk (by burying the tip slight deeper in the milk) at somewhere between 35-40C, and when I stop steaming at 60c -65C. You can do this by hand, and I do now most of the time, but only by using a thermometer for quite some time so I figured out what the jug felt like at around 35-40 and what it felt like at 60. Still now I go back to using the thermometer from time to time to make sure I’ve not lost my internal calibration ;-).
I would recommend an old school frothing thermometer that clips on to the rim, you can get stick on ones but they don’t look much good, and I did try a digital one a while ago but I found it to be slower than the old fashioned one with the needle.
Tip 9: Swirl
The one thing you’ll always see Baristas doing before pouring is giving the jug a swirl, and this isn’t just some weird ritual, it does help. It gives the milk a “polish”, if you look at it just before you swirl, and then look at it after, you’ll probably notice that it’s more shiny after swirling – it just improves the texture slightly, and you’ll rarely see a barista who doesn’t swirl.
Tip 10: If in doubt, pour some out.
One thing I’ve noticed baristas doing occasionally (including latte art legend Dritan Alsela) is pouring some of the milk out of the jug, sometimes into a larger jug, before pouring latte art. I’ve come to realise that the point of doing this is that sometimes the first small amount of the milk that you pour can be a bit more dense than the rest. I don’t do this every time, but I always look at the milk when swirling, and if it looks like there’s a bit of inconsistency in the froth, I’ll pour a bit out first, and it seems to help.
How I steam milk with my Gaggia Classic
Finally, I’ll just share the technique that works for me for creating microfoam for latte art with the Gaggia classic. If you’re using a pre-2009 classic then the same technique may work for you. If you’re using a later model or a different consumer espresso machine, you may find that what works for me doesn’t quite work the same with your machine, so you will have to experiment a bit.
Start of with a cold milk jug, around a third to a half full, with good quality cold fresh whole milk.
Turn on the steam and give it a quick purge as soon as it starts sounding like the steam is on it’s way, roughly 10-15 seconds.
Put the tip of the steam wand into the milk, just slightly buried into the milk, and turn the steam to full. If I’m using a flat bottom jug I would have it on a slight angle, using the Espro Torid 2 I’d point the wand straight down toward the centre.
Listen and look, changing the depth of the wand in the surface of the milk accordingly, to get the sound of ripping paper which indicates that the milk is stretching, and avoiding large bubbles.
At around 35-40C, put the wand in deeper, and look for a vortex to start building in the jug. If I was using a flat bottom jog i’d have it tilted and I’d be playing close attention to what the milk is doing until I can see that it’s swirling well, using the Espro Torid 2 I just put the wand a bit deeper and keep it in the centre.
At about 60C, turn off the steam at the knob and the switch, purge the wand, give the wand a wipe ensuring I’ve not lefty any milk on there. Knock the jug on the counter a few times to pop any larger air bubbles, putting my other hand over the jug to stop milk splashing out. Swirl the milk, pour a bit out if it seems like theres some inconsistency in the texture. Then begin to pour into the espresso.
I won’t try to give any technique on pouring latte art, as I don’t feel my current skill level qualifies me to do that, and there are lots of great latte art tutorials on YouTube.
Oh and re the question whether to pull the shot first or steam the milk first and let the milk rest while you pour the shot, I say do whatever you prefer, but I personally always pour the shot first and then steam the milk.