Making the Perfect Latte

October 3, 2019Abbi Dempsey

The invention of the espresso machine was groundbreaking for Italian coffee. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

Latte making is sometimes called an art form, but that doesn’t mean your neighborhood barista is the only one who can do it. You can make the perfect latte at home, and all you need is an espresso machine.

Lattes are a popular concoction consisting of two things: steamed milk and espresso. Both of these components must be mastered on their own to create the perfect latte. We’ll start with the milk. 

You can use any type of milk to make a latte, but the more fat, the better the foam. Whole milk is ideal as it makes a nice, thick froth. To steam milk, you need an espresso machine with a steam wand. The steam wand does exactly what it sounds like — shoots out steam to heat and froth the milk. The next thing you need is a small metal pitcher, ideally with a thermometer attached.

Fill the pitcher no more than half full — milk expands when it’s hot, and you need room to make foam! Insert the steam wand, keeping it close to the side of the metal pitcher. Turn on the steam wand, lower the pitcher so that the end of the wand briefly comes out of the milk, then dip it in again.

A latte is made of two basic components: espresso and steamed milk. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

Allow the steam wand to heat the milk until it reaches about 70 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can use your hand to test the temperature. Just place it on the outside of the pitcher and hold it there. When it starts to feel warm you can begin to make the foam. 

To make foam you want to hold the end of the steam wand near the surface of the milk. Make sure it’s still pressed up against the side of the pitcher. Raise and lower the pitcher slightly so that the wand makes that comforting spitting sound — you’ve likely heard it if you’ve been to a coffee shop. 

Once the pitcher gets too hot to touch with your thermometer hand — or around 140 degrees — the milk is ready to go. If milk gets too hot, it can burn and will taste bitter. Turn off the wand and remove it from the pitcher. Tap the bottom of the pitcher on the counter to settle some of the bubbles, then immediately pour it into the espresso. This will give you the perfect milk-to-foam ratio.

If you let the milk sit too long, the milk and foam with separate. While this is works for making cappuccinos which are mostly foam, it throws off the ratio for a latte.

Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

The next thing to master is making, or pulling, the perfect shot of espresso. There are four key factors that must be considered when pulling a shot: grind, dose, tamp, and pour. 

Grind refers to how coarse or fine the coffee beans are ground. Ideally for espresso, the grounds should be a similar size to table salt. Bigger grounds will let the water run through faster, while smaller grounds will cause it to filter through much slower. Imagine a bucket of rocks versus a bucket of sand. 

Dose is the amount of coffee grounds placed in the portafilter. This should be around 14 to 18 grams.

Tamp refers to how uniform and pressed the grounds are in the portafilter. This is usually done with a handheld device that is placed on top of the grounds. The industry standard for the amount of pressure applied is 30 pounds, though it can vary depending on the coarseness of the grind.

The last aspect is the pour. This is the length of time that water runs through the portafilter — essentially the brew time. Shots should take 20 to 30 seconds for 1 ounce of water to filter through the grounds. If shots are running long or short, then the size of the grounds and the amount of pressure from the tamp need to be adjusted accordingly.

To prepare an espresso shot, run the empty portafilter so that both the portafilter and the shot glasses beneath are heated to the same temperature. Fill the portafilter with the correct dose of grounds and tamp it down with your elbow at a right angle. Insert the portafilter into the espresso machine and pull your shot, making sure to keep an eye on the time. 

It’s important not to insert a full portafilter into an espresso machine before you’re ready to pull the shot as the heat from the machine will continue to roast the coffee, potentially burning the grounds. If all of the criteria are properly met, the first part of the pour will be dark before turning a foamy golden-brown. The lighter foam on top is called the crema.

Use the espresso right away to prevent it from turning bitter. It takes practice to prepare the milk and espresso simultaneously, but it’s possible. Prepare the portafilter first, then begin steaming the milk; with your free hand (the one gauging the milk’s temperature), insert the portafilter and pull the shot.

By the time your shot of espresso is ready, the milk will finish steaming — and you’ll have all the components for a perfect latte.

Abbi Dempsey
Abbi Dempsey

Abbi is an American traveling and living abroad indefinitely. She is an amateur
photographer, solo traveler, avid reader, novice diver, anime nerd, science lover, Reddit
lurker, awkward gamer, world explorer, dirty hippie, vegan scum, vagabond who would
rather be hiking. Currently working in Southern Vietnam as a tour guide in the jungle and
always on the hunt for the best coffee in the region. Current favorite: Vietnamese ‘ca phe
den da’.

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