A latte, or caffe latte, is a coffee drink that combines espresso with steamed milk and a thin layer of foam. Of all the coffee options, making specialty drinks like lattes and cappuccinos may seem a little daunting, especially if you don’t have a specialized latte machine that brews the espresso for you and has a built-in milk frother — two key components that require technique. However, in the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab, we’ve certainly learned a thing or two about brewing espressos and frothing milk from testing espresso machines and frothers — and we're breaking down how to make a latte the right way so you can enjoy one at home. Below, a classic latte recipe and detailed instructions to teach you how to make one perfectly.
How do you make a latte at home?
In addition to the many lattes we've made in the Kitchen Appliances Lab, we consulted with Felix Torres, a barista partner with De’Longhi, to find out how to bring the two key components of a latte (espresso and frothed milk) together. He walked us through how to properly use a steaming wand to froth milk and shared more expert tips.
We don’t think this milk-forward coffee drink requires sugar, but feel free to add any sweetener (or flavored syrup) you prefer.
The espresso-to-milk ratio for a latte is 1:4. That translates to two shots of espresso (about two ounces) and eight ounces of frothed milk poured over it. The result is a delicious creamy beverage with subtle coffee flavors. While lattes are usually served hot, you could also make an iced latte by pouring espresso and milk over ice — no need to froth the milk. To make a latte, use your favorite ground coffee for espresso and pick any type of milk you prefer for frothing. You can even add flavored syrups. Nevertheless, here are some guidelines for making the best latte.
What is the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?
A latte and a cappuccino are made with exactly the same ratio of coffee and milk. The only difference is in the texture of the milk. While a latte has a thick and silky mouthfeel and the espresso and milk are fully blended, a cappuccino is airier. The size of the bubbles are larger and therefore lighter — that’s why a cappuccino has distinct layers of foam, milk, and espresso. According to Torres, “sugar rises to the top with the milk bubbles, making [cappuccinos taste] sweeter.”
Espresso is concentrated coffee made by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee under high pressure. It’s the perfect base for specialty coffee drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and more thanks to its strong, deep taste that’s hard to dilute. If you have an espresso machine at home the process is easy: brew one or two shots of espresso using your favorite ground coffee. Although technically not an espresso, you can also get bold espresso-style coffee using other brewing methods as well, such as a Keurig, single-serve coffee maker like Aeropress, stovetop coffee maker, or even instant espresso.
Frothed milk is what makes a latte truly special. Foam is created when hot steam is forced into the milk through a steam wand creating a vortex. Pushing the milk in a circular motion is important because it incorporates air and emulsifies the fat and sugar in the milk creating a creamy texture. Well-frothed milk for lattes is luscious, silky, and has a “wet paint-like texture,” which baristas call microfoam. According to Torres, “the goal is to get the perfect texture, not just to get bubbles and heat milk.”
Steam wands are attached to espresso machines, making them the most expensive option. They are commonly used in coffee shops because they make the best microfoam. It is the most manual and difficult to learn, but once you master it, you can easily customize your frothed milk for different types of specialty coffees. Lattes require frothed milk with tiny bubbles and not too much foam. You want a lot more foam for cappuccinos.
Automatic frothers are the easiest to use, cheaper, and smaller than an espresso machine with a built-in steam wand. (We love the Nespresso Aeroccino 3.) Add milk to an electric jug that has a small coiled whisk inside and with the push of a button the milk is frothed either hot or cold.
Frothing wands are compact and inexpensive battery-operated whisks that can froth milk without using any steam (the milk won’t get hot). The resulting frothed milk will be light and foamy with large bubbles, perfect for cappuccinos. It’s difficult to get microfoam with a frothing wand.
Tips from a barista:
Pour the milk onto the espresso gently. You want to slowly integrate the oils in the coffee with the proteins in the milk for a cohesive drink.
If you like flavored syrups (vanilla syrup for a vanilla latte or chocolate syrup for a mocha latte), add it into your cup first. Brew the espresso over it to help it fully dissolve.
Whole milk produces thicker and creamier foam that will easily blend with the espresso. Steamed skim milk is foamier — for beginners, skim milk is easier to froth since bubbles form easily and stay stiff. As for non-dairy options? Oat milk froths best.
If you buy coffee beans from a local roaster, ask them what grind size they recommend for espresso. Depending on the type of bean and when it was roasted, they may have a specific suggestion.
If possible, use just-ground coffee. Pre-ground coffee will lose its flavor and aroma over time.
2 oz. freshly brewed espresso (2 shots)
8 oz. whole milk
Add the espresso into a 12-ounce mug. Set aside.
Pour the milk into a frothing pitcher large enough to hold at least 12 ounces. Angle the pitcher slightly (this will make it easy to keep an eye on the milk) and submerge the steam wand diagonally into the lower right quadrant and turn it on. Don’t be startled by the loud noise as steam pushes through the wand. It’s normal! The milk will start moving in a circular motion. The tip of the wand should be about two inches below the surface and should not touch the wall of the pitcher. Keep it in the same position the whole time. If the tip of the wand is too shallow, it’ll create too many bubbles making the milk overflow. It should look creamy and silky, without too much foam on top. The bubbles should be tiny and uniform.
Stop the frother when the milk reaches 140ºF to 150ºF (you should be able to comfortably hold the side of the hot pitcher for about three seconds).
Gently tap the pitcher on the counter and swirl it around to pop any large bubbles and even out the texture of the milk.
Gently pour the frothed milk over the espresso in a slow narrow stream. There should be up to a three quarter-inch layer of foam on top of the latte.