Great latte without the expensive machine?
August 9, 2013 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm a latte/cappuccino drinker. I don't like black coffee very much; too intense and bitter for me. But this also means that while other people obsess over espresso brewing quality, I obsess over milk-frothing quality; the coffee quality itself is mostly wasted on me, but I am irate if I get a poorly frothed layer of milk. So I am looking for a good solution — either a machine or a combination of machines — that provides (1) espresso coffee, (2) superb steamed milk, and (3) is convenient to use. More below.

Some solutions I have tried:

* Several mechanic milk frothers, including the Nespresso Aeroccino, which many consider to be the cadillac of milk frothers. The problem is that while such a device creates a kind of foam, it's nowhere like the kind of stuff you get from a steamer wand, neither in terms of texture or in terms of taste.

* Rancilio Silvia, classic steamer wand. The problem with this approach is that cheaper machines like the Silvia have only a single boiler. So when you make coffee, you have to first make the espresso cup, then wait a few minutes for the steamer wand to heat up. It takes all the spontaneity out of making a cup of latte. Also, cheaper machines like this just don't have a lot of steam pressure; my experiences making microfoam with this machine, even after reading up on techniques, were unhappy.

* Cheap Saeco with a "pannarello" arm. This is a modification of the classic steamer wand that doesn't work very well in practice. Also, same issue as above.

* Saeco Incanto Sirius, a twin-boiler super-automatic machine which comes with a special steamer attachment called a cappuccinatore, which looks like this. This actually creates microfoam that is almost as good as a professional steamer wand. Very happy with this machine, but it's about $2,400 new, and I can't afford that right now. Apparently cappuccinatores exist for other models, but I have not been able to find out which ones.

* And, of course, there are coffee shop coffee machines: High-pressure classic steamer wand, dedicated boiler, superb microfoam.

One type of machine I have not tried yet is the capsule type with the built-in milk foamer, like the DeLonghi Lattissima. Are they any good? Some reviews say the foam is good, but it's hard to tell if a reviewer is truly serious about their lattes. I don't trust the Amazon reviews.

Apparently a prosumer machine from ECM or Isomac would have a good enough boiler, but those are around $1,200-1,300. My budget is about half that. Ideally closer to $500.

(Wild idea: Can one get standalone milk frothers that operate on the same principles as a coffee machine — ie., boiler and steam — but without the coffee part?)
posted by gentle to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I look forward to seeing other answers. And although my cheap Saeco with pannarello doesn't quite get there, I help it along by foaming the milk first (it doesn't take as long for the indicator light to come back on when moving from foaming to coffee compared to doing coffee first, so I switch on machine, set to steam and grind coffee while waiting for it to come up to temp). Also, once the milk is steamed, I do a long pour einto another jug which seems to help get better microfoam texture.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:51 PM on August 9, 2013

Response by poster: planetesimal: As I mention above, frothers — even a heating one, like the Nespresso I mention — produce something very different from a steam wand. Not good enough, I'm afraid.

AnnaRat, have you checked if your Saeco model has a cappuccinatore accessory? You will be much, much happier with that.
posted by gentle at 6:55 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You won't be disappointed by the frothing ability of the atomic
posted by hortense at 7:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's the Capresso FrothXpress, which looks like the steamer part of the Lattissima you mentioned.

There are also stovetop steamers like this.
posted by zsazsa at 7:15 PM on August 9, 2013

I'm an ex-barista, I've used a frother to get perfect quality milk and even draw latte art with it. It's hard to tell over the Internet what you might be doing wrong, but it is possible. One thing you might try is cutting your milk with about one-third cream.
posted by mannequito at 7:22 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Atomic looks interesting, though the boiler seems a bit dinky — in this video the guy spends 2 mins 15 secs frothing a latte-sized cup of milk. Not sure if he was overdoing it (he doesn't use a thermometer) or not. I am going to read up on it.

As for frothers: It just doesn't taste the same. I have tried three different ones, and I use whole milk. (Cutting with cream might work, but I'm not about to add more fat to my diet.) The texture is more foamy than creamy, if that makes sense; you can do latte art, sure, but it doesn't matter if the taste is wrong. Steam just does something to the milk that mere aeration doesn't.

The FrothXpress frother looks interesting and seems to be aerating using a different mechanism than the "whisk"-type frothers such as the Nespresso. But the reviews on Amazon are very mixed; some of the unenthusiastic ones are pretty harsh on the milk foaming quality as well as the build quality.
posted by gentle at 8:03 PM on August 9, 2013

We have a DeLonghi Lattissima. My husband loves the espresso, but I've not been super happy with the froth. It seems to always be a little too light and fluffy, so a latte leaves you with froth at the end, and really, what do you do with that? However! After reading the comment about mixing it with cream I realized we've never tried a heavier milk. We always use 2%. I'll try the cream/milk mixture or maybe whole milk tomorrow (if I remember) and let you know how that turns out. You can also adjust it to more/less foam, but we've tried all the combinations and the one that seems to work best for me is doubling the coffee to meet the (always) extra fluffy foam. Regarding convenience - the thing is super easy to use. You can store the unused milk in the sealed container in the fridge for a day or two (and possibly longer, but I'm squeamish about milk) to make the process a little faster - just snap in a pod, put the container on, and push a button. I also like that we can run the milk container through the dishwasher. Mind you, even if we had a state of the art espresso/latte kit here, I wouldn't use it much. I'm possibly the laziest coffee drinker on the planet. But the DeLonghi is the least trouble of any other ones I've used/had.
posted by routergirl at 8:17 PM on August 9, 2013

Response by poster: I'm lazy like you, routergirl. I would really appreciate it if you could try it with whole milk (which I think should be sufficient, no need to involve cream) and tell me how it works out.
posted by gentle at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2013

I take a coffee press, filled it with hot milk heated in the microwave and the plunge it up and down repeatedly till it forms the froth you want. The air being forced into the hot milk does the trick. Pour the froth in the coffee cup and then add your brewed coffee. Delicious in under four minutes!
posted by bkeene12 at 8:51 PM on August 9, 2013

It's possible to make great foamed milk with Silvia with a little practice and temperature surfing. Not a huge amount, but plenty for a normal cappuccino. I turn on the steam heat as I start pouring the espresso shot. That stabilizes the temperature during the pour (I have a digital temperature readout on mine) and it starts rising immediately after the end of the pour, so that after getting the milk ready the temperature is already where I like it for foaming. If you wait until the moment the thermostat turns off, the boiler will be at the hottest and best able to foam the most milk.
posted by exogenous at 9:08 PM on August 9, 2013

Response by poster: exogenous, that may be. I just don't want to deal with that kind of "coffee geekery" — monitoring and fine-tuning temperatures and so on. The Silvia would be wasted on me.
posted by gentle at 9:16 PM on August 9, 2013

I am really happy with our Breville Infuser which is in your price range. Great foam, very little wait after your espresso draw to steam in the wand. I'm not sure what your criteria are for good foam, but we feel that the foam is at least as good as any local coffee shops. If you have any questions about it that the reviews on Amazon don't tell you, feel free to memail me.
posted by freezer cake at 9:29 PM on August 9, 2013

One trick with the frother is to bang it on the bench several times after frothing to let the milk settle. You end up with a denser, ie. Creamier, froth.
posted by piyushnz at 10:53 PM on August 9, 2013

I used to have a Bialetti stovetop cappuccino maker that also made excellent lattes.
posted by echo0720 at 11:06 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The top Amazon review claims "the milk texturing capability" of the Breville Infuser "is a pale shadow of the DB [Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler] ... Functional, but not at all impressive." Don't like the sound of that.
posted by gentle at 11:45 PM on August 9, 2013

Sonofabitch. iPhone just ate my long and awesome recommendation to you.

You want a Trevi Spidem Digital Plus.

It has a steam wand.

I don't use it because this machine takes the shittiest beans (and I only use filtered water) and gives the smoothest shot with perfect crema. That's all you need!

Pour in a generous measure of half-n-half, a kiss of sugar or not - and voila!

It's a pricey machine, but you can find them dirt cheap on Craig's or eBay. We got ours two years ago after lots of research to identify the RIGHT machine, and once fiddling with the grind and pressure knobs, I have not touched them since, or needed to steam milk, since.

It steams milk. We just have not needed to. The perfect crema it makes with the coffee is enough!

I'm a professional chef, once a barista in the way back. I own an old school coffee machine (the kind that bubbles hot water up into the grinds,) a drip machine, a stove top Italian espresso maker, a French press, and a Chemex. I had a home espresso maker w/ steam arm back in the day.

Should you find a Trevi Spidem and use quality half-n-half, your problem will be solved.


I live in WeHo, the best rated Barista (google it) is near me on the edge of Hollywood on Hollywood BLVD. Been there. It's good.

But if I really want a GREAT cappuccino or latte, before we got our Trevi, I trucked my ass out to Pasadena to Jones Coffee - where they roast their own beans from their own farms in South America onsite, and make coffee on what must be a $2,000+ size quality machine.

The coffee drinks they make vs. what my Trevi provides, considering the gas and 45 minute travel time, is slight.

The guys blocks from me on Hollywood BLBD who supposedly pull the best coffee in the Los Angeles area? Meh. I rarely bother.


My point is that (a) you can't get the quality of steam you want unless you own a $1,000+ commercial grade machine, I've tried, but if you are pulling a smooth shot or double shot with perfect crema and using half-half steamed of unsteamed - YOU'll GET PERFECT RESULTS.

I know you don't think the coffee brewing matters, but I'm a super taster sensitive to texture and taste, and the brew is where the magic lies.

"Burnt" milk, via over-steaming milk will ruin any cappuccino, and most steamer arms on home machines will give you that result (ask me how I know!) Adding half-n-half steamed or unsteamed to the perfect pulled smooth tasting shot with lots of natural crema of coffee is what you want here.

If you are in LA Memail. I'm happy to demonstrate!
posted by jbenben at 11:54 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oops. I meant, " adding steamed or unsteamed half-n-half" to a perfectly pulled smooth tasting shot will give you the results you are looking for at home.
posted by jbenben at 12:04 AM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: There is a lot that I don't understand in your comment.

Why would you use half and half, ie. cream with around 11-12% fat content? I drink lattes made with whole milk at 3.25% and I'm certainly not looking to start adding more fat to my coffee drinks!

Secondly, why do you talk about adding unsteamed anything to coffee? A latte macchiato varies in preparation, but it's typically made with approximately 10:1 milk/coffee. A Starbucks "grande" is around 4.4 dL of steamed milk and a shot of espresso. The whole point is to get the foamy milk texture. Adding non-frothed milk to the coffee would result in coffee-flavoured plain milk. Even with a cortado the result would be bad.

No, the secret of a good latte is definitely in the foam. Not the espresso shot. Perhaps you misunderstood what I meant by a latte?

(No Trevi Spidems on eBay, or on Craigslist in the NYC area, by the way.)
posted by gentle at 12:31 AM on August 10, 2013

Mod note: No need to answer or debate each suggestion, gentle; not every idea will suit you, but that's how it works. Let the answers come in, pick and choose what seems helpful and just comment to answer direct questions or clarify if necessary. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:06 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a Lattissima and I make drinks with whole milk. The foam is fine. I like the machine a lot.

Oddly, it seems to taste better if I add the foam to a shot of espresso instead of letting the machine make the drink automatically with foam first, then espresso. Maybe that's just me,
posted by litlnemo at 2:55 AM on August 10, 2013

I ran into a similar dilemma trying to settle on a reasonably affordable machine that produces decent foam. I settled on a Saeco Via Venezia, which comes with an iffy panarello, but can be upgraded to a better panarello (that comes on cheaper Saecos, counterintuitively) or converted to a steam wand, including the Breville steam wand that people tend to like:

SCG video on retrofitting a Gaggia panarello re: Breville steam wand on Saeco machines

Note that the VV also has a non-pressurized and/or bottomless portafilter available for it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:42 AM on August 10, 2013

I've also contemplated getting a second cheap machine with a decent want for use as a dedicated steamer/frother. A decent cheapie for steaming plus a solid midline machine for pulling shorts can come out cheaper than a double-boiler machine.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:50 AM on August 10, 2013

Former barista here, if it helps establish my credibility there were customers who would ask for me specifically to make their cappuccinos.

You need some serious water pressure and a really good pump to get the kind of steam that will give you coffee-house quality foam. My research into the same issue has led me to conclude that the only way to do this is to get a commercial-quality machine, preferably hard-plumbed to your water line. That will not be easy or cheap.

Also, FYI, the commercial machines can be finicky and involve a lot of maintenance.

For my part, I've gone the route jbenben has. I have a vintage Gaggia that makes great espresso. If I want something frothy, I go to the coffee shop.

You obviously don't like the answers you're getting here, but what you want may not be possible within your constraints.
posted by AV at 4:52 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreed that the steam the OP is after is only available from a commercial grade machine.

My point was that drinking a smooth pull w/ great crema + half-n-half, I can barely taste the difference in flavor or texture between commercially made steamed milk coffee drinks from a good shop vs. what my Trevi puts out.

My husband downloaded an app to alert him when a Trevi came up for sale on eBay, ditto Craig's list.

The Trevi does have a steamer arm, so you can bring the milk up to temperature. It will never make awesome foam because it doesn't provide commercial grade water pressure. You won't miss it if the coffee shots are smooth with a dense crema that is almost sweet tasting.

The difference in calories between whole milk and half-n-half is worth a good cup. That said, if I'm out of half-n-half, I drink the coffe from the Trevi with almond milk or black (no sugar) and again, it's GREAT because the coffe is super smooth with no bitterness, and the "creamy" sensation milk adds is already there from the crema on top of the shot.

As a chef, I've often experienced there is usually more than one technique or process to create a particular result.

Your option here is to invest in a large $1500+ machine with proper plumbing to get steam at the right pressure, or start playing with better pulled shots for your milk based coffee drinks.

Please let me know if you have more questions. Hope this helped clear things up!
posted by jbenben at 8:29 AM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: I know I can't get commercial-type pressure, so I am looking for the next best thing. So far, a stovetop boiler sounds like the best solution to me.
posted by gentle at 10:16 AM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: Never mind the last comment, a typical stovetop boiler apparently takes 10-15 minutes to build up enough pressure, more than that if you are preparing espresso and milk at the same time. They also seem rather impractical to use in general. Lots of parts, requires cleaning after use, etc.

Currently I have my eye on this type of stovetop milk frother. It heats the milk, and you pump a coffee press-type mesh into the milk to froth it. Skeptical, but it looks like the most convenient option right now.

Still haven't found a cheap machine that has a compatible cappuccinatore attachment available. Both Saeco and Gaggia have cappuccinatores, but they only attach to their more expensive machines, eg. Gaggia Titanium.
posted by gentle at 4:30 PM on August 11, 2013

Well, how involved do you want to get?
Heavily modified VV (in progress)
finished. Testing: one, two, three. The gentleman is still working on pressure control mods.

You might be able to adapt the Saeco cappucinatore and tweak a midrange Saeco to be acceptable if this sort of thing appeals.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:12 AM on August 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, but I just want to buy a gadget that works out of the box.
posted by gentle at 4:57 PM on August 15, 2013

Response by poster: I ended up with a (very) cheap Cuisinart EM-100. It has a traditional steam wand and heats up the boiler really fast, so one can make very decent microfoam almost immediately after brewing a cup; I would estimate that it takes 10-15 seconds for it to start producing good steam.

While steaming the milk isn't fast, I can get microfoam in about 60 seconds that is a reasonable approximation to what's produced in the best coffee shops in NYC.
posted by gentle at 9:45 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Friend's bookkeeper disappeared with all physical...   |   I swallowed a plastic fork tine. HELP. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.