The world can be divided into two sets of people: those who know their coffee order before walking in, and those who don’t. For the second set, the large menu can be intimidating, to say the least. Two common drinks that stand out are the cortado and flat white. Why? Because they’re in that rare group of coffee drinks that *should* only come in one size.
Whilst they are both made from espresso and milk, the difference between cortado vs flat white is mostly a difference in the milk. Cortado is made with equal amounts of espresso and steamed (but not textured) milk for a well-balanced drink. Whereas the flat white has a 2:1 milk-to-espresso ratio using textured milk for a creamier, more luxurious feel.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. So as a former barista and long-time coffee nerd, I’m going to break down all the differences between these two milky coffees to help you choose your preferred “one size fits all” caffeinated coffee hit.
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Traditionally a cortado is made with dark roasted Robusta coffee beans (though most specialty coffee shops, especially in the US, use Arabica). The addition of steamed milk sweetens the more intense coffee flavor and bitter notes, resulting in a well-balanced rich, chocolatey flavor.
A cortado made to the traditional Spanish recipe needs a single shot of espresso, around 1-1.50z. As it is cut with equal parts coffee and milk, it’s never more than 2-3oz total. You will struggle to find many coffee houses in Spain that will even serve a version with a double espresso. It just doesn’t really exist.
However, outside of Spain, it’s almost exclusively a 4oz drink made with a double espresso.
The use of a double shot of espresso in a cortado started in San Francisco. This was due to serving it in a 4.50z glass (known as a Libbey Gibraltar glass) and wanting to fill it to the top. So, 2oz espresso and 2oz milk gave the perfect aesthetic without ruining the ratio.
To make a flat white, espresso is combined with textured milk, but almost no foam. Ideally, the ratio will be 1 part espresso to 2 parts milk. As it’s usually served as a double espresso this means your flat white will be around 6oz – 2oz espresso to 4oz milk.
The texture of the steamed milk adds a luxurious feel. Compared to regular black coffee, you get a slight sweetness from adding milk. This sweetness mixed with the creamy mouthfeel has made the flat white one of the most popular coffee drinks globally.
We know it started in Spain, perhaps in Basque or maybe in Madrid. But no one knows for sure nor does anyone seem particularly worried about finding out. Which is refreshing. The name comes from the past participle of the Spanish verb “cortar” which means “to cut.”
Its popularity in America is easier to track:
It seems to have started in San Francisco where the Blue Bottle Coffee Company served it as an “off-menu” item called a “Gibraltar”. This name came from the small rocks style glass it was served in (and because they didn’t know the drink already had a name). Since then, it has spread across third-wave coffee shops. Now it can be found in most coffee establishments that serve specialty coffees.
Since the Gibraltar glass is 4.5oz in size, cortado in the US is usually made with a double espresso to fill the glass. 2oz espresso and 2oz milk, keeping the 1:1 ratio needed for cortado.
We’re pretty sure it’s an Australian creation as there’s actually a solid reason behind it, rather than just conjecture.
In the 1980s there was a change in the food given to dairy cows in Australia which resulted in milk with a much lower fat content. As every Barista will tell you, lower fat milk makes it much harder to create nice microfoam. So the Australian Baristas struggled to create foamy cappuccinos as normal and so they started calling them “flat whites”. Thus, a legend was born.
There is a similar story from Wellington, New Zealand about a Barista who was struggling to foam skimmed milk so they called their failed cappuccino a “flat white”. Whilst it’s a nice story, it feels like an overly romantic one.
Either way, nobody can prove either story is 100% true 100%. So, we feel it is much more likely to have grown from many places across Australia rather than one local coffee shop in New Zealand. What we do know for sure is that it was modeled after the cappuccino.
Whilst the flat white might have started life as a failed cappuccino, there’s more that separates these two iconic coffees. To understand how they compare and what makes them different, check out this guide:
The Espresso Base
Both flat white and cortado coffees are espresso drinks. But how that espresso is made is different:
Traditionally, the cortado is made with Robusta beans. We would go as far as to say if it isn’t made with Robusta beans, then it isn’t a proper cortado. But that’s us being overly pedantic as it’s more commonly made with Arabica in third wave coffee shops. Ideally, the beans should also be dark roasted for a bolder, more intense coffee flavor.
The flat white, on the other hand, can be made with any espresso beans. There isn’t a tradition of using a specific variety like there is with cortado so many coffee drinkers opt for Arabica, roasted however they prefer.
The two different coffees are traditionally served in completely different sizes:
If you want a quick caffeine hit, the cortado is for you. It is only made with a single or double shot of espresso and an equal amount of milk.
If you would rather sip and savor your coffee, opt for a flat white which is made with a double shot of espresso in a ratio of 1 part coffee to 2 parts milk.
The Added Milk
Whilst both cortado vs flat white coffee have steamed milk, the texture and quantity are very different:
A cortado uses steamed milk that is not textured. In other words, it is heated but to a lower temperature. The espresso is then cut with an equal amount of this heated milk with little to no foam to create the small cortado.
The flat white has a 2:1 ratio of milk to espresso and uses textured milk, again with little to no foam. The textured milk gives a velvety sensation. When combined with the larger proportion, this gives a sweeter and more luxurious feel to the coffee.
The flat white is famed for its smooth, semi-sweet, and mild flavor. This is down to the higher volume of milk used to balance the espresso flavor. It makes it a great choice for those who don’t like the intensity and bitterness of espresso, and want something a little creamier and easier to drink.
Drinking a cortado is a well-balanced experience. The acidity and bitterness of the espresso are reduced whilst the creamy milk brings a subtle hint of sweetness. It sits in a more balanced middle point where you can still enjoy the coffee flavor but in a softer, sweeter way than drinking it straight.
So a flat white should have more caffeine than a cortado – double the amount in fact.
However, not all coffee shops follow these rules. A cortado in the US is often made with a double shot, whereas elsewhere it will be the classic single espresso. So it’s always best to ask before you order if you’re concerned about caffeine intake.
If you’re making your coffee drinks at home using the same coffee beans and following the traditional recipes, a flat white will be stronger than a cortado. Just remember that not all types of coffee beans have the same amount of caffeine.
Assuming you use the same milk to make both drinks (i.e. the same fat content) then the flat white will be the most calorie-dense. As it requires around 4oz of milk compared to the 2oz needed for a cortado (or only 1oz in Spain), there are more calories. But it’s also what makes it taste so luxurious and delicious so who’s counting?
Cortado is ideal for someone who wants a short espresso with a sweeter, more chocolatey profile. But without having to add sugar.
The flat white is for people who love a strong coffee that has been sweetened by the addition of milk and has a more sensual texture.
So which of these tasty coffee drinks are you ordering next time?
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