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How to Make A Vegan or Lactose Free Cappuccino

            How to Make A Vegan or Lactose Free Cappuccino

Hot or cold, the combination of coffee with milk or cream is always delicious.  However, in today’s society we are always looking for ways to make all of our food choices the healthiest they can be.  So how can we make our cappuccino healthier?

While no one wants to forgo the rich smooth tasting qualities of a cappuccino or the crowning microfoam that distinguishes a cappuccino from other beverages,  swaps for milk may be necessary.

Lactose intolerances, allergies, digestive issues, weight management or meeting diet criteria, like those in Keto, for example, where coffee is acceptable but dairy is not are important reasons to explore milk alternatives for cappuccino and other milk-based drinks.

There are a number of milk alternatives that can be used when making cappuccino. Read on to discover which milk swaps are ideal for a healthy cappuccino while keeping the silky mouth feel that makes this drink decadent and delicious.  

What is cappuccino? The Italian Recipe

A cappuccino is one third espresso, one-third milk foam and one-third hot milk. This represents the standard Italian recipe which has been modified in other countries, including the USA where wide liberties have been taken with these proportions. 


 The "classic” Italian cappuccino is a total of 6 ounces- 2 oz each of espresso, foam and hot milk. The recipe is both easy to remember and easy to make and guarantees a delicious drink as long as you use good coffee and fresh milk. Cow’s milk is used in this “classic” recipe.  In the US a standard cappuccino is usually 8 ounces or more.

The quality of the froth is critical for a good cappuccino. What makes cappuccino stand out among other milk-based drinks is the compact, dense milk froth which sits on top of the coffee resembling a crown. The foam is so thick it almost looks like a dollop of whip cream. Milk is steamed, and the milk proteins are responsible for forming a compact foam saturated with fine air bubbles.

Cappuccino and weight management

You don’t always need to feel guilty for having a cappuccino.  Did you know cappuccino can act as an appetite suppressant?  It is, if it is drunk piping hot.  The heat causes the combination of tannic acids in the coffee and casein in the milk to digest slowly, resulting in a feeling of fullness.

Coffee with tap measure

In Italy, cappuccino is usually served at approximately 145 degrees Fahrenheit.  While in the North America, cappuccino is typically served from 165 to185℉. Keep in mind that milk heated to above 165℉ will alter in its ability to froth and the taste of the milk is compromised because it begins to boil.

In this case, it would appear that the North American standard temperatures provides a healthier cappuccino option, but we all know portion control is a big variable in weight management.  In this case, the Italian recipe would be the winner because an American small cappuccino is usually at least an 8oz serving.

Each milk alternative has a range with respect to calories and carbohydrates, so depending on your goals you need to consider what type of milk to use when making your healthy cappuccino.

Milk Alternatives for Cappuccino and What to Expect

You need to consider that there are three major constituents of milk that are important to understand in regard to its flavour and frothing capabilities and how milk interacts with coffee. These elements are fats, proteins, and lactose.

It is proteins in the milk when steamed that will become compact to produce a dense silky firm froth making it taste authentic.  Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages and there is no perfect alternative.

It is the proteins in milk that are largely responsible for foaming, as the milk heats to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Fats are important part of the content of milk that gives it a rounded mouthfeel.  Milk with a higher fat content generally result in a fuller flavour, and a richer, silkier beverage.

Lactose, also known as milk sugar, is what gives milk its sweetness. However, lactose-free milk options do become sweeter when heated. The extraction methods used in producing soy or nut milks, for example, can result in low lipid content and lipids are necessary for holding the air bubbles in the liquid.

various brand and types of milk, soy, almond, cocunut, rice milk and more

Dairy Milk – Cow’s Milk

  • Fat content varies as it comes in whole (4 percent), 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free.
  • Regardless of the fat content in dairy milk, each contains protein which will create a foam. When using a low-fat milk, you will achieve a meringue type foam, while high-fat milk will create more of thick whip cream type of foam also referred to as microfoam.
  • Difference in the fat content will be noted in the third of the cappuccino that is hot milk. The less fat content the less creamy the cappuccino will taste.  The fat-free for example, can taste watery.

Lactose-Free Milk

  • Like dairy milk, this milk comes with varying fat content – 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free.
  • This type of milk is processed to break down lactose – a natural sugar found in milk products.
  • Still contains proteins, which will create the foam required for a cappuccino.

Soy Milk

  • Popular milk alternative for vegans or those who are lactose intolerant.
  • Rich in proteins.
  • Creates the requisite froth for cappuccino much like dairy milk – comparable to 2 percent dairy milk.
  • Foam won't easily dissipate.
  • You really need to experiment with the brand because some leave a bit of an after taste, which is unpleasant for die-hard cappuccino connoisseurs. 

Rice Milk

  • Least allergenic of all milk substitutes, making it a good choice for those who are lactose intolerant or have nut allergies.
  • Does not contain enough protein to properly froth for a real cappuccino mouthfeel.

Goat’s Milk

  • Froths well, but depending on what goats have eaten, it can produce a slightly unpleasant, cheesy flavour.

Coconut Milk

  • Contains little protein, making it less than ideal for frothing.
  • Has superb mouth feel.

Almond Milk

  • Steams much like skim milk or 1 percent.
  • Although almonds have protein, almond milk has almost none.
  • Produces a thin cappuccino but creamier taste than soy in mouthfeel.
  • Different brands really impact the silkiness and creamy taste of the cappuccinos.
  • Homemade almond milk is by far the richest and tastiest and gives the best results.

Hemp Milk

  • Like rice milk, hemp milk is a viable alternative if you want to avoid soy and nuts.
  • Steam quality is much like soy.
  • Taste is less desirable than soy.
  • Foam lasts fairly well but will dissipate (although not right away).

How to Froth Milk

There are a number of milk frothing options available in today’s market. Traditionally, a steam wand was all that was available, but now espresso machines, and fully automatics in particular, come with varying frothing devices: steam wands, milk carafes and milk cups . Experimentation on how those frothing devices work with your milk of choice is the best way to determine the results you can achieve in pursuit of the perfect cappuccino.

Close up of a Steam wand on a  Philips EP3200 available at Espresso Canada.

Shown here is a steam wand also known as a pannarello.  A steam wand gives you the most control (both temperature and foam quality) when foaming milk

Frothing Milk Using a Steam Wand

Four pitchers showing how to angle and use steam wand to steam milk

  1. Start with chosen milk taken straight from the refrigerator – most milks are best chilled before frothing. Pour into a frothing pitcher until it reaches the bottom of the pouring spout; this will allow ample room in the pitcher for the milk to froth without spilling.
  2. Insert the steam wand just below the surface of the milk on a slight angle, forcing the milk to move around in a whirlpool motion. This is called “stretching” the milk, creating micofoam (tight bubbles and silky texture) by letting air into the milk gently.  It should make a hissing sound.  Place your hand on the outside of the pitcher, and when the milk has almost reached body temperature, you want to stop introducing air, so change the position of the steam want, moving it a fraction farther into the pitcher.  This will texture the milk, increasing the temperature without introducing more air,
  3. Continue spinning the milk in a whirlpool motion, but with the steam wand slightly more submerged – you should no longer hear any hissing. The key to frothing the milk correctly is to tilt the pitcher slightly, texturing the milk until the pitcher becomes too hot to touch, about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Once the milk has been heated and frothed, tap the pitcher on the counter to pop any large bubbles. Let the milk rest while you prepare the espresso shots, then you are ready to pour, swirl the milk around the pitcher to make sure it is even in consistency, tapping it on the counter again if there are any large bubbles remaining. The milk should be smooth and shiny, resembling wet paint.

A dairy component is essential to the completion of coffee creations such as frothy cappuccinos. But for many reasons, dairy milk may not the be an option.  There are a number of milk variations available. All can be heated but the quality of frothed milk, which is the distinguishing characteristic of a cappuccino, each milk variation produces will vary.  

We have provided some insight on how each type of milk reacts to steaming. It is now up to you to experiment with each type and also with the equipment you use. In the end, palates and health goals vary from person to person. Only you can determine what fits your needs.  


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