We’ve all been there. You’re in line at your favorite coffee shop waiting to order. Maybe it is a latte you want, or maybe it is a frothy option. You can’t decide if you should order your usual drink or try something new. Do you need a caffeine burst to function properly for the rest of the day, or will trying a new drink give you just the jolt you need? Maybe you just need something simple and soothing. The appeal of trying something new is what draws many people to the cortado.
The cortado has become a new fad for the San Francisco crowd. It is neither an Americano nor a macchiato; it is not quite espresso either.
The cortado has caught on in many countries across Europe but is not as well known elsewhere. So, it would be fair to say that the drink has yet to take off, but it does seem to have some strong roots established. If you have ever visited a bar in major cities like London or New York, chances are you’ve encountered this drink.
What Exactly Is Cortado Coffee?
The cortado is a coffee drink that originally comes from the Basque area of Spain. In Spanish, the word cortar means to cut. That is just what you do when you make the cortado-you cut the acid from strong espresso with some kind of dairy. Adding milk to cut the acid in coffee is not unique to the cortado. In fact, most drinks made with espresso have some amount of milk (or other dairy product) in them.
What makes a cortado unique is the ratio of espresso to milk. Most often, the cortado is prepared with espresso and warm milk in a 1:1 ratio. That’s it. Pretty simple, right?
A classic cortado does make one further distinction, how the milk is prepared. Many popular coffee drinks involve frothing or whipping the milk before adding it back into the espresso. This practice of frothing is so common that upscale coffee shops have become known for their latte art. The cortado does not involve any of that. In fact, the milk is very slightly steamed, and the goal is to create a little froth as possible. Using steamed milk with little froth gives the drink a creamier, smoother consistency.
So the cortado is pretty similar to most of the other popular, espresso-based coffee drinks. But, one of the other details that set this drink apart is its size. Since you mix a single shot of espresso with an equal amount of milk, the cortado tends to be one of the smaller-sized hot coffee drinks. The formula for a traditional cortado calls explicitly for two ounces of espresso combined with an equal amount of steamed milk. This small size is intentional and allows you to savor the flavor of the espresso.
How the Cortado is Different From Other Coffee Drinks
Size isn’t the only thing that sets the cortado apart from other types of coffee. As any regular coffee drinker can tell you, many prepared coffees include a wide variety of flavors, and many are pretty sweet. At times it can seem like the taste of the coffee is being intentionally covered up by milk and sugar.
On the other hand, the cortado focuses on the flavor of the coffee while eliminating the more bitter parts of the brew. It is commonly thought to be the drink of choice for coffee drinkers who appreciate the taste of the coffee.
Traditionally a cortado is served in specific glassware. A classic cortado should only be served in either a metal or glass cup. Many coffee enthusiasts believe drinking it from porcelain or paper cups alters the intended taste of the beverage.
How does it compare to other coffee drinks? Here’s what makes it different from the most popular coffee house favorites.
The classic cappuccino has a large head over the espresso that is made of both foam and milk. The cortado does not contain any foam. The milk is lightly steamed only to heat it.
Lattes are typically made with more milk than espresso. They also have an additional layer of foam added to the top of the milk.
A traditional flat white is made with one part espresso to two parts steamed milk. This ratio makes the finished flat white larger than the cortado. Also, the steamed milk in the flat white is typically slightly foamed while the cortado uses milk that is lightly steamed, making the cortado creamier in texture.
A macchiato is prepared with two parts espresso and one part steamed milk. Not only does this make the macchiato slightly larger than the cortado, but it also has a more robust coffee flavor to it. Like the cortado, the macchiato is also typically served in specific glassware. Instead of a metal or glass cup, a proper macchiato should be served in a demitasse cup with a saucer and a spoon.
Café au lait
A café au lait is made with a 1:1 milk ratio. However, unlike the cortado, it uses regular brewed coffee with the steamed milk.
Variations of the Cortado
Of course, over time, as a drink gains popularity, it starts to spread to new areas. Naturally, these coffee drinkers eventually decide to put their own spins on each of the new drinks they encounter. That is simply human nature. So, cortado has many variations in different areas of the world.
In nearby Portgual, a larger version of the cortado is popular. The galao uses one part espresso with three parts steamed milk.
In Cuba, the cortado has transformed into the coradito. Like the cortado, this is a small coffee beverage with a 1:1 ratio between espresso and milk. However, the Cuban version is typically made with heated sweetened milk. This habit likely started because, for decades, sweetened milk was more widely available as it is preserved, and fresh milk was often completely unavailable. The cordito is also often made by adding spoonfuls of sugar to the espresso before the milk is added.
In the United States, specifically on the west coast of California, the Blue Bottle Coffee Company created a variation of the cortado that is known as Gibraltar. It is prepared the same way as a traditional cortado. It fills a Libbey Gibraltar 4.5 ounce glass. Since the glass size determines the amount of coffee in Gibraltar, it is always made with two ounces of espresso and two ounces of slightly foamed steamed milk, before being poured into this very specific glass. Otherwise, it would just be a regular cordato.
Australia also created its own variation of the cortado. This drink, known as the piccolo latte or piccolo, is one ristretto (an espresso shot containing less water, making it more robust than usual) with an equal part of steamed milk.
How to Make a Cortado
A traditional cortado is made with an espresso machine and a milk steamer. Prepare two ounces of espresso. Place the espresso in a metal or glass cup. The milk is steamed until it is barely warm to the touch. The milk is then placed on top of the fresh espresso. Remember that a true cortado should never have “latte” art, as the focus is intended to be on how the espresso tastes so you can appreciate the specific coffee beans that were used.
Since the focus is the flavor, it is essential to choose the right coffee beans for your espresso. You should focus on robust beans that have chocolate or nutty notes. This is not the drink to make with mild beans or any that have a fruity flavor.
The coffee plant includes an incredible variety of species. While most of the coffee plants used for commercial growing today are originally indigenous to North Africa, there are actually over 120 individual species. The sheer number of coffee plants leaves room for an incredible amount of variation in each coffee bean. Of course, not all of these beans are even suitable for making coffee.
The four primary types used to prepare espresso are Arabica (native to Ethiopia), Robusta (from Sub-Saharan Africa), Liberica (native to Liberia), and Excelsa (a variation of Liberica. The type of plant the bean comes from can change how the espresso tastes.
Other factors can also have an impact on the final taste. Even beans from the same species can have considerably different flavors depending on how the bean is roasted (there are several different types of roasting). The type and quality of water the plant received before the beans were harvested can also change the taste.
Coffee growing hasn’t been limited to Africa for centuries, as much of the modern commercial coffee consumed is grown in South America. South American grown coffee is well known for having a distinctly different taste than coffee grown in other regions of the world.
Where to Buy a Cortado
As the cortado continues to gain popularity, the specific style of coffee drink can be found at more and more mainstream coffee shops. While it has been on the menu for quite some time in Europe, it has been limited to smaller independently owned coffee shops until relatively recently in the US. It is much easier to find a local variation in other areas of the world, but it might be rare to see the traditional cortado on the menu.
With the preparation of the cortado being so simple and so straightforward, one might expect consistency no matter where they order it. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most coffee shops. Just as every area of the world has created its own variation of the drink, nearly every coffee shop has done the same thing.
At Starbucks, the cortado is made with ristretto shots of espresso, making it more similar to the Australian-style piccolo. They also prepare it with a variety of milk alternatives, however, this can considerably change the taste or, more importantly, the drink’s texture. Dairy milk creates a silky texture and feels creamy in the mouth. Achieving this texture with milk alternatives has proven to be quite tricky.
The world’s second-largest coffee chain, Costa Coffee, advertises their cortado as small and luxurious, made with pure espresso and textured (or foamed) milk. Cortado traditionalists might see this variation as something closer to a cappuccino.
Caffe Nero in Europe advertises a cortado made with one part espresso and two parts milk with microfoam added to the top. This preparation sounds suspiciously similar to the standard definition of a latte.
All of the variations in preparation methods also create variations in sizing. Cortado is meant to be a small coffee drink. However, many shops are using increasingly different amounts of milk and espresso. Rather than a uniform four-ounce size, a cortado can often be ordered in a wide range of sizes. Any coffee lover looking for a genuine, traditional cortado would do well to do careful research before placing their order at a big chain coffee shop.
How to have the best cortado
Coffee lovers looking for the purest, most traditional form of the cortado will most likely find that small, independent coffee shops throughout Europe are their best bet. Of course, this is also likely to be the best way to find a classic cortado in the US or basically anywhere else in the world. The best cortados are likely to be found in a coffee shop or café owned or operated by a fellow coffee enthusiast.
Still, a cortado doesn’t have to be prepared or served in its most traditional form for you to have a genuine experience that allows you to appreciate the complexity and tradition that goes into your coffee. The reason that the cortado has been growing in popularity is the simplicity of the drink. It doesn’t rely on adding in fancy flavors or on complicated coffee preparation tricks. The simplicity of the milk and the coffee beans allows coffee lovers to focus solely on the taste of the coffee. This drink is meant to give you a small moment in your day to reflect and enjoy a few minutes of the peace that can be found in life’s simple pleasures.