A trip to a coffee shop invariably features the hisses and gurgles of espresso machines’ steam wands, which are used to heat and aerate milk into the frothy textures necessary for lattes, cappuccinos, and other drinks. Our winning countertop espresso machine has a steam wand attachment, but unless you have $600 (or more) to spare, a standalone milk frother could be a more practical alternative for preparing specialty coffee drinks at home.
But shopping for the perfect milk frother is surprisingly complicated because there are multiple types on the market. Manual-pump milk frothers resemble French presses, with mesh filters that must be pumped by hand. Handheld wand frothers are battery-powered and resemble small immersion blenders with whisk attachments. Then there are the countertop models: cylinders or pitchers with electric heating elements and small, disk-shaped coiled whisks that heat and froth milk with the push of a button. We gathered 10 leading models—two manual, four handheld, and four countertop—ranging in price from about $11 to roughly $130.
Each product in our lineup was designed, at minimum, to froth hot milk, so we tested the frothers by trying to produce the stiff, airy foam necessary for perfect cappuccinos and the loose, silky foam preferred by latte lovers. We also used the frothers to froth cold almond milk and mix hot chocolate to evaluate their versatility. And because cold frothed milk is popular for iced drinks, we tried whipping up cold foam with each model as well. We rated the performance, the ease of use and cleanup, and the durability of all the models.
Using the two manual frothers in our lineup was a tedious undertaking. These frothers required repetitive, forceful pumping of their mesh screens (similar to the filter in a French press) through preheated or cold milk. As we pumped with one hand, we had to grip the canisters tightly with our other hand so that they didn’t move across the counter, or worse, topple and spill milk everywhere. And for all that work, the quality of the foams varied. One model, whose canister was made from stainless steel, was especially disappointing. We couldn’t place it in the microwave, which meant that we had to heat up the milk in a separate container, and it created lackluster foam even when we pumped the screen for longer than the manufacturer-recommended amount of time. It also struggled to blend hot chocolate mix into heated milk, leaving heaps of sticky, powdery residue behind. The other model, with its glass, microwave-safe canister, was a bit more convenient to use and did a better job of frothing milk and mixing hot chocolate. One possible explanation for the different results: the frothing screens. The glass model’s screen has proportionally more mesh across its surface area than does the metal model’s screen, which includes more solid plastic. The metal model’s dense screen packed the hot chocolate mix against the bottom of the canister, and because less milk was able to pass through the screen with each pump, it didn’t froth as efficiently. Both models were a pain to clean. Foam got stuck in the nooks and crannies of the screens, and if we washed them by hand instead of running them through the dishwasher, they took a long time to dry.
In comparison, the handheld wand frothers were fairly easy to use and clean. We simply poured milk into the heat-resistant vessel of our choice, heated it in the microwave if we were making hot foam, inserted the whisk attachment into the milk, turned it on, and slowly moved it throughout the milk. All the handheld wands had comfortable grips, but the on/off switch of one model was awkwardly placed, and its whisk sent milk droplets flying as we fidgeted with the switch to turn it off. Another had a button that we had to press repeatedly to rev up the motor to the high speed we wanted. Once we got them turned on, all the handheld models performed well when frothing hot whole milk and almond milk. With cold milk, we had to froth for quite a bit longer than the manufacturers’ recommended durations to achieve stable cold foam—otherwise, the frothers simply created large bubbles that quickly dissipated. Still, one handheld model stood out by creating ideal foam textures at both temperatures relatively efficiently and thoroughly mixing hot chocolate mix without tossing it everywhere or leaving a gritty residue on the bottom of the cup. While it looks almost identical to another model in our lineup, we noticed that this model’s whisk agitated milk a touch less powerfully, which allowed us to create slightly more stable foams than we could with its look-alike. It was also easy to clean. As with all the handheld models, all we had to do was dunk its wand in warm, soapy water and turn it on for a few seconds before rinsing it under running water.
The countertop models in our lineup were the easiest to use, especially because they didn’t require us to heat the milk before frothing it. All four had volume markings inside their basins, so we knew how much milk to pour in. We found the automatic controls of all the models to be straightforward and intuitive; each one required only a few pushes of one or two easily comprehensible buttons. They also beeped and turned off once the heating and frothing was complete, letting us know that our foam was ready. Every model was also easy to clean. Scrubbing and rinsing the basins—three of which were nonstick and the other, dishwasher-safe—was a cinch.
We were impressed by how easy these models were to use, but how did their foams compare? Although each countertop model produced high-quality hot and cold foams, two of them could only produce foam of a single texture. The other two models allowed greater customization with texture and/or temperature. One model includes separate settings for “hot dense foam,” which is appropriate for lattes, and “hot airy foam,” which is ideal for cappuccinos. It also mixed a full cup of hot chocolate smoothly. The other notable model has two easily detachable disk-shaped whisks (one for latte foam and one for cappuccino foam), plus a cold foam setting. It even has a temperature dial that allowed us to set the precise temperature we wanted. It’s also designed to produce up to 3 cups of hot chocolate, with an opening in the top that made adding hot chocolate mix a clean, simple process.
In the end, we don’t recommend purchasing a manual frother. And because we found the handheld and countertop models to be so different, we chose a winner in each category. Our favorite handheld model, the Zulay Kitchen Milk Boss Electric Milk Frother, efficiently produced quality hot and cold foams and mixed smooth hot chocolate without leaving residue—all while being easy to operate and clean. We even used it to successfully whip cream, beat eggs, and emulsify vinaigrette. If you don’t mind heating milk manually before frothing it, move forward with the Zulay Kitchen model. If you’re looking for a fully automatic, superconvenient experience, we recommend our winning countertop model, the Breville Milk Cafe. It features a customizable temperature knob, a cold foam setting, and two different whisk attachments for latte-style and cappuccino-style foams. It couldn’t be easier to use, though it does come at a price: about $130. We also picked a countertop Best Buy, the Miroco Milk Frother, which serves up versatility and foam quality similar to that of the Breville at a fraction of the cost (about $40)—albeit with a smaller capacity and less customizability. With an option for every budget, serving high-end coffee drinks at home just got a whole lot easier.