I want to begin this guide by letting you know that cappuccino is my absolute favorite type of coffee. In my opinion, this is as good as coffee gets. I hope you feel the same way after you have read through this post and created your very first amazing cup of cappuccino. But before we start making it, let me first tell you a little about this wonderful hot beverage that you can enjoy at any time of the day, although most Italians will tell you to only drink it before noon like they do.
What is Cappuccino?
Cappuccinos are coffee drinks that use espresso (rather than infused or boiled coffee) in combination with a steamed milk product (or milk-like product) in a particular ratio to produce a rich combination of coffee, hot milk, and milk foam. Espresso is coffee that is brewed using a small amount of nearly boiling water that is pressed through a puck of compacted ground coffee beans to produce a concentrated coffee drink with a foamy crema on top. Milk is steamed to produce hot milk with some in microfoam form. Microfoam is foam with imperceptibly small bubbles, giving the milk an appearance of wet paint rather than a soap-like lather of macrofoam. When steamed milk is added to the espresso such that one third of the drink is espresso, one third is hot milk, and one third is milk microfoam, the result is a cappuccino. The difference between cappuccinos and other espresso-based drinks is often the ratio of ingredients (primarily of espresso, hot milk, and foamed milk). For example, the cappuccino has a greater proportion of foamed milk and less hot milk than the latte, and the macchiato has only foamed milk and no hot milk added to the espresso.
The history of Cappuccino
The history of modern cappuccinos is founded in the history of coffee consumption generally and, later, espresso consumption in Italy. The 15th century is the first era in which coffee beans were grown, roasted, and brewed in a manner we would recognize as coffee today. This practice likely began in Yemen, where the drink was called “kahwa” or “that which prevents sleep”. Coffee drinking then spread through the Middle East and northern Africa. The benefits of coffee were initially seen as medical due to its perceptible stimulant effects. However, while physicians in 16th century Persia and surrounding regions were debating the benefits and detriments of coffee, coffeehouses in the region were making the drink available to the masses.
Coffee became such a popular drink at the center of social life that it was briefly banned in Mecca in the 16th century where the governor at the time feared the conversations coffee sparked would lead to a revolution. It was the Sultan of Cairo who intervened to end this ban, describing coffee as a sacred part of his people’s culture. Around the same time in Turkey, a woman had grounds for divorce as she could prove that her husband was not providing her with enough coffee. Needless to say, coffee was widely considered an important drink soon after it entered various societies, and the mixed reactions of mass love and leadership fear toward coffee seen at this time in northern Africa and the Middle East would be replayed again in each of the societies coffee was introduced to.
Even while coffee use within coffee-growing countries was debated, they fiercely protected their coffee industries, so much so that it was supposedly illegal to transport raw green coffee beans (from which new plants could be grown) out of the countries that were growing it. It is said that in the 17th century, a Muslim saint named Baba Budan had to smuggle seven unroasted green coffee beans hidden in his beard in order to enjoy the drink in his homeland of India because, prior to this, all exported coffee beans were roasted or ground and therefore could not be grown. Coffee is still grown widely in southern India.
Europe, in the meantime, was beginning to appreciate the benefits of coffee in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with European physicians debating its healing powers just as earlier Persian physicians had. In the 18th century, King Gustav III of Sweden reportedly ordered a study to prove the dangers of coffee drinking so that his subjects would abide by coffee bans intended to improve public health. The study recruited a set of (presumably identical) twins, both of whom had been convicted of crimes and condemned to death. Their death sentences would be commuted if one twin agreed to drink three pots of coffee a day for the rest of his life, and the other twin drank three pots of tea for the rest of his life. Two physicians would oversee the study to determine what effects these two conditions had on the twins. Unfortunately, both physicians died before the end of the trial, as did King Gustav III. Supposedly, the tea-drinking twin survived until age 83, and his brother survived yet longer. Today, Sweden has one of the most coffee-loving populations in the world.
Similarly, coffee started off poorly from a religious perspective in Europe. Coffee was considered a “Muslim drink” and therefore was viewed with suspicion by many Christians who could not imagine anything good coming out of predominantly Muslim cultures (despite Europe’s increasing reliance on trade via the Silk Road and other trade routes in and through primarily Muslim countries). However, the popularity of coffee in Europe took off once Pope Clement VIII defied calls to ban coffee as a sinful beverage and instead is said to have declared that “This devil’s drink is delicious, we should cheat the devil by baptizing it”. With the pope blessing coffee as acceptable for Christians to consume, there was little resistance to its wider use in Europe, especially in Italy.
It is no wonder, then, that the first coffee houses were established in Venice and Rome (near the seat of the Roman Catholic Church) in the 17th century. However, coffeehouses in England soon followed and were immediately popular gathering places. So why do all these coffee drinks have Italian names? Italy is home not to coffee generally, but to espresso specifically. Hence, espresso-based drinks tend to go by Italian names in English and other languages. These include cappuccino, latte, macchiato, mocha, and Americano.
The first espresso machines were patented in the 19th and early 20th century in Italy, and the first cappuccinos as we know them today were being made in the 1930s to copy the taste of Viennese “kapuziners” – coffees made with cream, sugar, and sometimes eggs. It was not until after the development of the cappuccino that espresso-based drinks became popular in England and the United States in the 1950s.
What does Cappuccino taste like?
Cappuccinos are less bitter than espressos due to the addition of milk, and have a rich, thick texture due to the microfoam of milk. Cappuccinos are naturally sweet from the lactose (a form of sugar) in the milk, but can be sweetened further with sucrose or other sweeteners. Products such as cream, soy milk, and other milk alternatives can be used in place of milk, but these each react differently to the steaming process and can offset the intensity of the espresso more or less than the traditional choice of whole (full-fat) milk.
Cappuccinos should be consumed soon after they are prepared. If left to sit, the cappuccino cools and the milk’s microfoam dissipates into macrofoam and then liquid milk, changing the texture and flavor of the drink.
How to make Cappuccino
A cappuccino begins with properly extracted espresso. While the particulars of every espresso machine are different, they generally have several key components: a water tank, at least one heating unit, a group head, and a portafilter. The water tank is where you add fresh, unheated, filtered water for your espresso machine to heat and make espresso out of. The heating unit is contained within the machine and heats the water from the tank to send to the group head. The group head is where you will see a locking mechanism for the portafilter and an outlet for the hot water that has passed through the heating unit. The portafilter is the handle and filter basket combination that looks a bit like a miniature frying pan with legs. The filter basket is where you will add and compress coffee grounds.
In addition to these components that come with the espresso machine, you will want a tamper to compress coffee grounds in the filter basket and a coffee grinder to freshly grind your coffee immediately before making an espresso. The tamper should be made of metal or hard wood, and it should be a fraction of a millimeter smaller in diameter than your filter basket (typical sizes range from 49 to 58 millimeters). Whole articles can be written on how to choose a coffee grinder, but in general a flat burr or conical burr grinder that crushes coffee beans in one motion will be superior to a blade grinder that repeatedly beats beans around like a blender at a high rate of motion. Blade grinders not only produce uneven coffee ground particle sizes that make for uneven extraction, but prematurely heat the coffee, releasing the volatile oils and changing the flavor of your coffee.
Enough talk, time to make some cappuccino!
1. Before you turn on your espresso machine, fill the water tank
The water tank should contain at least four times as much water as you will need for your espresso if your espresso machine will also be producing steam for your steam wand when you froth your milk. So if you are pulling a large single shot (1.5 ounces or 45 milliliters) then you will want to make sure to have at least 6 ounces or 180 milliliters of water in the water tank before beginning. Some people use a dedicated milk frothing device that is not attached to their espresso machine, such as a dedicated stovetop frother, and can get away with only twice as much water as will go into their espresso in the espresso machine water tank. However, if you are not short on filtered water, you might as well keep the tank full just to play it safe.
2. Turn your machine on so that it can begin heating
This can take some machines up to 30 minutes. Most machines have an indicator light that will let you know when the water is hot enough to use. If your machine does not have an indicator, wait 15 minutes after you turn the machine on, and then pull a blank shot. That means running water through the group head (where the hot water comes out of your machine) and the portafilter when there is no coffee in the portafilter. Measure the temperature of the water that comes out. If it is at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius), you can continue.
3. Grind exactly as much coffee as you will need
Make a single shot or double shot of espresso (or triple shot if you have a special portafilter for that). Typically, a single shot will use about 6 to 8 grams of coffee, a double shot will use about 14 to 16 grams, and a triple shot will use 20 to 24 grams. The grind should be finer than sand you might pick up on the beach, but not powdery like flour. Each coffee bean will require a slightly different grind because its properties are affected by the variety of bean, the roast it has undergone, and how long it has been since the bean was roasted. The results you get from your first pull of espresso will help you fine-tune your grind to each new batch of espresso beans you use.
4. Place the coffee grounds loosely into the filter basket so that they are evenly spread out
Typically, the amount of grounds in the basket should come level to the tip of the filter basket when flattened without being compressed. Then place the portafilter (or filter basket if separated from the rest of the portafilter) on a solid, flat, level surface and use the tamper to apply 5 pounds (2 kilograms) of pressure to the coffee. If you do not know what 5 pounds of pressure feels like, you can perform the tamp on a bathroom scale. Place the portafilter and tamper on the scale, note the weight, then press down with the tamper until the weight displayed is 5 pounds greater than when you were not applying pressure. This is the initial tamp. It creates a loose puck, and there tend to be grounds that stick to the side of the filter basket and are not yet incorporated into the puck. Gently scrape those grinds off the sides so that they are on top of the compressed puck without disturbing the puck itself. Then you are ready to apply the finishing tamp with 30 pounds (14 kilograms) of pressure. While still pressing down with 30 pounds of pressure, rotate the tamper at least 90 degrees. This prevents the top layer of the puck from sticking to the tamper. You can now remove the tamper to see a solid wall of espresso. If the grind is too fine, then water will never make it through the puck and you will have to start over, but you want the water to find some resistance when it goes through the puck so that it properly extracts the coffee’s volatile oils.
5. With the filter basket in place on the portafilter, attach the portafilter to the group head
Typically, a clockwise motion will lock the portafilter in. Turn on the hot water release to pull the heated water through the portafilter. There should be a small delay between when the water is pushed through the group head and when it begins to dispense from the portafilter. The initial espresso coming from the portafilter should be dark and thick looking, and then turn golden and foamy. You should pull 1 to 1.5 ounces for a single shot, and 2 to 2.5 ounces for a double shot. If it takes less than 20 seconds to pull the shot, you need to tamp your grounds more firmly and/or use a finer grind. If the process takes more than 30 seconds, you likely need to use a coarser grind as the puck is too solid for the water to work through. The result should be a dark, rich shot of espresso covered completely by a layer of golden, foamy crema.
Once your espresso is ready, it is time to prepare the steamed milk. Unlike steamed latte milk which incorporates very little air into the milk, milk that is steamed (or foamed) for a cappuccino combines the milk with a lot of air in fast tiny doses that produce microfoam. Without proper tools, microfoam is difficult to achieve. Some people place hot milk in a closed container and shake it vigorously to incorporate air, but this process tends to produce a lot of macrofoam and very little microfoam. Electric foaming wands that stir hot milk with spiral-wired wand tips can be used to produce a slightly better product than shaking hot milk, but these stirring options also tend to incorporate too much air at once, leading to macrofoam.
The ideal method of producing microfoam for a cappuccino is using a steam wand with at least 100 kilopascals of steam pressure. For this process, it is important to start with milk as cold as possible without freezing it (34 degrees Fahrenheit or 1 degree Celsius). If steaming milk at home, it is advisable that you keep your frothing pitcher in the freezer so that it keeps your milk cold at the beginning of the frothing process. Three to 4 ounces of milk should used per 1 to 2 ounces of espresso in the cappuccino.
6. A standard steam wand will need to be cleared of water before steaming
This generally means opening the valve after sufficient pressure has been built for the steam wand to produce long, steady, intense streams of steam. Upon first opening the valve, the liquid water will spurt out of the wand, and followed by pure steam. At this point, you should turn off the valve to stop the flow of steam so that you can position the milk below the wand.
7. Position the pitcher of milk appropriately under the steam wand
It is a key step to making properly foamed milk. Placing the wand too far above the milk will cause the wand to spray milk out of the pitcher rather than foam it. Placing the wand too deep into the milk too soon will prevent the wand from incorporating air into the milk. Placing the wand tip just barely below the surface of the milk will cause the wand to swirl the milk around the pitcher while rapidly incorporating invisibly tiny bubbles of air into it.
8. Once the wand is appropriately positioned, open the steam valve
Thus allowing the steam to hit the milk at full pressure. This should produce a standing wave of milk in the pitcher. If milk is spraying out of the pitcher, place the wand further below the surface of the milk. If the milk is not swirling around the inside of the pitcher, pull the wand up closer to the surface of the milk and angle the wand slightly to the side to send the milk in circles around the pitcher. You want your milk to keep moving in this process so that the micro-bubbles do not have a chance to combine into larger macro-bubbles.
9. Your milk should now be expanding with the added air
This only happens if you are applying enough steam pressure at the right depth, but you should not see visible bubbles like you would in lathered soap. If you do, your milk needs to be moving more in a vortex around the pitcher. Keep incorporating air (or “stretching the milk”) until the milk is between 100 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit (38 to 46 degrees Celsius). If you are not using a thermometer, you should feel this stage as unquestionably warm, but definitely not too hot to touch.
10. Now you have the air you need in your milk, but it is not warm enough for the cappuccino
You now need to push the wand tip down into the milk where it can no longer incorporate more air. However, you still want to keep the milk swirling around the pitcher to maintain the microfoam you have worked so hard to create. Keep this up until the milk reaches approximately 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius). Again, if you are not using a thermometer, you can estimate this temperature when you find the pitcher to be uncomfortably hot to the touch, but not burning hot to where you cannot hold it.
11. Turn off the steam wand and remove the wand tip
For the purposes of maintaining your steam wand, you will want to immediately purge the wand of any milk that has been sucked into it by releasing more steam after the pitcher has been moved away from the steam wand. After turning the steam wand off again, use a wet cloth to remove any milk residues that have stuck to the exterior of the steam wand.
The milk still needs attention if it is not immediately poured into the espresso to make cappuccino. While resting, the microfoam will turn into macrofoam, producing visible bubbles in the milk. To get rid of these, tap the pitcher on a hard surface (like the countertop you are working at) and swirl the pitcher. This will pop the macrofoam bubbles and release the air in the macro-bubbles from the foamed milk. Relying too heavily on this method will eventually lead you to pop and swirl most of the air out of your foamed milk, defeating the purpose of all this effort.
12. As soon as possible after steaming the milk, pour it into the espresso
Use a 6 to 8 ounce (175 to 235 milliliter) cup. Enjoy the cup within a few minutes to fully appreciate the flavors and textures.
Bonus tip: Sprinkle some chocolate powder on top of your cappuccino for aesthetics and a little extra added sweetness.