What are the key differences between a macchiato and a cortado?

If you’ve ever found yourself standing in line at a coffee shop, staring at the menu with confusion, wondering what the difference is between a macchiato and a cortado, you’re not alone. These two drinks may sound similar, but they actually have distinct characteristics that set them apart. In this article, we’ll break down the key differences between a macchiato and a cortado, helping you make an informed decision the next time you’re craving a perfectly balanced coffee beverage. So grab a cup of your favorite brew, and let’s dive into the world of macchiatos and cortados.

Key Differences Between a Macchiato and a Cortado

History and Origin

The macchiato and cortado are two popular espresso-based drinks that have been enjoyed by coffee enthusiasts for years. Both originated in Europe and have since gained popularity around the world. The macchiato has its roots in Italy, where it was created to add a touch of sweetness to a regular espresso. On the other hand, the cortado was born in Spain, where it was traditionally served to accompany breakfast or as a mid-morning pick-me-up. Despite their shared espresso base, these drinks have distinct differences in terms of taste, preparation, and cultural significance.

Basic Definition

A macchiato and a cortado are both espresso-based drinks, but the way they are made and presented vary significantly. A macchiato, often referred to as a “caffè macchiato,” translates to “stained coffee” in Italian. It consists of a shot of espresso “stained” with a small amount of milk, usually just a dollop or a small amount of foam on top. In contrast, a cortado, also known as a “café cortado,” means “cut coffee” in Spanish. It consists of equal parts espresso and steamed milk, resulting in a drink that is less intense than a macchiato but richer than a regular espresso.

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Serving Size

One noticeable difference between a macchiato and a cortado is their respective serving sizes. A macchiato is typically served in a smaller cup, ranging from 2 to 3 ounces. This smaller portion size reflects the strong and bold flavor of the macchiato. In contrast, a cortado is often presented in a slightly larger cup, usually around 4 to 5 ounces. The relatively larger size allows for a more substantial amount of milk to be added to the espresso, resulting in a balanced and flavorful drink.


When it comes to the preparation of a macchiato and a cortado, the methods differ significantly. To make a macchiato, a barista will first pull a shot of espresso, which is then topped with a small amount of milk or foam. The milk is carefully added to the espresso using a spoon, creating a visual “stain” on the surface of the coffee. In contrast, making a cortado involves the barista pulling a shot of espresso and pouring an equal amount of steamed milk into the cup. The milk is usually added to the espresso in a slow and controlled manner to ensure that the flavors are properly balanced.


The main ingredients of a macchiato and a cortado are similar, focusing on the espresso and milk components. For both drinks, a high-quality espresso is essential to achieve the perfect balance of flavors. Additionally, the milk used in both drinks should be well-steamed, creating a creamy texture that complements the espresso. While the ingredients themselves may be the same, it’s the ratios and presentation that set these drinks apart.

Milk Ratio

One of the key differences between a macchiato and a cortado lies in the milk ratio. In a macchiato, the milk is added sparingly, usually as a small dollop or a thin layer of foam on top of the espresso. This minimal addition of milk adds a touch of sweetness to the strong and concentrated flavor of the espresso, creating a pleasing contrast. A cortado, on the other hand, is created by adding an equal amount of steamed milk to the espresso. This results in a drink with a creamier and milder taste, as the milk helps to balance out the espresso’s intensity.

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The appearance of a macchiato and a cortado also sets them apart. A macchiato features a noticeable “stain” or spot of milk on top of the espresso, creating a visual contrast between the dark coffee and the light milk. This presentation is intentional, as it signifies the addition of milk without overwhelming the espresso’s flavor. In contrast, a cortado has a more uniform appearance, with the espresso and milk seamlessly blended together. The result is a rich, caramel-colored drink that looks inviting and velvety.


In terms of taste, a macchiato and a cortado offer distinct flavor profiles. A macchiato tends to have a strong and bold taste, with the richness of the espresso shining through. The small amount of milk or foam adds a hint of sweetness and creaminess to the overall flavor, creating a delightful contrast. On the other hand, a cortado offers a more balanced and mellow taste. The equal ratio of espresso to milk results in a drink that is smooth, creamy, and less intense compared to a macchiato. The combination of the espresso’s complexity and the milk’s natural sweetness makes a cortado a satisfying and well-rounded beverage.

Popular Variations

Both the macchiato and cortado have given rise to popular variations that have gained recognition over time. For the macchiato, variations such as the caramel macchiato and the vanilla macchiato have become staples in coffee shops worldwide. These variations often feature additional flavors in the form of syrups or extracts, adding a touch of sweetness and complexity to the classic macchiato recipe. Similarly, the cortado has inspired variations like the Gibraltar and the flat white. These variations may alter the milk ratio or introduce different milk types, resulting in nuanced flavor profiles that cater to different preferences.

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Cultural Significance

Both the macchiato and cortado hold cultural significance in their respective origins. In Italy, the macchiato is deeply ingrained in the country’s coffee culture. It is often enjoyed as a mid-morning treat or an after-dinner indulgence, often accompanied by a small biscotti or sweet pastry. The macchiato represents simplicity, highlighting the quality and flavor of the espresso itself. In Spain, the cortado is a cherished part of the coffee ritual. It is commonly savored in the morning alongside breakfast or during a leisurely afternoon break. The cortado embodies the concept of “sobremesa,” the time spent conversing and enjoying a coffee after a meal, symbolizing connection and community.

In conclusion, while the macchiato and cortado share similarities as espresso-based drinks, they exhibit notable differences in terms of preparation, serving size, milk ratio, appearance, and taste. Understanding these distinctions allows coffee enthusiasts to appreciate the nuances of these beverages and choose the one that best suits their preferences. Whether you prefer the bold intensity of a macchiato or the smooth balance of a cortado, both drinks offer a delightful experience that showcases the artistry of espresso and milk harmoniously combined.

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Candace McMillan

About the Author: Candace McMillan

With each cup she brews, Candace seeks to spread her love for coffee, inspiring others to appreciate the beauty and depth that this beloved beverage has to offer.