Milk Steamer vs Milk Frother: Which Appliance Do You Need?

by Mama Loves A Drink

A definitive guide to milk steamers and milk frothers for home use.

Want to make your own magical silky lattes and creamy cappuccinos at home but a bit lost with all the tools and jargon?

We were there once too! It is all so easy at your cosy little corner shop when your barista takes away all the hard work. More of us than ever though our now having to enjoy our coffee from home – and it need not be boring filter coffee!

Here we’re going to explain the difference between buying a milk frother and a milk steamer for use at home. Exactly what do both of these magical tools do to milky coffee and do you need one of each, or a tool that can simply do both?

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A man frothing milk in a  milk frothing machine

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What is foamy milk used for?

Predominantly you want foamy milk to add to a hot espresso style coffee – think cappuccinos, lattes, flat whites, though each requires a slightly different texture and technique.

You may also want cold frothy milk for particular teas or iced coffee beverages.

How frothy and the temperature of your milk makes all the difference between your beverages so you need different tools to make the perfect coffee at home.

What does a milk steamer do?

A milk steamer is a machine that heats milk to your desired temperature and creates lots of small bubbles called micro foam – the creamy finish to your espresso coffee! A milk steamer machine can do everything for you at the press of a button.

You will also find attachments on larger espresso machines, commonly known as a steaming wands, that do the same job but a barista (at home that’s you!) holds the milk in a steaming jug and manually heats the milk. It’s definitely an acquired skill but one you’ll want to learn for the best results at home as you have the most control.

Your aim is to steam the milk, helping the milk to expand whilst heating it. Properly steamed milk has a velvety texture to it, almost a glossy finish to look at.

What is a milk frother?

A milk frother does exactly what it says on the tin. It froths the milk by introducing air into the milk to make it lighter and airier, it can expand the milk by up to 2 to 3 times. Frothed milk tends to hold its shape after you have finished frothing.

Milk frothers come in a few varieties. Most common for home use you’ll find battery-operated hand held milk foamers with a small whisk attachment. There are also automatic milk rothers that do the work at the press of a button.

What is the difference between a milk steamer and a milk frother?

The primary difference between the milk steamer and the milk frother is that the frother makes a light, airy foamy milk with large bubbles, where as the steamer heats the milk while texturizing it, but not as foamy.

Steamed milk you will need a little more to start off with as it doesn’t expand as much as frothed milk. The steam created bubbles – or micro foam – are smaller than air-frothed bubbles.

The sciencey bit – why are there different textures between a steamer and a frother?

The frother is introducing air to the milk to expand it, while the steamer is introducing hot steam to heat whilst also creating small bubbles. When the steam heats the milk and the fats are breaking down, this is because you are heating lactic sugar in the milk. The protein keeps your air bubbles stable whilst lactose enhances the sweetness of the milk.

Is there a particular type of milk I need to use?

When we think of milk frothing for coffee, traditional whole cows milk comes to mind. Fattier whole milk will give you a thicker, creamier result whilst low fat and skinny milks will create larger bubbles and more foam.

Steaming animal’s milk you will have a similar result. Ideally, you are looking for a temperature below 154°F/68°C – aim for between 130°F/55°C and 145°F/62°C . If you have your temperature too hot, the milk proteins start to break down, your milk will start to lose temperature and burn if you hit 170°F/77°F .

But what about plant-based milks such as almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk? They can all be used in a frother or a steamer but you’ll get different results.

A glass of almond milk coffee with frothed milk

Using plant-based milk your optimate temperature can vary significantly. For this reason plant-based milks may not work as well in automated milk steamer machines where you don’t have as much control over the temperature. You may have a preference to find an espresso machine with a steaming wand for best results.

  • Oatmilk and Soya you are looking for around 140°F/60°C
  • Almond milk should only be heated to around 130°F/54°C
  • Coconut Milk its recommended you need a higher heat for best results, aim for 160°F/71°C

Top Tip: When choosing a plant-based milk from the supermarket read the fine print! You want milks that are marked “barista”, or “barista edition” for best results. These milks have additional stabilizers that make it easier to steam and prevent it from separating when heated.

So which one is right for you – a Milk Steamer or Milk Frother?

Milky coffee lovers will have their preference – are you a cappuccino fan and want your foam high and creamy? You can froth or steam. Or are you a flat white fan and pretty much just want warm milk with your coffee? You’ll want to delicately steam until the temperature is right but not over overdo the bubbles.

Can I get a device that does both – frother and steamer?

Of course! The processes are similar, but different as we explained above but there are milk steaming and frothing machines capable of doing both, with 2, 3 and even 4 automatic functions all in one!

There’s some pretty sophisticated technology out there, but at a price. The important thing to ask yourself is do you only take your coffee one way, or would you like it to steam and aerate in different ways for different occasions?

Here’s our selection of the best espresso machines perfect for lattes and milky espresso drinks

Features to look for in milk steamers and milk frothers

Some other thing to ask yourself before buying a milk steamer or milk frother:

  • Is it easy to use? Is it one press or are there complicated manuals to work out what you’re doing? Will you have the time to practice and perfect working with your machine?
  • Is it value for money? Will you get enough uses out of whatever machine over a period of years that will warrant the investment (versus say buying your coffee every day?)
  • How easy is it to clean? Complicated parts to pull apart and hand washing or can you easily throw it in the dishwasher?
  • How quickly does it work? Want your milk in the press of a button or willing to put in some elbow grease for the right result?
  • Do you have space in your kitchen? A machine that “does the lot” might be great, but do you have the space to spare as it’s most likely a device that’s always left out?

Although an espresso machine for home – with either a steamer or a frother component – might feel like an expensive investment, do some simply math; even if you don’t have a coffee daily it can take just a few months of take outs to start seeing the pay back.

Generally speaking, perfectly steamed milk is harder to achieve than frothed milk. If you’re a flat white fan or love your lattes with the perfect consistency, you will need to pay for a more expensive milk steamer to get the texture right.

At the end of the day, even with the most expensive equipment, there can be user error involved. You need to be a part of the process to and learn as you go if you want to make amazing milky coffees at home.

Best Milk Frothers and Steamers for Home

As we’ve seen they’re both serving a different purpose so we’re going to break this down into hand held devices that can froth only, stand alone frothers, and machines that can do both!

Best hand-held milk frothers

Handheld milk frothers or frothing wands are quick and compact and you’ll have complete manual control over your aerating, but note they do not heat. It’s recommended for hot coffee you heat the milk first (this can be stove top or microwave if you don’t have any other kitchen device for this), then place your frother in the milk. The small whisk attachment will help you create that perfect foam.

You can, of course, use the handheld frother on cold milk too. This is your cheapest option for creating foamy milk and normally battery operated.

Our Top Choice: PowerLix Handheld Milk Frother  – works in just 20 seconds with a powerful battery powered motor. Compact for transporting, this is best option for cappuccino lovers on the go or very occasional users who don’t want the investment in a larger frothing machine for home.

Best Milk Frother Machines

As simply as it gets plug in and go automatic frothers are best for those who make hot and cold brews at home more frequently.

Our Top Choice; Breville BMF600XL Milk Cafe Milk Frother – this is an outstanding choice for home frothers! You can control the temperature and can set it for latte or cappuccino for different foam textures. Dishwasher safe and easy to clean, it ticks a lot of boxes for the amateur home barista.

Also consider these frothers and warmers:

Best all-in-one Frother and Steamer Machines

If you want some flexibility in frothing and steaming, try these brands of steamer and frother all in one where you can adjust the setting for the type of consistency you’re looking for in your milk.

Our Top Choice: AEVO Milk Frothing Machine – froth and steam for perfect lattes and cappuccinos at home, this

Also consider these all-in-one milk steamers:

Best espresso machines with built-in steamers

Undoubtedly to get the best results, you need the patience and practice using an espresso machine with built-in steamer wand or very precise control over your steamer temperature. These are top of the range, but the regularly espresso coffee drinker will derive the most value from investing in one of these machine for home.

Our Top Choice: Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine – a pretty reasonable price for a machine that ‘does the lot’ for your home barista. It does take up a fair bit of bench space, but here you’ll have full control of everything from grinding to milk temperature.

Also consider these espresso machines with steamers:

  • Jura E8 Automatic Coffee Machines – This one is a big investment, but if you truly want something that does the lot, including special programming specifically for flat white micro foam – this is your winner.

Don’t forget about cleaning your milk frother and milk steamer

Regular care and maintenance of your frother or steamer is needed to remove built up residue that can be left behind on either the wand of your espresso machine or the inside of lids and tubes.

With an espresso machine, you need to run the diluted cleaning solution through your system then rinse a couple of times with clean, cold water. We use Rinza but there are several comparable products on the market for cleaning the external parts as well:

Are you ready to start frothing and steaming at home?

So whilst we do indeed miss regularly catching up with friends in the coffee shop as we used to, you may well find like us that investing in the right equipment will save you an absolute packet and deliver an equally enjoyable coffee sipping experience at home.

Want to learn more about home made coffee?

Pop on over to the coffee connoisseur section of our website. We help demystify all the jargon and explain in simple terms what you actually need to make amazing brews at home! Because we all know how much mama loves a drink!

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