Understanding the difference between a cappuccino and a latte can stump both those who are new to espresso drinks and those who consider themselves aficionados.
We’ll show you how to tell a latte and cappuccino apart, then how to make them at home.
In this cappuccino vs latte article, we’ll guide you on how to get the best foam every time and answer some frequently asked questions about these espresso-based drinks.
What is the Difference Between a Latte and Cappuccino?
The perfect shot of espresso
Few things in life are as pleasing to look at as the perfectly pulled shot of espresso.
The nearly pitch-black body should yield a thin but even top layer of crema — a frothy, reddish-brown swirl of espresso’s soluble oils and the air bubbles that occur during extraction.
The presence of crema indicates a quality roast and a well-timed extraction, and it adds depth to the flavor of the espresso shot .
Many baristas will default to one shot for the smallest cappuccino and two shots for the smallest latte.
If you’re curious about how to get the most caffeine in your cup of coffee, check out our FAQ section for more info about the difference in caffeine content between espresso and drip-brew coffee drinks.
Espresso to milk ratio: latte vs cappuccino
It is in this step that the defining difference between a cappuccino and a latte is made.
No matter how many shots you start with, the amount of steamed milk and milk foam you’re using will determine whether you’re having a cappuccino or a latte.
“The goal is to serve three distinct layers: caffe, hot milk, and frothy (not dense) foam,” Mario Batali, chef and writer.
For a cappuccino, the generally accepted ratios come in thirds according to the size of the cup: one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third dry foam.
Some definitions require the foam to be three-quarters of an inch thick.
In the world of barista championships, perfection may even be determined by how much a single-shot-based cappuccino weighs once the milk and foam are added, but the more informal by-the-thirds measurement works just as well.
A latte has slightly more relaxed rules.
The only standard measurement lies in how much foam there should be at the top, which most coffee connoisseurs agree should be around half an inch from the top of the cup.
This may be a dry foam, like with a cappuccino, or it could be a wet foam.
We’ll cover the differences between these next, but we also dig deeper into the science behind a good foam down below.
How to make cappuccino foam?
The key to good milk foam for a cappuccino is a balance between airy lightness and creamy consistency.
This is the essence of what is typically called a dry foam, which resembles a slightly stiff meringue that holds its shape in the cup.
To achieve this kind of foam, the temperature and type of milk you use play a key role. Milk should be fresh from the refrigerator and contain 2% or more fat.
When the nozzle is submerged just below the milk’s surface, it can circulate the milk rapidly and create the necessary whip-like emulsion that results in a sturdy but silky foam.
Wet foam, which holds less air than dry foam, is a popular choice for those who like to make latte art.
The technique involves pouring a specific portion of carefully steamed milk so that the foam and the crema mix together to form motifs or designs .
When a cappuccino is served with wet foam latte art instead of a stiff, dry foam, it may be better known as a flat white or a ‘failed cappuccino’.
What is in a Latte?
Latte meaning and ingredients.
In Italy, the classic version of this drink is more often called a caffe latte or a caffe latte, which means “milk coffee”.
A latte is made with your choice of espresso shots, more steamed milk than a cappuccino, and a thin layer of foam that’s usually around half an inch thick.
Other types of latte drinks
Lattes can be made with a variety of flavored syrups, such as caramel or vanilla.
A mocha is a latte with chocolate added to it.
Some coffee shops and aficionados prefer to top a mocha with whipped cream and a drizzle of hot chocolate rather than the traditional half-inch of foamed milk.
Latte macchiatos take the standard ingredients of a cafe latte and invert them: first, the milk is steamed and poured into a cup with the requisite amount of foam, then the shots of espresso are added on top so that it ‘stains’ the milk layers with coffee.
Teas can also serve as a base for latte drinks.
A chai latte, a drink made with spiced black tea, is a popular choice and can be made with or without an added shot of espresso.
How to make a latte at home
Because true espresso requires an espresso machine capable of forcing hot, pressurized water through a tightly packed disc of coffee, you may not be able to achieve the standard latte without a machine of your own (4).
The half-inch of foam is optional if you prefer to use whipped cream or try your hand at latte art with a wet foam.
Most at-home espresso makers come with a steam wand, but if yours doesn’t or you choose to make a latte with strong drip-brew coffee, check out our tips below about alternatives to steaming milk for espresso drinks.
What is in a Cappuccino?
Cappuccino meaning and ingredients
Its most notable characteristic and history, a healthy dollop of white foam on top, came to be known as a “monk’s hood” since it looked similar to the hoods worn by Italian monks and nuns who followed the Capuchin order (5).
Like a latte, a cappuccino starts with espresso and also has steamed milk and foam, but the proportion of foam to the rest of the cappuccino’s body defines it best.
It can be anywhere from three-quarters of an inch to a full third of the total volume in espresso and steamed milk.
A sprinkle of cinnamon is a common final touch.
Other types of cappuccino drinks
Aside from the flat white, there are relatively few variations on the traditional cappuccino that still resemble what makes it such a distinct espresso drink.
Once the proportions of espresso, steamed milk, and milk froth begin to change, it starts to resemble a latte.
It’s for this reason that you may never find an iced cappuccino in the name on a cafe menu, but instead see plenty of choices for flavored and iced lattes.
Without the definitive monk’s hood of frothy foam, it simply isn’t a cappuccino by any typical definition.
If you prefer a smaller amount of steamed milk but still want the foam, a barista may know this as a Caffe Macchiato instead of a cappuccino.
How to make a cappuccino at home
Brew an espresso shot and look for that telltale sign of quality beans and perfectly-time extraction: the rich layer of crema on top.
If your espresso maker comes with a steam wand, carefully steam the milk until it forms a thick layer of foam, but be careful to not let it get too hot or the milk will scald and cause your cappuccino to have a sour aftertaste.
You may need to use a flat spatula or the blade of a butter knife to hold back foam while you pour steamed milk in an amount that’s equal to the volume of espresso in your cup.
Then, you can use the spatula, a knife, or a spoon to scoop the foam onto the top. Sprinkle it with a bit of cinnamon for a cafe-style and picture-perfect cappuccino.
If you don’t have an espresso machine or a steam wand, you may still be able to make a drink that has a similar flavor profile, body, and froth.
Check out the next two sections for how you can achieve alternative ways of preparing homemade lattes and cappuccinos.
3 Tips for Steaming Milk
1. Keep your pitcher coldWhether its metal, plastic or glass, a cold container and cold milk will help you achieve the right consistency in foam once you start steaming.
Not only does the shock of temperature difference help air bubbles to form, but it also lets you keep the steamer in longer before you risk scalding the milk.
2. Use a thermometer, scalded milk will ruin a perfect shot of espresso, so use a thermometer that has a clip you can attach to the side of your steaming pitcher.
Keep an eye on it as you build your foam and don’t let the temperature go past 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Alternatives for when you don’t have a steamerWhisking milk as it heats gently in a pan on the stove can help you get close to the creamy texture of steamed milk.
You may not be able to achieve a dry and frothy foam for traditional cappuccinos, but it may work well for a flat white.
Electric frothing wands can also be an affordable alternative to a steaming wand that whips up a stiff foam.
Check out step-by-step instructions to make a coffee-shop quality latte at home.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you make espresso with a drip-brew coffee maker?
A drip-brew coffee maker simply isn’t equipped to extract coffee in a way that compares to a full-bodied, crema-topped shot of espresso.
If you don’t have an espresso machine but want something close to espresso-style coffee, try a stove-top Moka pot. Like an espresso machine, a Moka pot creates a thick, rich coffee drink.
The steam pushes water up from the bottom compartment through the unpacked coffee and into the top chamber.
With an espresso machine, steam creates pressure that forces water down through packed coffee and into an espresso cup.
Do cappuccinos or lattes have more caffeine than drip-brew coffee drinks?
Because an espresso shot is a concentrated amount of coffee, it does contain more caffeine within its volume than a drip-brew coffee would if it were served in that same volume (6). However, drip-brew coffee is usually served as a larger portion than espresso, so a regular cup of coffee would have more caffeine than a single shot of espresso.
Can non-dairy milks make cappuccino foam?
Without dairy fat, it can be very difficult to create a stiff, dry foam that sits on top of the espresso and steamed milk without disappearing quickly.
Some baristas have had success with coconut cream mixed with coconut milk, or with a thick oat milk.
A blend of cashew and almond milk can also yield good results, but none are as consistent as dairy milk.
When do you add flavoring to an espresso drink?
Some coffee drinkers will add flavor after the espresso brews, but many espresso aficionados prefer to put the flavor in first and then add the espresso.
There’s even a debate about whether the espresso and flavoring should be stirred since it breaks up the crema layer and makes latte art difficult to master.
At home, it’s up to you to decide which you prefer.
References1. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/fashion/mens-style/is-that-cappuccino-youre-drinking-really-a-cappuccino.html2. Klaus, R. (2010, July 01). Espresso – A Feast for the Senses. Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/712299/Espresso__A_Feast_for_the_Senses.html3. Jayson, C. (2015, July 21). The Science of Steamed Milk: Understanding Your Latte Art. Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.scienceandfood.org/the-science-of-steamed-milk-understanding-your-latte-art/4. Stamp, J. (2012, June 19). The Long History of the Espresso Machine. Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-long-history-of-the-espresso-machine-126012814/5. Elder, J.M. (2016, November 8). Cappuccino – Yes, It’s From the Capuchins (Probably). Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://capuchins.org/2016/11/08/cappuccino-yes-its-from-the-capuchins-probably/6. Coffee Chemistry. (2014, April 20). Caffeine Content in Espresso vs Drip Coffee. Retrieved June 18, 2019, from https://www.coffeechemistry.com/chemistry/alkaloids/caffeine-content-in-espresso-vs-drip-coffee