How To Make a Cappuccino

The cappuccino is a pretty standard piece when it comes to a coffee shop menu. Anywhere you go, even in crappy shops, you'll more than likely find a cappuccino on the menu. While common, it's a drink that deserves some careful detail in order to get it right. You can't just slap it together, push a button and have it taste great and look awesome. It takes time, skill, and lots of muscle memory; no one can do it right away. More importantly, it's not just the act of making it; it goes beyond that. There should be a level of understanding of what is physically happening to the drink through each stage of preparation. That knowledge is the difference between someone who can make a pretty drink and someone who can make a pretty drink that tastes amazing. Even the prettiness of it will be enhanced once you understand what is actually happening to your drink while it is being made. That being said, we're going to take you into a level of coffee nerdiness that most people may not even care about. But you've read this far, so it sounds like you're committed to this so we'll just start away.

Quick Definition:

Now as far as definitions go, cappuccinos will vary from coffee shop to coffee shop. Rather than telling you some sort of universal definition, we'll just say that at Recreational Coffee a cappuccino is 2 ounces of espresso (around 40 ml), 4 ounces of steamed milk with a thin layer of microfoam (lets us do the pretty latte art stuff that you instagram when no one's looking). 



Equipment is everything with espresso. Not for the name brand factor of espresso gear, but just the fact that you need your grinder (in particular) to do the things it needs to do: grind coffee finely and evenly (with emphasis on the evenly). At Recreational we use a Mahlkonig K-30 Twin. It does a good job in grinding fine enough espresso, as well as evenly espresso; all with great speed.  Why does evenness matter? Think of brewing coffee like this: the goal is to dissolve coffee grounds so you can drink it with the hot water you're brewing it in. It's all just a game of dissolving those grounds. Now if you over-steep the coffee grounds (over extraction) the coffee ends up tasting more bitter. If you under-steep (under extraction) the coffee ends up tasting sour or watery. So imagine you have some coffee grounds that were ground up and weren't even. Some were bigger; some were smaller. In some scenarios the smaller pieces may dissolve perfectly but those bigger pieces became under extracted because it took longer to dissolve (sour coffee). Or flip it around and the bigger pieces might have dissolved perfectly but the smaller pieces were over extracted (bitter coffee). Either scenario is a product of an uneven grind. You don't want it. Get a good grinder. It literally makes a world of a difference. 



Coffee is just like any other culinary art. With each drink, there is a certain recipe with certain parameters; the first of which is dosing. Dosing is how much coffee you're putting into your portafilter. Currently at Recreational we're using Case Coffee Roaster's Epiphany Blend and using 20 grams of it in the portafilter. 


We're not gonna go too much into tamping because of its debated and subjective methods. Basically you want to turn the ground coffee into a puck of coffee that'll be able to withstand 9 bars of pressure. At Recreational, we rotate the tamper from outside to inside (bigger circles to smaller circles as you get closer to the inside) and really let the weight of the tamper do the tamping. We like to twist off (polish it off) at the end for no good reason aside from our OCD for neatness and order. 


Our target goal in brewing this espresso is 20 grams in (how much coffee we're dosing), 38 grams or ml out  (how much espresso is coming out) at a time frame of 29 seconds. How did we come up with this? Trial, error, and repeating it a million times until something tasted good. Typically we start with 20 grams of coffee in, 40 out at 30 seconds and go from there. Did it taste sour? Maybe we need to tighten the grind, or use less coffee, or use more water, or use hotter water, or, or, or, or... This process is what we call dialing in espresso and is annoying and fun at the same time. Annoying for a consumer or coffee shop owner because it means wasting lots of coffee. When I used to make espresso at home, I'd buy typical 12 oz bags and when I'd use it for espresso, I was like half way done with the bag after just dialing it in. To top it off, roasted coffee's chemistry is constantly changing, sometimes even in a few hours. So dialing in espresso is a constant game of cat and mouse. You're the cat. Espresso is the mouse. Get that 'spro into a ceramic cup and move on to the milk. 

Steaming/Texturing Milk

I wanted to be emphatic that we're not just steaming milk. We're going to be texturing the milk so we can manipulate it to essentially become both a base for our cappuccino and a garnish all in one cohesive drink. First we pour our whole milk (Recreational gets our dairy from Straus Family Creamery out of Petaluma, CA) into a steaming pitcher. We use 10 oz pitchers for our cappuccinos from Espresso Parts. Fill it about halfway to the base of the spout. Any more and you'll just be wasting milk. It may not look like much, but the milk will expand and will be more than enough to fill that cappuccino cup. Stick the tip of the steam wand fully into the milk and turn the steam on full blast. In this process we're doing 3 key things to the milk in a matter of seconds. 

  1. Aerating
  2. Whipping
  3. Heating

1. Aerating is introducing air into the milk. Other names for this will be stretching the milk. Right when you start steaming the milk and the tip of the steam wand is fully submerged under the milk, slowly bring the tip up until you hear this sort of "tshhhh, tshhhh" sound; you don't want "spit up" sounds coming out. It sort of sounds like the tearing of paper. That's the sound of air being introduced into the milk, essentially giving the milk the ability to whip itself and thicken. I'd give it two or three little "tshhhhh"'s and then we'd start the next phase of texturing.

2. Whipping is what you start doing once you've got some air in that milk. Now you want to fluff up that aerated milk by whipping it during the steam process. Submerge the tip of the steam wand back into the milk and the force of the steam coming from the wand will spin the milk around forming a sort of whirlpool in the pitcher (whipping the milk). What happens when you whip dairy? It gets thicker. We want to get just enough thickness out of it so we can successfully lay a base for the cappuccino and also draw a pretty design on the top of the drink. Our goal, for comparison, will be to make the milk look like wet paint. We don't want it any thicker than that. Easy? Almost there, don't forget that steaming the milk means heating the milk up.

3. Heating the milk is occuring the second you turn on that steam wand, and even carries on after the steam wand has been shut off. It is your friend and your enemy. It will enhance the sweetness of your milk, but in a moment will burn your milk and with it those beautiful sugars you need to make that perfect cappuccino. Heating milk also brings another factor to the party: time. Because it's heating up by the second, it makes you have to do steps 1 and 2 perfectly and within 10 seconds on a commercial machine (home machines steam much slower so it buys you more time to get the first two steps down). The goal is to have milk that is hot, but not too hot. At Recreational, we measure it by hand. We have our hand on the pitcher at all times during the steaming process so we can feel the temperature of the milk. Once the milk starts to feel like it's going to be too hot to touch (though not too hot to touch at that moment) we turn off the steam wand. Like I said, the milk will continue to heat up even after the steam wand is turned off, so keep that in mind when steaming. You want the end result of that pitcher to be just a tiny bit hotter than it is comfortable to touch. If you go any hotter, you run the risk of burning your milk. In addition to having milk that's burnt and too hot to drink, you also burn off much of the sugars that are inherent in the milk, which lends to the sweet and creamy taste of your cappuccino. On the opposite end, if one does not make it hot enough, the drink isn't pleasant to drink. Lukewarm milk in a cappuccino will be a lesser sin since it'll still contain those sweet sugars, but a sin nonetheless to a customer who is looking forward to that warm beverage. It has to be just right.

Now you have perfectly steamed milk that looks like wet paint. There should be no visible bubbles in your pitcher, however if there are a few stragglers in there you can knock the bottom of the pitcher on the counter to pop those last remaining bubbles. 

Pouring Latte Art

With your perfectly steamed milk and your beautiful espresso, you are now ready to bring it home and pour that latte art into that cappuccino cup. Several things to think about before you start pouring:

  1. Hand ergonomics on your grip.
  2. Distance of your pour into your cup.
  3. Speed of your pour.
  4. Cutting the latte art

1. Hold the pitcher loosely yet firmly. I know that sounds oxymoronic but you want to make sure you are able to wiggle that pitcher around but still maintain full control. It has to be a very fluid movement when you start wiggling your pitcher to make your designs but you cannot do it without control. This takes practice and practice and more practice and then some more after that.

2. You want to start pouring relatively high into your espresso, with the cup angled slightly towards you. Here's the concept. You want the turbulence of the milk to go underneath the crema of the espresso and push that crema to the top. 

3. Once that's done and your cup is about halfway filled, aim for the center of the cup (remember that your cup is angled toward you; so you'll have to start self righting the cup the more you fill your cup) and bring the spout of the pitcher close to the cup. We are no longer wanting to push the milk under the espresso, but now we want to start using that microfoam that is in the tail end of that pitcher to make a design on top of the cappuccino. Pictured to the right is us making a tulip design which is a tad bit more complicated that you should start with (basically it's when you pour a circle into a circle into another circle, but conceptually it's all the same). Start with aiming for the center bringing your pitcher from your pour down real close to the espresso and gently wiggle back and forth to create small lines. During this part you should also be pouring a bit heavier than you were before. Again, your now trying to get all that microfoam in the back of the pitcher into your drink now. If you don't see that design right away, don't give up. Just commit to aiming at that center area and wiggle wiggle wiggle with that heavier pour. Something will come up and when it does just keep going, making sure that your self righting your cup from it's previously tilted position to avoid spilling.

4. Once you've wiggled wiggled wiggled in the center and you see some sort of design coming along and you've nearly filled that cappuccino cup to the brim, bring that pitcher straight up (still pouring) and use that stream of milk that you're pouring to cut through that design. This will make the top of that circle you've been making to suck itself in to form the top of the heart and the bottom of the circle to point out like the bottom of a heart. 

And there you have it. Technically this tutorial is like 3 tutorials in one. How to make espresso, how to steam milk, and how to pour latte art. These various components of making a cappuccino are not easy to do. In fact it takes lots and lots and lots of practice to really get down just one of these facets of making this drink. Don't become disappointed when attempting this. Keep at it, ask your barista questions when you're visiting at the shop, and really focus in on the logic behind what is actually happening to your drink in every step. Don't just wiggle wiggle wiggle for the sake of wiggling when pouring. Understand that with each and every wiggle, you are drawing a line on both sides of the drink that will pile on top of another line that will compound more and more until the body of that piece of latte art turns into a unit that you can now cut to resemble a heart or tulip or rosetta. In other words, understand that you're not just pouring hot milk into your espresso, but that you're creating a base that will go underneath the espresso to push the crema of the espresso  to the top so that there is a beautiful contrast of the white micro-foam and the dark undissolved solids that is the crema. Really understand that steaming the milk isn't just making it hot, and that it isn't just making it look like wet paint. It's all of that and creating milk that will be sweet and creamy to drink when combined with the espresso. Having that knowledge of what is going on in the drink will make that difference between making a drink with latte art, and making a beautiful drink both in aesthetics and taste. That is what goes through the mind of the baristas at Recreational with every drink that we make. It's what we love to do.

Any questions? Send em in the comment section and we'll answer em for ya!