Coffee menus these days can be a maze. Where there used to be simply black coffee is now americano, filter coffee, espresso, ristretto, and more. What used to simply read white coffee is now flat white, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, and more. It’s no wonder it can all get confusing and lately I’ve been pondering over the Latte vs the Macchiato. What are they, what’s the difference, and which one should I choose?
A Latte is an espresso shot with steamed milk added and a layer of foam. A Macchiato can come in 2 forms; the Latte Macchiato and the Caffe (or Espresso) Macchiato. The Latte Macchiato is steamed milk with the espresso layered on top and milk foam to finish whereas a Caffe Macchiato is an espresso shot with 1-2 teaspoons of milk foam on top.
WHAT IS A LATTE?
One of the most popular specialty coffees, a latte is a delicious combination of steamed milk and espresso.
Traditionally a breakfast drink, the number of espresso shots depends on how groggy you are feeling that day.
The espresso is topped up with steamed milk and then a layer of froth is added to top it off.
The ratio is normally set at two-thirds milk to one-third espresso and roughly 5mm foam to top.
ORIGINS OF THE LATTE
Specialty coffees that include milk all originate from the basic concept of adding milk to black coffee. Milk and coffee is a pairing that gained popularity in mainland Europe in the 17th century.
The emergence of the latte is quite vague but the first reference to the drink can be found dating back to 1870. In America the latte trend appears to start in the 1950s, gaining traction by the 80s.
The Latte is known as a Cafe Latte in Italy which translates as coffee with milk. As latte translates to milk in Italy, if you order a Latte you will likely end up with a glass of milk and a smirk from the barista.
WHAT IS A MACCHIATO?
The macchiato is similar to the latte in many ways. The drink is based on the espresso and steamed milk combination.
The clue to the difference with the macchiato is hidden in the name.
Macchiato comes from the Italian word “stained”. Quite literally coffee stained with milk. The espresso is topped with 1-2 teaspoons of steamed milk foam and there you have a macchiato!
Stronger and more intense than a latte, a macchiato really is a get-up-and-go kinda drink.
One big cause for confusion that arises around the macchiato is the espresso macchiato vs the latte macchiato.
The latte macchiato is where a layer of steamed milk is added first followed by equal parts espresso. This way the espresso stains the milk first. Then the foam is added to top it off.
The Espresso (or Caffe) Macchiato is the espresso stained with a dollop of milk foam added.
ORIGINS OF THE MACCHIATO
The term “macchiato” comes from the baristas need to show the waiter the difference between the espresso and the espresso with a tiny bit of milk added. The term “stained” or “marked” was used and this translates as Macchiato.
Over the years popular coffee franchises such as Starbucks have adapted the latte macchiato to include flavored syrups and sweeteners.
THE PERFECT ESPRESSO
To make either the latte or the macchiato you need to perfect the espresso. As opposed to a cup of black filter coffee, the espresso can be surprisingly tricky to get just right. In order to make an espresso at home, you will need the right equipment.
To sum it up, to make a good espresso you will need an espresso machine. Espresso is coffee brewed at high pressure as well as a high temperature. That’s about 9 Bars of pressure along with the ideal coffee brewing temperature of 195°F to 205°F (90.5°C to 96.1°C).
So a pod machine simply can’t produce 9 Bars and won’t do the trick. They instead use other techniques instead of high pressure.
The creamy, foamy layer that indicates a good espresso is called the crema. This is only possible to achieve if the conditions are perfect.
The jury’s out on whether a Moka pot brews an acceptable espresso on the stovetop. Although the coffee is similar to espresso, the pressure produced by the pot just isn’t enough for a thick crema.
A Moka pot will generate somewhere around 1.5 Bars of pressure. Nothing compared to a mighty 9 Bars from an Espresso machine. For comparison, 1 Bar is close to the atmospheric pressure you’re in right now.
The second piece of equipment that’s essential for the perfect espresso is a good coffee grinder. Yes, you can buy pre-ground coffee but trust me on this one, freshly ground beans really make all the difference.
Ideally, you’ll need a burr grinder, not a blade grinder, as these ensure the correct, and consistent, size of grounds to go in the portafilter.
It takes some playing around to find the correct grind size to suit your filter. Some portafilter baskets are pressurized so tamping is generally not needed but if the basket isn’t pressurized you’ll need a good tamper to compact those fresh grounds.
You can tell a pressurized portafilter basket from an unpressurized one. A pressurized basket will only have one small hole on the underside whereas an unpressurized basket will have a fine mesh across all of the underside.
As a side note, some coffee machines will grind and tamper the beans automatically so you don’t need to worry about this part.
Connect the portafilter to the machine group head and you’re ready to go! After 3-4 seconds of pressing the GO button, the thick, syrupy, coffee should be oozing out of the spout, nice and evenly on both sides if it’s a double shot. It takes around 25 seconds to pour the 1 ounce shot of coffee.
The liquid should be very dark brown in color, fragrant, and there should be a thick, rich, brown-colored crema with dark and lighter threads streaking it. It should cover the whole surface of the coffee and if you part it using a spoon it should rapidly re-cover the whole surface.
HOW TO GET THE STEAMED MILK JUST RIGHT
Once you’ve perfected your espresso it’s time for the steamed milk. You can use dairy as standard but non-dairy options (such as soy) work well too. You’ll need a steam wand (most espresso machines have this built-in) and stainless steel jug to hold the milk.
The size of the jug depends on how much milk you plan to steam. For 1 latte you’ll want around 8-15 ounces of milk.
It’s really important to consider that the steamed milk will expand as it aerates so the jug needs to have enough space for this. If the jug is too full the milk will overflow and if the jug is too empty the milk won’t aerate properly.
A good rule of thumb is to fill the jug to just above the spout indent or around halfway.
The milk should be kept cold in the refrigerator until use. Add it to the jug and get the steam wand ready. Before you introduce the wand to the milk make sure you purge it first. This means opening the valve over the drip tray to allow any water and residue to be flushed out.
Now it’s time to steam some milk. You can use a thermometer (some jugs have this built-in) or your hand to test the temperature as you heat the milk.
Insert the steam wand into the milk at a 15-degree angle and just deep enough that the line where the tip screws on is at the surface of the milk. You want the steam wand slightly off-center and parallel to the handle of the jug.
Open the valve and watch for the milk volume starting to increase. The milk makes a kind of popping sound and once it’s around 50% increased in volume you can submerge the wand a bit deeper to get the milk spinning in a whirlpool type pattern.
Once the milk reaches 60-70 degrees celsius (or just too hot to touch) turn off the steamer. Tap the jug on the counter to remove any large air bubbles and make sure you purge and clean your steam wand.
There you have the perfect jug of steamed milk.
HOW TO LAYER A LATTE
To pour the perfect latte takes some practice. Start with holding the mug or glass containing the espresso shot at a 45-degree angle in one hand. Take the milk pitcher in your other hand and pour the milk gently into the lip of the mug so that only the foam layer remains in the jug.
Gently and smoothly pour the milk until the mug is almost full. Finish the latte off by adding a layer of the foam to the surface of the drink.
If you’re well-practiced at pouring the milk then latte art is the next step. This uses the combination of the milk foam and crema to make beautiful patterns on the surface of the latte. It’s not an easy feat but it looks damn impressive.
HOW TO POUR THE PERFECT MACCHIATO
For the Caffe or Espresso Macchiato, the pour is quite simple. The espresso is topped off with a teaspoon or two of milk foam. That’s it!
Some people prefer a dash of the steamed milk at a 1:1 ratio with the espresso rather than the foamy portion to complete their macchiato.
For the Latte Macchiato, the frothed milk is added to the glass first. The portion of milk should be quite generous compared to the espresso shot. The coffee is carefully layered on top of the milk and this causes a staining effect on the milk surface. As the milk settles the foam rises to the top giving a 3 layer drink; made of milk on the bottom, then espresso, then foam on top.
WHICH IS BETTER?
So there we have it. A Latte and a Latte Macchiato are very similar ingredients-wise it’s just the layering that differs. A Caffe Macchiato is a much darker, more coffee-heavy drink but similarly, still contains the steamed milk.
The Latte is a more popular and well-known specialty coffee but thanks to Starbucks and other big chain coffee shops, the macchiato had made a name for itself.
The preference really comes down to the individual and the best way to figure out which one you prefer is to give it a go at making them at home. Whichever you prefer, you still need to have tried them first to make up your mind.