I have an awesome milk provider. Every weekend an Amish couple brings me raw milk, which would be illegal if it weren’t, um, for my pet; this stuff is a game-changer. For the first time since 1985, I now sit down and have a glass of milk from time to time. A straight-up glass of milk!
The biggest use we have for milk at Portable Chef Estates, though, is in cappuccinos (“cappuccini,” for the pedants among us, and I include myself in that crew). Since receiving a Nespresso machine as a wedding gift, I’ve been on a pretty consistent four-cappuccinos-a-day habit. The coffee’s very good but not the best by any stretch; what puts these machines over the top is how foolproof and effortless they make the process of making good coffee. You turn it on, wait a few minutes, put in a pod of coffee, press a button, and that’s it: espresso. To foam the milk, there’s a separate device, but just as easy: fill with milk to the line, press a button. There’s no tamping, no cleaning, no nothing. It is the best coffee you can make on a moment’s notice with such minimal effort. And that’s worth a lot.
A key part of the cappuccino is the milk; a key part of the milk is the foam. Foam is what separates a cappuccino from a latte; while the foam-to-milk ratios vary from place to place, even among top-tier venues, a point of agreement is that a cappuccino is mostly foam; a latte is mostly milk.
Which made things very uncomfortable when one morning, my milk wouldn’t foam up.
It was one of the pretty frequent weeks in which my milk people didn’t deliver the goods; customer service is not the forte of the Amish. So I got a half-gallon of organic milk from the store, popped some in the milk frother, and started it up.
Nada. The milk frothed up just a little bit, and that foam disappeared as soon as the frother stopped moving around.
What gives? I did a little research.
Foam comes when you put air bubbles in milk, and the bubbles stay there. It’s the protein in milk that keeps the bubbles intact. It’s glycerol, a substance found in milkfat, that makes the bubbles pop on you. Glycerol is the cappuccino world equivalent of the problem child (John Ritter link opportunity!); if you don’t keep it busy, it’ll wreak all kinds of mischief on your ass.
How does glycerol keep busy? By anchoring fatty acids to form triglycerides (more science on that, including drawings that will induce tenth-grade chemistry flashbacks, here). As long as they’re doing that, they can’t get into mischief (like popping your hard-fought foamy milk bubbles).
Glycerol frees itself up as milk becomes less fresh. This happens long before milk starts getting that bad-milk smell that makes you compuslively want everyone nearby to smell it too; the freshness threshold for drinkability is far lower than the “freshold” of foamability. And the difference is multisensory; not only can you see the absence of foam, but cappuccinos made from older milk can be heard as well as seen. Put your ear up next to a cappuccino made with unfresh milk and you’ll hear the Rice Krispenthine snaps, crackles, and pops of glycerol sending air bubbles up to that Great Lung in the Sky.
So here’s what I’ve learned: the store brand organic milk at Trader Joe’s has that not-so-fresh feeling. So does the Organic Valley milk sold at the Whole Foods near me. Organic Valley, a massive business, has taken to putting the names and cute cartoony images of the farmers who ostensibly raised the cows that produced the milk that is in the carton you’re buying. I have my doubts. Organic Valley, which has done a lot of good work over the years to make organic eggs and dairy widely available for American consumers, is showing signs of ethical compromise along with its significant growth in size and presence on grocery refrigerator shelves: the company is accused of buying milk from a conventional farm in Texas and of pitching Petaluma Farms, a large-ish conventional and organic egg producer for Organic Valley, as “Judy’s Egg Farm” to the company’s board of directors to make it seem like more of a mom-and-pop operation and a better philosophical and ethical fit for the company. Grody.
I’m suspicious about whether Mr. and Mrs. Webb, pictured on my carton, are actually responsible for this failed, frothless, little cappuccino that couldn’t. Still. I’m looking for someone upon whom to focus my bourgeois rage. Webb Family, a pox upon you!
If you want a foamy cappuccino, there’s a couple of ways you can go:
1. Get fresh milk (for which you don’t necessarily have to belly-up to a dairy farmer; it can be found on grocery store shelves if their distribution system is tight. For example, the Organic Valley milk at the unassuming bodega across the street from me foams up perfectly every time – and there aren’t even farmers on the carton. It’ll take a little experimentation, but it’s totally doable.
2. Get skim or lowfat milk. Less preferable, but if you’re deadset on some foam and can’t find milk that’s fresh enough, this is a way to go. Glycerol makes up about 4% of whole milk but next none of skim, so the lower fat your milk is, the more permanent the foam, even if the milk isn’t from-the-udder fresh. An unfortunate side effect is that in the absence of fat the milk foam takes on a different character and is much stiffer than the stuff you can make from whole milk. Whether that offers a better drinking sensation than unfoamed whole milk is a matter of personal preference.
3. Go out and order one. Don’t make it a habit, though. A widely-esteemed business school professor imparted one piece of financial advice to graduating students: don’t order fancy coffees. Two cappuccinos a day, at four bucks a pop, is $3,000 a year, which seems a ridiculous percentage of almost anyone’s income. When I feel like flouting that advice, I enjoy Everyman Espresso (on 13th Street near 3rd Avenue in New York) and Bluefly (1st Street, near 1st avenue). If you’re not my neighbor, then employ the strategy I use when traveling: “cappuccino” has doubled p’s and c’s; never get one from a place that can’t get that right.