Latte vs Cappuccino vs Macchiato: Explore The Milky Way

Coffee specialties can feel like a foreign language. With menus full of Italian words and rushed baristas trying to make drinks for long queues, it’s no wonder people end up in a coffee rut. Given just how busy a coffee shop can be, it's also not surprising that a barista rarely has time for questions about latte vs cappuccino vs macchiato.

Siemens EQ9 Latte Macchiato fertig, Arne im Hintergrund

Coffee specialties can feel like a foreign language. With menus full of Italian words and rushed baristas trying to make drinks for long queues, it’s no wonder people end up in a coffee rut. Given just how busy a coffee shop can be, it’s also not surprising that a barista rarely has time for questions about latte vs cappuccino vs macchiato.

Lucky for you, I have time to explain these things today. So, perhaps you’re reading this at home or maybe you’re in line trying to decide what to order. I’ve got your back!

After all, no one wants you to miss out on a drink that has your name written all over it, especially if it’s a drink you never knew existed!

It All Starts With Two Key Ingredients

To fully understand the differences between a latte, cappuccino and macchiato, it’s important to understand what goes into each drink. They all have two primary ingredients: espresso and milk.

The volume, proportions and methods used to combine the espresso and milk differ. That’s where the differences come in. Let’s take a closer look.

Espresso

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Espresso is made by forcing steam, with a minimum of 9 bar of pressure, through a portafilter that contains 7 grams (0.24 ounces) of finely ground coffee beans. A single shot of espresso, as it’s called, contains 25 ml (0.84 oz) of espresso.

A double shot is made in the same way, just with 14 grams (0.48 ounces) of ground coffee beans.

In coffee shops, you’ll often hear people ordering either a single shot or double shot of espresso to drink by itself, or commonly in conjunction with a latte, cappuccino or macchiato.

As a rule of thumb, people in Europe are more apt to drink straight espresso, whereas people in the United States tend to want their espresso inside of a drink that uses milk. Check out my article on French Coffee Culture for more background on this topic.

U.S. coffee culture generally regards a shot as one fluid ounce. Call me a purist, but I prefer the Italian style of 20 to 25 milliliters (0.7–0.8 ounces). The factory settings on most super automatic espresso machines are also for one ounce espressos but you can always adjust those.

Milk

Why add milk to espresso? The answer is on the tip of your tongue.

Yeah, I know you think that question deserves an eye-roll. Bear with me. Understanding how milk interacts with coffee flavors will help you figure out whether you prefer the blacker or whiter types of espresso drinks.

The fats and proteins in milk make for interesting chemistry in your cup.

Milk Fats

Fat does well at carrying the flavors of coffee. It also influences the way liquids feel on your palate. Remember, coffee is mostly water.

Add fat in the form of milk and your coffee’s mouthfeel becomes thicker, creamier and even velvety.

You can notice this difference if you think about your experiences consuming whole milk and water by themselves. However, the same difference also stands out between whole milk and skim milk.

Arne holds up a bottle of homemade almond milk.

Milk Proteins

In contrast, milk proteins interact on a chemical level with specific flavor compounds in coffee. Research shows that milk neutralizes acid and binds with tannins.

Translation? Milk masks some of coffee’s bright acidity and bitterness. Whether this makes you cheer or shudder in horror is a good indicator of which side of the milk fence you sit on.

If you’re wondering whether plant-based milk alternatives will do the same thing, the answer is not exactly. A higher water content coupled with less fat and protein means they don’t neutralize coffee quite as effectively.

But all is not lost. With a few tweaks, a change in roast or increased milk volume, there’s no reason you can’t be sipping pretty, even with soy, oat, coconut or a any number of non-dairy possibilities.

Like the sound of toning down coffee’s sourness and bitterness while upping the creaminess? Welcome to the milky coffee camp.

Ingredients — Only the Good Stuff Is up to Snuff

Chefs from Julia Child to Anthony Bourdain all say the same thing. To quote Jamie Oliver:

Real food doesn’t have ingredients; real food is ingredients.

And coffee is no different. That’s why I believe you should always use the best, freshest and most natural ingredients. Period. That means paying careful attention to the manufacturer, variety and origins of the beans, processing methods and roast date. The latter is your lowdown on freshness.

Arne sniffs a at a small bowl of fresh beans.

Still shaking your head over what beans are best? Think of it like this: if the point of milky specialties is to create a flavor profile with fewer sharp edges, then you should aim to balance your choice of beans with the quantity and type of milk you prefer.

By that logic, you might find that a strong, dark Italian roast with the relatively small amount of milk in a cappuccino — even if it is whole milk or a distinctly sweet non-dairy alternative — is a literal and figurative kick in the teeth.

In contrast, a nice milky latte and its variations call for more robust coffee notes to pierce through the buckets of the white stuff.

As a rule of thumb:

  • For low-fat dairy or more neutral plant milks (e.g. almond), lighter roasts are a better bet.
  • If you’re a fan of full-fat, full-protein moo juice and alternatives, such as hazelnut milk, a darker roast will rise to the occasion.

Before you find yourself foaming at the mouth instead of making microfoam, remember that protein is key to froth.

That’s why skim milk whips up well but not all milk alternatives successfully pump up the volume. For an awesome non-dairy mustache, check out my guide to the best milk alternatives.

The last two items essential to all types of espresso drink fall under the “ingredients to success” rather than shopping list variety:

  • Always preheat cups and glasses. Otherwise, smaller drinks, in particular, will be cold before you even get the cup to your lips.
  • Work fast. You want the milk and coffee to come together quickly to achieve maximum creaminess.

What Is a Latte?

In America, latte is a drink where you go large or go home. Not only is it bigger than any of the other espresso drinks but it’s also the one with the most variations and breakaways from the coffee and milk ingredient list.

What with all the alternatives, it’s not surprising that many people wonder if a latte is supposed to be hot or cold. The short answer is either. We’ll cover the hot one here but look at the variations below for information on the summer refresher version.

A lot of people ask me what the difference is between caffè latte and latte. The answer is simple. Italians say caffè latte while Americans say latte. In actuality, the meaning is the same.

Latte originated in Italy.

Two tall caffè lattes in glasses on a tray.

Latte Ingredients

A ratio of one part espresso to three parts milk is standard for a latte.

  • 1 or 2 x 25 milliliter (0.8 ounce) espresso shots (I recommend two!)
  • 6 ounces of steamed milk
  • 1 or 2 dollops of milk foam on top

Latte Methods and Musings

I know you’re bracing for some sort of next-level milk frothing acrobatics. Don’t worry, this one isn’t too finicky. Your standard espresso machine or super automatic espresso machine will do you proud, especially if it has a cappucinatore milk system.

A word of warning about lattes and fully automatic espresso machines: not all models can accommodate tall latte glasses beneath the coffee spout, so you may need to decant. In that case, warming glasses is even more important so you don’t end up with a cold beverage.

A far as frothiness goes, you want a layer of milk foam on top of the drink — but not as much as for a cappuccino. If you’re working a steam wand on an espresso machine, aim for milk the texture of melted ice cream.

The key to a successful latte is that the espresso goes into the glass before the milk gets added in.

The only latte where this rule doesn’t apply is a latte macchiato, which I’ll talk more about below.

Latte Variations: Mixing it Up

Perhaps it’s American influence, but this coffee drink is certainly free-spirited. Unlike cappuccino, its very nature is versatility.

From versions that don’t even include coffee, such as matcha latte, to endless seasonal possibilities like pumpkin spiced latte, gingerbread latte etc. The only common denominator is a large quantity of milk (dairy or not).

Who’ll be your winner in a breve vs latte showdown? It all depends on how much you love cream. Because the difference between the two drinks is that a breve is made with half-and-half — a blend of 50 percent whole milk with 50 percent cream, that usually contains 10-12 percent fat.

Caution, calorie bomb!

Latte Breve Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 x 25 milliliter (0.8 ounce) espresso shots
  • 6 ounces half-and-half
  • 1 or 2 dollops of milk foam on top

Method and Musings

The fat content in a latte breve means that it will never increase in volume the way whole milk does when frothed. As a result, you’re actually adding more half-and-half to a cup of the same size than if you were making an ordinary latte.

Since letting the steamed half-and-half microfoam rest allows it to set, use the steam wand on an espresso machine first and pull the shot afterward.

Remember to start with chilled half-and-half and watch that the temperature hovers between 145 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Any hotter and you’ll scald it. Add the half-and-half to the espresso and you’re done.

If you want to go dairy free, full fat coconut milk will create a comparable foam and drink.

What is a mocha? Just remember it looks a bit like chocca. It’s the drink for those who can’t choose between the two magic beans — coffee and cacao. Also known as caffè mocha, this is a regular latte with the addition of chocolate.

Mocha Latte Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 x 25 milliliter (0.8 ounce) espresso shots
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 1-4 pumps chocolate syrup. Alternatively, about 2 tablespoons of cacao or hot chocolate powder.
  • 1 or 2 dollops of milk foam on top

Method and Musings

Mocha latte à la Starbucks is made with chocolate syrup dissolved into hot espresso before the steamed milk is added. But that’s certainly not the only option.

Cacao or hot chocolate powder is an easy way to add a controlled dose of chocolate to your latte.

Even if a mocha latte isn’t on your super automatic espresso machine’s drinks menu, add the powder or syrup to your cup before setting the machine to make an ordinary l atte. A quick stir before the milk is added will help blend the flavors.

Those whose machine features a steam wand can add the powder to your milk so that you froth up a silky hot chocolate. A shortcut is to use chocolate milk.

The day is hot, and your brain is fried. So, what is the difference between iced latte and iced coffee?

Although both are cold, iced coffee has little to no milk, while an iced latte has three parts milk.

Iced Latte Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 x 25-milliliter (0.8 ounce) espresso shots
  • Ice cubes in a glass
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 1 or 2 dollops of cold milk foam on top

Methods and Musings

Most coffee chains and shops make iced coffee drinks by pouring a freshly made (i.e. hot) brew over ice to cool it quickly.

Since the melting ice inevitably dilutes the coffee, a strong brew from an espresso machine is a must. Even more so if you’re also planning to go heavy on the milk latte style.

Granular and liquid sweeteners as well as chocolate syrup for an iced mocha latte are best dissolved in the espresso before decanting over the ice. Otherwise, it won’t completely dissolve.

While manual or automatic frothers will often produce cold foam, you don’t need tech to froth.

Cue the mason jar. Simply add cold milk, seal and shake vigorously for a few minutes. It’s trickier to control the texture, but you’ll definitely be all abubble over your brew.

Serving up this drink is bound to earn you oohs and aahs. To nail the milk, coffee and froth layers takes a bit of extra knowhow.

Latte Macchiato Ingredients

  • 1 x 25 milliliter (0.8 ounce) espresso shot
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 1 or 2 dollops of milk foam on top

Methods and Musings

The key thing to remember is that the espresso goes into the milk — the opposite way round to all the other types of lattes I’ve described.

Allowing the frothed milk to stand while you prepare the espresso allows the foam structure to set and the temperature to dip.

It’s especially important not to overheat the milk or you won’t get nice layers.

Even though milk has a slightly higher density than espresso, coffee that is hotter than the milk will still sit on top of it. This is called double-diffusive convection.

All you have to do is steam the milk and pour it into the glass. Then, add the milk foam on top. Finally, pour the espresso shot onto the milk foam. It will “stain” the milk as it passes down into the steamed milk.

In Italy, latte macchiato is a children’s drink. If you’re drinking it as an adult, you may want to add a second shot of espresso. Check out my article How to Make Latte Macchiato for more info.

What Is Cappuccino?

Cappuccino is one of the most familiar drinks to many, but its popularity hasn’t been good for overall quality control. Now, there’s a big backlash against it.

The drink is named after the Capuchin friars’ hoods, which are the same warm brown shade as the milky coffee mix. But like the cowl doesn’t make the monk, mountains of froth and sprinkles don’t make a cappuccino.

Since the color — the perfect blend of milk and coffee — is what it’s all about, creating a wizard’s hat of foam is missing the point. The foam cap on a cappuccino should only just crest the lip of the cup. Think curvature of the earth, not mountain crag.

All in all, it’s high time for a return to the drink’s Italian roots. Luckily, the Italian Espresso National Institute has come to the rescue with its strict standards for a certified cappuccino.

About 3.5 ounces of cold milk (37–41 degrees Fahrenheit) are steamed until they achieve a volume of approximately 4 ounces and a temperature of approximately 131 degrees Fahrenheit and then poured into an Italian espresso cup of 5 to 5.5 ounce capacity.”

A cappuccino in a double-walled glass.

Cappuccino Ingredients

  • 1 x 25-milliliter (0.8-ounce) espresso shot
  • 3.5 to 5 ounces of lightly frothed milk
  • 2 dollops of milk foam on top

Compared to some American servings, which can range from 10 to 20 ounces, that’s pretty petite.

Cappuccino Methods and Musings

There’s also some flexibility in preparation methods. Italians who don’t own serious coffee appliances rely on a stove-top moka pot with a milk frother to finish the job. The flavor profile isn’t quite as well rounded, but it will fill the cappuccino-shaped hole in your day.

With a super automatic espresso machine, cappuccino is a cinch. Ironically, these appliances that make specialty coffees at the touch of a button are turning the tide back in the cappuccino’s favor.

Fully automatic machines are often designed to produce froth so stiff it sits like a bubble bath on top of the coffee and then on your upper lip.

You can also go the artisanal route with an espresso machine and steam wand. Frothing milk takes some practice, so read my guide to milk foam and check out some videos before giving it whirl yourself.

The golden rule: start with cold (refrigerated), fresh milk. Why? Because that gives you more time to build up a stable lather without scalding the milk. At temperatures above 158 degrees Fahrenheit, the quality of foam goes downhill rapidly.

Using a steam wand to froth milk in a steel pitcher.

To go all-out Italiano, pour the milk and froth together into the cup rather than holding back the foam with a teaspoon. Perfectly steamed microfoam will ensure you get the right ratio of milk to froth.

For more information, be sure to read my article on how to make a cappuccino.

Cappuccino Variations

Woah, you say, that’s some precision engineering. And you’re right, creating a first-rate Cappuccino by hand requires some skill. That’s not to say the recipe is carved in stone — even if the Italian National Espresso Institute will have you believe otherwise.

By playing with the milk and froth ratios, you can veer towards a wet, dry or even bone dry cappuccino. So, what is a dry cappuccino and will it leave you feeling horribly parched?

  • Bone dry Cappuccino: no milk is added to the shot, just a generous helping of froth.
  • Dry Cappuccino: a little bit of milk, but the white stuff is mostly microfoam. Since froth is more air than milk, expect a bump in espresso flavor.
  • Wet Cappuccino increases the steamed milk quotient over the froth, producing a sweeter, creamier drink.
  • Super wet Cappuccino is a flat white in all but name since the cup is almost filled with milk and then topped with a little froth.
Pouring a swan design into a cappuccino.

Iced Cappuccino

From wet and dry to hot and cold, let’s round out this cappuccino weather report with a hard freeze – the iced cappuccino. This is a drink with a bad rap among baristas because it feels self-defeating and wasteful. The problem lies with the foam of contention.

To make an iced cappuccino, you first pour a fresh shot of espresso over ice in a cup. Then, you add cold milk. So far so chilled. Finally, top it with some nice hot froth.

Much like with macchiato, scooping foam without using the steamed milk means getting stuck with milk you can’t reuse. And in coffee shops, it, unfortunately, gets poured down the drain.

To add insult to injury, most people drink iced cappuccino through a straw, sucking up the brew below the surface and leaving frosty froth scum at the bottom of the cup.

There are frothers that can produce cold foam without heating the milk, but not every coffee shop, let alone home barista, will have one.

An iced latte is a better option.

What Is a Macchiato?

In Italian, macchiato means speckled or marked. In an espresso macchiato (aka macchiato), the espresso is flecked with white froth. Switch things around and you get a latte macchiato — milk stained with coffee.

A Lego figure rests on the lip of a glass of macchiato.

On the face of things, a macchiato is a simple drink — espresso and a dollop of foam. How hard could it be? Not very, as long as you keep a few pointers in mind.

Espresso Macchiato Ingredients

  • 1 x 25-milliliter (0.8-ounce) espresso shot
  • 1 ounce of milk froth

Macchiato Methods and Musings

Since an espresso macchiato is mostly about the espresso, you want a quality shot — or two if you’re making a doppio (double).

That means about 7 grams (a quarter of an ounce) of freshly ground beans tamped into a portafilter and extracted over 25 seconds.

A smiling Arne holds up a glass of Espresso Macchiato.

For the milk froth, you need just 10-50 milliliters (between a half to 3.5 tablespoons) to top off an espresso macchiato. The problem is you can’t produce decent froth with anything less than about 7 fluid ounces. Even making a doppio espresso macchiato only calls for half that.

And don’t even contemplate the two absolute no-nos: tossing out fresh milk or frothing the same milk twice. That’s bad karma or bad foam — bad news either way.

Super automatic espresso machines don’t fully solve the problem either. Roughly the first ounce and a half of froth to exit the milk system is usually watery with an uneven consistency. Shudder. For this reason, it’s also best to use about 3.5 ounces here, too.

Once you have a luscious microfoam, use a teaspoon to deliver the froth into the center of the glass. Work with a scale and add half the weight of the espresso in foam. In other words, top a 25 gram (just shy of an ounce) shot, for instance, with about 12 grams (almost half an ounce) of froth.

If you want to get even deeper into the fine art of macchiato, read What Is an Espresso Macchiato?

Latte vs Cappuccino vs Macchiato: Ebony and Ivory in Perfect Harmony

It’s pretty mind-blowing when you consider how many different coffee drinks you can create with just espresso and milk. While froth is often a third ingredient, let’s face it, that’s still milk. What other two ingredients can you think of that produce so many varied delights?

The latte vs cappuccino vs macchiato chart that I’ve created below is by no means comprehensive, but it shows you how the milk and espresso content compare next to one another.

LatteCappuccinoMacchiato
Steamed Milk6 ounces3.5 to 5 ouncesN/A
Milk Foam1 to 2 dollops1 to 2 dollops1 to 2 dollops
Espresso shots1-21-21, if doppio, then 2

What’s Your Order — Latte vs Cappuccino vs Macchiato?

It’s time to decide which espresso-milk combo you’re going to try next. Will you be going for a latte? Cappucino? Macchiato? Maybe one day you should sit down and have all three back-to-back!

If you decide to go the home barista route, keep in mind that the coffee-correctness police aren’t going to come busting into your kitchen if you deviate from the standard ratios here. But, as the saying goes, you need to learn the rules before you can break them.

Enjoy your journey into greater coffee appreciation!

Aside from hearing about your fave coffee specialty on the espresso drink chart, I’d love to know about your tips and tricks for preparing these drinks at home. Whether it’s with a fully automatic, espresso machine or more hands-on DIY approach, I’m all ears.

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