Creating the Perfect Foam
Most places that serve cappuccinos in the United States have not trained their baristas in the art of properly frothing milk. The foam that they create is usually a dry, tasteless, large celled collection of bubbles that sit on top of the espresso like a meringue.
With a little care, you can create steamed milk that is velvety smooth like the texture of wet shaving cream. The bubbles will be so small that you can barely see them! This is the way it's supposed to be, because this way, it will blend with the espresso, creating a harmony of the flavors instead of a dry, tasteless cap floating on top. Let's Begin.
First off, it's important to start with cold milk that's just out of the fridge. Pour the milk into the steaming pitcher until it is just about 1/3 of the way full. Milk will double to triple in volume after the frothing process. A stainless steel pitcher works best. It will dissipate some of the heat, allowing more time to infuse air into the milk before the milk gets too hot.
Also use a thermometer to get the milk to the correct temperature of 145 degrees. There are many thermometers made for this purpose that will clip onto the side of the pitcher for convenience.
Purge the steam wand onto a damp towel by releasing the valve for a few seconds. Be very careful not to burn yourself, the steam will be extremely hot. This purging will get all of the water out so you don't get it in your milk.
Next, submerge the wand into the milk and quickly turn the steam on full power. Avoid letting the tip of the wand come out of the milk. This will cause splattering and create large, tasteless bubbles.
Adjust the wand so that it is pointing off center in order to get the milk to flowing in a rapid, circular motion. Maintaining this fast, circulating vortex is vital.
Then, slowly lower the pitcher until the tip of the wand is just below the surface of the milk (keeping the circulation going). When you can hear a hissing noise, similar to bacon frying, you have reached the perfect position for the wand to inject air into the milk.
Try to maintain this hissing noise while keeping the milk rotating. You will have to slowly lower the pitcher as the milk volume rises in order to keep the wand tip just under the surface.
By keeping the milk flowing in a rapid circle, any large bubbles that are accidentally created will be rolled into the milk and eliminated. Continue steaming until the milk reaches 145 degrees. Be careful not to get the milk too hot, it will scald giving it a bad taste.
That's pretty much it! If you have a few large bubbles, you can try to get rid of them by tapping the bottom of the pitcher lightly on the counter. Serve immediately and enjoy some of the silkiest frothed milk you have ever tasted!
One more thing, now that you know how to properly steam the milk, notice how few coffee houses have baristas that take care in this process. Very few use thermometers and end up scalding the milk, or leaving it too cold.
Most will just leave the pitcher sitting there while the wand blows into the milk. Some will use an up and down motion, but this does absolutely nothing for creating tiny, velvety bubbles. It's the rolling action of the milk that's needed.
If you find a barista that shows this skill of frothing milk, then stay with him! He's been trained and probably takes pride in what he does.