Espresso. The intense coffee shot that is the basis for the majority of caffeinated drinks we enjoy. Whether you are adding it to a cup of brewed coffee to make a red-eye or grabbing a classic latte, there is a way for everyone to enjoy a shot of espresso.

With there being more than 20 espresso-based drinks on the market, it can definitely be helpful to know the difference between your options so you can order your drink knowing you’ll enjoy it.

Today we are diving into the differences between one of the most standard espresso drinks, a latte, and one of the potentially lesser-known but still delicious ones, a cortado.

We will briefly dive into the origin of the two drinks and the basic makeup of both. Along with that, we will talk about the key differences between the two and which drink may be the best fit for you!

Diving Into the Cortado & the Latte: The Basics, Differences and More

The Basics of Coffee: The Golden Ratio

When it comes to comparing espresso-based drinks, one of the most important things to keep in mind is “ratio” of the drink. While most espresso-based drinks have the same ingredients, espresso and steamed milk, they all contain different ratios of these ingredients, causing them to have different flavor profiles.

A good example of how this ratio works is a cappuccino, one of the more foam forward coffee drinks out there. Traditionally, a cappuccino will have equal parts of espresso, steamed milk, and foam on top, creating a ratio of 1:1:1.

This ratio helps show how strong or weak tasting a drink may be. The smaller the ratio of espresso to milk, the stronger coffee flavor the drink will have.

This ratio sets the base line for how these drinks taste and how they are created and assembled.

Diving into a Spanish Drink:  The Cortado

Originating in Spain back in the early 1700’s, the cortado is a Spanish coffee drink likely created as a way to minimize the bitter or strong taste of an espresso shot.

According to Barista Magazine, the strong coffee drink was “named for the Spanish verb “cortar,” which means to cut” likely referring to the “watering down” of the espresso flavor with milk.

In the cafes I have worked at as a barista, the cortado has often been referred to as a smaller version of a latte. While this may not be the most technical way to describe the drink, it’s not exactly wrong.

What makes a cortado a cortado, and not just a strong latte, is the ratio of the ingredients. Unlike a latte, a traditional cortado consists of equal parts espresso and steamed milk.

You should expect this 1:1 ratio to total around 120ml or 4 ounces.

I have also read that some consider a cortado to be half of this size, consisting of only 30ml of espresso (one shot) and 30ml of steamed milk.

As you are steaming milk, a cortado will have some foam to it, but it should be much less then that of a latte (though you still can get some of that beautiful latte art on top if done well! )

The cortado is the perfect drink for someone who still wants to taste the espresso but doesn’t want to sip on a shot of it straight.

The Italian Original: The Caffè Latte

Tracing the origin of the latte or caffè latte, is a bit muddier than you may expect.

While there is an overall consensus that the popular drink started in Italy, as most of these delicious coffee drinks do, some believe it stemmed from the French drink “cafe au lait”, meaning coffee with milk, sometime in the 17th century. 

It is then thought that the name “cafe latte” was given to the drink later on in the 1900’s, in America, where it became the Starbucks phenomenon we know today.

Since the explosion in the late 1900’s, the Latte or caffè latte has been proven to be one of the most popular drinks you can order at a cafe, with 38% of Americans stating the Latte is their go to drink.

While you can add any flavoring you, please, as most people do, the latte consists of the “big three” coffee ingredients:

1. Espresso

2. Steamed Milk

3. Micro foam (created from the milk steaming process)

When done correctly, a latte will contain around an inch or so, of smooth foam on the top of the drink, depending on the size you order.

This amount of foam is a middle ground between the amount of micro foam found on top of a cappuccino (a lot of foam) and a flat white (pretty much no foam).

Another characteristic feature of a latte is that you can choose the size as you please.

This characteristic may seem obvious, but as with some espresso drinks, such as the traditional cortado or flat white, they tend only come in one size.

However with a latte, there is no limit on the number on the number of shots or flavors you can add.

Overall, the latte is considered a relatively weak coffee drink as much of the espresso flavor is washed away by the quanity of milk added.

According to  James Hoffman, a coffee expert, the average ratio of espresso to milk in a latte falls around 1:4 or 1:6.

This is a much larger ratio compared to the cortado’s 1:1 ratio that we talked about before.

Travel Tip: If you find yourself in Italy and craving a latte, be sure to order a “cafe latte”. If you just order a “latte” the chances, are you will receive a large glass of milk as latte is the Italian word for milk!

The Key Differences Between a Cortado and a Latte

Now that we’ve covered the basics of both the latte and the cortado, let’s talk about what actually makes them different.

Like I’ve said in the previous sections, the ratio of milk, espresso, and foam, is the main difference between a latte and a cortado.

A latte or caffè latte, is considered a milk heavy drink, with the espresso being diluted at a ratio between 1:4 and 1:6.  This is a major difference between the cortado’s 1:1 espresso to steamed milk ratio.

Beyond the ratio of ingredients, the next key difference is the flavor profiles of each drink.

Because of the ratio of ingredients used, the latte is a pretty weak coffee drink, meaning you won’t taste too much of that espresso because of all of the milk added.

A cortado on the other hand, you will have very strong espresso flavor that has been slightly diluted by the 30-60ml of milk added.

These flavor differences are even more noticeable when you start adding syrups or other flavors to lattes.

While adding your favorite syrup to your latte is delicious, it’s quite uncommon to add any syrups to a cortado.

If you are really looking to sweeten up your cortado, only honey or a bit of sugar is typically added.

Lastly, we will talk quickly about the type of glasses the drinks are served in.

Traditionally, a cortado is served in a Gibraltar glass (below), or a glass that has a wider top than bottom. Having this wider top of the glass is thought to give you the best ratio of espresso to milk when you’re enjoying the drink.

A perfect example of a Gibraltar glass

Lattes on the other hand are less commonly served in a specific glass, especially in the United States. I believe this is mainly because the size is not specified for the drink most of the time.

It is definitely worth noting that as an American, I think many coffee shops are more relaxed when it comes to serving a coffee in the correct glass compared to other countries.

A Close Relative: The Piccolo Latte

While were here, I will also talk very briefly about a drink that is a hybrid version of a cortado and a latte.

This is a small espresso drink, similar to the cortado, called the piccolo latte (piccolo meaning small in Italian).

This latte has very similar flavor profiles to the cortado as it is very espresso forward, but with a higher espresso to milk ratio, like the latte.

In a piccolo, a single ristretto shot is mixed with two or three times the amount of steamed milk.

If you haven’t heard of a ristretto shot before, don’t worry! A ristretto is simply a shot of espresso that has been “pulled” for shorter period of time.

When this happens, less water has gone through the espresso shot, creating a bolder espresso flavor.

This drink is concentrated espresso shot is combined with two or three parts milk (creating a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio) to produce the piccolo latte, a popular choice for inhabitants of Australia, where the drink originated.

A Cortado or A Latte? Which Is Right For You?

Thankfully, deciding which of these drinks is right for you is pretty straight forward as they’re very different. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see which you may prefer:

“Do I like the taste of espresso?”

If this answer is a no, definitely skip the cortado and go with a latte!

If you’re looking for a bit of sweetness or extra flavor in your drink, again, it might be better to go with a latte and add a shot of whatever flavor syrup suits your fancy.

Cortados are typically for those who love espresso the way it comes, just a bit less intense than usual.

One great similarity about these two popular coffee drinks is that if they typically contain the same caffeine content (depending on the size of latte you order).

A double shot of espresso will typically contain around 120-150 mg of caffeine. As long as you have two shots of espresso in your latte, the only difference is the higher quantity of milk.

Summary: This History and Differences of a Cortado & a Latte

Both the cortado and the latte have captivated a wide range of coffee lovers.

While the latte or caffè latte is a traditional Italian drink, it has been transformed over the years into an extremely customizable beverage, found in almost all coffee shops on the market.

While the size and amount of espresso shots used in the drink may vary based on personal preference, the ratio of espresso to milk sits at around 1:4 or 1:6, making the latte a weaker coffee drink.

The cortado on the other hand is almost the complete opposite. Born out of Spain in the 1700’s, a traditional cortado consists of a double shot of espresso and an equal amount of steamed milk.

While you can alter this and only have a single shot of espresso, the most important component is that the ratio of espresso to milk stays the same, 1:1.

If you enjoy the bitter and complex flavor of espresso, a cortado may be perfect for you as the small amount of milk beautifully dilutes the espresso flavor ever so slightly.

On the other hand, if you want the caffeine kick but not the intense flavor, a drink containing a much higher ratio of milk to espresso may be the way to go.

If you’re like me and are quite indecisive, you can have the best of both worlds by ordering a double shot small latte.

Ordering a smaller drink with 2-parts espresso will bring down that high espresso to milk ratio we normally see in a latte. However, you will still have enough milk in your drink to have the delicious milky coffee flavor profile of a latte.