Say what you will about Starbucks, at least the baristas there know how to make a proper cappuccino.
If you order a short or tall cappuccino at Starbucks (the larger sizes contain too much milk), then you will receive an appropriate quantity of hot, foamy milk on top of fresh espresso. It may not be the best cappuccino in the world, but it will be adequate.
I know Starbucks takes this stuff seriously because I worked there during college and was forced to study their precise methods for making drinks and had to pass a test in which my cappuccino was weighed to see if I obtained the proper ratio of steamed milk to foam. Having gone as a customer, too, I can affirm that other Starbucks baristas know how to make a cappuccino.
The same can’t be said of millions of baristas across the United States.
You are liable to get a bad cappuccino almost anywhere. Go to a random hipster cafe or fancy restaurant and you may get a perfect rendition, but you are just as likely to be disappointed. Go to most cafe chains or the average restaurant, and you are almost guaranteed to get a bad cappuccino.
When I order cappuccinos and can see and hear baristas screw them up, I wish I could give them some simple advice. Here’s what I would tell them:
1) You need more foam.
A proper cappuccino should be made with foamy milk, or, if you find that concept hard to fathom, then just aim for half steamed milk and half foam.
Bad baristas put in nearly all steamed milk, with a thin layer of foam on top. In other words, they give you a latte.
In fairness, it requires skill to generate good foam. You have to hold the steel pitcher of milk so that the steam wand goes less than an inch below the surface. There will be a hissing sound, the milk will spin, and bubbles will form.
If you hear a screeching sound, then you’re placing the wand too high; if very little is happening, then you’re placing it too low. Not getting it? Ask your colleague or look up some YouTube videos and keep practicing.
2) Stop reusing steamed milk.
Lazy or ignorant baristas steam a bunch of milk for one drink and then let it sit for minutes before using it or steaming it again and using it in another drink.
These are huge mistakes.
The longer steamed milk sits, the further it gets from that ideal frothy mixture and the closer it gets to a distinct separation between milk and foam. Try drinking a cappuccino with stale foam and you will find that the foam floats backward when you tip the cup, letting espresso and milk but no foam into your mouth. Meanwhile, old steamed milk gets cold. As for steaming milk a second time, any serious barista will tell you that this won’t produce good foam.
When I worked at Starbucks, we were instructed to throw out unused steamed milk. That’s right, a public corporation tells employees to throw out essential materials rather than let them be used in the wrong way. Of course, Starbucks baristas learn to steam approximately the appropriate amount of milk for each order.
3) Stop scalding the milk.
Starbucks baristas steam milk to a temperature between 150°F and 170°F. Other suggestions I’ve found from coffee sites suggest more like 140°F to 160°F. In any case, you do not want to go much higher than 170°F or the milk will scald and you will start burning tongues.
Try getting one of the thermometers they make specifically for this purpose. Use one of those for long enough and you will be able to tell when the milk is done without it.
4) Don’t give me a huge cup.
At some places, like Starbucks, this decision comes down to the customer. At other places customers don’t have a choice.
In a huge cup, you will inevitably have too much milk relative to espresso and you will probably have too much milk relative to foam. Pretty much everything will end up tasting like a latte.
Here’s the Starbucks recipe for a cappuccino, specifying a mixture of foamy milk (note: the ratio here is a little milkier than you would find in Italy, which is why I recommend ordering a short or a tall):
If you prefer to think in terms of milk and foam separately, check out this (non-Starbucks) recipe sheet for cappuccinos and other drinks:
This is not about coffee snobbery, it’s about getting the basics right. When I order a cappuccino, I will allow a fair margin of error for temperature and texture; but please, baristas of America, don’t give me another scalding hot latte topped with bad foam.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.