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Have you ever ordered a beverage in your favorite coffee shop with no clue what it actually was?
You are weighing cappuccino vs latte vs macchiato vs flat white vs whatever-else, but you aren’t really sure what makes them distinct.
I’ve been there. The first time I ordered an Americano, it was because I thought it was like a cappuccino. Wow was that first sip surprising!
I’ll be explaining the entire line of espresso-based drinks in a later article, but for now I thought I’d focus on the two most popular: cappuccino and latte. Let’s take a look at what they are, what makes them distinct, and even a couple of variants of each that go by wildly different names (Yes, I’m talking about the infamous flat white!).
What Is Espresso? A Quick Refresher
Espresso is the base for both cappuccinos and lattes, so let’s recap the basics of espresso vs. coffee. By the way, when I say coffee here, I’m referring to drip coffee, since there are also differences between even percolator vs. drip coffee and espresso is just another way of preparing coffee.
The process for making espresso differs from drip coffee in four key ways:
- A fine grind is preferred when grinding coffee beans for espresso, whereas most other methods use a coarser grind.
- Water is forced through the grounds under pressure instead of letting them drip through purely by gravity.
- The process is much faster, with a typical espresso brew taking about 30 seconds, compared to several minutes for drip coffee.
- The best espresso beans are typically dark roasts, whereas drip coffee regularly uses medium or even light roasts.
These changes result in a more concentrated drink with a stronger flavor, thicker body, and a layer of crema (aromatic foam) that rests atop the drink.
Espresso also has more caffeine per ounce. A single shot of espresso (one ounce) has as much caffeine as roughly five times that volume of coffee. Of course, this still means that an eight-ounce cup of coffee will have more caffeine than one shot of espresso, so keep that in mind if you are comparing drink-per-drink.
What Is a Latte?
A latte typically consists of espresso and steamed milk, topped with a layer of milk foam. The exact ratio of espresso to milk can vary, but generally it is between 1:3 and 1:9. If you order at Starbucks, the ratio will actually vary from 1:7 for a grande to 1:11 for a tall, with a venti in the middle at 1:9.
The latte name comes from caffè latte, literally coffee (caffè) milk (latte). It’s hard to find a more accurate name than that.
What does a latte taste like?
Compared to other coffee and espresso drinks, a latte is very creamy. You’ll still notice the coffee flavor, but it’s much more subtle. The large quantity of milk makes lattes very approachable drinks for newer coffee lovers, as the espresso flavor is not overwhelming.
What Is a Cappuccino?
Cappuccinos are also made with espresso, steamed milk, and foam. Instead of mixing the milk and espresso, the drink is layered. One part espresso makes up the base, with one part steamed milk layered above it, and one part foam layered on top. It’s easy to remember because there are equal portions of each ingredient.
The cappuccino dates back to 16th-century Italy, where it also got its name from the fact that its color closely matched that of the robes worn by the Capuchin friars.
Flat white vs cappuccino
These two drinks are very similar, which leads to some confusion. A flat white is just a cappuccino with no foam and extra milk. You can thank Australia for this idea, although Starbucks is the chain that made it famous in the United States.
Now, that extra milk may make a flat white sound more like a latte, and in a way it is. However, there is one important distinction between latte vs flat white: flat whites are layered, like cappuccinos instead of being mixed like lattes.
What Is the Difference Between a Latte and a Cappuccino?
All the latte and cappuccino differences — flavor, texture, nutrition — stem from two key distinctions:
- Lattes have a lower espresso to steamed milk ratio, often between 1:3 and 1:9. Cappuccinos are made with equal parts espresso and milk.
- In a latte, the milk and espresso are mixed. In a cappuccino, the milk is layered atop the shots of espresso.
Cappuccino vs latte: flavor difference
A latte’s flavor is rich and creamy with a milder presence of the flavors typically associated with coffee. Cappuccinos have a more distinct coffee flavor due to the higher espresso concentration. The layering also adds complexity to the flavor, with changes occurring as you sip your way through the components.
Can I Make Cappuccinos and Lattes At Home?
Absolutely. All you need is an espresso maker and a steam wand. Some of the best budget espresso machines even have a built-in steam wand, so you can get everything you need in one machine.
Alternative ways to make lattes and cappuccinos at home
Real espresso requires an espresso machine, but there are a couple of alternatives that can give you an espresso-like experience. Some of these options can allow a cheaper or more compact alternative to standard espresso machines.
- AeroPress — The AeroPress operates at a lower pressure than espresso machines, but there is an AeroPress espresso recipe that offers an impressive flavor at a ridiculously low cost.
- Ninja — Ninja actually makes coffee concentrate instead of espresso, but the best Ninja coffee makers still provide an excellent latte or cappuccino-like experience.
- Nespresso — If you want lattes and cappuccinos without the mess of coffee grounds, Nespresso is your best alternative. Nespresso’s machines make the best pod-based espresso, and they even have flavored pods that make for an amazing latte or cappuccino.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is steamed milk?
Steamed milk is made by taking regular milk and using a steam wand to pass steam into the milk. This causes the milk fats to break down and a layer of microfoam to form on top of the milk. Steamed milk is silkier and smoother than regular milk, and the layer of foamed milk is perfect to top off a coffee beverage.
Is a latte coffee?
In part, yes. A latte starts with espresso, which is a concentrated form of coffee. It does have more milk than most other espresso beverages though, so it has less of a coffee flavor than most other coffee drinks.
Does cappuccino have milk?
Yes! The main difference between espresso vs cappuccino is that a cappuccino has milk and milk foam added.
Hopefully, this gives you a better idea of what to expect next time you are ordering at a coffee shop. Maybe it even inspired you to try making one or both of these beverages at home.
I’m a huge cappuccino fan myself, but a well-made latte can be a refreshing change at times. The layering of a cappuccino just makes me happy for a reason that I cannot explain, but it probably beckons back to some freshman-year chemistry lab on liquid densities.
Which do you prefer: cappuccino or latte? Drop a comment telling me why it’s your favorite. Is there a different drink that I should cover next time? Maybe you’d like to hear more about mochas, Americanos, or perhaps ristrettos. Just let me know!