As an aspiring espresso enthusiast, you’ll need to know the differences between milk frothers and steam wands. That way, you’ll have the best-tasting milk-based espresso drinks. I’ll explain those differences.
I’ll explain who should get either device, and then compare their main differences. Afterward, I’ll talk about what each device is.
Read on to learn more.
- Steam wands can only work with hot milk; milk frothers work with hot and cold milk.
- You can only use milk frothed with a steam wand for latte art.
- Milk frothers are more affordable and portable.
- Milk frothers are easier to clean.
Who Should Get a Milk Frother & Steam Wand?
Whether you should get a milk frother or a steam wand depends on your needs and preferences.
Here’s a breakdown of who might benefit from each.
1. Who Should Get a Milk Frother
- Casual coffee drinkers: If you don’t make coffee drinks every day or don’t want to invest in an espresso machine.
- Those who prefer simplicity: Just submerge the frother in milk, turn it on, and watch it work its magic.
- Those who like light and airy foam: If you prefer a less dense and more delicate foam texture, a milk frother might be your preference.
Get a milk frother if you’re a beginner with coffee making or if you don’t want to learn how to use a steam wand, which does have a steep(ish) learning curve.
2. Who Should Get a Steam Wand
- Serious coffee enthusiasts: If you’re passionate about crafting barista-quality espresso drinks at home and want to have full control over the milk texture.
- Those who want rich and velvety foam: Steam wands produce a denser, more velvety foam that closely resembles what you’d get in a professional coffee shop.
Get a steam wand if you have extra time to time in your day to make coffee and are passionate about flavor. If you get almost any semi-automatic espresso machine, you’ll have a steam wand. And likely you’ll have the time and expertise to use this.
Consider your coffee-making habits, desired foam texture, and level of expertise when making your decision.
Differences Between Milk Frothers & Steam Wands
Milk frothers are easier to use due to not requiring a specific technique to froth milk. However, the technique required for steam wands produces a more velvety milk that’s great for making latte art at home.
Here are many of the main differences between these 2 milk frothing devices summarized:
|Ease of Use
|Hot and cold milk
And for the advantages and disadvantages.
1. Steam Wand Pros & Cons.
- Produces a velvety microfoam ideal for latte art
- Offers precise control over the texture and temperature of the milk foam
- Heats the milk to a consistent temperature
- Can create a variety of milk textures, from microfoam to thick froth
- Requires practice and skill to master
- Not portable
- More expensive than milk frothers
- Requires a machine with a steam wand
Steam wands cost more due to only being included with espresso machines. They also only froth milk at high temperatures. But they offer more precise control over your milk foam’s texture.
2. Milk Frother Pros & Cons
- Easy to use
- Can be used with cold or heated milk
- Less control over the texture of the milk foam
- Not ideal for latte art
- May not heat the milk to a consistent temperature
While affordable and portable, you don’t have as much control over your milk’s texture as with steam wands. They’re also not ideal for latte art.
Let’s dive into all the categories that make milk frothers and steam wands different.
Steam wand vs. Milk Frother
I’ll expand upon the following reasons why milk frothers and steam wands are different:
- Taste: Taste is more complex with a steam wand.
- Texture and foam. Steam wands produce more velvety and dense textures with microfoam.
- Aesthetics: Latte art works better for milk frothed with a steam wand.
- Price: Milk frothers are much cheaper.
- How they function: Steam wands use more complex mechanisms to heat and froth milk.
- Temperature: You can froth milk at hot and cold temperatures with a milk frother and not a steam wand.
- Ease of cleaning: Milk frothers are easier to clean.
Let’s dive in.
Milk frothed with a steam wand can have a slightly richer and more complex flavor due to the caramelization of some milk sugars during heating. Otherwise, milk put through a frother typically has a slightly sweeter taste due to the addition of air bubbles.
The bubbles increase the surface area of the milk, which can enhance the perception of sweetness.
Taste difference isn’t that vast between these devices. But the texture is.
Summary: Steam wands produce richer milk with a more complex flavor due to caramelized sugars. Frothers create slightly sweeter milk with an airier texture.
2. Milk Texture & Foam
Milk put through a milk frother will come out with foamy, airier bubbles (macrofoam). Meanwhile, milk steamed with a steam wand will come out as a dense microfoam with a velvety texture. So long as you’ve learned how to use it properly.
The resulting texture from steamed milk will have a better mouth feel than what’s produced with a milk frother.
Otherwise, who knows what’ll result from using your steam wand as an inexperienced user. For instance, you could let too much air into your milk and create too many bubbles.
Anyway. You can’t make latte art with foam because it does not have the right texture. But you can do so with a steam wand.
The resulting microfoam from steam wands looks better, too. Let’s see why.
Summary: Milk frother creates airier bubbles, while a steam wand, when used properly, creates a denser microfoam with a velvety texture and better mouthfeel.
Milk frothed with a steam wand provides a superior aesthetic experience due to its velvety texture, barista control, and smooth appearance. This makes it the preferred method for professional baristas and coffee enthusiasts who want to create latte art.
Summary: Steamed milk looks better since you have more control over its texture and appearance.
- Milk frother price: $10–$100
- Steam wand price: $100–$10,000
Handheld milk frothers start at around $10, and jug (standalone) milk frothers can reach up to $100. Machines with built-in milk frothers will typically cost $200–$400.
Choosing the first 2 options is more affordable than getting any mid- or high-end espresso machine with a milk frother.
Such machines tend to cost more than $800. Yeah, you’ll find espresso makers for less than $800, but if you’re a hobbyist who strives for the best taste, you’ll at least want a mid-range machine.
Folks wanting to replicate drinks like lattes from coffee shops will want to shell out more money for temperature-regulating features such as PID controllers and dual boilers for better-tasting milk froth.
This could cost you thousands of dollars.
Summary: Milk frothers—whether built into a machine—are more accessible to regular coffee drinkers. Steam wands are more priced toward hobbyists.
5. How They Function
Milk frothers will introduce air to your milk to make it foamy. Steam wands will expose your milk to heated steam. As your milk warms, the fats in your milk will break down. Resulting in heated lactic sugar and a milk with a lot of texture.
Milk frothers are much easier to use than steam wands since they don’t require a learning curve. Most machines will include automatic milk frothers, which will do all the work for you. With steam wands, you’ll need to learn optimal positioning for your steam wand to create a textured milk.
Summary: Milk frothers create airy foam while steam wands heat and texturize milk with a learning curve. Steam wands offer more control but require practice, while automatic frothers are simple and convenient.
Steam wands introduce temperatures of between 131 °F and 143 °F to heat milk and break down the fats . Meaning, it’s always hot and requires more complex machine parts to maintain such temperatures.
You could use cold or heated milk with milk frothers. Many built-in milk frothers will heat your milk to temperatures between 140 °F and 155 °F . But it’s not critical in many drink recipes. You could also froth cold milk.
Because of this, many machines (e.g., Ninja coffee makers), won’t heat and froth your milk. They’ll only froth it. The lack of such a feature will result in the machine having less moving parts since they don’t need to focus on temperature regulation.
The high temperatures will also affect how easy it is to clean your machine.
Summary: Steam wands require high temperatures to heat and froth milk, making machines more complex. Milk frothers offer more flexibility, allowing cold or heated milk and frothing without needing heating capabilities, simplifying the machine.
7. Ease of Cleaning
Automatic milk frothers built into coffee makers often have automatic cleaning mechanisms that’ll spray milk out of the frothing mechanism. Manual frothers just require a good scrub. And handheld frothers don’t require much effort to clean.
Steam wands require much more effort to clean. First off, milk can scald due to high temperatures and adhere to the wand, requiring scrubbing. Then you’ll need to blow the steam through your steam wand after use to clear out any gunk.
That’s easy—so long as there aren’t any clogs. Otherwise, you’ll need to use a specific tool called a “steam tip cleaning tool.” It’ll require you to dig the pointy edge of the tool into your steam wand and clean out the gunk.
We have one more category.
Summary: Automatic milk frothers require minimal cleaning, while manual and handheld frothers only need a quick scrub. Steam wands demand more effort, involving milk residue scrubbing and clearing clogs with a specific tool.
Almost every type of milk frother is portable—except for ones built into coffee and espresso machines. They’re excellent to place in a backpack and have a milk-based drink while you’re on the go.
Before ending things, let’s define what a milk frother is.
Summary: Steam wands lack portability due to their built-in nature in espresso machines. Almost all milk frothers are portable and easily carried around for on-the-go enjoyment.
What Is a Milk Frother?
A milk frother is a device used to create frothed milk. Frothed milk is milk that has been aerated or whipped to create a foamy texture. This foamy texture can affect the taste and mouthfeel of the beverage.
To use a milk frother, submerge the whisk or agitator in cold milk and turn it on. Froth the milk for about 30 seconds or until it has reached the desired consistency. Once the milk is frothed, add it to your coffee drink.
There’s more than 1 type of milk frother. I’ll cover the differences next.
Types of Milk Frothers
You’ll find various types of milk frothers such as the following…
1. Handheld milk frothers
- Avg. Price: $10–$50
Battery-operated or electric milk frothers that you hold in your hand while frothing milk. These give you a lot of control over your milk’s froth and cost the least. But they don’t introduce any heat to your milk.
Handheld milk frothers work great for individuals who want control over frothing their milk and want to save money.
2. Manual milk frothers
- Avg. Price: $10–$50
You use a hand pump instead of a small motor to froth your milk. These are more durable than electric frothers due to having no moving parts, but they require more effort and don’t give you much control over your milk froth’s texture.
Manual milk frothers work best for anyone who doesn’t want to rely on electricity for frothing milk. It’s not ideal for frugal folks because you can find thousands of handheld milk frothers under $10.
3. Jug frothers
- Avg. Price: $80–$400
You’ll often find these milk frothers attached to espresso and drip coffee makers. Or you’ll find standalone models like Nespresso’s Aeroccino. It’s called a “jug” because the container holding your milk will warm and froth it.
Jug frothers work best for anyone who wants to automate the milk frothing process and doesn’t mind the premium that comes with it.
You don’t have control over your milk’s texture, since these devices will automatically do all the frothing. However, you won’t have to worry about heating the milk to between 140 and 155 °F (ideal temperature).
Due to the automation and addition of complex moving parts, these devices—or machines with these devices—typically cost more. There’s a single Keurig and Nespresso model that includes one. Otherwise, you’ll mostly see them on super-automatic espresso machines.
What Is a Steam Wand?
A steam wand is a metal nozzle typically attached to an espresso machine that introduces high-pressure steam into milk to create frothed milk. The steam wand heats the milk and introduces tiny air bubbles, resulting in a textured and foamy consistency.
Here’s a more detailed explanation of how they work:
1. Heating the Milk: The steam wand activates, releasing high-pressure steam into the milk pitcher. The steam rapidly heats the milk to a temperature between 131 °F to 143 °F.
2. Incorporating Air: As the steam enters the milk, it carries tiny air bubbles along with it. These air bubbles become trapped in the milk as it cools, creating the foam. The amount of air incorporated depends on the steam pressure and the position of the steam wand.
3. Creating Froth: The combination of heated milk and air bubbles results in frothed milk. The consistency of the froth can range from light and airy to dense and velvety, depending on the barista’s technique and the desired texture for the specific coffee drink.
4. Texturing the Milk: As the frothing process continues, the barista moves the steam wand up and down to incorporate the air bubbles evenly throughout the milk. This texturing process creates a stable foam.
5. Achieving Desired Foam: The barista carefully monitors the milk temperature and foam consistency, stopping the steam wand once the desired texture is achieved. Overheating the milk can lead to a scorched taste, while under-frothing can result in a thin and unstable foam.
You’d use a steam wand to brew milk for drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos.
What drinks can steam wands and milk frothers make?
What Kind of Drinks Can Milk Frothers & Steam Wands Make?
You’d use a milk frother to create any foam-based drinks like:
|Café au lait
|Flavored cold brews
|Matcha latte or dalgona
Drinks that call for steamed milk include:
- Flat white: 1:2 ratio of espresso-to-steamed milk.
- Latte: 1:3 ratio of espresso-steamed milk.
- Cappuccino: 1:1:1 ratio of espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk.
- Cortado: 1:1 ratio of espresso-to-milk.
- Piccolo: 1:1 ratio of espresso-to-milk; cup size and texture doesn’t matter, as it does with a cortado.
There are a million more niche drinks, but it would make this post too many words-long. Thus, I listed the ones you’ll likely know.
Is there anything else to learn? Nope. Thanks for reading.
FAQs for Milk Steamers & Frothers
Keep reading to find frequently asked questions about milk frothers and steam wands.
Can You Use a Steam Wand to Froth Milk?
Yes, you can use a steam wand to froth milk for lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiato
Milk frothers are better for an average coffee drinker because they don’t require skill to use and you can use the resulting milk for most espresso-based drinks. Steam wands are better for hobbyists since they offer more control.
Want to learn more about the drinks these devices can make? Check out a guide we wrote on other drink types.