Macchiato vs Cortado: What’s The Difference? (Explained)

Macchiato vs Cortado

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Have you ever looked at the espresso coffee drinks menu at a coffee shop and felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of them and their fancy names?

How different from each other can they be when they’re still mostly made from the same few ingredients – espresso and steamed milk?

In this article, we’ll tackle two drinks that have confused many, Macchiato vs Cortado.

You’ll learn exactly how they differ from each other in terms of preparation, taste, and caffeine content to discover your next go-to espresso coffee drink.


What Is A Macchiato?

Macchiato, also known as Caffè Macchiato or Espresso Macchiato, is an Italian espresso-based coffee drink that’s usually consumed in the early morning.

What Does Macchiato Literally Mean?

Macchiato translates to “marked”, “stained”, or “spotted” in English. So “Caffè Macchiato” can be interpreted as coffee with a stain or a spot.

A cup of Macchiato (vs Cortado)

How come? There are many variations of milky espresso-based coffee. And Espresso Macchiato is popularly known for having only a tiny bit amount of milk added to the primary espresso foundation, which makes it almost like a stain or spot in the espresso shot.

What Is The Point Of A Macchiato?

With only a splash of milk in the coffee drink, Espresso Macchiato can better preserve the strong and intense taste of the espresso shot, while alleviating the acidity for easier consumption.

Are Macchiatos Sweet?

If you’re only ever used to the Starbucks versions of Macchiato which can contain a lot of sugar from the generous amount of milk, whipped cream, and drizzles of colorful sauces, especially the Latte Macchiato, Caramel Macchiato, and Coconutmilk Mocha Macchiato, this espresso drink probably tastes very sweet to you.

Close-up of Macchiato

On the side, Starbucks also offers an Espresso Macchiato menu, which, allegedly, only contains a double shot of espresso and a dollop of milk and foam. So it’s probably a lot less sweet.

But Macchiato is traditionally served with one or two shots of espresso and just a dash of foamed milk and no additional sweeteners such as syrups or sugar.

It’s basically the most toned-down milky coffee version to have the taste of the shot of espresso be the star of the coffee cup despite the added milk.

Are Macchiatos Stirred?

Traditional Macchiato is enjoyed as it is with no manual stirring. Some of the coffee and foamed milk would naturally mix together as the latter is poured over.

This way, the temperature of the small beverage won’t be lost in the process. It’s also an intentional “rule” so that the coffee lovers can get a kick out of every single layer with different flavors and textures as they take a sip from the unstirred cup.

But, to be fair, there is no one definitive way to enjoy something when it comes to foods and beverages.

In this day and age of booming globalization, we shouldn’t gatekeep this aspect of culture in the name of preserving the OG traditions.

People should be allowed to revel in whatever way they find most suitable, as long as it’s respectful and appreciative.

So, if you personally find that a stirred Macchiato taste better for your palate, feel free to do so. No angry Italian is going to come your way and scream.

Why Are Macchiatos Layered?

As I’ve previously mentioned, the frothed milk is only lightly poured over the espresso shots to only stain it and avoid disturbing the coffee as much as possible, especially the espresso crema.

A glass of Macchiato on the side

This creates a beautiful tan-colored layering effect that should taste as interesting as it looks.

Can A Macchiato Be Cold?

Again, traditionally, Macchiatos are served hot with hot coffee and warm milk.

But these days in many American coffee houses you can find a variety of Macchiato recipes that pick the opposite direction. A prime example should be Starbucks with its popular summer drink – Iced Caramel Macchiato.

Is Macchiato Stronger Than Espresso?

Due to the added milk, you can expect the OG single espresso shot to be stronger than a Macchiato.

However, there is so little milk in this coffee beverage that you won’t be able to tolerate its intensity either if you can’t swallow a shot of espresso.


What Is In An Espresso Macchiato?

You’ve probably had a vague idea of how it’s made from what you’ve read so far. Let’s learn how to brew a Macchiato in more explicit detail.

Espresso

As with most espresso-based coffee beverages, a single shot or double shot espresso is used as the foundation. You can let the barista know of your personal preference.

Traditionally, an Espresso Macchiato only contains one shot of espresso. But if you visit a coffee shop nowadays, you’d be most likely served with a doppio (double shot) if you don’t specify otherwise.

The espresso shot is pulled with the good-old dark-roast coffee beans for the ultimate rich, intense, and full-bodied flavor profile.

Brewing espresso using an espresso machine

A light roast with its brighter acidity may do the trick as well. It has less of a bitter taste and adds more flavorful sourness and sweetness to the final drink.

But for beginners, I recommend sticking to the status quo and taking the road well-traveled. For a tutorial, check how to make espresso coffee in 6 steps.

Foamed Milk

The Espresso Macchiato is finally topped off with only a dollop of foamed milk, around 1/4 oz (7.4 ml), making it the espresso-based coffee beverage with one of if not the highest coffee to milk ratio (4:1).

Some may even go as far as making sure that the frothed milk only takes up 10% of the cup.

Pour frothed milk on top of espresso to make Macchiato

Other than the extremely low amount of the sweet and creamy ingredient, you also need to pay attention to how it’s prepared.

The barista doesn’t use your regular steamed milk which is simply heated up and has very little air.

Frothing milk is necessary to make textured milk that’s airier with relatively bigger bubbles and a lighter and smoother taste with less bitterness.

And if you can’t consume regular cow milk due to dietary restrictions or personal choices, feel free to replace it with popular alternatives such as almond milk, oat milk, or coconut milk.

Though it will most definitely alter the traditional taste of Macchiato, what matters is you can enjoy it.


What Is A Cortado Espresso?

A Cortado is an espresso-based drink often enjoyed slowly in the evening after a long day of hard work. However, it’s not Italian as most might assume, but Spanish.

It reportedly first arose in the early 1960s in Basque county, Spain, and quickly became popular and spread to Portugal and Cuba.

The Spanish word “Cortado” is the past participle form of the verb “cortar”, which can be translated to “cut” or “dilute” in English.

A cup of Cortado

The reason is that milk is intentionally added to the espresso to cut or dilute the acidity, resulting in a more balanced and sweeter taste.

You may also find this Spanish drink under the name Gibraltar, which is the name of a type of glass that Cortado started to be served in often from around 2005.

The Gibraltar cup with the size of 4.5 oz (133 ml) then set a specific standard for the proportions when preparing milk and coffee for Cortado.

Before this, Cortado was better known as an umbrella term for brewing methods that use steamed milk to cut espresso according to a certain ratio.

And depending on the country you’re residing in, you need to order it by its native name there as well.

Some popular variations are Pingo in Portugal, Noisette in France, and Macchiatone in Italy, which is kind of like a lovechild of the Cortado, Macchiato, and cappuccino.

Read more on the differences between a Cortado and Cappuccino here.

In Cuba, there’s also a coffee beverage called Cortadito, inspired by the traditional Cortado. Rather than adding milk on top of the coffee to cut the acidity, the espresso in Cortadito is pre-sweetened.

Sometimes, the steamed milk may be substituted with steamed sweetened condensed milk instead.

The latter method can actually be found in some traditional Spanish coffee shops as well, to enhance the sweetness and cut the intensity of the coffee.

What Does A Cortado Taste Like?

Macchiato and Cortado are similar drinks using the same ingredients for the same purpose, but how much milk is added and how the milk is prepared differ greatly enough to set them apart.

I will go into more detail about this in the later part. Here’s a spoiler for now: Cortado carries as much milk as there is coffee.

Serving Cortado in a ceramic cup

You can enjoy the balanced combination between the powerful and intense shot of coffee and a warm soft and silky smooth layer of milk foam.

Is Cortado Stronger Than Espresso?

The purpose of adding equal parts milk to the espresso drink is to cut the acidity, so expect the shot alone to taste a lot bolder with higher caffeine content.

Can A Cortado Be Iced?

Similar to Macchiato, authentic Cortado is traditionally served hot. But that doesn’t stop coffee drinkers from experimenting and adding ice to the drink.

Why Is A Cortado Served With Sparkling Water?

Not just Cortado, but other types of coffee drinks as well, especially espresso.

The sparkling water isn’t meant to be drunk together with the coffee drink, but rather before and after having coffee to help cleanse the drinker’s palate.

This allows you to enjoy the flavors and richness of the coffee on a much clearer and deeper level.

And the sip of sparkling water afterward helps clean off the residual coffee taste as you go on to enjoy other foods and drinks.

A glass of Cortado on the side

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be sparkling water either as it depends on the local customs. Some places may offer simple mineral water instead.


What’s In A Gibraltar/Cortado?

Espresso – Is Cortado Single Or Double Shot?

You can use either for Cortado. But rather than Normale (normal) espresso, it’s more likely brewed with a double shot of Ristretto espresso.

It’s a variation of the espresso brewing method that produces more concentrated coffee with a much richer and sweeter taste.

The decrease in the water amount and extraction time can result in a drop in the caffeine amount. But it’s a well-worth trade for a more full-bodied espresso base.

You can follow the same instructions I provided for the Macchiato section.

Dark-roasted coffee beans are used to brew espresso for Cortado

Steamed Milk

Cortado is known for its perfect coffee-to-milk ratio of 1:1. A shot of espresso (or double Ristretto) is served with equal parts steamed milk.

When preparing coffee Cortado, lightly froth milk that’s only 2% to produce a thick and warm layer of milk foam.


What Is The Difference Between Macchiato And Cortado Coffee Drinks?

Espresso Base

Both drinks can be made with either one or two shots of espresso. However, Cortado more likely contains two shots of Ristretto, while Normale espresso is the norm for Macchiato drinks.

Foamed Or Steamed Milk

This is the biggest difference between a Cortado and a Macchiato drink. One has more milk and the other has much less milk. But that’s not all.

Milk for Cortado is only lightly steamed with a steam wand, which creates a heavier and smoother texture with very little air.

This can also be found in drinks such as latte and flat white as well.

Pouring steamed milk on top of espresso to make Cortado

Frothed milk, on the other hand, can be made with a steam wand or milk frother to create a lighter and more textured warm milk due to bigger bubbles. This can be more commonly found in a cappuccino.

And all of those factors affect the taste and strength of the final cups.

Size

For Macchiato, since it’s a small beverage with only 3 – 4 ounces of liquid at most, you’ll most likely find it served in a small ceramic or glass espresso cup called a demitasse cup.

Modern twists on the classic Macchiato have increased the serving amount tremendously, however. You may catch them in tall glasses with a much larger content instead. Some are even filled with both cold and hot milk.

Cortado is often served in a 150 – 200 ml (5.1 – 6.8 oz) glass or the Gibraltar cup (4.5 oz/133 ml) as I referred to earlier as the drink’s other name.


Macchiato vs Cortado – To Wrap Up

Both are great middle-ground beverage choices for those days you find the espresso alone too intense and other milky espresso-based drinks too sugary.

Depending on your preference over the coffee strength, sweetness, and milk texture, you’d have a different pick.

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