Coffee Insight: Cortado vs Latte

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Let’s talk espresso-based drinks. They are, after all, what really gives life to coffee and the whole culture. Let’s face it: Nobody starts drinking black coffee right away. It takes a long time of being slowly but steadily seduced. We always recommend coffee novices to start with a mochaccino: Nobody’s ever going to dislike such a drink. 

But then we move on, we start to appreciate the taste of coffee on its own and when we least expect it, we’re drinking black coffee and enjoying it more than we would a mochaccino.

So today we’d like to focus on a couple of drinks that are characteristic because of the use of just milk to accompany them (as opposed to milk and chocolate, or milk and cream).

Cortado

This now-popular type of coffee comes from Spain, where coffee consumption is ingrained in their society almost as much as wine or beer, and virtually everyone starts their day with either a cortado, an espresso, or a café con leche (similar to the latte; one part coffee one part milk).

But before we delve into the world of Spanish coffee, we’ve got to tell you the story of how this very traditional Spanish coffee which didn’t really fit in with American coffees at all ended up being a popular drink and figuring and every good coffee shop’s repertoire.

It all started back in 2005, in a small coffee kiosk in San Francisco. Small as they were, they liked to experiment with their drinks and routinely offered some of their experiments to the women who worked at a corset shop in the same street. The drink, which was at first supposed to be an original drink because of the employment of latte art -which is absent in traditional Spanish cortados-, was baptized as Gibraltar by Steve Ford, a famous barista and master roaster.

The Gibraltar gained popularity, but it was never formally introduced to the menu: Instead, people who knew about the drink would simply as for a Gibraltar and they would be given one, no questions asked. As the coffee shop’s reputation and clientele increased, word-of-mouth spread about this exotic, mysterious off-menu item. The Gibraltar became synonymous with exclusivity-

Soon after, The Gibraltar started popping up in other coffee shops around the country. Before Steve Ford knew it, the drink was already popular in Vancouver, London and New York.

Eventually, people started calling it what it actually was: A cortado, a drink that had been consumed in Spain for a very long time. And Spanish baristas were eager to claim the drink as theirs since the drink being called Gibraltar (which is the name of an island off the Spanish coast, yet governed by the English since the 18th century) wasn’t really music to their ears. So, their voice was heard and The Gibraltar (although still called as such in some places) came to be a cortado.

How is the Cortado made?

Spain is a country where light roasts are almost nonexistent: Coffee here is of a very dark roast, and bitterness in coffee is accepted as part of the experience and not as widely avoided like in America, where bitterness is often avoided by adding either a lot of milk (a latte) or water (an Americano).

So when Espresso machines started appearing in every coffee shop, the Spanish tradition of bitter coffee became a little more hardcore: A espresso is considerably more bitter and stronger than coffee made in a Moka pot, which was the usual way of preparing coffee. So they figured they would try to tame the bitterness just a little bit adding steamed milk on top of their espresso.

And boy, did it work. The drink was called a Cortado which literally translated to “something that’s been cut”: that something here being bitterness in coffee, which is “cut” by adding a small amount of milk. Cutting down on the bitterness.

How to make a Cortado:

  1. Prepare an espresso as you normally would and serve. 
  2. Steam milk thoroughly. The foam should be avoided: it is acceptable to discard some of the foam on top of your milk. 
  3. Serve no more than 10ml of steamed milk on top of your espresso. Although some of it will sink into your coffee, your goal here is for the steamed milk to stay on top. 

And there you go: A Cortado! American-style cortado is usually served in a small glass so that you can appreciate the layers in your coffee. Latte art is also a common sight with Cortado. In Spain, a Cortado is served in an espresso cup with no latte art, unless you’re in a modern coffee shop. Both ways are valid, though we do favor the American way. 

There’s always a variation of cortado that’s made by simply adding water. It makes sense if you think about why the cortado was made, which is to minimize the bitterness in coffee. While not exactly an Americano, it’s kind of the same, though with less water. To make a water cortado, simply replace the milk with water. You may use double water, depending on how bitter you like your coffee.

Cortado and Macchiato: The same thing?

Comparisons arise when preparing these drinks. Both drinks are made by adding steamed milk to a shot of espresso, and the milk-to-coffee ratio is 1:3 in both drinks. So what’s the difference?

We’ll whip out the dictionary. We already explained where the name Cortado comes from; to cut down on something- bitterness. Macchiato is Italian for stained. The logic here is that you stain your coffee by adding a small amount of milk. Back in the day, steamed milk was poured exactly in the center of your drink without paying further attention; this results in the color of your coffee turning dark brown at the sides but with a clear white spot in the center of the cup: the stain.

This provides you with a clue: Since there is a clear shape forming at the surface, then there must be quite a bit of foam there. And that’s exactly it: A macchiato is made by pouring steamed milk but leaving in all of the foam, with this foam staying at the top of the coffee, painting usually a very pretty double circle; one pure white and an outer, darker one.

There also exists the inverse version of the macchiato, called latte macchiato. It’s inverse because of the latte; it’s not coffee which we stain with milk, but the opposite. Here, the milk-to-coffee ratios are inverted: 3:1. The result is pretty much what it sounds like: A pretty glass of hot frothy milk with a coffee stain in the middle of it. 

Latte

Maybe, possibly, or even definitely the drink that sparked the coffee boom in the United States, the Latte was popularized in Seattle by Starbucks (you might have heard of it). The name means “milk” in Italian, and is an abbreviation of cafe latte which is a humble cup of coffee with milk. So if you’re ever in Italy, be sure to order a cafe latte… Otherwise, you’ll get just a glass of warm milk. 

To trace back this drink, we would have to go all the way back to Europe in the eighteenth century. Coffee was then a widely consumed beverage at home, and it almost always accompanied by milk. But the first mention of such a drink, in written form, is not found until the 20th century except for a few curious exceptions in Austria, where some public cafés describe a Kapuziner as a coffee with equal parts milk, enhanced with spices. Though it sounds like Cappuccino, it was more than likely closer to a Latte because steamed milk wasn’t really used back then.

But the Latte as we know it owes its invention to the Espresso machine, which made the combination of coffee and milk up its game with the introduction of steam and foam. The coffee-shop-style latte became a sensation in Italy because of the improved texture of the milk.

How are Lattes Made?

The Latte which is popular nowadays is made by making either one or two shots of espresso, depending how big of a beverage they serve, then adding about four times that amount of steamed milk, topped off with foam in which art is carved.

  1. Prepare one shot of espresso.
  2. Steam 120ml of milk.
  3. Pour milk, mixing well with the coffee and leave a thin layer of foam on top.

Though it seems quite easy, getting the milk right is very tricky. Usually, you’d want to pour the milk with the cup at an angle so that the milk hits one side of the cup upon sinking instead of hitting the bottom. The foam should be very thick– be sure not to leave a thick layer; this is not a cappuccino. A thick layer of foam on a latte only makes it hard to drink.

Italian and South American versions of the latte involve an equal amount of coffee and milk, but the coffee is usually prepared in a Moka pot, making it a little less strong -which means it contains more water- than espresso, so it’s kind of obvious that they’d use less milk.

Other Types of Latte

Café au Lait:

This popular french kind of latte is characterized by its lack of foam. It’s famously served in big containers, and it is made with equal parts of coffee and steamed milk. Better enjoyed with a lot of sugar!

Matcha Latte:

This drink is basically milk with tea. Matcha is a type of green tea that is made by ground green tea leaves and then making tea with it. This allows us to make a very concentrated tea, much like an espresso, that goes very well with milk. 

Matcha has a distinct flavor unlike other teas (just in case you’re anti-tea) and is the only thing we would ever drink instead of coffee while still calling it Latte.

To make a matcha latte, add matcha to 30ml of warm water until it has acquired some consistency and a very intense, bright green color. Then proceed as you would for a latter. It makes very colorful latte art. 

Cortado vs. Latte

We’re gonna pit these two drinks against each other. But, since you can’t really call one superior to the other objectively, we decided to look at them in relation to whether you’re having coffee with your meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner), and which one could be considered the most healthy. Let’s check it out. 

Breakfast

There are two kinds of people: those who eat copious amounts of food for breakfast, and those who barely eat anything at all. For the latter, the cortado is definitely your choice. With barely 40ml of liquid in your cup, this coffee is perfect for when you don’t want -or can’t- to have an actual breakfast. Serve hot, with a piece of toast or something similarly small. 

If you like to start your day by filling yourself up with delicious breakfast food, then the latte is a much better choice. The sweet coffee drink by excellence, a latte will go well with absolutely any kind of breakfast food and is most people’s preferred way to start the day. We recommend serving very hot with a grilled cheese sandwich. And try dipping your sandwich a little bit in the coffee, then take a bite out of it– you’ll go nuts.

Lunch 

While a Latte is the breakfast coffee for most people, besides black coffee, the cortado is traditionally a drink that one would drink after lunch. In Spain, the tradition of the cortado extends all the way from breakfast to lunch: People who needed to function after lunch would have, instead of dessert, a cup of cortado. It’s convenient because of its small size, and still delicious enough to be considered a dessert. Plus, it helps with digestion.

So, always keep in mind that whenever you find yourself in the position of after-lunch drowsiness, go for a cortado. It won’t leave a bitter aftertaste and it will wake you right up!

In contrast, the latte goes great for those who want to have light meals. Caffeine is a natural stimulant, which means it suppresses your appetite. If you can’t afford to have a large meal because you need to get to work right away, you can always chew on something simple while you have a big latter. It might not be the most nutritious meal, so be sure you make up for it later! 

Dinner

Coffee at dinner is sometimes seen as a bad decision because of caffeine, but one cup of coffee at this point of the day is not nearly enough to disturb your sleeping patterns. While a cup of coffee is definitely energizing, a cup of coffee at the end of the day when you’re already tired and ready to sleep won’t keep you up all night. For people that are sensitive to caffeine, you could try switching to decaf.

Similarly to lunch, a cortado is a very good way to end a big meal; you don’t want to eat too much right before going to bed anyway, so this keeps you from having something sweet after dinner while you watch TV. Have some coffee instead of ice cream, it’s much healthier.

A latte is, we think, a better dinner option since there’s more to drink, and the warm sensation of coffee in your hands at night is enough to put you in the mood to get cozy on your couch or sofa.

Which One is Healthier?

Both these coffees are typically based on one shot of espresso, making them virtually the same on caffeine content.

The cortado uses very little milk and, since it’s small in size, you don’t need a lot of sugar to sweeten the drink. So we can say that the cortado is healthier because it would obviously contain fewer calories since it is a smaller drink.

The latte is ultimately as healthy as you make it. If you use full-fat milk and white sugar, you can’t be surprised when you start putting on some weight. But a latte can be very healthy: Instead of full-fat milk, try using skim milk, or some kind of unsweetened plant-based milk (we strongly recommend oat milk) and use an artificial sweetener like Stevia, and the resulting drink will be just as good as a regular latte, but super healthy.


Bottom line, these two coffees are very versatile, though the latte lends itself to more variations and this makes it a little more fun. While the cortado is also a great coffee (particularly if you have it as dessert), it can prove a little boring after a while. But it’s always good to keep in mind that there’s a lot of different types of coffee drinks out there waiting to be discovered; there’s so much range to coffee that you could never get bored of it.

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