What is a Flat White (+ How Is It Different From a Latte + Cappuccino?)

So, what is a flat white? A flat white combines a shot of espresso and steamed milk with microfoam. Baristas froth the milk to a light microfoam—a smooth and velvety foam usually made with a steam wand.
what is a flat white and how to make one

As a barista, I make many a flat white. The distinguishing factor for me is always how long to aerate the milk with the steam wand, which is pointedly different from the milk in a latte. 

My mantra: Give flat whites half the aeration of a latte. You are looking to create the perfect foam consistency. 

But let’s back up a second: What is a flat white exactly? What’s the difference between a cappuccino and a flat white, a flat white and latte, and other popular drinks out there using the same ingredients?

Well, it is true that flat whites are akin to the latte, cappuccino, and even cortado. But they’re an experience all their own and definitely merit a deep dive.

That’s why in this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about flat whites, including what they are, where they came from, and how you can make them. I’ll even walk you through my favorite way to make a flat white step by step—so pour a cup, and get ready to read.

Table of Contents show

What Is a Flat White Coffee?

what is a flat white?

The flat white is an espresso-based drink that contains steamed milk. For those who value the flavor of espresso, the flat white is a perfect option. Because it is smaller than other milk-based beverages, there is a larger coffee-to-milk ratio, which enhances the espresso’s sharp flavor.

It features the same classic ingredients as lattes and cappuccinos:

  1. Espresso
  2. Milk
  3. Foam

The real differences—and what makes a flat white a flat white—are:

  1. The size 
  2. Microfoam 
  3. Texture

Flat whites are generally 5-6 oz. This is half the size of many lattes, so the drink’s espresso concentration is much more pronounced.

Less frothy than a traditional cappuccino, the flat white’s other differentiating factor is microfoam.

You create microfoam by using a steam wand to add air to milk before steaming it to 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Incorporating air bubbles into the milk creates a velvety texture that sets flat whites apart. 

The milk fat’s interaction with steam creates tiny bubbles that rest on top of the milk’s surface. Behind the bar, our rule of thumb is the finer the bubbles, the creamier the foam.

For a flat white, you want to create foam with the finest, most microscopic bubbles you can. 

Fun fact: Microfoam is also an essential ingredient to creating “latte” art (and I put it in quotes because it works with the flat white, too!).

Origin of the Flat White: Australia and New Zealand

For coffee enthusiasts eager to find out what a flat white really is and how it differentiates from a latte or a cappuccino, the journey begins with understanding the foundations of each coffee beverage.

I like to think of the Flat White as the lovechild of a cappuccino and a latte when it comes to taste and texture. That’s what it’s renowned for—the harmony of the espresso and steamed milk, and the lack of froth on the top.

But that’s certainly not its factual origin. 😉

The flat white originated in Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s, where it fast became a popular choice among coffee drinkers. The thing is, there’s quite a bit of debate in the coffee world about whether the drink came from Australia or New Zealand first.

Some attribute the drink to a Wellington, New Zealand barista named Fraser McInnes. It’s said he named it the flat white after a cappuccino he was making in 1989 that didn’t foam as expected.

what is a flat white?

But the Aussie camp officially laid claim to the flat white’s origin, sparking controversy

Australians credit a Sydney barista by the name of Alan Preston with inventing the drink first in 1985. There’s even a website dedicated to the story as it’s known down under! 

What Makes It a Flat White?

what is a flat white?

The name “flat white” comes from the appearance of the drink, which has a flat and smooth surface due to the microfoam in the milk. Said another way, flat white lovers aren’t looking for an intense foamy greeting. 😂

If you believe the kiwi version, McInnes goofed on a cappuccino and called it a flat white in apology, meaning not enough foam

If you consider Preston’s story, he coined “Flat White” as a shorter version of what was going around North Queensland cafes at the time: “White Coffee – Flat”.

Flat White Recipe: How to Make the Perfect Flat White

If you’re a fan of the flat white, you may be wondering how you can make one at home. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need and I’ll show you how I do it at the cafe I work at in Bucharest, right off the menu!

Tools and Ingredients

Before you learn how to make flat white at home, you’ll need the following tools:

  • An espresso machine
  • Frother or steamer 
  • Tamper
  • Milk steaming pitcher
  • Thermometer for steamed milk
  • A 6-oz ceramic cup
  • Fresh coffee beans
  • A coffee grinder
  • Milk (Whole milk’s high-fat content yields the best texture and flavor)

Step 1: Prep

  1. Grind your beans. If you already have finely-ground coffee, you can skip this step. If you don’t, you’ll need to grind your whole espresso beans to about 16 grams. If you could grind coffee fresh, I highly recommend doing so because it makes a huge difference in how fresh the drink tastes.
  2. Pour 5 ounces of cold milk into your milk jug and set aside.
  3. Rinse your cup with hot water to help prevent cold ceramic from shocking the espresso.
  4. Your espresso maker should be turned on and given time to warm up.

Step 2: Pull the Espresso

what is a flat white and how to make one
what is a flat white and how to make one

Put your cup under the espresso machine’s filter head. Pull your double-shot so it drips right into your pre-warmed cup. To extract the correct amount of espresso, aim for a continuous flow that lasts 20 to 30 seconds.

Step 3: Microfoam the Milk

what is a flat white and how to make one

Now I’ll teach you how to make milk for flat white: Pour cold milk into a milk jug until it is about one-third full, then steam it. Insert the steam wand into the milk slightly below the surface after purging the device to get rid of any remaining water.

what is a flat white and how to make one

Aeration is important here. So, allow the wand to aerate the milk for a few seconds at the beginning of the steaming process. To produce a vortex and incorporate air into the milk, turn on the steam wand and slowly drop the jug. Steam the milk continuously until it doubles in size.

Step 4: Pour the Milk

what is a flat white and how to make one

Remove the steam wand from the jug once the milk has been steamed. To get rid of any huge bubbles, gently tap the milk jug on the counter. Pour the steamed milk into your cup in a steady stream. You want it to create a nice, even layer on top of the espresso.

Step 4: Serve and Enjoy

what is a flat white and how to make one

To combine the milk and get rid of any last bubbles, gently swirl the milk jug. Controlled and consistent pouring of the steamed milk into the espresso is required.

If you want to practice how to do flat white art, start by pouring gently and then quickly. A smooth and cohesive beverage should be created by blending the milk and espresso. Take a sip and enjoy your flat white’s smooth, rich flavor.

My 5 Tips for Making a Delicious Flat White

  1. Use an espresso machine if you want to master how to make a proper flat white. A good machine will produce more evenly extracted espresso, with a lovely crema on top.
  2. Use fresh milk. Whole milk is the best choice for making a flat white, as it has the highest fat content.
  3. Don’t overpour the milk before steaming. Because it’ll be harder to control your foam, try measuring out your milk in the cup you’ll drink your flat white in first. Then pour it into your frothing steam jug and continue prepping.
  4. Count when aerating your milk. This is something that helped me make be consistent when I was training how to make microfoam for flat white. When first foaming the milk and adding air with the wand, count: “1, 2, 3”, before plunging the wand into the milk to finish heating it. Counting helps you dial in exactly how long to aerate the milk for your flat whites going forward.
  5. Practice your pouring technique. Pouring is an art—quite literally! Experiment with how you pour to create flat white or even latte art, like hearts or leaves. After all, what is learning how to do flat white coffee without a bit of fun?

Variations of the Flat White

what is a flat white?

By now you know you can make a classic flat white with espresso and steamed milk. But there are several variations that you can try, too:

Flat White with Flavored Syrup: Try adding a shot of flavored syrup to your flat white for a sweeter and more aromatic drink. Popular flavors include vanilla, caramel, and hazelnut.

Flat White with Cold Milk: Yes, the flat white is also delicious on ice! If you prefer a colder drink, you can make a flat white with cold foamed milk. Pull your espresso over ice and add a cold foam. Note: To make cold foam, you’ll need a separate milk frother.

Flat White with Almond Milk: Almond milk is a popular alternative to cow’s milk. You can substitute it to make a flat white. 

If you’re going plant-based, spring for the Barista’s version of plant-based kinds of milk because these foam easier. The result is a creamy and nutty drink that is perfect for those who are lactose intolerant or vegan.

What the Difference Between a Flat White and a Cappuccino?

The cappuccino and flat white are both super popular, but different drinks. Both drinks are made with espresso topped with steamed milk. But the flat white is a coffee drink with a 2:3 milk to espresso ratio – more milk than a cappuccino.

On the other hand, the cappuccino usually consists of a 1:1 ratio. And because the cappuccino is made with equal parts of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam, giving it a richer and somewhat frothier texture than a flat white. This difference highlights the stronger coffee flavour present in a flat white due to its higher ratio of coffee to milk. 

Moreover, a latte or cappuccino typically features more milk, which dilutes the espresso’s intensity when compared to the flat white and cappuccino combination.

The discussion on a cappuccino vs a flat white often ends with an acknowledgment of the cappuccino’s frothy, airy foam versus the flat white’s creamy microfoam. Actually, the foam’s consistency is also very different. Rather than silky microfoam, cappuccinos’ stiff foam peaks define the drink. Baristas sometimes refer to this style of milk foam as “macrofoam”. It has more air bubbles and almost a defined structure that stands up on top of the milk.

What is a Flat White vs Latte?

Lattes and flat whites are similar. They both have espresso with steamed milk. The main difference between a latte and a flat white is the amount and texture of milk foam. 

In a latte, you froth the milk to create a thick layer of foam on top. In a flat white, you steam the milk to create a thin layer of microfoam – substantially less foam than a latte. 

Also when deciding what is a flat white vs latte, the latter will be milkier and have a fluffier foam texture on top, while a flat white will have a more robust espresso flavor and a creamier texture. This is because the microfoam permeates the drink’s whole body as you sip it, making the entire flat white richer. Generally, go for a latte if you want milder coffee and opt for a flat white for stronger coffee.

Not to mention that the latte is an American invention, but the origin of flat whites in Australia and New Zealand is an important differentiator for the latter drink when it comes to its place on the popular coffee scene.

Lastly, when comparing latte vs flat white, flat whites are served in glasses smaller than a latte. With the milk to coffee ratio difference, the smaller serving size further dramatizes the taste of coffee in the flat white. The flat white has a stronger espresso taste than a traditional latte already, but shortening the size down accentuates its sharpness even more.

Are Flat Whites Stronger Than Caffe Lattes?

If made with ristretto espresso, then yes. (Ristretto is basically a concentrated version of espresso made with less water and a shorter extraction time.)

If the drinks have the same amount of normally-pulled espresso, then no, the flat white isn’t necessarily stronger. It all comes down to how much espresso is in the drink and how much water is used when the espresso is extracted. Other than the amount coffee to milk ratio differences, this is really the only other major area where flat white differs from a latte.

What is a Flat White? – TL;DR 

So: What is a flat white? The flat white is a a coffee drink that consists of a simple espresso and two parts milk. More specifically, it’s a 5-6 oz. double espresso combined with steamed microfoam milk. If you want, you can make it with a single shot, but that’ll throw off the classic ratios and experience captured in the very name of the drink.

Originally hailing from New Zealand and Australia, the flat white is a delicious and beloved espresso drink. And for good reasons: It combines the best of milk coffee drinks with the luxurious mouthfeel of microform. Contrastingly, a caffè latte – often just called a latte – and a latte macchiato offer a milder coffee experience, predominantly consisting of steamed milk.

Because of its simplicity, balance, and focus on the caliber of the espresso and milk, the flat white has become a standard at specialty coffee shops like mine. Today, the bewitching drink is practically a lifestyle!

What differentiates the flat white from others is precisely the steaming technique and ratios you’ll want to nail down when making it at home. 

Making it isn’t hard if you have the right equipment, but you will need to practice and hone your technique in order to really learn it (so bookmark this page!) 

For more on magical types of coffee drinks, give our drink types article a gander and get inspired!

What is a Flat White? – FAQs

  1. What is a flat white compared to a macchiato?

    A flat white contains steamed milk and a double shot of espresso. But the macchiato only has a single shot of espresso and a small amount of milk or foam.

    Remember: “Macchiato” means “to mark” in Italian, so this drink has far less milk than the flat white and half the espresso, too.

  2. How to make a flat white coffee at home without a machine?

    To make a flat white at home without a machine, you can use a French press or a moka pot to brew the espresso.

    Heat up the milk on the stove or in the microwave and use a frothing wand or a whisk to create microfoam. Then, pour the steamed milk over the espresso as in the instructions above.

  3. What is the American equivalent of a flat white?

    The closest American equivalent to a flat white is a latte.

  4. How do you make a decaf flat white?

    You simply need to replace your regular coffee beans with decaf coffee. Then you can follow my method above as usual.

  5. How strong is a flat white?

    The strength of a flat white depends on the amount and type of coffee used, as well as the ratio of coffee to milk. Generally, a flat white is made with a double shot of espresso and a smaller amount of steamed milk. This results in a balanced and smooth flavor profile, making it less intense than a traditional espresso shot but stronger than a regular cup of coffee.

  6. Is a flat white stronger than coffee?

    Yes, a flat white is typically stronger than a regular cup of coffee. It is made with a double shot of espresso, which contains a higher concentration of caffeine compared to a standard cup of coffee. The smaller volume of milk used in a flat white also contributes to its stronger flavor and caffeine content.

  7. How many flat white calories per serving?

    The calorie content of a flat white can vary depending on the specific ingredients and serving size. On average, a standard flat white made with whole milk ranges from approximately 120 to 180 calories per serving. However, using alternative milk options or adding additional sweeteners changes the calorie count.

  8. What’s flat white vs white coffee?

    Flat white and white coffee are two different beverages. A flat white is an espresso-based drink made with a double shot of espresso and a small amount of steamed milk, resulting in a velvety texture and strong coffee flavor. On the other hand, white coffee refers to coffee beans that are roasted at a lower temperature, resulting in a lighter-colored brew with a milder flavor and less acidity.

  9. What’s flat white vs cortado?

    Flat white and cortado are similar in that they are both espresso-based drinks with a combination of coffee and milk. But they differ in the milk-to-coffee ratio and preparation method.

    A flat white is made with a double shot of espresso and a smaller amount of steamed milk, creating a stronger and more intense flavor. In contrast, a cortado is made with equal parts espresso and warm milk, resulting in a balanced and milder taste.

  10. What is a flat white at Starbucks?

    At Starbucks, the flat white is made with two shots of espresso, combined with steamed whole milk to create a creamy and velvety texture. I’ve had it and the coffee giant’s preparation tastes the same as their latte to me.

  11. What exactly is a flat white and how does it differ from a latte?

    A flat white is a coffee drink originating from Australia or New Zealand (the exact origin is often debated) that consists of a shot of espresso with steamed milk. The milk in a flat white is microfoamed, giving it a silky texture. The main difference between a flat white and a latte lies in the milk texture and the milk to espresso ratio. A latte is usually made with more steamed milk, which makes it creamier compared to the smoother, stronger flat white.

  12. How does a flat white compare to a cappuccino?

    The flat white vs cappuccino debate centers around the texture and ratio of milk to espresso. A cappuccino is characterized by a distinct layer of espresso, followed by a similar amount of hot milk, and topped with a layer of frothed milk, which is airier and voluminous. In contrast, the milk in a flat white is steamed but not frothy, leading to a velvety texture that mixes more thoroughly with the espresso for a harmonious flavor.

  13. Can you find flat white coffee outside of Australia and New Zealand?

    Yes, the popularity of flat whites has grown significantly, and now you can find a flat white in many coffee shops around the world, especially in places with a strong coffee culture. The increasing preference for different coffee experiences has led to the flat white becoming a staple on many menus alongside the more traditional options like lattes and cappuccinos.

  14. What is the main difference between a flat white and a latte macchiato?

    The main difference between a flat white and a latte macchiato is the way the milk and espresso are combined. A flat white typically consists of a shot of espresso with steamed milk, focusing on creating a smooth and velvety texture. A latte macchiato, on the other hand, starts with steamed milk into which a shot of espresso is poured, leading to a layered effect with a stronger milk flavor.

  15. Are lattes and flat whites suitable for people who prefer strong coffee?

    Lattes and flat whites can be suitable for people who enjoy strong coffee flavors, but it depends on how they are made. The flat white typically offers a stronger coffee taste compared to a latte due to its higher espresso to milk ratio and the specific texture of the milk. If you’re looking for a robust coffee flavor, a flat white might be more to your liking as it combines the intensity of espresso with a subtle milk presence.

  16. How significant is the role of milk in a flat white?

    Milk plays a central role in defining the character of a flat white. The milk in a flat white is steamed to create a fine, velvety microfoam that mixes seamlessly with the espresso. This process not only impacts the texture but also the taste, smoothing out the espresso’s acidity and enhancing its rich flavors. The precise steaming of the milk is crucial, as it affects whether the flat white achieves its signature silky texture.

  17. Is there any truth to the debate about whether the flat white originated in Australia or New Zealand?

    The debate over whether the flat white originated in Australia or New Zealand is a longstanding one, with both countries claiming the invention of this popular coffee drink. The truth may never be firmly established, as coffee culture is dynamic and involves a lot of exchange of ideas across regions. However, this debate highlights the flat white’s significance in the coffee scenes of both countries and their contributions to global coffee culture.

  18. Can a flat white be customized with flavors like a pumpkin spice latte?

    Absolutely, a flat white can be customized with various flavors, including seasonal favorites like pumpkin spice. Adding flavored syrups to a flat white is a great way to personalize your coffee experience while still enjoying the distinctive creamy texture and strong espresso foundation that define a flat white. Experimenting with different flavors can introduce you to a new dimension of coffee enjoyment.

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