If you’re a coffee-lover, chances are you’ve thought about getting a milk frother or a steamer to add to your coffee tool collection. But, for many coffee lovers, it’s not entirely clear which option will work best for them, or which tool they need to make their favorite cup of coffee.
Thankfully, while there’s a little overlap between milk frother vs steamer, they’re mostly distinct tools that are used for different drinks.
In this article we’ll talk about the differences, whether you use a frother or a steamer in different coffee drinks, and when it might be a good idea to go ahead and get both, or a combo tool. Let’s get started.
What Is A Milk Frother Vs Steamer?
Milk frothers and milk steamers serve a similar purpose in coffee, but they aren’t quite the same. At the simplest level, a milk frother mixes the milk and adds a lot of air, which helps create a smoother and foamy texture in coffee beverages. Steamers don’t stir the milk like a milk frother, instead, they heat it and add some texture to the milk. The result is slightly sweeter and somewhat creamy milk, but it’s not quite as smooth or frothy as frothed milk.
So, while both a frother and a steamer can be used to change the texture of milk, they have different results and are usually used for different drinks. A milk frother is better for getting air bubbles into the milk, while a milk steamer is good for heating the milk and creating a smooth texture without the foam.
Why Use Steamed Milk?
If you’re a hot latte lover or enjoy looking at latte art, a milk steamer is probably the tool for you. Steamed milk is what creates the milky layer on top of a latte, and the milk steaming process is critical to getting the velvety texture that sits on top of your coffee.
Steaming milk also has a few other benefits for your coffee drinks. For one thing, a lot of people think steamed milk tastes different from cold foam, which can change the flavor of your drink. It’s also a much thicker texture than frothed milk, which can help your coffee feel richer without adding more sugar or syrup.
Related: Are Lattes Hot Or Cold?
What Happens When You Steam Milk?
If you want to try steamed milk you probably need to know what happens when you steam milk. It’s not the same as just heating the milk, or you would use warm milk instead of steamed milk.
Steam wands and other milk steamers work by creating a microfoam in the milk. That milk foam isn’t quite the same as frothed milk, the texture is closer and more velvety than frothed milk, which often feels more bubbly.
A steam wand also isn’t whipping air directly into the milk. Instead, it’s introducing heat which captures some air as the milk expands slightly but also changes the fats and sugars in your milk to create a thick foam.
The tiny bubbles in steamed milk have a silky texture, while the hot steam also helps break down fats and lactic sugar. That makes the milk seem tastier and often gives it a taste more like caramel that works well in espresso or combined with chocolate syrup for a flavored drink.
The tiny bubbles in foamed milk are specifically called microform because of their tiny size and smooth texture. You can’t replicate microform without pressurized steam, which is why steam wands, stovetop milk steamers, and built-in milk steamers in espresso machines are so important for making a latte. Foamy milk, like you get with a frother, simply doesn’t create the same texture.
Can You Steam Milk At Home?
Baristas and coffee shops usually use electric milk steamers or built-in milk steamers in their espresso machines, which can leave customers wondering if they can make steamed milk at home to make their favorite drinks.
The good news is that all you need to make steamed milk at home is a good steam wand or a stovetop steamer.
What Tools Should You Use To Steam Milk At Home
A steam wand is usually the easiest option since you can often steam milk in a small mug or pot and don’t need any other equipment. However, they can take some getting used to. It’s important to pay attention to the process with the steam wand as well, or you might end up with hot milk instead of steamed milk.
Remember, the goal is to create foam as much as heating the milk. The steam heats the milk plenty, even if you’re starting with chilled milk. Your goal should be the creamy texture of the milk foam, not heating your foamed milk.
A good steaming wand will come with instructions, including how long you have to use the steam wand to get the desired texture and flavor of foam.
It’s also worth knowing that you might not get the exact same product steaming milk at home. That’s because even the best steam wand applies heat and steam a little differently than the larger milk steamer your favorite coffee shop uses.
Safety Tips for Your Milk Steamer
No matter what kind of milk steamer you use, from a steam wand to a stovetop steamer or an espresso machine built-in, you also need to remember that you’re working with pressurized steam. While burns are rare, they’re still possible.
If you use a steam wand, make sure to keep it out of reach of children and somewhere you aren’t likely to bump it by accident. If you prefer electric milk steamers or a stovetop version, always pay close attention to how much milk you’re using and the temperature.
Usually, an overheated milk steamer just scalds the milk, but the stiff bubbles also mean that the milk can overflow or burst out of the steamer, and overheated steamed milk can make a big mess. In rare cases, the milk can even burn.
Why Use Frothed Milk?
Now that we’ve talked all about steamed milk and steaming milk, we need to talk about frothed milk why you would froth milk in the first place.
After all, if steamed milk gets such a delicious velvety texture why would you froth milk?
Well, there are a few reasons. For one thing, frothed milk has a lot more air and a much lighter texture than foamed milk. That’s because a good milk frother will add a lot more air into the milk, and your milk should triple or quadruple in size before it’s considered frothed milk.
That means that frothing milk can take some time, but a good handheld milk frother will get the job done relatively quickly.
Frothing milk is also the better option if you need cold milk for your finished drink. For instance, you might froth milk instead of steaming it if you want to mix your milk into cold brew coffee instead of a hot drink. Frothing milk is also the only way to get cold milk foam since the air bubbles fall out of microfoam steamed milk as it cools.
Another good reason to froth milk is if you’re looking for a more voluminous drink without adding a lot of milk. Since milk frothers add so much air they help increase drink volume and even increase the flavor of your favorite drinks since the air pockets help your taste buds get more of the flavor.
Of course, you can also froth hot milk if you’re looking for a richer texture from frothing. Even in that case though, milk frothers will create a frothy bubbly texture instead of the bubbly velvet texture of the foam.
If you need an example of the texture difference between milk frothers and a milk steamer, you can think about the kind of drinks they’re used for. A steamer is a must-have for a latte, but you’ll need a frother to make a cappuccino.
What Kind Of Milk Frother Do You Need?
A milk frother is used for a lot of milk-based drinks, especially if you’re using dairy milk and don’t want to use whipped cream to mimic the texture of drinks from your favorite cafe. It’s important to treat the milk separately if you want to get the best possible texture, and frothy milk is one of the most common ingredients in cappuccinos and other drinks.
However, a lot of people don’t know what kind of milk frother they need for their favorite drinks.
Manual Milk Frother
For instance, a manual milk frother is usually the most affordable option, but does it make the same kind of milk froth?
The truth is that as long as you’re using the same cold milk to froth you’ll get similar results from basically any frother. The difference is how long it takes, and how much effort you need to put in to get a good froth from cold milk.
A manual frother will take longer than other options, but you can use them if you don’t need frothed milk very often or don’t mind the extra time.
Handheld Milk Frothers
Handheld milk frothers are the most popular option. These machines function a little like an electric whisk and make milk frothing a lot faster than a manual milk frother. However, they can still take longer than the professional versions.
This is where the difference between a milk steamer and frother is most important because both come in handheld versions but they offer radically different results.
However, if you’re looking for both, you can also get a combination frother and steamer. These use the same frothing process or steaming process to create frothed or steamed milk, but are designed to do both. That also means that you can get the benefits from milk frothing with warm milk instead of just cold milk, or the flavor of steamed milk with the texture of frothed milk.
That can be a big advantage if you’re looking to change the flavor of an espresso shot and want to experiment, or if you love coffee-based drinks with a lot of milk or different textures and flavors.
An automatic frother is probably the most expensive option, at least as a standalone machine. Most espresso machines come fitted with a steamer, and some will offer a frother as well. Outside of that though, you’re more likely to see automatic models in your local coffee shop than at home.
At the same time, if you really love cappuccino, the extra cost of an automatic frother might be worth it since it will save a ton of time. All you need to worry about is adding milk and making sure you don’t add too much if you want to get the right texture.
Tips For Making Delicious Coffee With A Milk Steamer Or Frother
There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to using a frother or a steamer, but there are a few things we can cover that might make it easier.
Get A Milk Pitcher
Milk pitchers make it a lot easier if you need to froth or steam a lot of milk. You can use them instead of a separate container, depending on the material of the pitcher and what kind of frother or steamer you have. Plus, milk pitchers just make preparing all kinds of milk-based drinks easier.
Use A French Press
If you aren’t making espresso, a french press can give you a lot more versatility when it comes to making coffee. You control exactly how much water and coffee go into the mix, what temperature the water is, and how long your coffee brews.
Combine that with a milk steamer or frother and you’re looking at an incredible amount of control over your finished drink.
Related: How to Dispose of Coffee Grounds from French Press
Use Whole Milk
Whole milk is another good option, especially if you’re looking to create a creamier more enjoyable finished drink.
That’s because the extra fat and lactic sugar in whole milk improve the texture of both steamed and frothed milk. It’s also a little sweeter, and naturally a little smoother, which means both processes will work even better in your finished coffee.
Related: Ground Coffee vs Instant Coffee
Final Thoughts on Milk Steamer vs Frother
As you can see there are plenty of similarities between a milk frother and steamer. In many cases, you can use the same tool to complete your drink of choice, however in some circumstances, you might need a specific piece of gear. It’s wise to have both tools at your disposal so you can make the best coffee drinks possible at any given time.