The Perfect Cappuccino

So, you want to make the perfect cappuccino do you?

It was a gift. At first, you really wanted it.

You thought, as many others have before you, that since you enjoy cappuccino and latte' at the local coffee house you would be able to easily recreate those same drinks at home. But for some odd, crazy reason you have not yet been able to. Why?

After all, how hard can it be?

And now, the espresso machine which you had longed for, which you coveted, sits collecting dust in a lower cabinet somewhere in the kitchen. My hope is that by reading this article you will find it an easy chore and, yes, perhaps even enjoy attempting and succeeding at making espresso and espresso-based beverages.

First, let's look at your equipment. In September and October of 1998, I wrote equipment reviews for popular home coffee grinders and espresso/cappuccino machines. And you, my faithful audience, have appreciated them. What kind of person would I be if I did not follow up those well-received articles with a small, basic primer instructing you of necessary techniques to achieve quality home coffee drinks?

You will first need to identify what type of home espresso machine you are using. If it is something that you unscrew the top off and add water to, then it is a steam driven machine. Don't worry, there is hope for you yet! If, instead, your machine is not steam driven then it is a pump driven machine. And, you can skip this next section.

Steam-driven Espresso Machines

In all of our cases, most important is both the freshness of the coffee and the coarseness of its grind. For the purposes of this article, I will need to assume that you are quality conscious and are using the freshest possible coffee -- preferably home roasted -- available to you. For your steam driven espresso machine, I would suggest that you grind your beans finer than that of what you would for drip coffee. But not too fine like flour. Your machine builds pressure internally; if the coffee grounds are ground too finely, they resist the flow of water.

Additionally important when using a steam driven espresso machine is keeping in mind that the brew water is very hot and can potentially scorch the coffee grounds. You can try this for yourself, but please heed my warning that the espresso coffee you are making varies in taste as it brews. I would suggest to you then that you try only capturing the first half of the coffee to use for consumption and capturing the last half, or the coffee that gurgles and spits from the machine, and dispose of this. It will taste burnt, bitter, and harsh.

It is important that you have good tasting coffee. 9 out of 10 times, if you have bad tasting coffee, you'll have bad tasting cappuccino. Milk can only do so much to cover up tastes. Little steam-driven machines can, with some practice, do a fairly good job at steaming and frothing milk. You need to have some knowledge up front and the right tools at your disposal. Use the items on this checklist:

  1. Fresh, COLD milk. Use what you like but keep in mind that the more milkfat, the less the milk will support itself and the sooner it will breakdown.
  2. An easy to use, stainless steel milk frothing pitcher. Readily available form housewares stores and on-line (try Buy a size that suits you but don't go too large or you'll find it difficult to maneuver.
  3. A clean frothing wand.

To prepare your cappuccino, follow these instructions:

  • Begin by preparing your espresso coffee. When the coffee jut covers the bottom of the carafe or cups, place an empty mug under the wand and open the valve or activate the steam per the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Wait a moment to allow a build-up of water to blow through the wand and turn into steam. Then quickly place the tip of the wand to just under the milk's surface (obviously after you put the milk in the pitcher). You'll notice that in the area nearest to the wand's tip, a small vacuum is being pulled. Keep that steady.
  • As the pitcher becomes warm to the touch on its underside, quickly bury the wand to the near-bottom. Cut the steam off when the pitcher becomes hot -- but not so hot that you burn yourself -- on its underside. You may notice that the steamed milk has a delicately sweet aroma to it; if it smells burnt or scalded, you will want to dispose of it.
  • As the steam dies off, remove the pitcher and allow for the coffee to continue to fill the cups. If you remove the pitcher too quickly, excess steam will splatter the hot milk and foam.
  • Capture about 3 fluid ounces of the coffee. Dispose of the remainder.

And finally, some last tips you will want to keep in mind.

Turn off your machine when the coffee is finished. Take that time to wipe down the wand with a clean, wet rag or sponge. WAIT 10 minutes or so until the machine has cooled itself before attempting to unscrew its cap and the coffee basket (portafiltro).

Pump-driven Espresso Machines

If you own a pump-driven espresso machine, and had previously owned a steam-driven one then you already know of the potential difference in coffee quality you can achieve. However, in some few cases I've experienced, the steaming capabilities of a steam-driven machine are just as good if not better than some pump-driven models. They "why" of this falls out of the scope of this article. Suffice to say, the bigger the buck, the bigger the bang. Or, in other words, the more you spend on a machine, the more likely satisfied you will be because of increased performance and quality. There exists a LARGE number of machines that fall in the beginning and middle of the quality range that exhibit mediocre brewing and steaming capabilities. Just because a machine is "pump driven with XX bars of pressure" doesn't mean that it's a performer.

Having said that, let's assume you own an average, middle-of-the-road pump machine and that you want to coax the best possible coffee and cappuccino from it. Not a problem!

Again, I can't stress this enough. GRIND The grind is so very important. For your machine, you should find a grind that permits you to extract 2 - 2.5 fluid ounces (59ml - 74ml) of coffee in 24 - 30 seconds time when using 13 - 15 grams of ground coffee. Start with a salt-like grind and work around that.

Also important is your "tamp" or how hard you press the tamper into the coffee. Keep the tamper level by flexing your arm at the elbow and tamping onto a flat, level surface at about waist height. This ensures proper and comfortable ergonomics as well as repeatability for tamping. Practice your tamping by pressing onto a bathroom scale- get a good feel for what 35 - 45 pounds of weight feels like.

OK, so your coffee isn't too bad but you still can't make a decent cappuccino. Going back to our instructions for steam machines, understand that the checklist applies to your pump machine as well. You still need a good milk, a proper pitcher, and some practice.

I see many machines today, both steam and pump, coming with these wacky frothing attachments. In my experience over the years, I find that a tapered tip -- either single or multi-holed -- provides better frothing. Those attachments work by throttling air into the milk. You don't need that. What you're looking for is a nice, consistent micro-bubble structure throughout the volume of the milk.

There are arguments for and against steaming milk first and pulling your shots afterwards, and pulling shots first then steaming your milk. I camp with those who steam first, get the machine nice and hot, then pull my shots. I leave it up to you to practice until you find which camp you want to belong to. But here are some generic steps to help improve your chances of getting great micro-bubblized milk.

  • Bleed the line of excess water by allowing the first moment's steam to blow into an empty cup. Turn off the steam.
  • Place the wand's tip just below the milk's surface, in the center of the pitcher. Then re-activate the steam. Control the output so that you can pull a slight vacuum at the tip. Slowly work half-way down into the pitcher's depth. Then back up again. Remain steady.
  • When the bottom of the pitcher is warm to the touch, but not hot, bury the wand to the bottom, just shy of bottoming out. Force the steam to swirl the milk as if a toiler were flushing. When the bottom of the pitcher is hot but not burning you, cut the steam and remove the wand. Be careful of excess, residual steam that may splatter the milk.

I hope you preheated your cups. That is an important step. Put your shots into their cups (I use cappuccino cups that hold exactly 6 fluid ounces). Now, teaching you Latte' Art is also not in the scope of this article. You'll have to learn that on your own or by purchasing "Latte' Art" from Bellisimo (available at Suffice to say, I hold fast to the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rule. That is, a cappuccino has equal parts of coffee, milk, and foam. However, a good cappuccino is not coffee dredged in hot milk with a thick, dry, meringue-like cap of foam atop it. No, it is a creamy, velvety smooth mixture of micro-bubblized milk and espresso. So, the alteration to the rule is 2/3 micro-bubbles and 1/2 espresso. But the pour is the trick.

Hold your cappuccino cup, now with coffee, at an angle and pour your milk, also at an angle into it, so the two's differing densities cause a charge of flow and they intermix. To get a better idea of what this all looks like, visit my illustrated guide.

The most important thing to remember is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. You will learn over time the best way on your machine, to produce wonderful drinks. And, of course, should you need advice or wish to express any comments, please email me here at .

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