What exactly makes a good latte? It’s a lot more complicated than one might think, and it is both an art and a science.
1 LATTE = ESPRESSO + STEAMED MILK
First, you must consider the espresso.
Of course, start with a great espresso blend – preferably one that is balanced, dark and bold in flavor. Light-roast coffee is awful in general (read: my opinion), and will only taste worse when made as espresso as it will concentrate the flavors.
There are 3 technical elements that go into a pulling a good shot of espresso.
- Dose or amount of coffee (too much or too little will affect the timing of the shot, either making it a short shot – pulls too quick – or a long shot – pulls way too slow
- Tamp (how tight/loose the coffee is packed into the portafilter)
- Grind (how coarse/fine the coffee is)
Ideal shot timing (varies with machine) is around 20-30 seconds. If the shot takes this long, the coffee was packed well, was at the proper grind (fairly fine for espresso) and dosed properly (approx. 14 grams). A good shot will have a balanced, bold flavor. An under-extracted shot will be fruity and green-tasting. An over-extracted shot will taste bitter, burnt, and gray.
The shot, especially when pulled into a clear shot glass, will display three distinct layers: 1. the emulsion (often referred to as the crema) on top, 2. the suspension in the middle and 3. the solution on the bottom. Delicious on its own as a doppio (double shot) in a demitasse, but let’s move on to the milk… yum.
Next up is the milk, which is the element that can create lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, macchiatos, etc., etc. But we are focusing on the latte – the basis for all of the other milk-based espresso creations.
A latte has a delicious layer of micro-foam on top and if done right, will be glossy, velvety and able to be poured into amazing art that is as easy on the eyes as on the stomach.
You always want to start with a clean pitcher with the coldest milk possible. Pour as much as you need, depending on the size of the drink. I prefer the ratio of an 8 oz. latte, so it is stronger, mixing the 2 shots of espresso with around 6 oz. of milk. To achieve the perfect milky velvet deliciousness, you begin by plunging the steam wand about an inch or inch and a half into the cold milk. From here, the wand is arranged so the milk will create a little whirlpool and will bring it to the surface of the milk for 5-6 seconds creating small “kissing” sounds, which is integrating small amounts of air into the milk – forming that velvet foam layer. IF YOU HEAR A BARISTA MAKING HUGE BUBBLING SCREECHING SOUNDS LIKE A DYING CAT WHEN THEY STEAM MILK, RUN AWAY, I REPEAT, RUN AWAY. They are aerating the milk way too aggressively and are creating an awful texture replete with huge bubbles and perhaps even scalding the milk, which is awful and hugely disappointing for your tastebuds. Texture is everything in a latte, next to flavor.
After 5-6 seconds of aerating, the cold milk will have some of those delightful micro-bubbles, and will begin to feel warm to the touch (always keeping a hand on the metal pitcher is a great way to keep in tune with the temperature of the milk; a well-trained barista will be able to tell the temperature of the milk based off of touch and especially the pitch of the milk when it is steaming — the pitch raises when the milk hits an optimal temperature — singing a magic song to say “I’m ready!!!!”). After those few seconds of aeration, the steam wand should be plunged a little further into the milk an inch or so, which is no longer aerating the milk and just heating it until it is ready. A whirlpool should still be maintained so it will send any larger bubbles to the bottom. When the metal pitcher is just too hot to keep your hand on it, remove your hand (to not get burnt, duh) and count to 5 slowly. At this point, the milk will reach the ideal service temperature, which is usually 150-160 degrees. (Using a thermometer is ideal when first learning, but won’t be needed after minimal practice).
The next steps are crucial: tamping and texturizing. Aka banging the pitcher on the counter to break up bubbles and swirling the milk to incorporate the micro-foam layer with the steamed milk beneath. The milk at this point should look glossy AF and wondrous, and have the appearance of wet paint. This is how you know you’ve made some bangin’ milk that is just dying to commingle with some espresso.
Timing the shot to be ready once the milk is ready is key, as serving fresh espresso is very important to the taste of a drink. The shot gets dumped (nicely) into a cup, and awaits it’s milky mate.
The milk should be poured at a medium speed so the milk can incorporate with the espresso fully, but not too hard as all the foam will fall out and won’t let you make some latte art. Once the cup is about half full, the fun begins. Bringing the spout of the pitcher as close as you can to the surface of the milk (helpful to tilt the cup), increase the speed of your pour so the foam comes out. From here, with a bunch of practice, you can create beautiful designs that will surely impress your hipster friends. Even after almost a year, I am still getting the hang of making latte art. It takes so much practice to perfect.
When it is all said and done, the latte should be espresso, steamed milk, with a thin layer of the micro-foam on top — not too much or you are approaching a cappuccino. A cappuccino has 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 foam, and 1/3 espresso, so will require a lot more aeration.
And that is that!! That is the anatomy of a latte. Easier said than done, but with ample practice, you can be a pro barista in no time. Pro tip: order the “Lindsey latte” (aka what I get; I am not cool or pretentious enough to have a drink named after me): 8 0z. triple latte with vanilla syrup, real ground cinnamon (not cinnamon syrup), and breve (aka steamed half and half…. yes). DELISSSHSHHSHSHSHHSHHSHSHS.