Steamed Milk vs Foamed Milk: What’s the Difference?

Coffee brewing isn’t all french presses, v60s and espresso. There’s a lot of fun to be had with milk-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.

The good news though is that you don’t need to jump on down to your local coffee shop to get one made specially for you. It is possible to make these cafe favourites at home.

Milk preparation largely falls into two categories: Foamed milk and steamed milk. Each of these two are best for certain types of drink, and likewise have their own qualities that people love.

Today I want to break down steamed milk vs. foamed milk, with the key differences, qualities and benefits, so you know what to go for when attempting your own homemade milk coffee drink.

But first, why do we put milk with coffee drinks?

Milk has long been paired with coffee, whether it be to create a hearty latte drink, or just a few millilitres to temper the intensity of an espresso.

Milk is largely comprised of protein, fats, and sugar, and when these three compounds are added to coffee, and when milk is heated up they help to develop the flavor of coffee further.

When we steam or foam milk, we’re adding heat to it. However this isn’t just to pair it well with hot coffee, it does serve a more sophisticated purpose than that.

When heated, the fat content of milk melts away, which helps create a smooth and velvety texture. The sugars are then broken down and caramelized, which sweetens the milk. Lastly, the protein content in the milk help add structure and keep the air in the milk, giving it a very light body.

Milk offers another layer to the already complex flavor profile of coffee, and helps to bring out some of the roasted caramel, chocolate and floral notes found in some blends of coffee.

Now, milk does have its detractors when it comes to coffee. Those who aren’t fans say that the addition of milk and sugar dilutes the flavor profile of the coffee, dulling the natural aromas and taste.

This is fair and probably true, but my counterpoint to this would be that for drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, you buy them because of their milk content. A diluted coffee flavor paired with sweet and filling milk is what you’re buying.

Personally, I don’t add milk to traditional black coffee drinks, like pour over or espresso, but I do enjoy lattes from time to time.

It’s a question of personal preference.

Now you know why milk goes so well with coffee, let’s break down the differences between foamed and steamed milk.


Steamed Milk

Steamed milk is not only a type of heated milk in its own right, but also forms the foundation of foamed milk. While we use foamed milk to create thickness as well as a layer of light fluffy milk, steamed milk is where we can develop flavor and body.

Using a steam wand, found on most modern day high-end coffee machines, we can use pressurized steam to heat up milk and develop its body, making it thicker and with more texture. What this does is heat up the sugars in the milk to create a sweeter flavor, while also breaking down its fats to make it smoother.

This process creates air bubbles, and makes its body much more velvet and silk-like.

The obstacle with steamed milk is that it does require use of a steam wand. These can be found on espresso machines, but the price point of these can prove to be difficult for a lot of home coffee fans to justify.


Foamed milk

Also known as frothed milk, foamed milk is the result of creating a layer of frothed milk on top of warmed milk. This is done by using your steam wand to mix air and texture into the milk.

The resulting milk will be in two layers: One is a warm bed of steamed milk; the other is a thick layer of froth.

This makes cappuccinos ideal of foamed milk. The famous drink is often associated with a thick layer of foam at the top of it, and it’s this feature that often differentiates it from lattes. It adds a beautiful and unique layer of texture and mouth-feel.

There are a number of ways to make foamed milk, but the one that you’ll see done in coffee shops will be using the steam wand on coffee machines. This works in two ways in that it heats up the main body of the milk, but then can also be positioned to whip air into its top surface, creating that froth.

If you want to do this at home but don’t have a steam wand then you can also make use of your microwave, a French Press, or a frothing wand. Check out this video guide here:


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