Cafe-quality coffee and latte art
I’ve liked coffee for many years, but I’ve really started geeking out over it in the past five or so years.
It started when my father-in-law gave me his starter Breville machine when he was upgrading to a new Breville machine. I began buying fresher roasts and paying a little extra attention to the details of making good coffee. I became hooked.
Then three years ago, we teamed up with our favourite small appliance maker Breville Canada. They sent us the Barista Express. That’s when my healthy obsession with quality coffee really took off.
Today we’re partnering with Breville once again, using their amazing Barista Pro. I’ve had the machine for a few weeks and I absolutely love it! The Barista Express is a very nice machine as well, and we had no complaints, but the pro is a little smarter, starts a little faster and looks even cooler with its digital display.
I’d say I quickly learned to pull a pretty mean espresso, so I was ready to expand my skills. I decided to start playing with latte art. I’m by no means barista material, but I’m pretty happy with my progress and it’s been fun learning.
Latte art doesn’t make your coffee taste better, but it definitely looks nice and it becomes a great conversation piece. Our guests at home are always delighted when I offer them a coffee with a nice design in it; and that makes me happy. It’s worth the extra time and care I put into each cup, when it puts a smile on someone’s face. It’s also a great opportunity for the ‘gram.
My tips on making a delicious latte at home
In this post, I’m changing things up. Rather than sharing a recipe, I’m going to describe how I prepare a quality coffee at home, so think of this as a how-to-guide.
While there are many types of fancy coffees you can make, my focus here is the latte and latte art. And to be clear, this is my layman’s version; I’m sharing what I’ve learned from reading, observation, and practice. I don’t claim to be a barista, nor do I know the science behind growing or roasting beans. I’m just a home cook who enjoys having a really nice coffee, at home, anytime, and I want to share what I’ve learned.
Ultimately, if you’re reading this, it’s probably because, you too, want to make coffee at home that tastes great and doesn’t leave you craving a high-priced premium coffee at your local cafe. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy the social aspect of going out to a cafe, but our life doesn’t allow us to do that everyday. With our fantastic machine, quality beans, and my new skillset, we’re all setup right here. So if you want the same for yourself, or you’re just curious… read on.
Let’s start with bean talk!
Quality coffee beans are important
Beans matter. I used to think people who spent more on coffee were acting like coffee snobs. I don’t think that way anymore. Quality fair-trade coffee beans take time to grow and roast.
More care in the process usually means better taste in the end. There’s usually a price tag attached to this quality. I’m okay with that now.
Finding the perfect coffee is a very personal choice. What might be an amazing coffee to me isn’t necessarily the best to others. I encourage you to experiment with different beans and roasts until you find your own favourite. Here’s a tip that helped me…if you visit a cafe and love the coffee you’re drinking, ask them what beans they use, and start there. Make sure to buy small batches so that the beans remain fresh and you’re not spending too much money while you search for your favourite.
Where and how to store beans
I’ve heard and read all kinds of theories. My preferred method is small amounts in a cool, dark, dry place. Freezing your beans will keep them cold, but NOT fresh.
Usually when I get a bag, I pour some beans into my grinder to use right away. I leave the remaining beans in the bag and roll up the bag tightly before sealing it. You don’t want too much air in the bag with your beans. I store the bag in a kitchen cabinet. Coffee doesn’t get old in our house. 😂
To grind or not to grind (beans)
It’s not absolutely necessary, but if you can, I recommend that you grind your own beans just before each coffee you make. If you’re going to buy pre-ground, consider buying small batches from your favourite local cafe. They’ll grind it for you.
Both the Barista Express and the Barista Pro have a built in grinder which makes it easy to grind fresh coffee as you need it. You can also use a stand-alone grinder. My tip is to avoid grinding a lot at once, because coffee loses its freshness quickly after it’s been ground.
Pulling a perfect espresso
Prepare the portafilter
It’s best to start with a hot portafilter and hot cup before you add grinds and begin pulling coffee. I do this by first running the espresso maker with an empty portafilter, and I run the hot water into the cup I’m about to use. Bam! Both my portafilter and my cup are now hot. I give the portafilter a quick wipe to dry it before I fill it with the ground coffee.
Add the ground coffee beans
Before you grind the beans, decide how coarse or fine you want your grinds. It’s a fine balance. If you go too coarse, the water will flow too fast through the grinds and you’ll have a watered down coffee. If you grind the beans too fine, the water will struggle to flow through the grinds and you’ll be stuck with a bitter coffee. Try to find the balance that gives you the best taste for your personal preference.
You also need the right amount of ground coffee in the portafilter. You need enough grind to fill the portafilter, but not so much that you can’t press/tamp it.
Our Barista Pro makes it quite easy to dial in the perfect grind amount and grind coarseness. Our machine lets us pre-program how long the grinding happens. This way, we have a consistent amount of grinds for every coffee we make.
When changing beans, you need to re-adjust the grind coarseness, quantity and time. Beans are all different and they’re not a one size fits all. So when you’re trying new beans, be mindful of making the necessary adjustments.
Once the ground coffee is in your portafilter, it’ll look like a little mountain of coffee. Use a finger to lightly press and level off the coffee grinds before tamping. (watch the video)
Tamp the grinds with a bit of pressure. You want the pressed grinds to sit just under the portafilter rim.
I think I fall in the “pre-geek” category of coffee lovers. True coffee geeks can tell you the weight of grinds you should have in your portafilter and how many pounds of pressure you should apply to the grinds to press/tamp them perfectly. I haven’t reached that stage… yet! 😂
Begin the pour
Now place the portafilter back in its slot, place the hot empty latte cup under the portafilter and press start to pull your espresso.
The coffee on our machine usually takes 25 seconds, give or take a couple of seconds. Our Barista Pro lets us program and control the duration the water flows and the temperature as well. Once it’s programmed, each consecutive coffee I pull will run for the precise duration I set. Having all these features at my finger tips definitely helps.
When the coffee’s flowing out of the portafilter, it should look creamy and syrupy. It shouldn’t flow too quickly or too slowly. Once the coffee’s done, you should be left with a light brown dense foam on top of the coffee, also known as crema. You’ll know it’s a good crema when you tilt the cup and the crema is thick and sticks to the side of the cup.
Now you’re ready to begin texturing/frothing your milk.
Froth milk for latte art
This is one of the key steps to achieving a rich and creamy latte, and an absolute must if you want to accomplish latte art. It was one of the hardest parts of the process for me to get right. I still get it wrong sometimes.
Perfectly frothed milk or micro-foam needs to look like shiny wet paint when you swirl it around in the steaming pitcher. That’s the magic.
Start with very cold milk
To make micro-foam or frothed milk, start with very cold milk in a metal steaming pitcher with a spout. You can use any milk, but I seem to get best results with 2% or 3 1/4% fat (homogenized) milk. In the United States, whole milk is quite popular for latte art.
Pour the cold milk into the pitcher up to where you see the spout start on the inside of the pitcher. This is usually just under the halfway mark on the pitcher. For best results, when I can plan in advance, I sometimes refrigerate the milk already in the pitcher so that it’s super cold.
Purge the wand
Before you start steaming the milk, you need to purge the wand. To do this, ensure the wand is over the espresso machine grates, and then turn on the steam. You’ll see a little water come out first, and then steam. Shut the steam valve at this point. This is called purging the wand and it’s important to do so that you avoid getting water into the milk.
Steam the milk and tap the pitcher
Place the wand into the pitcher with cold milk. You want to hold the pitcher straight with the wand tip just below the surface of the milk and the wand at about a 15-degree angle. Keep the wand away from the side of the pitcher but not in the centre either. Now turn the steam valve back on. This will start creating a swirling vortex in the milk.
As soon as the milk starts swirling, bring the tip of the wand up just a touch so that it’s on the edge of the surface, but no higher (or you’ll splatter and create large bubbles). You want to hear a little hissing–that’s perfections. If you hear bubbling, it means you’re creating large bubbles, and that’s not good for latte art.
This milk swirling process will start expanding/stretching and texturing the milk. Your pitcher will look like it’s becoming more full.
Once the milk reaches about 1.5 times the original volume, raise the pitcher just a touch so that the wand tip is now a little bit under the surface, but not too deep. If you wait too long to raise the pitcher, the milk will expand too much and become too thick for latte art.
With the wand tip just under the surface, you continue the swirling vortex. This process will reduce the amount of small bubbles that formed on the top, while you continue to heat the milk to the perfect temperature.
Temperature is very important. If the milk gets too hot, it’ll taste burnt. If it’s not hot enough, the milk won’t become sweet and luxurious. You’re aiming for a temperature of about 140 °F / 60 °C give or take. You’re welcome to use a thermometer to check the temperature, but I find that to be too much work. Another very popular method is to feel the bottom of the pitcher with your hand while you’re steaming the milk. Once it feels too hot to touch for more than a couple of seconds, you’ve reached the right temperature. That’s the method I use.
Shut off the steam with the wand still in the milk. Once the steam stops completely, remove the pitcher and tap it a couple of times on the counter to remove the tiny bubbles on the top.
Once again, turn on the steam valve, with the wand over the grates, to purge for four to five seconds. This is an important step to clean out milk that gets inside the wand. If you miss this step, or you don’t do it right away, you may eventually damage the wand. Now with the wand still hot from the purge, wipe it clean with a wet microfibre cloth to clean off the milk.
Tap and swirl
By now, it’s been about 10-15 seconds, so give the pitcher another little tap on the counter and swirl the milk. The milk should be thick and shiny.
Pouring latte art
Now you have a perfectly pulled espresso and perfectly frothed milk. It’s finally time to pour. As I mentioned before, I’m no barista and I’m still learning myself, but I’ll share the details that have helped me achieve fairly consistent latte art.
The designs I’ve gotten decent at are the heart and the tulip. For this post, I’m focussing on the tulip. You can follow these instructions and also refer to our video on this post.
Build the milk foundation
To start the pour, pick up the cup in your non-dominant hand. You can hold the cup by the handle or hold it from the bottom. I prefer the latter.
Hold the pitcher with your dominant hand and give the pitcher one last tap and light swirl to break up any remaining small bubbles.
Tilt the coffee cup about 45-degrees towards your other hand and start to pour the milk using a small circular motion, into the centre of the puddle of coffee. You don’t want the spout too close to the coffee so pour from a little bit above the cup. Keep the cup on an angle as you do this, though you’ll start to straighten it ever so slightly as you pour. This technique creates a base of milk underneath the coffee’s surface, leaving a layer of creamy espresso as your canvas for the art.
Once the cup is about half way full, stop the pour. Your cup should still be on a slight angle.
Create the design on your canvas
Bring the tip of the spout a little closer to the coffee and and closer to the centre of the cup and slowly pour and “push” the milk forward a little as you pour. You will have created a sort of circle of milk on the canvas. Now tilt the cup up, ever so slightly, then repeat the pour, starting from just behind the first circle and push the milk forward so that you’re creating a new circle behind the first. You’re kind of snuggling each new pour into the previous pour. The first circle will be the widest and each new pour will snuggle up around the previous; each previous pour widening a little more. This creates the layers in your design; or in this case, the layers of pedals in the flower. Try with two or three pours to start. Increase as you get more comfortable.
With each pull, you’re tilting the cup up a little more each time. Straighten the cup completely on your last pull.
Now for the final part of the design you want to lift the pitcher a little higher above the coffee, and starting from the back of the circles, pour a stream of milk through all the circles in one smooth motion; splitting the circles almost as if you’re drawing the stem into your flower design. If you only had one or two circles, this last pour would create something that looks more like a heart. With more circles, you create something that looks more like a tulip, as in our picture, above.
Creating the latte is not too difficult. Creating latte art is more difficult, and for me, it required a lot of practice. On the bright side… I got to drink a lot of great coffee!
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it the first few times. For most, this takes lots of practice. I still have to think hard each time I make one of these. The good news is that my designs keep getting better and the process gets easier.
Good design or not, you should now have an amazing hot cafe-quality coffee in your hands; and ultimately, that’s what you want to drink.
Please enjoy responsibly (there’s such a thing as too much latte consumption), and tell us about your latte and latte art journey. It’s so much fun to learn and we would love to hear about your experience and any tips you have to share with us.