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Learn the Basics of Creating Latte Art

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There are lots of advantages to making your coffee at home: You can save time and money, plus make your drink just the way you like it every time. One area where a latte from a coffeehouse may win, however, is in aesthetics. Baristas at good coffeehouses know how to make a good impression on customers before they even take the first sip by decorating a steaming hot drink with latte art. Creating eye-catching designs with nothing more than espresso and milk may seem like a daunting task, and it certainly takes both time and talent, but with enough practice, even an amateur coffee slinger can turn the cup into a canvas.

Building Blocks 
Before you can create a work of art in your mug, you'll have to prepare the milk. Getting milk ready to make latte art is a skill in itself, and a good way to test the quality of a coffeehouse is by looking for adorned drinks. A latte without art won't necessarily be any worse than a decorated one, but if you get a pretty picture along with your drink, you know that it was at least prepared properly.

Ideally, milk used for latte art should be a smooth, velvety texture, not full of large bubbles. People tend to think of foam as being a thick topping of bubbles on a drink, but it should actually be a thin layer without large bubbles that stand out individually. The most important part of achieving this texture is positioning the steam wand correctly in the milk pitcher. For the first few seconds of heating, the nozzle should be just barely beneath the surface of the milk. This allows air to enter the liquid, creating the layer of tiny bubbles known as microfoam. After a few seconds, the nozzle should be plunged a tiny bit farther into the pitcher to mix the foam with the rest of the milk. Milk should generally be heated to between 130 and 160 degrees for a latte, according to Intelligentsia Coffee. It may be easier to make latte art with milk that stays on the low side of the range, since this will tend to produce fewer large bubbles and a smoother texture overall.

Once the milk is at the right temperature, it's time to polish. After removing the pitcher from the steam wand, bang it once or twice on the counter - not too hard - to dislodge any bubbles still below the surface. Then, swirl the milk in the container to finish mixing it together and you're ready for the pour.

Where Milk Meets Mug 
If you thought steaming milk was complicated, you may want to take a breather before this next step. Each design you may want to make requires a different pouring technique, but they all rest on some of the same principles. Many people have the instinct to pour far too quickly when they first start creating latte art. Fast pours tend to lead to thick designs, while a slow trickle of milk will offer much more control over the final product. Pour with too little force, however, and the milk will simply sink below the coffee without making much of an impact on the art. Serious Eats recommended starting with the pitcher held a few inches above the cup and pouring very slowly, then moving closer and pouring faster throughout the pour. The high initial pour will break the surface of the coffee without disrupting the top too much, and the faster, closer pour will push the coffee around more to create a striking design.

Like any pursuit, the key to latte art mastery is practice. Most baristas start with designs like the heart and the rosetta, which tend to be the easiest to make. Plenty of in-depth guides are available online for these and many more complicated designs, once you've got the basic techniques down.