What Is a Macchiato? And How to Make Your Own

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If you find cappuccinos too milky and straight espresso too bitter, I have news: you are a macchiato drinker.

But what is a macchiato? 

To be clear, this isn’t about the caramel macchiato, cloud macchiato, or any of those other Starbucks variants. I’m here to talk about the real macchiato — the classic Italian espresso drink.

So, What Is a Macchiato?

A cafe macchiato in a clear glass to show the coffee-to-milk ratio

A macchiato is espresso with just a splash of steamed milk and a bit of milk foam. In English, the Italian word macchiato translates to stained or spotted, and that’s what this drink is. It’s espresso stained with just a hint of milk.

The macchiato isn’t intended to be a creamy or milky drink. Its flavor comes almost entirely from the espresso. The milk is just enough to temper the flavor, not to overpower it.

Other Names for a Macchiato

  • Cafè macchiato
  • Caffè macchiato
  • Espresso macchiato

Macchiato variants

If you order a macchiato in your local coffee shop, you’ll probably get the traditional macchiato described above. However, there are a couple of other popular variants of the drink, so you may want to ask specifically for an espresso macchiato if you want just that dollop of milk — especially if you are at a chain coffee shop.

Topped-up macchiato

You can get your macchiato “topped up” with extra foam. You’ll get the same amount of steamed milk as a macchiato, but the layer of foam will be much thicker — typically as thick if not thicker than the layer of espresso.

Latte macchiato

Two glasses of latte macchiato, showing the thick layer of milk below the splash of espresso

An espresso macchiato is espresso stained with milk, so what is a latte macchiato? If you guessed milk stained with espresso, reward yourself with a biscotti. A latte macchiato is made by adding steamed milk and a layer of milk foam to a cup then staining the foam by adding a shot of espresso. 

Origin of the Macchiato

Macchiatos are a cornerstone of Italian coffee culture, but the origin stories seem to fall into two very different camps. 

Some claim that the macchiato arose from the need for an afternoon-centric espresso drink. The cappuccino owned the morning espresso market, but cafes were looking to get people drinking more coffee in the afternoon. The macchiato was born to fill that role.

Alternatively, the drink may have come about as a communication tool between baristas and waitstaff. The story goes that the baristas would use a hint of foam to mark milk-containing espresso drinks, distinguishing them from straight espressos. This mark evolved into the macchiato.

Comparisons to Other Espresso Drinks

A menu showing many types of espresso drinks including two macchiato variants

The macchiato might be easier to understand if you know how it relates to other espresso drinks, so let’s put it in perspective with a few comparisons.

There’s one common thing you’ll notice in these comparisons: Almost every other espresso drink has more milk than a macchiato. The macchiato is the closest you’ll come to pure coffee without just drinking straight shots of espresso.

Cappuccino vs macchiato

The macchiato exists between a straight espresso and a cappuccino. The cappuccino has equal parts steamed milk, milk foam, and espresso. Cappuccinos are creamier than macchiatos, and their coffee flavor is much less intense. 

Beyond the flavor difference, a macchiato also has a lower calorie density, higher caffeine density, and typically a decreased volume (less milk, same amount of espresso) compared to a cappuccino.

Flat white vs macchiato

Flat whites have the same ratio of milk to espresso as a cappuccino, but instead of half foamed and half steamed it uses silky milk — steamed milk with only a thin layer of microfoam. Compared to a macchiato, flat whites are still much creamier, more calorie-heavy, and lower in caffeine-per-ounce. 

Macchiato vs latte

Lattes have even more steamed milk than a cappuccino, so they are much creamier than a macchiato. A latte’s coffee flavor is even weaker, their calorie count is higher, and their caffeine is lower than a cappuccino or a macchiato.

Cortado vs macchiato

Cortados are made with one part espresso and one part steamed milk with just a hint of foam. This ratio is closer to a macchiato, but a cortado still has more milk, a creamier flavor, more calories, and less caffeine density.

How to Make a Macchiato

Dolloping foamed milk onto espresso to make a macchiato
  1. Pull a double shot of espresso. If you don’t have an espresso machine, you can use AeroPress espresso or a stovetop espresso from a Moka pot
  2. Steam 1/4 cup of milk. Use a steam wand if you have one. Otherwise, you can heat the milk on the stove. You want to get it to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit for the next step. (Note: if you have a hand milk frother, the frothing and steaming steps might be reversed. In that case, follow the instructions that came with your frother.)
  3. Froth the hot milk. Use a milk frother or whisk the milk until it forms a dry foam — lots of bubbles and little visible liquid. 
  4. Add the foam. Spoon the foam onto the espresso.
  5. Enjoy!

Make Mine a Macchiato

The Macchiato is a delicious coffee drink that lets you enjoy your espresso shot with a tiny bit of creamy foamed milk — maintaining the coffee flavor much better than with a cappuccino or latte. If you’re the type of person that drinks your drip coffee with a splash of milk or creamer, you’ll probably love the macchiato.

Because they preserve much of the flavor of the coffee, a macchiato is an excellent way to sample coffees from around the world. A cafe Americano or long black coffee still preserves more of the unique flavor of the coffee beans, but the hint of milk can bring out some of the unique flavors of Costa Rican coffeesSumatran beans, or coffees from Ethiopian.

If you want to see how milk influences the unique flavors of these different coffee origins, a macchiato is a great way to begin your journey.

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