Espresso is a wonderful thing – so delicious, so versatile, so comforting. But sometimes it’s nice to add a touch of milk just to mellow out the flavors, maybe accentuate some others, or just mix up your espresso experience. Cortado vs macchiato is a choice many espresso drinkers looking for a slight change may have wrestled with. So which is right for you?
The difference between cortado and macchiato comes down to the milk added. Cortado is made with equal amounts of espresso and steamed milk, but not foam. Macchiato is an espresso shot with a teaspoon of milk foam added. Flavor-wise, cortado is a sweeter and more mellow coffee whereas macchiato rounds off the edges of the pronounced coffee taste with the milk foam.
Of course, there’s a little more to the differences between these two tasty coffee drinks. Read on as we dive into the background and full details on your favorite little European coffees:
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Being a traditional Italian coffee, the name comes from Italian. Macchiato literally translates as “stained” which refers to the espresso being “stained” with a touch of milk foam.
Many coffee houses in the US stray away from the classic Italian coffee recipe by making macchiato with a big dollop of foam resembling the whipped cream on a frappe or frappuccino. But, to stay true to the original it should just be a very small amount (1-2 teaspoons) of milk foam that is added.
The touch of milk foam is there to take the edge off the acidity and bitterness of the espresso, creating a milder coffee drink. It won’t sweeten it as much as adding steamed milk would, but it softens any harsh notes. As a result, the sweet fruit, chocolate, and smokey flavors of the coffee come to the fore. But without diluting the punchiness you expect.
Most coffee shops today will have a macchiato on their menu but they may not all serve the same thing. Some will serve an espresso macchiato and others will serve a latte macchiato. And then there are the flavored versions thrown into the mix.
The macchiato version popularized by Italian coffee culture is the classic espresso macchiato. But, since macchiato literally means “stained”, some coffee shops choose to reverse the order of the milk and espresso. So, instead of espresso stained with a splash of milk (espresso macchiato), you get a much bigger drink of steamed milk stained with a splash of espresso (latte macchiato).
You may also have seen or ordered a “caramel macchiato” or similar from your favorite coffee house – this was my wife’s go-to order for years before her coffee obsession started. What you receive will be a large, milky drink with just a little coffee in it and a lot of sugary syrup.
It’s usually easy enough to spot the difference. In most coffee stores, a “macchiato” on the menu means the classic espresso with a touch of milk. If it has some flavoring in the name like a caramel macchiato, you can expect a sweet, milky drink with just a touch of coffee.
If you’re making a macchiato at home and are looking for something a little stronger, you can switch out the single espresso for a double or a ristretto.
Traditionally, the soft creamy coffee drink should only be served as a short 2oz size made from 1oz each of equal parts coffee and milk. The milk should accentuate the dark chocolate and sweet smoke flavors of the espresso.
When the cortado made its journey across the Atlantic, it got supersized. Here, a 4.5oz Gibraltar glass is regularly used, giving rise to the cortado’s other name, the Gibraltar. Due to the bigger glass, the drink is made from a double espresso (2oz) and 2oz of milk. Maybe if they’d had smaller glasses on hand, it would still exist in its original form – who knows?
What makes cortado unusual is that even big chain coffee shops tend not to offer it in multiple sizes. A “double cortado” or “large cortado” isn’t something that is generally offered. So whilst it’s still bigger than the drink’s original form, this is a very rare homage to Spanish coffee culture.
Cortado is also unusual in its need for Robusta coffee beans to make the espresso. Yes, any coffee that is espresso mixed with the same volume of steamed milk may be called a “cortado”. But if it isn’t made with Robusta it won’t taste right and *technically* isn’t a cortado though it’s pretty rare to see it with anything other than specialty Arabica in third-wave coffee shops.
Espresso-to-milk ratio is one of the biggest differences between cortado and macchiato. The former uses a 50:50 (or 1:1) ratio whilst the latter has just 1-2 teaspoons of milk to 1oz espresso (my maths isn’t good enough for an exact ratio there!)
Macchiato is a much smaller drink made from a single espresso, or occasionally a double, with just 1-2 teaspoons of milk on top. Whereas the cortado is traditionally 2oz total or 4oz in the US.
Using steamed vs foamed (texturized) milk affects more than just the looks – the structure, texture, and flavor change too.
By using exclusively steamed milk in a cortado, the result is velvety smooth and you get to really taste and enjoy the milk component. It’s also possible to create basic latte art on the top.
In macchiato, only the smallest amount of foamed milk is used but never steamed. This creates the textural peak on the top that feels lighter in your mouth but tastes less ‘milky’.
Whilst both are typically made using cow dairy milk, this can be substituted for alternatives if you prefer. Oat or almond milk are the most common alternatives used though they’ll both result in a different flavor and texture than dairy.
Oat milk steams pretty well but has a creamier, sweeter flavor which I quite like in a cortado. But almond milk is harder to use – it pulls in big bubbles making it harder to create good texture for a macchiato.
The Coffee Beans
If we’re being pedantic (and we always are), then cortado should be made using Robusta beans whilst macchiato can use any.
The reality doesn’t look quite like this, particularly in specialty coffee shops where they’ll likely only have Arabica. But when you’re served a cortado with Arabica coffee beans, you can sit in quiet judgment.
The amount of caffeine in your cup depends on the exact coffee beans and coffee-to-water ratio used to pull the espresso.
But, assuming the same beans have been used then a macchiato and cortado would traditionally have the same amount of caffeine as they’d both be made from a single espresso. However, as cortado is typically made from a double outside of Spain, it will have double the caffeine of a single shot espresso macchiato.
The touch of milk foam in the macchiato is supposed to just take the edge off the espresso. It won’t change the flavor in a huge way, just softens the acidity and bitterness a touch. It’s almost like adding just a few granules of sugar to your espresso but with the added texture of the foam. The end result is a more robust, espresso-forward coffee flavor than you get from a cortado.
In Italy, drinking milk after breakfast (a cappuccino) was traditionally a no-no. So this was a way to sneak in a little bit of softer dairy later in the day.
On the other hand, the cortado fully rounds out the flavor of the espresso and brings the chocolate notes to the forefront. The addition of steamed milk, instead of foam, adds enough sweetness to make the espresso feel rich and indulgent.
So the macchiato is a much more intense experience. I personally like a macchiato when I’m up at the crack of dawn and an espresso just feels too much. Whereas, I love sitting with a cortado in a cafe and watching the world go by.
If you’re looking for just the tiniest sweet hint to round off the sharper edges, then choose macchiato. If you’re looking for a richer, more chocolatey flavor, then cortado is for you. But if you’re after something sweet with just a hint of caffeine, the flavored macchiatos will be your best bet.
As long as you have an espresso machine, they are both pretty easy to make at home. Or you can add them to your next coffee shop order, but where’s the fun in that? So which one is going to become your new favorite coffee drink – the Spanish cortado or the Italian macchiato?
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