Cortado Coffee: A Cut Above the Rest?

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I have a theory about why cortado coffee has become such a firm favorite in hipster third wave cafes around the world. Over the years, we've become so accustomed to traditional Italian favorites such as cappuccino and cafe latte, that when a specialty beverage with a Spanish name came along it seemed too exotic and exciting to resist.

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I have a theory about why cortado coffee has become such a firm favorite in hipster third wave cafes around the world. Over the years, we’ve become so accustomed to traditional Italian favorites such as cappuccino and cafe latte, that when a specialty beverage with a Spanish name came along it seemed too exotic and exciting to resist.

In reality, cafe cortado isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel. In fact, it’s about as simple as a small serving of espresso and warm milk can get.

Still, people are always on the hunt for something new, and if cortado coffee makes the world a happier place, I’m all for it.

In this article, I’ll take a look at the hype surrounding cortado coffee and see how it compares to the Italian classics. I’ll also give you some tips on how to make cortado coffee at home.

What Is Cortado Coffee?

Originating in Spain’s Basque region, cafe cortado consists of a 1:1 ratio of espresso and hot milk and is usually served in a small glass.

For those who don’t speak Spanish, cortado translates to “cut,” and refers to the steamed milk “cutting” through the strong espresso to soften it.

What’s key is that the milk is steamed — a traditional cortado coffee doesn’t include foam or froth. The same goes for a cafe con leche. Perhaps Spaniards just don’t like to run the risk of leaving their local cafe wearing a milk moustache.

Cortado Coffee's World Domination

As cortado coffee has made its triumphant march across the world, it’s become harder and harder to define. As with cappuccino, espresso macchiato and all the other cafe favorites, everyone seems to have their own idea of what cortados should look like. 

Here’s the thing, though: the Spanish were never that concerned with defining a “real” cafe cortado in the first place.

In my recent article on cappuccino, I referred to the brochure issued by the Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano (INEI), in which the strict parameters for an authentic cappuccino are rigorously outlined. 

Where the Italians have tried to reclaim the cappuccino, the Spanish don’t see the point. Rather, cortado coffee is simply an idea. It’s a way to tone down strong espresso and extend a coffee break past a couple of quick sips.

That said, cafe cortado often gets confused with other milk-based espresso drinks. So, let’s take a little time to clear things up. That way, cortado coffee can retain its rightful place in the specialty coffee world.

Cortado Coffee vs Macchiato

Espresso macchiato and cortado are both compact beverages, involving roughly equal parts espresso and hot milk. However, that’s where the similarities end.

As I discussed in my article on espresso macchiato, creating the correct milk foam consistency is key to the Italian classic’s success.

You need to create smooth, supple foam that isn’t too “pillowy,” then spoon just the right amount onto a ristretto shot of espresso.

A LEGO barista inspecting an espresso macchiato.

Cortado coffee, on the other hand, is a less delicate affair. The milk should be heated with minimal aeration, to create a silky, almost foam-free consistency. Once steamed, the milk is poured, without ceremony, onto a double shot of espresso and served in a glass.

In general, a cortado will clock in at around 4-6 fluid ounces, whereas an espresso macchiato shouldn’t exceed 4 fluid ounces.

Cortado Coffee vs Flat White

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have a hard time taking the flat white seriously. After all, this hipster favorite is, essentially, an Australian re-invention of cappuccino.

You have to wonder what the folks at the INEI think about it. Flat white aficionados will tell you that it’s all in the quality of the foam. To be considered an authentic flat white, the top layer of microfoam has to be “just so,” which makes me wonder whether they’re just chasing unicorns.

Anyway, it’s the microfoam layer that’s the main difference between cafe cortado and flat white. While both drinks are around the same size, a flat white will likely arrive with a pretty pattern on top. And a more substantial price tag for the privilege.

Cortado Coffee vs Gibraltar Coffee

It was inevitable that once cortado reached the North American market, some third wave hipster or other would try and put their own stamp on the thing.

Overhead view of a pretty design on a flat white.

Enter Blue Bottle Coffee Company. In 2005, the Oakland-based roaster decided to make the cortado their own by renaming it the Gibraltar. Did they add a secret ingredient to this “new” Gibraltar coffee drink? Perhaps serve it on a rock of some sort? Nope. It’s named after the type of glass they serve it in.

Whether or not the name is also a dig at Spaniards who think the British should leave Gibraltar is unknown.

How To Make Cortado Coffee

In contrast to other milk-based specialty coffee beverages, preparing a cortado coffee is fairly straightforward. However, as always, the most important ingredients remain the same in a cortado recipe:

  • Freshly ground, high-quality espresso beans
  • Cold, fresh milk

In my article on milk foam, I examine a wide range of dairy and non-dairy milk options. I still stand by my opinion that whole milk really is the best option for steaming.

Steaming whole milk using an espresso machine's steam wand to make a cortafo or cotado coffee.

The fat content is ideal for blending with espresso, and the creamy texture is second-to-none. That said, you can get great results with some plant-based alternatives. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t experiment with oat, soy, or almond milk cortados.

An espresso machine with a portafilter is the best way to prepare espresso for a cortado coffee, but you can get pretty good results from a super automatic espresso machine. You might have to spend some time calibrating your super automatic, though, even if it has a cafe cortado recipe as a preset specialty.

Seeing as cortado coffee doesn’t demand intricate milk foam preparation, you can even get away with heating milk on the stove and using a moka pot. You won’t get real espresso from a moka pot, though, so this will just be an approximation of a cortado.

Cortado Coffee Preparation

A cortado coffee is one of the easiest milk-based espresso drinks to make at home. Here’s how I recommend doing it:

  1. Pull a doppio ristretto shot from your portafilter or super automatic espresso machine directly into a small glass. If you’re using a portafilter, you should be using about 14 grams of finely ground coffee. In a super automatic espresso machine, the amount of ground coffee is usually greater. The extraction time should be about 30 seconds, and the resulting shot volume should be slightly under 40-50 milliliters (1.35-1.69 ounces). Remember that the factory-set shot volume for many super automatic machines is way too high, so you’ll need to tweak the settings
  2. If you’re using a dual-circuit espresso machine, you can steam the milk while extracting the espresso. With a single-circuit machine you’ll need to wait. Although you’re not trying to froth the milk, you’ll still need to inject a little air at the beginning. Otherwise, you’ll have to put up with an unbearable screeching sound. Steam the milk until it reaches a temperature of around 140-150 degrees Fahrenheit, but don’t go further. Burned milk and espresso isn’t the objective here. 
  3. Pour the hot milk into the glass. You’re aiming for equal parts espresso and milk. If you end up with too much milk foam, use a spoon to hold it back in the pitcher as you pour.

Conclusion: Does Cortado Coffee Live up to the Hype?

As with any hyped drink with the hipster stamp of approval, cafe cortado could be seen as more of a fashion statement than a true expression of coffee enjoyment.

People in Spain couldn’t care less, though. If we take cortado coffee back to its roots, we’re looking at a way to enjoy the ideal blend of warm milk and coffee.

Sure, we can bring cortado to perfection by using an excellent shot of espresso and pasture-raised milk at just the right temperature. However, it doesn’t need to be branded, re-evaluated or given a new name.

What do you think? Could a cafe cortado be your new favorite coffee drink? I look forward to your comments!

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