I’ll admit: As a former barista, it was sometimes hard to make a flat white, then a cappuccino, or vice versa, when there was a line out the door.
The drinks are very closely related, and foaming milk for one vs steaming the other was often a few seconds difference in aeration.
These two famous coffee drinks have the same core ingredients: Espresso, milk, and foam.
But despite both being milk-based coffee drink cornerstones, their origins and ratios are unique.
So, if you’re a coffee lover who’s always been curious about the difference between a flat white and a cappuccino, you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, we’ll delve into the two popular coffee drinks and compare their core characteristics so you can decide which one reigns supreme for you.
Let’s Start with Defining the Flat White
The flat white originated in Australia and/or New Zealand sometime in the 1980s. And I say ‘and/or’ because the two countries have been publically fighting for a claim to the flat white since at least 2015. Yeah, it’s a whole thing.
Anywho, you can make a flat white with frothed milk and espresso. The serving size is usually 5-6 oz.
And the key to a perfect flat white is the velvety microfoam poured over the espresso.
BTW: We recently published an in-depth guide about flat white if you’re looking for more detail.
- Origin: Either Australia or New Zealand
- Ratio: 1:4 double espresso to microfoamed milk
- Milk: Lightly foamed
- Caffeine strength: Strong
- Taste: Velvety, assertive
- Serving size: 5-6 oz.
About the Cappuccino
The cappuccino is much older than the flat white, by at least a century. In fact, it originated in Italy in the late nineteenth century.
The cappuccino’s name comes from the Capuchin order of friars. These religious men wore a hood called the cappuccio. The color of the espresso and milk mixed together looked like the friars’ robes. And the drink’s foam-topped appearance mimicked their cappuccios, too.
The name stuck—and so did the recipe.
You can make a cappuccino with a shot of espresso, steamed milk, and a dollop of foam on top. They are typically served in the same size as a classic flat white (5-6 oz.). But unlike the flat white, the cappuccino’s foam serves as a sweet and creamy contrast to the bitter espresso.
It also has a more distinct texture. The layer of thick foam on top of the espresso and steamed milk gives the drink a light, airy texture.
- Origin: Italy
- Ratio: ⅓ espresso, ⅓ milk, ⅓ foam
- Milk: Steamed, with heavy foam on top
- Caffeine Strength: Medium
- Taste: Foamy, strong espresso flavor
- Serving size: 5-6 oz.
How the Flat White and Cappuccino Are Similar
Before we dive into the differences, let’s summarize how the drinks are alike.
- Espresso base: Both flat white and cappuccino call for one-to-two shots of espresso as their base.
- Milk temperature: Both drinks feature milk either steamed or frothed to a temperature of about 150°F. Baristas pour it over the espresso.
- Serving size: 5-6 oz is standard for both. Flat whites are often served in the cappuccino cup, but you rarely see the opposite occur! In fact, you can serve a flat white in an even smaller cup if desired. Perhaps the flat white is simply showing deference to its cappuccino elder? 😜
Despite the above similarities, there are basic contrasts between flat white vs cappuccino. Chief amongst these is the ratio of milk and foam—and the texture of the foam itself.
Flat White vs Cappuccino: Differences in Foam
One of the main differences between a flat white and a cappuccino is the amount of foam used in each drink. Foam, or lack thereof, is what creates texture.
A flat white has a thin layer of microfoam, while a cappuccino has a thick layer of foam I’ve heard called “macrofoam”.
The way baristas make a flat white means the whole drink is slightly foamy, with a hint of extra on top. At its core, the flat white is a milky coffee with a subtler, more consistent texture.
Cappuccinos provide the opposite experience when it comes to foam: Dense, viscous, and sweet.
And because there is so much of it vs the flat white, the foam on a cappuccino is an essential part of the drinking experience.
Milk foam ‘stache, anyone? 😛
But really, if there’s one coffee drink that’s beloved for its foam, it is the cappuccino. I’ve never met anyone who orders one and says, “I love cappuccinos, but hate foam!” It’s integral to the drink’s structure.
Is Cappuccino Milk Foamed or Steamed?
Baristas steam cappuccino milk and froth extra foam to scoop on top of the milk and espresso mixture.
Well, that is my opinion anyway. This question comes up from time to time and I am always surprised when I hear such different answers. From people I’ve asked, it’s a 50/50 split. And to be clear, everyone has their preference.
Foamed or frothed milk is lighter because it stretches the milk’s size. Steamed milk is heavier and sweeter, two defining qualities of the cappuccino. And that brings me to…
Flat White vs Cappuccino: Differences in Taste
Another key difference between the flat white vs cappuccino is the flavor of each drink. And we can’t discuss flavor without mentioning the foaming contrasts again.
The flat white has a smooth texture that is more like a latte because the milk is actually ‘microfoamed’ before it’s poured over the espresso. Its resulting taste is like a smaller, but more intense latte.
By comparison, the cappuccino is a sweeter, more filling drink because it’s traditionally made with so much foam and steamed milk. When steamed, milk releases sugars. Cappuccino foam stands on top of the milk, making it heavier on the palate right at that first sip.
In fact, Italians rarely drink them in the evenings for this reason! Although Americans, myself included, order them at any time of day.
Flat White vs Cappuccino: Differences in Preparation
Baristas know to make flat whites and cappuccinos differently from one another. But these simple variations wildly multiply from country to country, city to city.
That’s my way of saying, take this with a grain of salt since it’s my experience making and drinking these two heavy hitters.
Baristas make a flat white by pouring steamed foamy milk over two shots of espresso. If you’re lucky, your barista will add some ‘latte’ art on top to make your day a bit sunnier.
Baristas make cappuccinos by pouring steamed milk over one shot of espresso and then topping it off with a big dollop of foam. Many cafes add a sprinkle of chocolate or cinnamon on top.
Flat White vs Cappuccino: Comparing Ratios
An important difference between the flat white and cappuccino is the espresso-to-milk and foam ratios.
- Flat whites are typically 25% espresso. Frothed milk makes up the other 75%.
- Cappuccinos are usually ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk, and ⅓ foam.
The flat white and cappuccino are both delicious coffee drinks that offer their own unique flavors and textures. But they’re different in history, texture, taste, and preparation.
The Australian or New Zealand flat white is a smooth and creamy coffee. Baristas typically prepare it with two shots of espresso and microfoamed milk.
The cappuccino is a traditional Italian drink made with one shot of espresso, steamed milk, and a generous serving of foam.
So, if you’re looking for a stronger, more intense drink, then a flat white may be the way to go. But if you want a sweeter and heavier coffee, try a cappuccino!
Now that you’re a pro on the differences between the flat white vs cappuccino, check out our Complete Guide to Types of Coffee.