There are many specialty coffee drinks and sometimes it can be hard to know the main differences between them.
In our Know your Coffee Series, we get back to basics and compare different coffee beverages so you can try a range of coffee styles and be more confident when you order at your local coffee shop.
In this post we compare two classic Italian espresso drinks – the macchiato vs cappuccino. We look at the structure of each coffee, share the main difference between a cappuccino and macchiato coffee drink and explain how to make a macchiato at home.
A short history of the macchiato
The history of the cafe macchiato is a little unclear. It is most likely linked to the evolution of the espresso machine in the early 20th century.
Perhaps the small addition of milk helped smooth the often bitter flavor of the espresso. Others believe it evolved as an alternative to an espresso in the afternoon. Either way it has stuck around and is now a firm favourite for many people.
What does macchiato mean?
The term macchiato literally translates to ‘spotted’ in Italian. Interestingly:
- Portugal has a similar coffee called a Pingado, which translates to ‘dripped’.
- In Spain they have the Cortado. This literally means ‘chopped up’.
So what is a macchiato coffee?
Pronounced ‘mah-key-AH-toe’ , a traditional macchiato is a shot of espresso topped with a very small amount of foamed milk – often just a teaspoon of milk layered on top of the espresso.
I state this with a little trepidation, as the macchiato coffee drink could well be one of the most contentious espresso beverages. There are short macchiatos, long macchiatos, double macchiatos..the list goes on.
There is variation (and much disagreement) worldwide about how much milk is added to a traditional macchiato. Coffee houses often have their own take on traditional espresso drinks and make slight changes to each coffee style.
However, I am quietly confident there is general agreement that a macchiato has the least milk of any milky espresso based beverage.
To define macchiato literally, the milk spots the espresso.
In the US it is more popularly known as an espresso macchiato, or caffé macchiato. This differentiates the macchiato from the well known, but very different, Starbucks latte macchiato (see below).
Macchiato ratio of milk to espresso
The easiest way to understand the difference between a cappuccino and a macchiato is to look at the espresso to milk ratio.
The macchiato milk ratio is 1:2. So for every portion of milk, there is twice the amount of espresso.
So a double macchiato would have twice the espresso and twice the milk of a regular macchiato. A long macchiato is typically a double shot of espresso with just a dash of milk.
As a result, the macchiato has a bold espresso taste. The small amount of milk softens the flavour and gives it a little body. But the robust espresso flavour is still the hero of the drink.
Macchiato cup size
And the size? A classic macchiato cup size is an espresso glass or demitasse cup. Total macchiato size is just 2-3 oz with less milk than a piccolo latte.
If you want to enjoy a macchiato at home, double walled espresso glasses are the right size and a great addition to your coffee bar. These ones by DeLonghi are an excellent option.
Macchiatos are great if you are looking to consume less milk but struggle with the robust flavor of a straight espresso.
A short history of the cappuccino
The cappuccino coffee is thought to have originated in northern Italy in the 19th century.
Originally made with black coffee and cream, the drink evolved as refrigeration made the use of fresh milk more common and espresso machines became more advanced.
While there are earlier examples of a similar drink in Austria, these beverages were typically espresso topped with whipped cream.
This style of drink is now commonly known as a Vienna coffee.
It was not until the 1950s, when espresso machines could heat milk, that the modern day cappuccino was born.
What’s in a cappuccino?
There are all kinds of modern variations to the cappuccino, but a classic cappuccino is a drink of thirds.
- 1/3 espresso
- 1/3 steamed milk
- 1/3 milk foam
It is this careful layering that makes the cappuccino a unique espresso based drink. In many countries they top the cappuccino with a light dusting of chocolate or cinnamon.
Cappuccino ratio of milk to espresso
So the key difference between macchiato and cappuccino coffee drinks is the amount of milk added to the espresso.
The cappuccino milk to coffee ratio is 2:1. For every portion of milk (foam or steamed), there is half the amount of espresso.
But what differentiates the cappuccino to other milk coffee drinks like the latte or flat white is the ratio of steamed milk and foam. In a cappuccino, there is equal amounts of steamed milk and foam.
The result is a strong espresso flavor with silky smooth steamed milk for body and lightness in the foam.
Cappuccino cup size
It is possible to make a cappuccino using a larger cup size, the key is to ensure you maintain the ratio of thirds.
Macchiato vs cappuccino
In Italy the cappuccino is generally considered a morning drink. Italians don’t tend to drink milky espresso drinks with meals and fewer drink them after 11am.
Which may explain why the macchiato is a popular afternoon and evening coffee. It has less milk than a cappuccino, but is still softer in flavour and has more body than a straight shot of espresso, making it perfect for an afternoon break with your favorite slice or cookies.
The reality is that each region has developed unique interpretations of traditional coffee styles. There is no one recipe for each espresso based drink.
But if we can put aside all questions of how big or how many shots the difference boils down to the ratio of milk to espresso.
What is a latte macchiato?
We thought we should include a definition of the latte macchiato here too. Literally meaning stained milk, this drink was made popular in the US by Starbucks in 2016. It is the source of much confusion when comparing a latte macchiato vs macchiato vs cappuccino!
A latte macchiato is not really a latte, nor is it a cappuccino or macchiato. Conceptually, it is the inverse of a traditional macchiato. It is milk stained with espresso.
This style of coffee drink is a popular milky breakfast drink in Europe, where a latte macchiato would usually have just 1/2 – 1 full espresso shot topped with hot milk.
The Starbucks latte macchiato version is steamed milk and froth with a shot or two of espresso poured on top. They have an iced caramel version too – see our copycat recipe here.
Latte macchiato ratio of milk to espresso
So unlike the macchiato and cappuccino, the latte macchiato has a larger milk to espresso ratio of 3:1. For every three portions of milk there is one portion of espresso.
It is a popular drink choice for people who don’t enjoy the robust coffee flavor and is often mixed with popular coffee flavors like caramel and vanilla.
Latte macchiato cup size
And the size? The Starbucks latte macchiato is usually served in a tall 16 oz glass like these ones.
By adding the espresso last it creates a layered effect in the glass. The steamed milk on the bottom, the espresso hovering in the middle and the froth sitting on top.
How to make a macchiato at home
For an espresso macchiato the quality and freshness of the coffee beans is really important as the espresso flavour dominates the drink. You can read all our top coffee bean brand recommendations here.
To make macchiato coffee at home you will need:
- An espresso machine with a steam wand (or a separate milk frother)
- Freshly roasted coffee beans. (If you have a sensitive stomach, low acidity coffee beans are a good choice.)
- Small milk pitcher
- Demitasse cups to serve.
Steps to make a macchiato:
Step 1: Pull a shot or two of espresso into a small espresso cup.
Step 2: Steam a small quantity of milk until you have sweet creamy microfoam.
Step 3: Add a small spoon of milk foam to your espresso and enjoy.
Macchiato vs latte macchiato vs cappuccino
In summary the main difference between cappuccino and macchiato and a latte macchiato is:
- Different milk to espresso ratios
- The order in which the components are added to the cup.
The result is three unique coffee beverages with very different taste and textures.
Now that you can compare between cappuccino vs macchiato, experiment and choose the coffee beverage you prefer. Which is your favourite?
Find all our brew guides here.
More coffee articles
- 10 different coffee drinks you may never have tried
- 30 refreshing summer coffee drinks
- What is the sweetest type of coffee?
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