Cortado vs cappuccino is a battle between the classic European breakfast coffees of Spain and Italy respectively. While it took a little longer for the cortado to reach the cappuccino’s level of global fame, it has successfully worked its way into the hearts of millions of coffee lovers around the world.
Both are espresso and milk combos, but the results are worlds apart. A cortado is made with equal parts espresso and steamed (but not textured) milk and served in a small glass. Whereas a cappuccino is made with 1/3 espresso, 1/3 textured milk, and 1/3 thick foam. The result is a larger, sweeter, and creamier coffee than the cortado.
These seemingly small differences in construction lead to a myriad of differences in flavor, texture, temperature, and more. As former baristas, we’ve spent a lot of time behind the espresso machine making cortados and cappuccinos so let us explain just how different they are.
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To make a cortado, espresso is mixed with the same amount of steamed, but not textured milk. In Spain, this will usually be 1oz of each component (a single espresso shot).
But, when the drink made its way to the US, the recipe was doubled by the Blue Bottle Coffee Company. Here, a 2oz double espresso was mixed with 2oz steamed milk and served in a 4.5oz Libby Gibraltar glass. Nowadays, you’ll most often find a cortado served in the 4oz drink size and may also see the names “cortado” and “Gibraltar” used interchangeably.
The word “cortado” comes from the Spanish verb “to cut” as the espresso is cut with the milk.
Using steamed milk takes the edge off the bitter coffee flavors and softens the acidity of the Robusta beans. This gives a distinctly sweet flavor of chocolate and nuts. It is also a pleasant temperature to drink due to the lower temperature the milk is steamed to.
Whilst the recipe calls for Robusta and a 4oz drinks size (or 2oz in Spain), not all coffee shops are purists. So it’s regularly made with Arabica beans to match the other espresso drinks on their menu. Less common but still possible is a cortado of a wildly different size.
Our Favorite Robusta Coffee – TrueGrit from Nguyen:
Variety: 100% Peaberry Robusta
Tasting notes: Scotch, grapefruit, bitter melon
Important notes: This is a full-bodied coffee experience that packs a punch. Nguyen is woman-owned by a first-generation Vietnamese-American, directly trading with farmers in Vietnam before roasting in Brooklyn.
The Austrians also claim the drink originated in Vienna where they’d mix coffee with cream and sugar, long before the invention of the espresso machine. In this version of events, the Italians stole the drink (Europeans like doing that sort of thing) and renamed it, claiming it as their own.
Wherever it started, what is clear is that post espresso machine cappuccino is very different from its coffee and cream origins.
Modern cappuccino is made of equal parts espresso, textured milk, and stiff milk foam. This gives an intense coffee flavor, slightly sweetened with the steamed milk, and with a creamy mouthfeel from the foam. Nowadays, it is one of the most popular coffee drinks in the world.
Both a cortado and a cappuccino use espresso as their coffee element. In other words, a short concentrated coffee that is brewed under pressure.
In the cortado’s case, this should be made using dark roast Robusta coffee beans. However, there’s no set rule on the beans used for a cappuccino. So, in specialty coffee stores it will likely be an Arabica varietal. But if you’re getting a cappuccino in Italy, it’s pretty likely they’ll use the same dark roast Robusta beans that are used in a cortado.
While a cortado has to be made with a double shot, cappuccino can be made with a single espresso if preferred.
Read next: How many ounces in a shot of espresso?
Coffee to Milk Ratio
Cortado is a straight 1:1 ratio of coffee and milk. In other words, 2oz of coffee is cut with 2oz of milk to give a bold coffee flavor. (Half this size in Spain.)
The milk sweetens the espresso and takes the edge off the acidity and bitterness. The result is an intense but approachable coffee with chocolate and nut flavors.
Cappuccino is a 1:2 ratio of coffee to milk. This means that there is twice as much milk as espresso. The components are broken down into 1/3 espresso, 1/3 textured milk, and 1/3 dense foam. So, your 6oz cappuccino will be 2oz espresso, 2oz textured milk, and 2oz dense milk foam.
Along with the intense but sweetened coffee, you get a creamy mouthfeel which further softens the harsher notes of the espresso. Overall, you get a more subtle flavor profile from your coffee.
The cortado uses steamed milk that is cooler than the milk used for most other espresso drinks. It is not heated to the point where it becomes textured. This means the cortado has a more “liquid” texture and is cool enough to drink straight away. It should also have almost no foam.
Cappuccino obviously has a dense microfoam making up half of its milk allocation. But the milk that is still liquid is heated so that it is “textured”. This gives a more velvety mouthfeel, even before you add the creaminess of the dense foam.
It also means it’s a much hotter drink. Not that this stops Italians from downing them nearly instantly.
Coffee Beans Used
To stay true to its roots, cortado should be made with dark roast Robusta beans. This is important because the distinctive flavor of a cortado is tied to this coffee bean variety with its chocolate, caramelized sugar, and nut flavors. These are brought out by the milk which also softens the natural bitterness of Robusta.
Nowadays fancy coffee shops often use Arabica. However, “true” cortado should only be made with Robusta.
Cappuccino also started life being made with dark roast Robusta beans. However, the type of coffee bean is much less integral to the overall flavor than is the case with cortado.
So a cappuccino could be made with Arabica or Robusta, with anything from medium to very dark roast. However, it’s not important in terms of what the drink is supposed to taste like.
Outside of Spain, a cortado is a 4oz drink in total – 2oz espresso, 2oz milk. A double, or even triple, cortado isn’t really a thing. Though I’m sure there are coffee shops out there that offer them. If it doesn’t pack the punch you need, you’d just order more than one standard-sized cortado.
In Spain, it will almost always be a much shorter 2oz drink instead.
Whereas cappuccinos come in all kinds of sizes. From the 6oz classic, all the way up to 20oz+ monsters. As long as the ratio stays the same, these are still cappuccinos.
The problem is that when drinks get into the jumbo-sized category, the ratios tend to go out the window. So rather than a barista whipping up a 30oz cappuccino made with 10oz espresso, 10oz milk, and 10oz foam the espresso quantity tends to go down resulting in a much more milky coffee creation.
Want to see how the cortado and cappuccino compare to other similar coffee drinks? Check out these guides:Latte vs Cortado | Cortado vs Flat White | Macchiato vs Cortado | Flat White vs Cappuccino
In terms of caffeine, if your cappuccino is made with a double espresso, then no. They’ll both contain a double shot giving them the same “strength”.
However, a cortado may have a stronger coffee flavor than a cappuccino. This is due to it having less milk compared to the amount of coffee.
If you order a cortado in Spain (or at some specialty coffee stores), you might be surprised to find it served alongside some sparkling water. The purpose of the water is to allow you to “cleanse your palette” before and after drinking your coffee.
This is great if, for example, you’ve just brushed your teeth, which can make coffee can taste really weird. Similarly, you may not want to walk around tasting coffee for an hour after enjoying your cortado.
It’s near impossible to say for sure which will have more caffeine as it depends on the size of the cappuccino, the beans used, roast level, etc.
However, most cappuccinos have a double espresso, and cortado is also made with a double espresso. So they should have the same amount of caffeine as long as you buy (or make) a 4oz cortado and a 6oz cappuccino.
If you’re getting a larger than 6oz cappuccino then it will probably have more caffeine than a cortado.
Cortados are ideal for people who want an intense coffee where the acidity and bitterness are mellowed by a little milk. It’s a sweeter, more chocolate-dominant coffee that’s easy to drink quickly but still has an intense flavor.
Cappuccino is ideal for those looking for a less intense espresso flavor with a creamy mouthfeel. The dense foam really adds to the texture of the coffee giving a fuller-bodied espresso drink. In this case, the combination of textured milk and foam rounds out the edges of the espresso.
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