When you think of coffee shop beverages, the first thing that comes to mind is a pretty mound of foam with sprinkles of chocolate on top, right? Behold the mighty cappuccino.
When people are asked to name their caffeinated drink of choice, cappuccinos regularly come out on top. What you might not know is that you can make cappuccinos at home, and that they can be just as good as your favourite coffee shop.
Let us show you how to make a great cappuccino at home from the privacy of your own kitchen - both with and without fancy equipment.
What is a cappuccino?
Cappuccinos first appeared in northern Italy in the 1930s, but it wasn't until the regular use of espresso machines that they came into the mainstream. Think of all the Soho coffee shops in the 1950’s, with a mountain of solid foam on top of a searing hot espresso, and you’ll have a fairly accurate image.
The name cappuccino literally means ‘small capuchin’, which is the name of the monks whose hooded cloth is the brown colour that the coffee resembles when stirred together (and not their particular hairstyle, as has erroneously been described in the past -the ring of espresso around the white dome of milk is said to represent their ring of hair). Apparently the word was used widely to describe that particular shade of brown in Italy way back when, and the name stuck.
But what is a cappuccino now? In more recent years, the debate has been around what isn't a cappuccino, rather than what is. This is down to the modern latte art obsession, where the pursuit of an instagrammable coffee has outweighed taste or correct differentiation.
In Italy, they even tried passing a law as to what constituted a real cappuccino. The draft settled on 75ml of milk to 25ml espresso, with most of the milk being foam as opposed to simply textured milk, but it never came to pass.
In general, a cappuccino is about ratio: a third espresso; a third hot textured milk; and a third froth or foam, topped with chocolate or cinnamon dust. Traditionally it is quite a small drink containing one or two shots of coffee, but walk into any high street cafe and you’ll be able to get literal buckets of the stuff, with anything up to five shots of espresso.
What is a bone dry cappuccino?
Not a fan of milky cappuccino? You could always ask for a dry or bone dry cappuccino when ordering.
A bone dry cappuccino is when the ratio of frothy to textured milk is off, with there being a larger amount of foam than in a traditional cappuccino. You can tell when it’s done well as the cup will be distinctly lighter. The opposite to this would be a wet cappuccino, which is the bane of any barista’s day, as it is essentially a latte (tons of textured milk, espresso and very little foam) by any other name.
Want to make a bone dry cappuccino at home? This does require a certain amount of skill unfortunately, but it boils down to stretching (frothing) the milk as much as you can without burning it. As the stronger foam generally sits on top of a jug of heated milk, there are tricks you can try to get as much as you can out of it: use a spoon to manually scoop out the foam to add to your espresso; or use a knife to hold back the froth while pouring away the wetter milk, and add the leftover froth to your coffee.
How to make great cappuccino at home
The easiest way to make great cappuccino at home would be to use one of our Sage pre-programmed bean-to-cup espresso machines, such as the Sage Barista Touch, which will make the right type of milk and espresso for you. If you want a more manual touch, however, here’s how to master the art of the machine-made cappuccino.
With an espresso machine
To get a truly authentic cappuccino you will need to use an espresso machine with a steam wand, such as the manual Sage Bambino Plus.
You will need:
- A milk jug (the larger the better).
- Full fat milk, or a dairy alternative,
- One or two shots of espresso, depending on personal taste (we recommend our breakfast blend, which works well with milk).
- A thermometer.
- An espresso machine with a steam wand.
- Pour milk into the jug - it should come up to just under where the spout starts. When starting out it’s always a good idea to use too much milk, so you are less likely to burn it. Essentially, you want to take a small amount of milk and stretch it till it fills the jug.
- Place the wand into the milk, without turning it on. You want it to be fully submerged in the milk so that when you turn on the steam it doesn’t fly up into your face.
- Turn on the steam, angling the jug so that you can see into it.
- Slowly move the jug down so that the wand is just touching the top of the milk, this should make a sound like tearing paper. This noise is key!
- You want to keep the tearing sound as a constant, as this is expanding the milk. Hold the wand to the edge of the milk until the sound disappears, then pull the jug down slightly to bring the wand to the edge of the milk again. Repeat this process until you are near the top of the jug or the optimal temperature (60-68℃) has been reached.
- If you are at the top of the jug before you have reached temperature, plunge the wand down into the milk (being mindful not to touch the metal sides) to keep the temperature increasing without the milk expanding too much.
- Turn off the wand and remove from the jug.
- Clean off the wand with a cloth and purge again. These should be done straight away, and accounts for a large part of keeping your machine in working order.
- Now swirl the jug roughly enough to incorporate the bubbles into the wetter milk at the bottom.
- Use a hard surface to bang the jug down to dispel any larger bubbles, then swirl again. The texture should be glossy and thick. If there is a layer of stiffer bubbles visibly on top then the milk is probably burnt, or getting there.
- If you haven’t prepared your espresso yet, keep the jug swirling while doing so, or the layers will begin to separate.
- Once you have your espresso in a nice cup (a low round one is best), pick up the cup and swirl it gently so that the crema coats the sides of the cup. This will create the dark ring around the final cappuccino.
- Pour the milk from the jug on its side, not from the spout. Do this in a back and forth motion, as if to nudge the milk out, until you have a dome shape.
- Finally, sprinkle with your choice of chocolate powder, dark chocolate shavings, or cinnamon (insider tip: most coffee shops just use hot chocolate powder - no special ingredients needed).
How to make cappuccino without a machine
Don’t have an espresso machine? Don’t panic: you can still make great cappuccinos at home without a machine.
First of all, the coffee. A cappuccino is pretty much named for its milk type and proportions, so how you come about your caffeine hit is up to you, but make sure it's equivalent to one or two shots of espresso (an Aeropress is perfect for this, but that’s a whole other subject: we look into it in our Aeropress article here.
All of these methods require you to heat the milk. You can do this in the microwave or in a pan on the stove. Both ways must be watched carefully, as milk goes from fine to burnt in seconds. The limit is 60-68°C before the milk starts to degrade in taste, smell and texture, in spite of what fans of extra hot lattes would have you believe!
Probably the simplest method for making cappuccinos, this way will produce serviceable foam, but it will collapse quite quickly, so drink it straight away.
After heating your milk, pour it into a glass jar and put a lid on it. You’ll most likely need to hold it with a towel as it will get hot. Now shake as much as you can. Yes, your arms will ache, but think of the super creamy coffee afterwards and power through. Pour over your coffee and top with chocolate powder.
Handheld milk frothing wand:
This is definitely our favourite method, as it gives the most consistent foam without a steam wand, and is sold pretty much everywhere. Heat your milk as usual, then put into a short round glass, or high sided bowl.
Put the wand under the top of the milk and turn it on, moving in a large circular motion. Move the wand up each time the milk has expanded so that the wand stays on the edge of the milk. Round and up, round and up, until you have the desired amount of bubbles; and serve.
*Not immersion blenders, unless you are looking to make a lot of mess, but with any other blender, go ahead. Heat up the milk as before, and put it inside the blender. Pulse a few times, or set to blend for 10 second increments, keeping an eye on the texture until you are happy. Pour over the coffee and serve.
Cafetiere / French Press:
If you like coffee, chances are you have a dusty old cafetiere at the back of a cupboard somewhere. Now you can turn it into a wonderful milk frothing machine (as well as making your coffee for the cappuccino: two birds, one stone)! As pressure is involved with this method, however, the milk will expand significantly, so be mindful not to put too much milk in. Heat the milk first, then place it in the cafetiere where you would place the coffee. Plunge the pump 10-15 times while holding the lid in place. Let the milk rest for 30 seconds, then swirl to incorporate. Serve straight away.
Which milk to use for cappuccino
When using dairy milk for your cappuccino, it is better to go for full fat options. You can use skimmed milk if necessary, but the bubbles will be stiffer and will dissolve fairly quickly. This is of course a personal preference, but you will lose an element of smoothness with anything with a lower fat content.
Make sure your milk does not rise above 60-68℃, as that is when it will begin to burn and degrade. Believe us, you will smell it before you even get the chance to taste it! Burnt milk will not only taste bad itself, it will make even the best coffee beans taste burnt and bitter. On top of this, the hotter the milk is, the frothier it becomes naturally, so try to keep the milk moving to stop a layer of stiff, immovable foam from forming on top.
With that said, three out of ten Brits are now choosing alternative milks for their coffees, so let’s look at what other options are out there, and how to work with them when making cappuccinos:
Quickly becoming the favourite of dairy free fans, this milk can work well in cappuccinos provided you get the right sort. Basic oat milk is made with water and oats, and unfortunately this doesn't really froth at all. There are, however, plenty of barista style oat milks out there, with added ingredients to help with the frothing process. If you don't have any to hand, adding a small amount of soya milk to the oat milk before heating works in the same way. With this milk in particular, the freshness of the milk will affect how well it froths.
If you like the taste, coconut milk can make a reasonable cappuccino. However, it also doesn’t act in the same way as dairy milk. It not only has a lower boiling point, but also lacks the proteins needed to hold bubbles well - so even with the best efforts, your cappuccino may end up looking like a milky americano. If you are adamant about using coconut, try adding soya milk to it, or opt for a barista milk edition.
The easiest alternative milk to work with when making cappuccinos, soya works the same way as dairy, has the same general heat guidelines, and comes plain or sweetened. Perfect.
It’s not just the milk that you can swap when making a cappuccino at home - these creamy delights can be made with different beans too. Take for instance our decaffeinated beans. Cappuccinos can be a wonderful after dinner treat in place of desert, so make sure you and your guests can enjoy it without having to worry that you’ll be awake all night.
We hope that this has whetted your appetite for a homemade cappuccino. It can be made with dairy milk, or not; with an espresso machine, or not; and to standard Italian guidelines; or not. Whichever way you like it, next time you're working from home, or when the weather is just too miserable to go traipsing to your favourite coffee shop, why not pull out your blender/jam jar/whisk, and make a great cappuccino from home.