You will not be the first if you have ever walked into a coffee shop and been mystified by the coffee menu. It can almost feel like it is another language; Cortado, Cappuccino, Piccolo, RIstretto Iced Americano, Macchiato or Latte?
I mean, what do those words even mean? It feels like you need a bachelor’s degree just to be able to differentiate between them.
And in this article, we are simply going to explain and unpack one of these coffee drinks—the Cortado.
The Cortado is a small espresso drink that originated in Spain and has seen a surge in popularity, particularly in specialty coffee circles.
What is a Cortado?
A Cortado is a small coffee drink of Spanish descent. It is typically served as a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. So one to two shots of espresso with equal amounts of milk. The milk is steamed thinly to warm it but with very little froth, so it has a different texture to other Italian coffees.
It is usually served at a warm temperature, around 130F, created to be drunk immediately. The Cortado is traditionally served unadorned in a small 4.5-ounce cup. This drink is not about presentation but rather the perfect balance of flavors and textures. In saying that, the modern Cortado is now usually served with beautiful latte art on top.
The 1:1 ratio of espresso to milk is what some consider the perfect combination. A Cortado is strong, rich, and smooth. The creamy warm milk blends perfectly with the bitter espresso, reducing the acidity and pulling out the sweet notes. The Cortado is an excellent option for someone looking for a short, strong latte or a quick pick-me-up.
The name ‘Cortado’ comes from the Spanish word ‘Cortar,’ which means to cut. The Cortado was so coined as the small amount of warm milk cut through the bitter, dark roasted Spanish espresso making it more palatable.
The Cortado originated in espresso bars in Spain’s Basque country, although there is little information on when and how this drink became popularized. It spread through Northern Portugal and then to Cuba as it grew in popularity. It is still a popular coffee drink in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, commonly drunk in the afternoon.
There are several variations of the Cortado, the most popular being the Gibraltar. The Gibraltar originated in San Francisco in 2005, crafted by the Blue Bottle Coffee Company. The drink was so named because of the cup it was served in, a 4.5oz Libbey Gibraltar glass that tapers at the bottom. The Gibraltar is made with a single espresso shot topped with a small amount of steamed milk. The Gibraltar quickly became a fan favorite and began making waves internationally. Many third-wave coffee shops across the United States, Europe, and even Japan adopted the drink on their menu.
In Cuba, the Cortado is more commonly known as a Cortadito. This version of the drink is very similar but is sweetened with sugar or condensed milk.
Depending on where you are in the world, the Cortado can also be made with other milk substitutes. There is the Cortado Condensada or Bombon, which is espresso combined with condensed milk. There is also the Leche y Leche which is espresso combined with condensed milk and topped with cream- perfect for the sweet tooths out there.
The Cortado has also made its way into some major coffee chains like Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Caffè Nero. While each has a slightly different take, the size of the drink remains unchanged.
How to Make a Cortado
If you have an espresso machine, a Cortado is straightforward to create.
- Grind the coffee beans- for the best espresso, use freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee beans. The beans should be ground finely, ideally with a burr grinder.
- Tamp the ground coffee- measure the ground coffee into your portafilter, distribute, and tamp the grounds evenly.
- Lock the portafilter in place in the group head on the espresso machine.
- Pull a double shot of espresso.
- Steam the milk- Fill the pitcher with milk, purge the steam wand, lightly stretch the milk (aerate), then texture the milk. For a cortado, the milk should mimic the consistency of house paint, thick and smooth.
- Pour the steamed milk into the espresso.
- Serve in a 4.5 oz cup.
Tips for brewing
Milk: Ideally, for a Cortado, you want to be using whole milk, as the richness pairs perfectly with the bitter espresso. However, as mentioned above, the milk can be substituted for condensed milk or things like oat milk if you are dairy-free. Or if you are interested in trying a Breve coffee you could substitute the milk for half-and-half.
How Should a Cortado be Served?
Is a Cortado a Cortado if it’s not served in a glass? Given that the Gibraltar was named after the glass it was served in, we would say it is necessary to be serving a Cortado in the correct cup. We have compiled a few options below.
Set of Two Libbey Cortado Glasses
notNeutral Vero Cortado Glasses
How to Drink A Cortado
A Cortado is served in a small glass, usually at a warm temperature, ready to drink. The drink has been designed to be consumed quickly- ideal for those looking for a short, sharp pick-me-up.
Differences Between other coffee Drinks
Cortado vs Macchiato/ Cappuccino
A Cortado falls somewhere in the middle between a Macchiato and a Cappuccino. All three coffee drinks have similar amounts of espresso; the difference lies in the amount of milk used. A Macchiato is a shot of espresso with a dollop of milk, so it is smaller and stronger than a Cortado. A cappuccino is ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk, and ⅓ milk foam. It is a larger drink with more milk and more foam.
Cortado vs Flat White
A Cortado is often compared to a flat white, and while they usually have similar amounts of espresso, there are a few key differences. A flat white has a ⅓ espresso to ⅔ steamed milk ratio, while a Cortado has ½ espresso and steamed milk. Because of this, a flat white has a larger volume and is commonly served in a 5-6 ounces cup, while the Cortado is served in a 4.5-ounce cup. This makes the Cortado slightly stronger.
There is also a slight difference in the milk preparation. A flat white uses micro-foamed milk that is velvety and smooth. It is usually served hotter than a Cortado as well. A cortado has smooth milk with little foam.
Cortado vs Latte
Once again, a Latte is not as strong as a Cortado. A latte generally has ⅓ espresso to ⅔ steamed milk and is topped with a layer of milk foam. Lattes are served in a larger 6 oz glass or cup. The milk for a latte is more textured with microfoam to enable latte art.
Cortado vs Gibraltar
As mentioned above, the Gibraltar is the American version of the Cortado. It was created by Blue Bottle Coffee Company and named after the cup it is served in. The Gibraltar is served in a 4.5 oz Gibraltar glass made by the Libbey Glass Company. The Gibraltar is typically served with one shot of espresso (1.25 fl oz) to 2 parts of steamed milk (2.5 fl oz).
How to Make a Cortado
Cortado- In Summary
In summary, a Cortado is a small, strong espresso drink that is served in a 4.5 oz glass. The drink is typically served as a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. The Cortado originated in Spanish espresso bars but has been popularized worldwide, in part thanks to Blue Bottle Coffee Company.
The Cortado is what some call the magic ratio between espresso and milk. The perfect balance of flavor and texture, it really is delicious!
So if you haven’t tried a Cortado coffee, then the next time you are standing before one of those mystifying coffee menus, take the leap and give it a go. You won’t regret it.