How to Make a Cappuccino: The Difficult Relationship Between Espresso and Milk

Once upon a time, cappuccino was one of the most popular ways to drink coffee with steamed milk. Learning how to make a cappuccino became a part of standard barista training. You had to know your cappuccino recipe by heart. Shoot, I still dream I’m making cappuccinos when I sleep!

Once upon a time, cappuccino was one of the most popular ways to drink coffee with steamed milk. Learning how to make a cappuccino became a part of standard barista training. You had to know your cappuccino recipe by heart. Shoot, I still dream I’m making cappuccinos when I sleep!

Why did cappuccino grow in popularity? Well, that’s because it has the perfect cup size and ratio of steamed milk to coffee. It’s ideal for those who find straight espresso too strong and latte macchiatos overly milky.

Over time, ideas about how to make a cappuccino have changed. Someone got the bright idea that this coffee classic needs to be bigger, sweeter, topped with sprinkles and just fancier in general.

This bourgeois logic has been identified by coffee historians as an identity crisis of sorts. Some would say the drink has been sidelined completely.

It almost borders on irony that the super automatic espresso machine, of all things, is bringing an end to this crisis. Once people started tailoring their own delicious homemade cappuccino recipes, its popularity returned, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Still, what really sets it apart? How does cappuccino differ from cafe latte, latte macchiato and all the rest? Most importantly, we want to know how to make cappuccino, while bringing out the best in our milk and coffee. In this updated guide, all will be revealed.

What Is Cappuccino?

If us coffee lovers want to answer the question: What is cappuccino? we should ask the inventors. Coffeeness reader Daniel has provided us with an enlightening link: The Instituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano (INEI) has published an explanatory brochure in English with a solid definition of espresso and cappuccino. According to this, a “high-quality” Italian cappuccino consists of:

25 ml (0.84 oz) espresso and 100 ml (3.38 oz) steamed milk

That’s it.

No cinnamon or cocoa powder. No caramel or chocolate flavored syrups either. Above all, no huge cups that would make even a cafe latte jealous.

The institute recommends using cow’s milk with a minimum protein content of 3.2 percent and a fat content of 3.5 percent. It should be steamed to a volume of about 125 ml (4.2 oz).

Even if you don’t follow the INEI’s specifications in terms of coffee beans and skip the “certified Italian beans” part, the cappuccino should end up being a love poem:

[…] [cappuccino] has an intense aroma combining the underlying scents of flowers and fruits with the bolder scents of milk, of toasted (cereals, caramel), chocolate (cocoa, vanilla) and dried fruits. […] It discloses its remarkable body through an inviting sensation of cream and of high spherical perception, supported by a mild bitter taste and by a balanced, almost imperceptible acidity.

For me, the most important word in this ode is balance: frothed milk and espresso working together rather than trying to outdo each other. Keep that in mind as you learn how to make cappuccino.

What Does Cappuccino Mean?

Cappuccino actually got its start in Vienna, where it was known as Kapuziner. This was during the 1700s, when no one wanted to drink their coffee without sugary stuff and creamy toppings.

Kapuziner is still a popular coffee drink in Austria. In the early days, strong mocha was blended with a blob of cream to create a brown that resembled the hood of a Capuchin friar’s habit.

Italians have always thought coffee was better with steamed milk than whipped cream, and traded in the fat tower for milk foam. The color remained and the name was Italianized with the diminutive form of hood.

Espresso is different from mocha, steamed milk is different from whipped cream. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the Viennese and the Roman hoods are often mixed up.

You may be wondering what the correct plural of cappuccino is. Cappuccini may be right, but whoever comes at me with that will get hit with a coffee bag! Say cappuccinos. Or simply say nothing at all.

Cappuccino vs Latte Macchiato

It’s significant that the Italian coffee guardians haven’t published a brochure on latte macchiato. For them, the layered milk-espresso giant is a children’s drink that has little to do with coffee enjoyment.

It all starts with the volume of steamed milk: while you foam up around 100ml (3.38 oz) of milk for a cappuccino, it’s around 200 ml (6.76 oz) for a latte macchiato. In total, this adds up to around 300 milliliters (10 oz) of foamed milk. And that’s with the same amount of espresso. Though, many prefer their lattes with a double shot.

The foam for a latte macchiato should also be somewhat firmer, to support the layers. The whole thing is poured into a glass, while a cappuccino is traditionally served in a small cup. Ideally there shouldn’t be any layers to gawk at.

What’s the ideal vessel for delivery? I personally prefer drinking cappuccino in a double-walled glass.

A closeup of a Cappuccino in a double-walled glass.

Flat White vs Cappuccino: All for the Love of Latte Art?

Cappuccino and flat white are close relatives. Some would even say that the flat white takes the cappuccino back to its origins. That’s because the Australian invention relies exclusively on the best coffee and flowing, fine milk foam. We could call flat white a wet cappuccino.

The key difference, however, is in the coffee beans. A flat white also relies on espresso, but in lighter shades, often featuring distinctly floral and fruity notes.

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This has to do with Australia’s tea-drinking tradition. Robust espresso with dominant notes of cocoa and chocolate is simply not as popular Down Under.

If we look at the foamed milk and its consistency, we could also assume that the flat white has taken off because baristas can create pretty designs with it. Thanks to latte art, the drink can now cost a few dollars more.

A closeup of a barista pouring beautiful latte art.

How Much Caffeine Is in a Cappuccino?

A simple espresso, latte macchiato, caffe latte, flat white and cappuccino are identical in one respect: they all have the same — nominal — caffeine content. After all, they’re based on a single 25ml (0.84 oz) shot of espresso.

According to our caffeine study, this equals 68 mgs of caffeine with the roast we used. Per 100ml (3.38 oz), that’s 273 mgs. If you’re concerned about the risks of consuming coffee during pregnancy, take the following guidelines to heart:

A table showing caffeine content per serving, by preparation method.

Given the all-clear from their doctor, pregnant women may consume up to 200 mg of caffeine per day. Ordinarily, the recommended daily limit is 400 mg.

In short, does cappuccino have caffeine? Yes, but not a lot.

How Many Calories in a Cappuccino?

I’m only answering this question because you’re asking it. Not because I think counting calories is a good idea.

However, the answer shows us that a cappuccino in its original form adds practically nothing to your daily intake:

  • 100 ml (3.8 ounces) of whole milk contains a maximum of 70 calories
  • Vegan cappuccino with unsweetened almond milk contains about 30 calories
  • Oat milk contains about 50 calories

You can learn more about the energy content of various trendy drinks in my guide to plant-based milk.

It’s clear that it’s not the drink itself that’s to blame if your jeans feel a little tighter. Rather, it’s the mischief that’s involved in the consumption of too many cappuccino. If you ask for whipped cream, you’re looking at around 335 calories per 100 gm (3.5 oz). A topping like caramel sauce has about 400 calories per 100 gm (3.5 oz), depending on the manufacturer.

Speaking of deviations …

Instant Cappuccino: What's It Supposed To Be?

I don’t know about you, but the term Folgers Cappuccino has been permanently burned into my brain. Not in a good way, either. Supermarket shelves are full of instant powders that have cappuccino in the name without any apparent sense of shame.

Basically, you’re buying a version of Nescafé Gold, jazzed up with copious ingredients to make a sweet brew. All you have to do is add hot water. Take, for instance:

Caffe D'Vita Premium Instant Cappuccino

The ingredients list reads as follows: Sugar, Nondairy Creamer [Contains Non-Hydrogenated Coconut Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate (a Milk Derivative), Sugar, Tricalcium Phosphate, Dipotassium Phosphate (Aids Dissolving), Propylene Glycol Esters of Fatty Acids, Mono- and Diglycerides (Emulsifier), Salt, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor], Arabica Coffee, Corn Syrup Solids, Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa (Dutch Processed), Natural and Artificial Flavor, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Silicon Dioxide (Prevents Caking).

Similarly quirky and not at all cappuccino-like are coffee pods. They work on the same principle, except you don’t have to dose them.

Senseo Cappuccino Choco Coffee Pads

Ingredients: Sugar, Low-Fat Cocoa Powder (12.3%), Soluble Coffee (9.8%), Coconut Fat (Fully Hydrogenated), Glucose Syrup, Skimmed Milk Powder, Flavor, Milk Protein, Salt, Stabilizer (E452, E340), Anti-Caking Agents (E341, E551), Emulsifier (E481).

To complete the hat trick of crime against the hood, we have ready-made mixed milk drinks like the illy cappuccino. Funnily enough, this comes closest to real cappuccino, with this list of ingredients:

Ingredients: 100% Arabica Coffee, Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Cocoa Powder, Potassium Bicarbonate, Cellulose Gel, Potassium Citrate, Cellulose Gum, Carrageenan.

Is it any wonder that nobody believes in the goodness of cappuccino anymore? We should change that as soon as possible!

How to Make a Cappuccino at Home

Given espresso is one of the ingredients, will we need an espresso machine or a super automatic coffee machine? Definitely. If you want to learn how to make cappuccino at home without an espresso machine, a moka pot along with a milk frother will do in a pinch. However, the flavor profile becomes less complex and we definitely aren’t dealing with true espresso.

Whichever preparation method you’re using, there are a few things that will bring you closer to achieving the perfect cappuccino:

  • Always preheat cups and mugs. The relatively small amount of milk and coffee in the cup causes the temperature to drop relatively quickly.
  • Work quickly. Espresso and hot steamed milk or milk foam should be combined quickly to achieve the requisite creaminess.
  • Froth milk or pull the shot of espresso first? First the espresso, then the frothed milk. Always.

For a primer on foamed milk, you’ll want to read Milk Foam: Preparations, Tools and the Right Milk.

Choosing the Best Milk and Coffee Beans for Cappuccino

Cappuccino is Italian, so do we need coffee beans or espresso with a strong Italian profile? Yes and no.

A manageable ratio of espresso to hot milk ensures that bold roasts really come through strongly — even when full-fat whole milk or sweet, plant-based alternatives work against them.

However, as we’ve already noted, cappuccino is all about the balance between coffee notes and milk foam sweetness. Again, this is different from latte macchiato, where we need stronger coffee accents to stand up to all that milk.

What’s in your milk jug and the beans you choose will strongly influence your preparation. So, as you practice making cappuccino, consider the style of your milk and what the dominant notes of your roast are. If they work against each other, you should change one component. Either less milk and more coffee or more milk and less coffee. Once they have the perfect balance, you’re good to go.

Two examples:

  1. If you have a milk with a lower fat content or a more neutral plant-based milk — almond, for example — lighter roasts are a good idea.
  2. If you’re a fan of almond milk cappuccino or like to go all out with the fat and protein content of your dairy milk, more assertive beans are a better choice.

How to Make a Cappuccino With an Espresso Machine

It goes without saying that the best way to make a cappuccino is with an espresso machine. Cappuccino is prepared using the same basic principles as any other milk-based espresso drink:

  1. Use about 7 gm, (0.25 oz) of finely and freshly ground coffee to extract 20-25 ml (0.67-0.84 oz) of espresso, under 9 bars of pressure. The extraction time should be about 25 seconds. Check out my coffee grind size chart for more information on grinding coffee. 
  2. Meanwhile — dual-circuit — or afterward — single-circuit — use the steam wand to froth milk. Make sure the overall consistency is homogeneous and not overly aerated, with fine pores.
  3. Pour the hot milk over the espresso immediately after steaming. If you’re able, use the crema to create a heart, rosetta or other latte art. If you prefer a dry cappuccino, forget the whole latte art thing.

Some will argue that when you froth milk it should be firm enough to stand out as a small mound over the rim of the cup. However, this is one of the many misconceptions about cappuccino. Here, the hood is interpreted as an object, not a color.

In reality, mountainous foam is too firm to tease out the desired creaminess and sweetness. Moreover, in a cappuccino with firm foam, the coffee and milk don’t mix well when you drink it. And that’s what we’re all about, after all.

How to Make a Cappuccino With an Automatic Espresso Machine

A super automatic espresso machine with a cappuccino button or cappuccino recipe is practically a given — at least if the machine has a cappuccinatore or an integrated milk frothing system.

However, many machines in my automatic espresso machine reviews have a functional handicap: they prepare cappuccino in the same order as a latte macchiato, by dispensing the steamed milk foam first, then the espresso.

As we’ve now learned, it’s crucial that the milk foam and coffee combine perfectly in a cappuccino. This only works when you brew an espresso first and froth milk second.

That’s why it’s no surprise that manufacturers whose cappuccino recipe brews in the correct order like to brag about it.

A freshly prepared cappuccino from a super automatic espresso machine.

Some older espresso machines already have the term cappuccino in their name, including DeLonghi Magnifica Rapid Cappuccino or Saeco Royal Cappuccino.

These are relics from a time when cappuccino from an automatic coffee maker was still something special. Latte macchiato from one of these machines wasn’t even a consideration. The name is only meant to mark that a specific super automatic espresso machine can prepare frothed milk.

We’ll discuss the special features of cappuccino from a super automatic coffee machine in a separate guide. At this point, you only need to remember a few important factors.

Key Factors

  1. If the programmed cappuccino recipe gets things the wrong way around, you can program the correct parameters for preparing espresso and steamed milk via user profiles. You can also be extra sneaky by intervening in the recipe for cafe latte.
  2. Depending on the espresso machine, first, adjust the coffee strength down or to an average value. Once the amount of foamed milk is correct, try it out and then perhaps increase the coffee strength a little.
  3. If the consistency of the milk foam can be adjusted, such as on the DeLonghi Magnifica XS, it’s best to select an average value. If the steamed milk is too thin, you can always select a firmer foam level.

Our friend Chris had another ingenious idea for the sequence problem: simply steam milk and espresso separately from the start!

This won’t pose a problem with most super automatic espresso machines. I think it’s a great solution that mimics how we use an espresso machine. It’s also convenient for preparing a latte macchiato.

Cups or Glasses: What's the Proper Way To Drink a Cappuccino?

You won’t see cappuccino glasses in third wave cafes or at Starbucks. They’re really popular for home use, though — especially insulated double-walled glasses.

That makes sense. After all, we’ve already established that the temperature of a cappuccino can drop quite quickly.

I also think glasses are the best way to monitor quality. If you want to learn how to make a cappuccino well and calibrate your espresso machine accordingly, you need a detailed view of how the milk foam turned out, if it combines well with the espresso etc.

Double-walled glasses, such as these 6-ounce DeLonghi Cappuccino Glasses, are an excellent choice and won’t burn your fingers. However, you shouldn’t make the mistake of buying a set with a variety of sizes. This will once again tempt you into milk overkill. A glass with a volume of around 6.76 fluid ounces (200 milliliters) is ideal.

A Cappuccino in a double-walled glass.

The Perfect Cappuccino: Two Ingredients and a Rethink

I can just about deal with a splash of hazelnut flavored syrup or a touch of Amaretto. With monstrosities such as Irish Cappuccino — even less so as a powder! — not so much.

The crazy mania to pimp the Italian classic with stuff is mainly due to the fact that the ratio of milk to espresso has become ever more skewed. Plus, cheap, over-roasted beans are commonplace and too many people are ignorant of the difference between a cappuccino, latte macchiato and cafe latte.

I am of the opinion that this can be easily changed. We just need to put the cocoa shaker back in its place, stop accepting instant stuff as cappuccino and refrain from getting caught up with buzzwords like frozen or blended.

Perfect cappuccino encapsulates everything we love about coffee and frothed milk! Do you have any tips and ideas about how to make a cappuccino at home you’d like me to highlight in the next round of updates? Keep leaving comments! 

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