Ever wondered how to make the most delicious, beautiful cup of coffee that also looks too good to drink? Barista extraordinaire Celeste Wong has given an extensive guide to the basics of coffee making and latte art.
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It’s no exaggeration to say that coffee is a way of life these days. While instant coffee remains a steady and reliable purchase for many, the rise of coffee culture over the last decade has seen many of us wanting to make something more akin to the coffee shop treat from our homes.
In particular, as we’ve spent more time at home than usual in the last year, being able to make a coffee that emulates the experience of a barista-made beverage has proven invaluable to those whose days are punctuated by a hot mug of caffeine.
But from coffee pod machines to cafetieres, the choices of home-making coffee are often overwhelming and confusing for beginners. And recreating the beautiful ripples of steamed milk atop of takeaway flat whites can feel unattainable from our kitchens.
Celeste Wong, an influencer who has worked as a barista in some of the most exciting artisan cafes around the world, is here to simplify things when it comes to creating delicious coffee and latte art from home.
After starting out working part-time in an independent coffee shop in New Zealand, she went on to work in the “mecca of coffee” in Melbourne, moving to London in 2007 and worked at Flat White, the Soho cafe whose team brought the flat white from Australasia to the UK. “No one knew what a flat white was back in 2006!” she says.
For Celeste, when it comes to making coffee – and latte art – at home, it’s best to walk before your run. So here are the basics from the ground up, all the way to the epic milk pouring stage.
Get the espresso right first
Celeste advises getting your base of coffee (in this case, an espresso shot) right, before you do anything else. Otherwise, however pretty the milk might look, the coffee may not complement it or taste right.
In order to get the right espresso, she advises thinking about the following and selecting what’s right for you:
Coffee beans - “Think about if you want dark, medium or light roast – it’s all down to personal taste,” Celeste says, advising trying different roasts with your choice of milk. “I’d say to start out with a medium roast, and to bear in mind that darker roasts can [affect] the flavours and characteristics that come with the beans, so be mindful of that.”
Grind - If you can, grind fresh coffee beans. This can be done using a home grinder (which are available for affordable prices), or Celeste advises taking your beans to a local independent coffee shop and asking if they’d mind doing it for you.
Alternatively, if you don’t have an espresso machine you can use an Aeropress (with ground espresso) to create your shot, or use a coffee capsule machine.
Equipment you’ll need
- A jug with a lip – this is important for pouring purposes
- A spoon
- A milk frothing tool – this can be either a separate frother machine or wand – which can be purchased but sometimes come with certain coffee machines.
- Enough coffee to make a shot, whether it’s made with an espresso machine (in which case you’ll need a grinder), an Aeropress or a coffee pod.
A milk foaming masterclass
1) Select your milk
Celeste’s personal preference is full-fat milk, as she believes it’s the “most flavourful”. But she also recommends skimmed milk, and if you’re going to use alternative milk, be sure to use a barista edition that was manufactured with foaming in mind.
2) Heat your milk
“What you’re doing here is combining the proteins and fat in the milk with the heat to make a perfect storm of microbubbles, which provide that fluffy milk texture that you want in the coffee,” Celeste explains.
You might be using a milk frother machine to do this, or a more manual tool like a milk frothing wand or an extension of your coffee machine. If you’re using the latter, ensure your milk reaches around 66 degrees celsius – an automatic machine will already be programmed to do this.
It’s important not to overheat the milk, Celeste says, as “it will break the structure of the bubbles that hold the froth together.”
If you’re heating the milk manually, think about how deep you insert your wand into the jug – this angle will influence how foamy your milk becomes. “If you hold it just under the surface, you’ll create a thicker foam, like for a cappuccino,” Celeste says. “If it’s in the middle, that makes a creamy, smooth milk for a latte and if you hold it at the bottom of the jug, it creates a hot wet milk for flat white.”
3) Take the top layer off your milk
Once your milk is heated, Celeste advises scraping the top layer of foamy goodness off with a spoon to get to the good stuff underneath before you pour.
“Scoop off the top and you’ll get a nice creamy layer underneath,” she says. “What happens is the hot, wet milk sinks to the bottom and the coldest bubbles are right on the top. So underneath the top layer, the milk is really velvety and smooth.”
4) Pour your milk on top of the espresso
This is the big moment. Celeste says the more you pour, the better and steadier you’ll get, but it’s also important not to overthink it. She also advises placing the back of a spoon in the flow of the milk to steady your pour at first.
“When you start pouring, you want to be a little bit more aggressive with it because you want to push that thick milk to fill the cup up with the hot wet milk from the bottom of the jug,” she says, calling this pouring method part of your “broader brush strokes”.
To create your pretty designs on top of the coffee, you need to use thinner strokes, letting a smaller amount of milk come out as you pour. If you move the lip of the jug in a line from the bottom of your cup to the top, an indentation into the surface of the milk should appear – and that’s where the art begins.
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While the specifics of intricate latte art can be complicated, Celeste says that mastering your broader brush strokes while pouring the thick milk and thinner brush strokes while pouring the thinner milk on top are essentially your “bread and butter” of creating designs on top of the milk.
“Once you can control your thinner brush strokes, try wiggling your jug as you pour and you’ll see the indentation you make will be your brush for making pictures,” she says.
In order to nail the basics of latte art:
- Get the espresso right
- Heat your milk correctly
- Take the top layer of foamed milk off
- Pour from a jug with a lip, using broad and thin brush strokes of milk
Celeste Wong, barista and influencer
Celeste has held top positions in leading artisan cafes all over the world for over a decade. Since migrating to the UK, she has been listed as one of London’s top five Baristas in The Financial Times.
Images: Celeste Wong, Zsuzsa Zicho, Jeff Newton.