Microfoam is one of the best things about coffee, full stop. It turns the drink into something almost magical.
Foam and froth conjure up several positive images. Fluffy clouds, soft pillows, fallen snow…it’s a lesson in sensory delight every time you lift your cup to your lips. Getting your technique right is what separates a mediocre espresso drink from an unforgettable one.
The cappuccino vs flat white are two espresso-based coffee drinks that rely on quality microfoam and froth. What’s the difference between the two? We’re going to take a look below and share some useful tips on not just ordering good coffee, but making good coffee.
Breaking Down The Milk In Microfoam And Froth
If you’re leveling up your coffeemaking skills, consider doubling back to the basics. It’s not enough to just watch the magic unfold. You need to become familiar with the science behind it all.
Dairy milk is a cluster of complex enzymes, fats, and bacteria. I doubt I need to tell you all the different forms it can take depending on how it’s processed. Churn milk long enough and it becomes creamy butter. Ferment milk and you get yogurt, the preferred snack of thirty-something women throughout the West. Lactic acid, another bacterial ingredient in milk, is a fantastic skincare ingredient that encourages cell turnover, fades scars, and gives you a healthy glow.
Microfoam and froth are the results of combining milk with air. Froth is the drier and fluffier of the two, often used as a finishing touch on lattes or very dry cappuccinos. Microfoam, on the other hand, uses much smaller air bubbles to create a silky, creamy texture on par with whipped cream. As you practice at home you’re going to learn through trial-and-error how milk reacts to timing and your equipment. Failing to judge your milk accordingly can lead to a chunky or parched mess.
Practice makes perfect. Once you get the hang of aerating your milk you’ll be making latte art and layered cappuccinos like a champ.
Creating Microfoam Without A Steam Wand
“Wait.”, you might be saying. “You can make microfoam without all that fancy barista equipment?”
This circles us right back to understanding milk on a fundamental level. Microfoam and froth, for all their visual complexity, are just milk with a little circulation and air. If you own a French Press or are thinking of buying one, you already have a very easy way to create flat whites and cappuccinos at home. This video by James Hoffman provides a great visual example of how you can take that knowledge and apply it to your French Press. He also looks into steam wands and milk carafes for those that want a more hands-off approach.
I’ve made lattes using the French Press microfoam method and the result is fantastic. My biggest recommendation is to keep a firm eye on your milk as it rises: you need to push the filter basket just below the surface so you can crush those larger air bubbles, but not so deep into the milk you pass them entirely. As the milk inches up toward the top so should your filter follow it, right up until it’s about to overflow. Give the entire thing a little tap and swirl to break up those lingering bubbles and voila!
The French Press microfoam method doesn’t take long at all. I needed just ten or fifteen seconds, not unlike a standard steam wand, and the result was so good I immediately needed another.
Frothing Up Oat, Almond And Soy Milk
No dairy? No problem! Plant-based milk is just as capable of crafting a sumptuous coffee drink as any carton of 2%.
Now, each will come with its own limitations due to lacking the particular fat content and bacterial build-up of dairy. Almond milk is the most watery of plant-based milk, needing a little more time on the aeration front to start fluffing up. Whereas standard whole or 2% milk needs ten to fifteen seconds, I’d give oat milk twenty or twenty-five. It’ll still be a little on the thinner side but will taste plenty delicious. Oat milk is in a similar boat, being a little creamier, while soy milk is easily the thickest of the three.
Whenever I got a soy milk latte request I immediately looked forward to how quickly it’d fluff up in the milk carafe. If you’re debating between plant-based milk on a health-related front, make sure you double-check your cartons. Oat, almond, and soy are only a little nutritious by themselves and often need to be boosted with extra vitamins and minerals. Make sure to separate between the sweetened and unsweetened versions, too! All that calorie counting won’t add up to much if you’re still packing in sugar.
Making microfoam without a steam wand. Crafting quality espresso-based drinks without barista experience. Now it’s time to see what the cappuccino vs flat white conundrum is all about.
Separating The Cappuccino Vs Flat White
Let’s make things clear here: I love both of these. Espresso-based drinks with plenty of microfoam are like therapy in a cup.
They’re still different enough that I’ll choose one over the other depending on the occasion. The flat white is essentially a latte with less milk and less microfoam, served in a small cup to keep your tastebuds focused on the espresso. It’s a great drink while you’re traveling, not needing quite as much attention as a cappuccino or even a latte, and makes a solid addition to a small lunch. Contrary to popular belief, espresso can be just as sweet and gentle as any drip coffee…it just depends on the beans!
The cappuccino is an espresso-based drink that’s light and airy, mixing in microfoam with espresso shots with very little milk. Now, the distinction between dry and wet cappuccinos really depends on where you go. The wet cappuccino is dubbed as such for having a little steamed milk with the shots, while some still believe it to be entirely shots mixed with microfoam. The dry cappuccino is named for how airy it is, mixing in only microfoam and being topped off with a dollop of froth. It’s so dry you often need a spoon to scoop it out.
The cappuccino vs flat white boils down to the ratio of espresso, milk, and microfoam. They’re particular details, which is why it helps to reevaluate your coffee vocabulary.
Boosting Your Niche Coffee Vocabulary
You know the difference between microfoam and froth. You’re definitely familiar with espresso and how it stands apart from drip coffee. Now we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty.
When crafting particular drinks like the flat white or the cortado you need to be acutely aware of how the milk interacts with the coffee. Texture changes on a dime in the drink-making process and being slightly off can alter the color and even flavor. ‘Meniscus’ is a scientific term that refers to how liquids stick to the sides of a cup or container, often ones that have high sugar or fat content. This is why baristas carefully layer their drinks in a set pattern, as throwing in ingredients erratically can affect how the final product, literally and figuratively, stacks up.
When you pick up a latte filled all the way to the top, but notice it doesn’t quite spill over, you’re watching the meniscus in effect. As for other terms: froth is sometimes referred to as ‘macrofoam’, though I can safely say I rarely hear baristas or customers call it that. ‘Crema’ is a very important term for espresso lovers, referring to the golden build-up that settles on top of an espresso shot. It’s a collection of oil that distinguishes espresso from drip and even Moka pot espresso. Lastly, ‘cappuccino macchiato espresso’ is…not actually a thing!
Coffee vocabulary is ever-shifting and ever-building. If you don’t know what something is, now is always the best time to learn!
How To Improve Your Moka Pot Espresso.
Just like you don’t need a steam wand to make microfoam, you also don’t need an espresso machine to make good espresso.
The Moka pot has been a staple for homebrewers for decades ever since Bialetti introduced their steam-based creation to the world in the 1800s. Its espresso, while not being exactly like the golden majesty you see at coffee shops, is still highly concentrated and very rich. When searching for a Moka pot it’s important to remember the sizes it comes in. Many brands will dub their pots 2-cup or 4-cup, but they’re actually referring to shot glass sizes. If you like to make a cup for a friend or significant other, get the largest one you can find.
You’ll want a medium-fine grind (think of the consistency like salt), ideally with freshly ground coffee. A useful tip I learned to avoid burning the brew is to pour heated water into the Moka pot, then set it on the stove. That sounds a little roundabout, but it keeps the pot from sitting too long and getting stale. The second your pot starts bubbling, take it off the stove and pour it out. Drink it quickly so you can savor all the flavors before they vanish.
Your Moka pot will lean toward tart and chocolate flavors, with thicker mouthfeels and very strong aromas.
The cappuccino vs flat white, like the latte vs mocha, is a case study of two similar drinks with a key difference.
Are you too busy to sit at the cafe for long and just want a shot of caffeine? The flat white is perfect.
If you or someone you know is studying the difference between cappuccino vs flat white, link them to this article. In the meantime: what’s your favorite coffee drink while traveling?