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What is a Cortado? Unlocking Its Secrets + The Best Way to Make One

What is a cortado? In this post, we'll discuss cortado coffee, which has recently grown in popularity and is available in a lot of specialty coffee shops all around the world.
what makes a good cortado

Spain ”gave birth” to the renowned coffee drink known as cortado, which is now consumed all over the world. Its preparation is a simple, but unique process. When done right, that gives way to the well-rounded mouth feel that makes it absolutely delicious. 

So, what is a cortado and how can you make un cortado cafe? As a specialty coffee expert based in Bucharest, I’ve crafted and experienced cortados all over the continent. I will tell you everything you should know about this coffee-based beverage.  

Join us on this journey to discover the secrets behind this exquisite coffee creation.

What is a Cortado?

We will first discuss the cortado’s origins and history. The cortado is thought to have its roots in early 20th-century Spain, specifically in Catalonia and the Basque Country. 

The Spanish word “cortado” means “cut” and describes the method of making coffee by reducing the acidity of espresso with a tiny amount of warm milk.

Some Spanish coffee drinkers call it “cortadito” (which is actually Cuban – more on that later) or “tallat” and there are many spins on the drink throughout Latin America. But in Spain, it’s a go-to espresso drink for the afternoon.

What Makes a Good Cortado?

What Makes a Good Cortado

Let’s break down what makes a good cortado element by element of the drink. To start, cortados are typically prepared with a 1:1 mix of espresso to warm milk. You will want to heat a smaller amount of milk and texture it in a way that’s similar to a latte or cappuccino. 

The Espresso

After you add milk to a small glass or cup, you will want to add shot of espresso on top, creating a tiered presentation.

An espresso shot is an essential part of cortado coffee. Espresso is a concentrated type of coffee that is made by passing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans at high pressure. 

As a result, the coffee is robust, flavorful, and has a distinctive crema on top.

The Milk 

A great cortado calls for perfectly steamed milk. A cortado’s small amount of milk helps to temper the espresso’s strength while still retaining its unctuous softness

The cortado has milk that has been steamed to a temperature of between 55°F and 65°F (or 130°F and 150°F). You want a velvety feel without too much froth or foam. 

We have a thorough guide on steamed vs frothed milk that explains the differences. I also love James Hoffman’s video on steaming milk:

The Flavor

When it comes to flavor, cortados are bold, smooth, and delicious. And that is thanks to the harmonious blending of the espresso’s bitterness and acidity with the creamy milk’s sweetness. Cafe cortado is very balanced, since the milk ‘cuts’ any astringency from the espresso.

The Best Way To Make A Cortado 

Now we’ve broken down the elements of what makes a good cortado, let’s get into my cortado coffee recipe and how to make cortado coffee like a Spaniard. 🇪🇸

What You Will Need

Ingredients:

  • Whole coffee beans: Choose dark-roasted beans with a high percentage of robusta, if you can. This really brings out the deep chocolatey notes and is delectable in a cortado. 
  • Milk: Whole milk is traditional, but you can use any milk of your preference.
  • Sugar (optional): If desired, you can add sugar to sweeten your cortado. I won’t be adding any to mine.

Equipment:

  • An espresso machine with a steam wand. 
  • Coffee grinder (preferably a burr grinder).
  • Tamper: A tool used to pack the coffee grounds firmly into the espresso machine’s portafilter.
  • Milk pitcher: A small stainless steel pitcher used for steaming and frothing the milk.
  • Thermometer (optional): A thermometer to monitor the milk temperature during steaming.
  • A demitasse cup: Small cups specifically designed for serving espresso-based drinks like cortados.

How To Make Cortado Step-By-Step Guide

1. Prepare Your Coffee Beans

Victoria Arduino Mythos 1 coffee grinder
how to pull an espresso shot

Start by grinding, measuring, and tamping your espresso grounds. Your grind size should be fine. Insert the portafilter filled with the espresso grounds into the espresso machine.

2. Pull Your Espresso

what is a cortado
what is a cortado

Start by pulling a double shot of espresso using your espresso machine. Traditionally, cortados have one shot, but my double portafilter pulls two at once, so I am going to set the second espresso shot aside for now. It’ll go towards a second cortado. 😋

3. Steam Your Milk

how to make latte ART

Once the espresso is ready, steam your desired milk. While whole milk is my recommendation, you can opt for almond, coconut, oat, or any other type.

4. Pour The Steamed Milk On Top Of The Espresso

what is a cortado

Gently pour the steamed milk over the espresso, ensuring a 1:1 ratio of espresso to milk. And there you have it!

5. Congrats! You Made a Cortado.

what is a cortado

How to Enjoy Cortado

To fully appreciate your cortado, savor it slowly. Take a moment to inhale the enticing aroma before taking the first sip. 

Allow the flavors to dance on your taste buds as you experience the delicate balance of espresso and milk. Whether enjoyed on its own or accompanied by a delicious pastry, a cortado is a true delight.

Twists and Presentation

If you’re familiar with brewing espresso, or if you have an espresso machine at home, mastering the cortado is straightforward. Practice pulling even espresso for the best cortado. 

cortado Twists and Presentation

And when it comes to serving, you can present it in the traditional 5-7oz cup or choose any coffee mug you prefer (you’ll see me use my ceramic a lot!).

Since the cortado’s essence lies in the balance between espresso and milk, you can also experiment with various flavored coffee twists. As long as you maintain the espresso-to-milk ratio, feel free to get creative with your cortado. 

One idea is to transform a cortado into a cortado condensada or bombon (condensed milk and espresso), or a leche y leche (condensed milk with cream). Much heavier, but a real treat!

How are Cortados Different From Other Types of Coffee Drinks? – A Comparison

Now that we’ve looked at what a cortado is and how to make cortado cafe, let’s compare it to other similar types of drinks.     

What is a Cortado vs a Gibraltar?

The terms “cortado” and “gibraltar” are often used interchangeably to refer to a similar type of coffee drink, but they do have slight differences in origin and presentation.

The cortado originated in Spain, while the gibraltar has its roots in the United States, particularly in San Francisco (helloooo, Blue Bottle!). In terms of preparation, both drinks are made with equal parts espresso and steamed milk. 

cortado vs gibraltar

But the main difference between cortado and gibraltar lies in the glassware used to serve them. 

A cortado is traditionally served in a small glass, allowing the layers of espresso and milk to be clearly visible (I’m working with ceramic, so not traditional in that respect).

On the other hand, a gibraltar is served in a specific type of glass known as a gibraltar glass, which has a thicker base compared to regular glass. The gibraltar glass helps to retain heat.

What is a Cortado vs a Cafe Con Leche?

Cortado and cafe con leche are both coffee drinks that incorporate milk, but they differ in the ratio of coffee to milk and their cultural origins. A cortado is made by combining equal parts espresso and steamed milk, resulting in a balanced and mildly creamy beverage. It is commonly associated with Spanish coffee culture. 

cortado vs cafe con leche

But cafe con leche, which translates to “coffee with milk” in Spanish, typically refers to a drink made with a larger amount of milk compared to coffee. It is popular in Spain and Latin American countries, where it is often enjoyed for breakfast.

The main difference between cortado and cafe con leche is that the latter has a higher milk-to-coffee ratio, making it creamier and milder compared to a cortado.

What is a Cortado vs a Cortadito?

The terms “cortado” and “cortadito” both refer to coffee drinks that incorporate milk, but they originate from different coffee cultures. We’ve covered cortado, but cortadito is a Cuban coffee drink that is prepared by adding a small amount of evaporated milk and demerara sugar to espresso rather than regular milk. 

cortado vs cortadito

Adding evaporated milk and sugar gives cortadito a sweeter and richer taste compared to a traditional cortado. While cortado is commonly found in Spain and Latin America, cortadito is specifically associated with Cuban coffee traditions.

What is a Cortado vs a Latte?

The difference between cortado and latte comes down to milk-to-coffee ratios and overall flavor profiles. The presence of espresso is more pronounced in a cortado, allowing the coffee’s flavors to shine. 

cortado vs latte

A latte, though, is made with more steamed milk compared to the espresso.

The ratio is usually 1 part espresso to 3 parts steamed milk, making it creamier and milder. The higher milk content in a latte also makes it smoother and less intense compared to a cortado.

What is a Cortado vs a Cappuccino? 

Cortado and cappuccino are both espresso-based coffee drinks, but they differ in their milk-to-coffee ratios and milk foam texture.

cortado vs Cappuccino

The milk in a cortado is lightly steamed, creating a velvety texture without much foam. But a cappuccino typically consists of equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam.

The milk in a cappuccino is more frothed, creating a thick layer of foam on top. This gives the cappuccino a lighter and airier texture compared to a cortado. The cappuccino’s foam also provides an additional layer of sweetness and visual appeal—another big difference between cortado and cappuccino.

What is a Cortado vs a Piccolo?

The biggest difference between cortado and piccolo boils down to serving sizes. A cortado is typically served in a small glass and has a 1:1 coffee-milk ratio. But a piccolo is made with a single shot of espresso and topped with a small amount of steamed milk, usually in a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3 (coffee to milk). 

cortado vs Piccolo

The piccolo is served in an even smaller-sized glass compared to a cortado, typically a shot glass or a small cup. The smaller serving size of the piccolo allows for a more concentrated and intense drink with just a touch of milk.

What is a Cortado vs a Macchiato?

The primary difference between cortado and macchiato is found in the amount and presentation of milk. While a cortado’s milk is lightly steamed, a macchiato is an espresso shot “stained” or “marked” with a small amount of milk. 

cortado vs Macchiato

Also the milk in a macchiato is often frothed, resulting in a layer of foam on top of the espresso. The macchiato is served in a small cup or glass, and the milk serves as a visual and flavor accent to the espresso rather than a significant component of the drink.

What is a Cortado vs a Flat White?

Besides the milk-to-coffee ratios (cortado = 1:1, flat white = 1:3), the most significant difference between cortado and flat white is texture. 

cortado vs Flat White

A cortado calls for lightly steamed milk, but the milk in a flat white is more textured and finely microfoamed, giving it a satiny consistency. 

Final Thoughts on What is a Cortado

Hopefully, after reading this article, you’re confident about what a cortado is, but to recap: It’s a classic Spanish drink with equal parts milk and espresso. While there are lots of similar famous drinks out there, there’s only one cortado. Follow our recipe above to make it with your own gear at home!

Need some gear? We’ve got you covered with recommendations on the best coffee gear depending on your needs.

What is a Cortado? – FAQs

What’s the difference between cortado and espresso?

Cortado and espresso are two distinct coffee drinks with different ratios of coffee and milk. Espresso is a concentrated shot of coffee made by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee beans under high pressure. It has a strong and intense flavor. 

On the other hand, a cortado is made by combining equal parts of espresso and steamed milk, resulting in a milder and smoother taste. The cortado is often preferred by those who enjoy the richness of espresso but desire a more balanced and less overpowering drink.

Is a cortado a macchiato?

No, a cortado is not the same as a macchiato. While both drinks incorporate espresso and milk,  a macchiato is an espresso shot “stained” or “marked” with a small amount of milk. The milk in a macchiato is often frothed, resulting in a layer of foam on top of the espresso. So, while they share some similarities, a cortado, and a macchiato are not the same.

Is cortado a double shot?

No, a cortado is not typically made with a double shot of espresso. The cortado is made by combining equal parts espresso and steamed milk. The emphasis of a cortado is on balancing the flavors of the espresso and milk, providing a smooth and mild coffee experience. 

In contrast, a double shot refers to a serving of espresso that is made with twice the amount of coffee grounds and extracted with a larger volume of water. The double shot is often used to create a stronger and more concentrated taste. While a cortado can be made with a single or double shot of espresso depending on personal preference, the traditional cortado recipe uses a single shot.

Is cortado keto-friendly?

Cortado can be considered keto-friendly when made with unsweetened almond milk or heavy cream instead of regular milk. The espresso itself is low in carbohydrates and contains minimal calories. However, regular milk contains lactose, which is a natural sugar found in milk and may have a higher carb content. 

To make a cortado more compatible with a keto diet, you can opt for unsweetened almond milk or heavy cream, both of which have a lower carb content. It’s important to note that the nutritional values may vary depending on the specific brand and type of milk or cream used. 

If you are following a strict keto diet, it’s advisable to check the nutrition labels or consult a healthcare professional for precise information before deciding for sure is a cortado keto. 

How many calories are in a cortado Costa?

Costa Coffee is a popular chain (we have ‘em here in the Pacific Northwest), but the calorie content of a cortado from the cafe varies with their menus and locations.

How many shots are in a cortado?

If you’re wondering how many shots does a cortado have, the answer is one. A cortado traditionally consists of a single shot of espresso.

How many calories are in a cortado?

How many calories are in a cortado espresso depends on the size of the drink, the specific ingredients used, and any additional flavorings or sweeteners. On average, a cortado made with one shot of espresso and a small amount of steamed milk contains about 30 to 70 calories.

How many ounces is a cortado?

A cortado typically has a smaller serving size compared to other coffee beverages. It is commonly served in a small glass or cup that holds around 4 to 6 ounces (120 to 180 milliliters) of liquid. 

Why is a cortado served with sparkling water?

Serving a cortado with a side of sparkling water is a common practice in some cafes and coffee cultures. The sparkling water’s purpose is to cleanse the palate before enjoying the cortado. Its effervescence and neutral taste helps refresh the taste buds, allowing the flavors of the coffee to be experienced more distinctly.

Is a cortado a strong coffee?

Not really. A cortado is moderate and balanced thanks to its equal parts ratio of espresso and steamed milk. Cortados provide a smooth and milder coffee experience compared to drinks with a higher concentration of espresso, such as a double shot or a straight espresso.

What is a cortado at Starbucks?

In the US, Starbucks does not typically offer cortados on its standard menu. However, Starbucks offers various espresso-based beverages, including lattes and cappuccinos, which share some similarities with a cortado in terms of incorporating espresso and milk.

Is a cortado healthy?

A cortado, when prepared with minimal additives and in moderation, can be a part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. The specific nutritional value of a cortado can vary depending on factors such as the type of milk used and any additional sweeteners. Generally, a cortado made with unsweetened milk options and without added sugars can be a lower-calorie choice compared to some other coffee drinks.

Is a cortado sweet?

A cortado itself is not inherently sweet, but the level of sweetness can be adjusted based on personal preference by adding sweeteners or selecting beans with naturally sweeter profiles.

Can I make cortado at home without an espresso machine?

While an espresso machine is ideal for making authentic cortado, you can replicate a similar experience using a moka pot or a French press. Brew a strong coffee concentrate and mix it with warm milk in equal parts.

Does cortado contain less caffeine than other coffee drinks?

Cortado contains the same amount of caffeine as a standard espresso shot. The ratio of milk to espresso in a cortado ensures a balanced flavor without diluting the caffeine content.

Can I customize my cortado with additional flavors?

Absolutely! Some coffee shops offer variations of cortado with added flavors like vanilla or caramel. Feel free to experiment and find your perfect combination.

Is cortado suitable for lactose-intolerant individuals?

Cortado traditionally uses dairy milk, but it can be adapted for lactose-intolerant individuals by using alternatives such as almond milk, soy milk, or oat milk.
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1 thought on “What is a Cortado? Unlocking Its Secrets + The Best Way to Make One”


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