Food & Drink

What Is a Cortado?

Published on March 6, 2024 | 0 Comments
A cortado in a glass with milk art

You may be fluent in the world of craft coffee drinks and well acquainted with macchiato and cappuccino, but what is a cortado? Is it another coffee shop gimmick? Will you have to come up with a whole new set of customization instructions to get it the way you want it?

No, a cortado is actually the antithesis of the fru-fru coffee drink — the whole point is simplicity and focusing on the flavor of the espresso. If you realize that you’ve gone past the point of truly enjoying the flavor of espresso because your order requires syrups, powders and spices, it’s time to scale it back and reset your coffee experience with a cortado. To discover more about this simplistic beverage, read on for our informative guide to everything cortado. 


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What Is a Cortado Coffee?

Let's start with the most important question: "What is a cortado?" A cortado is a coffee drink with a 1:1 ratio of espresso and lightly steamed milk. No fancy syrups or foam here. Instead, it’s a caffeinated beverage that focuses on the bold and bitter flavor of espresso.

The word cortado comes from the Spanish word “cortar” which means “to cut.” It got this name because a cortado is a simple espresso that has been cut with milk. It’s a good choice for the person who wants to taste the espresso instead of hiding it with cream and sugar as many other caffeinated beverages do.

A common question is “What is a cortado coffee?”
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Where Is Cortado Coffee From?

Cortdado’s roots are not entirely clear, but there’s no question that it originates from Spain. Cortado is also popular in South America where drinking a straight espresso in the morning or after a meal is more common.

A cortado coffee in a glass cup
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What’s in a Cortado?

If you’re wondering what a cortado drink is, it’s simple. It’s equal portions of espresso and steamed milk. At a coffee bar, a cortado is usually served as 2 ounces of espresso and 2 ounces of milk (so it’s a 4-ounce serving). That’s it. No stirring, no blending, no shaking. Just a straight espresso with a floater of lightly steamed milk and optional sugar.

A barista froths up milk for a cortado coffee
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What Does a Cortado Taste Like?

What is a cortado coffee like compared to your normal morning beverage? Sipping a cortado will give you just the slightest hint of creamy sweetness from the steamed milk on top, followed by the dark flavor of straight espresso. 

Many coffee drinkers wonder what a cortado is
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Cortado vs. Other Coffees

What is a cortado drink like compared to other coffees, such as macchiato or cappuccino? Let’s break it down so you can be better prepared when you hit the coffee counter.

Six different coffee types next to coffee beans
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Cortado vs. Macchiato

One of the main questions you may have is: “What is a cortado coffee like compared to a macchiato?” Macchiato means “marked” in Italian, and a true macchiato is an espresso drink that has been marked with a hint of steamed milk. It’s very similar to a cortado, but the ratio of coffee to milk is not equal. A macchiato gets just a little milk, while the cortado is poured in a 1:1 ratio, making the latter a longer drink.

A glass cup of macchiato coffee
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Cortado vs. Flat White

Another popular coffee beverage is the flat white, which is made by combining double shots of espresso with steamed milk. In this drink, the milk is fully steamed, creating an airy and frothy texture, which is then stirred into the espresso and served fully incorporated. Compared to a macchiato or cortado, the flat white is the largest and is usually served as 5-6 ounces. 

A flat white coffee in a mug
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Cortado vs. Latte

You may also be wondering what a cortado is like compared to a latte. As with a flat white, a latte is all about steaming the milk and thoroughly mixing it into the espresso which gives a creamier and sweeter result. Flat whites and lattes are best enjoyed by those who want their espresso fix but don’t love the intense bitterness. 

Lattes are one of the easier coffee drinks to make at home, but you’ll want to check out the best milk frothers to make sure you get something close to a barista-level coffee. A cortado, in contrast, is an espresso beverage that is not mixed with milk, just topped by it.

A person holds a latte coffee with latte art
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Cortado vs. Cappuccino

Having covered other popular coffees, you may also want to know what a cortado is like in comparison to a cappuccino. The defining characteristic of a cappuccino is that some of the milk gets steamed to the point of being mostly foam. The final drink is one part espresso, one part steamed milk and one part foamed milk, the latter of which is laid on top of the coffee but not stirred in.

As you sip a cappuccino, the espresso has to essentially filter through the foam before it reaches your tongue, giving it a touch of sweetness. A cortado, on the other hand, is made with one part espresso and one part very lightly steamed milk but no foam, giving it a stronger coffee flavor. 

A cappuccino next to coffee beans and two sticks of cinnamon
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How To Make a Cortado Coffee

Now that you’ve learned what a cortado coffee is, you might want to try making one. Ideally, a cortado is made with an espresso machine. Simply pull a shot or two of espresso and top it with an equal portion of very lightly steamed milk. 

After learning what a cortado is, try making one yourself
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How To Make a Cortado Without a Coffee Machine

No espresso machine at home? You can make a cortado with your Keurig or Nespresso. Just use the espresso setting and use a 1:1 ratio of lightly steamed milk (heat the milk to between 100-130 degrees).

In a pinch, you could try making a cortado with instant espresso, but you’ll want to use a crystalized version that dissolves into hot water instead of trying to make it as a drip coffee. Using good quality espresso is what a cortado is all about.

A cup of instant drip coffee brewing.
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Barista Tips for Making a Cortado at Home

The key to making a perfect cortado at home is to start with a high-quality espresso. Next, it’s about heating the milk just right, ideally with a steam wand, and not allowing it to scald. Finally, serve it in a Gibraltar glass or an espresso mug that is designed for 3-4 ounce drinks. It’s supposed to be filled right to the edge, which makes sipping all the more intuitive. 

An espresso being pulled from a coffee machine
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Where To Find the Best Cortado

Once you know what a cortado is, you’ll want to know where the best place to find one is. The best cortado is in Spain, but if you can’t make the trip, Latin American coffee shops are a good bet. If you’re lucky enough to have a Spanish coffee shop or bakery in your neighborhood, that’s another great choice.

When answering what is a cortado coffee, you'll discover it originates from Spain
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The craft coffee industry may not be as diverse as craft beer or cocktails, but it’s no less serious about properly made drinks. While it can sometimes feel like all of these espresso beverages are much the same thing, understanding the subtle differences ensures you know which item to order depending on what flavor you are after — and with its simplicity and strong espresso taste, the cortado could be your new favorite.

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