Alternative Milks for Home Espresso
A quick primer on what to look for, and how to steam it
Written by Leah Muhm
Illustrated by Lauren Bergman
Plant-based milk has been the bane of many a barista’s existence over the years—often leading to somewhat subpar interpretations of classic milk and espresso drinks. Alternative milk tends to separate from espresso quite quickly, and often produces foam that is either too watery for latte art or too thick to produce anything more than a blob. That being said, there is hope! Below, we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks that we’ve picked up over our team’s years as commercial baristas. We hope by the end of this post, you’ll be equipped with the skills to steam any style of milk without compromise. Let’s dive in!
Are the plant-based milks you are using labeled “barista” or “barista series/edition”? If you are using oat, soy, almond, coconut, etc milk purchased from a grocery store and the packaging doesn’t explicitly say “barista” on it, you are playing a rigged game! Turn back! Danger ahead!
Plant-based milks with the “barista” designation have additional stabilizers that make it easier to steam, pour, and in turn, prevent it from separating in hot liquids. These days, most local coffee shops are using this type of plant-based milk. So, if you’re consistently noticing a difference between the milk you’re steaming at home and the milk you’re receiving at your favorite cafe, this could be a big reason why.
Whole Foods and many health-focused grocery stores carry various brands that offer the “barista” editions of their plant milks. If you can’t find it there, the internet is a great place to source some of this stuff. Some well known brands that offer a “barista” version of their milks are Oatly, Pacific, Califia, and Minor Figures.
Brand Matters (sort of)
The milk market has recently been flooded by many different brands of milk alternatives. You may see up to 5 different brands of almond milk at the grocery store, for example. However, even though these alternative milks are all the same type of milk alternative, they all have some differences from each other. Specifically, each brand has their own specific recipe of stabilizers that they will add to plant based milks.
So while they may all look and maybe even taste similar—the experience of steaming and pouring each one will be unique. If you’re well-versed in steaming dairy milk, you’ve probably noticed this as well. Different brands, homogenization techniques, fat percentages, etc. all impact how your milk steams, holds together, and pours.
Ultimately with alternative milks, brand matters insofar as you find one you like and try to stick with it—at least initially. This will allow you to develop a “sense” of the milk and how it will behave when you steam it and pour it. Once you are proficient with one brand, you can begin to hop around and experiment with others.
Choose Your Fighter
Similar to brand, the type of plant-based milk you are steaming is important. Soy behaves differently than oat, oat differently than almond, etc. As you are practicing, try to choose just one milk alternative to practice with until you gain expertise. Jumping around frequently will prevent you from learning the benefits and limitations of each type of milk alternative. If you’re not sure where to start, oat milk is an industry favorite. It’s creamy, tastes great with coffee, and is probably the easiest to work with out of the bunch.
Tips & Tricks
Most plant-based milks are shelf stable, but you don’t want to steam room-temperature alternative milk—or any milk, for that matter. As with all things home espresso-related, time is of the essence. Starting with an already-warm milk will cause it to reach your desired drinking temperature too quickly, and not give you the time you need to build good texture. This is especially true with the powerful steam wands on commercial-style home espresso machines. Sticking it in the fridge will keep it nice and cold – making it a dream to steam.
Okay – so you have your icy cold preferred brand of Barista Edition plant-based milk and are about to pour into your pitcher…WAIT! Did you shake it?
Always shake (and shake and shake and shake) plant-based milk cartons before you pour a pitcher of it to steam. These milks tend to separate in the container—if you don’t blend it together before pouring it into your pitcher you’ll end up with frustrating and inconsistent pitchers of steamed milk.
Aerate With Caution
Plant-based milk aerates (foams) more quickly than whole milk. If you steam your plant-based milk exactly the same as you would cow dairy, you’ll probably end up with milk that is too foamy and stiff for proper micro-foam.
That being said, the difference in steaming technique isn’t extreme. Making subtle adjustments at the beginning of the steaming process when you are initially adding air will make big differences in texture. In general, most plant-based milks require a little less aeration at the beginning than cow dairy. It will take some trial and error to get it just right, but micro foam with milk alternatives is totally possible.
Swirl That Spro
Before pouring your now perfectly steamed pitcher of plant-based milk – give the espresso in your cup a swirl. This will help break up the crema on top and will make it easier to pour into. You may notice that alternative milk seems to interact with crema differently than cow dairy—almost becoming too stiff almost immediately. Giving that espresso a good swirl before pouring helps alleviate this problem and creates more consistent/better latter art.
You got this! Steaming alternative milk is not a lost cause and is most definitely not something you shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality in order to enjoy. In a time where the specialty coffee industry is teeming with new information, products, and education, there’s never been a better time to dive into the world of making delicious alternative milk espresso drinks.
Questions? Reach out! We’re always here to help.