Americanos, cappuccinos, cafe mochas, espressos, and the rest. I’ve had them all, but I have no idea how to make one. I’m the Zocalo computer and website guy and the staff here at Zocalo have recently given me a lesson on making the perfect latte. Here are the latte basics that I picked up from the Zocalo experts.
First things first – preparations. The materials that you will need are an espresso machine, beans, bean grinder, milk, liquid thermometer, and a cup. Choose the strength of your latte (single shot or double shot) and find the appropriate screen. Single shot screens are shallower to hold fewer grounds and have fewer holes at the bottom. Pull out the portafilter from the machine group head (pull the big handle sticking out of the front to the right or to the left and it should drop down) and insert your screen.
Choose your bean! At Zocalo we use the Italian Caffe Diamante beans by Torrisi (perfect for little Italy). Custom blended and roasted in Sicily, the coffee has perfumes and aromas of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and raisins. Definitely worth a try next time that you’re at Zocalo.
Ok, you’ve got your bean, you’ve chosen your strength, and you have your portafilter prepared. The next step is to grind your beans. Too fine of a grind will leave the coffee tasting bitter so it might take a few trials to get the taste that you’re looking for. To ensure freshness of the next batch, only grind the amount of beans that you will need for this latte. Freshly ground beans always create the best final product. Grind enough so that you fill your portafilter and allow it to heap over the brim. Once heaping, level off the grounds so that it is perfectly filled to the brim of the portafilter. Ensure that there are no grounds around the brim or anyplace other than in the head of the portafilter as these will get mashed up in the rubber seal of the machine ground head and cause problems later on.
Hold the portafilter firm and grounded on a countertop and using a press, press the grounds STRAIGHT DOWN into the head of the portafilter and do not twist. This will allow for a better flow through the grounds and a better tasting latte. Place your cup underneath the spout and press the appropriate button on the machine for a single or double shot.
Now for the hard part – the milk. Pour about a cup of milk into a medium sized round container and insert the liquid thermometer. Hold the cup so that the espresso machine’s steam nozzle is just barely in the milk. There are holes at the end of the nozzle that should just be breaching the milks surface. Beware that when you turn the steam pressure on, if the holes aren’t in the milk, you’ll be in for a mess (I’ve been told you only make this mistake once). When you’re ready, turn the steam nozzle on full blast. As the milk starts to rise, slowly lower the milk container so that the end of the nozzle stays barely in the milk. Once the milk gets to the right consistency (which was about 4 seconds in my experience, but I’m sure it differs with different machines), tilt the milk container so that it stirs the milk. This doubles as the time when you get the milk to the right temperature. A perfect latte is 65⁰C, but some prefer a hot latte which would be 85⁰C so watch your thermometer and turn off the steam pressure when you’ve hit the right spot.
Finally, take your heated and frothed milk and pour it directly into your espresso. Here’s where the “latte art” comes into play. Mine turned out to be what I’ll call a “cloud”, but that might be a generous description. To tell if your milk is the right consistency, take a spoon and pull the top layer of frothed milk away from the edges of the cup. If you can see the espresso, your milk is likely too thin and needs increase your frothing time when you make your next cup. It’s done! Enjoy the fruits of your labour.
I was worried that learning how to make a latte would ruin the magic of it, but it did just the opposite. It shifted the latte from a black box to an art form. Watching experts froth the milk to the exact right consistency. Watching the milk stir and heat juuust below the brim of the milk container while still rising. Watching the picture form as they pour the frothed milk into espresso. The process gave me a new appreciation for the drink that I already loved.