How to Drink a Cortado: Expert Tips for Enjoying this Espresso Classic

Closeup of a woman loving his coffee, illustration

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A cortado is a coffee drink that finds its origin in the Basque Country of Spain. The term ‘cortado’ means ‘cut’ in Spanish, hinting at its method of preparation where the espresso is ‘cut’ with a small amount of warm milk to reduce its acidity.

Key Characteristics:

  • Origin: Basque Country, Spain
  • Components: Equal parts espresso and milk
  • Serving size: Typically between 4 to 6 ounces

The cortado delivers a balance between the strength of espresso and the creaminess of steamed milk. Unlike more milk-predominant coffee drinks, the cortado uses a 1:1 ratio, meaning the milk doesn’t overpower the espresso. This composition allows the true flavor profile of the coffee to shine through, providing a rich and smooth taste experience.


  • Pull a shot of espresso.
  • Heat and texture milk to the point where it is steaming but not frothy.
  • Pour the milk over the espresso, maintaining equal parts.

The drink’s simplicity is key to its character. It’s served in a small glass to highlight its modest volume, which is perfect for those seeking a mid-intensity coffee experience—stronger than a latte, but milder than a straight shot of espresso. Cortados are typically enjoyed during a break or alongside a snack, reflecting the laid-back coffee culture of Spain.

Ingredients and Equipment

Preparing a cortado requires specific ingredients and tools to yield the best results. Here’s what one should have on hand before starting.

Essential Ingredients

A cortado is composed of two main ingredients: espresso and steamed milk. Typically, the ratio is equal parts of each, resulting in a balanced and smooth beverage.

  • Espresso: 1 part
  • Steamed milk: 1 part, preferably whole milk for a richer texture.

Coffee Beans and Roast

Choosing the right coffee beans is crucial for the espresso base.

  • Arabica beans are preferred for their sweeter, more complex flavor.
  • A medium roast is ideal, offering a balance between flavor and acidity.

One should ensure the beans are freshly ground before extraction to maintain the coffee’s integrity.

Equipment Needed

The right equipment is necessary for a barista to craft the perfect cortado.

  • Espresso Machine: A quality machine that can apply the right pressure.
  • Grinder: For fresh grounds, a burr grinder provides a consistent grind.
  • Portafilter: To hold and press the coffee grounds.
  • Steam Wand: Attached to the espresso machine, used to steam the milk.
  • Small Glass: The traditional vessel for a cortado, generally holds 4-6 ounces.

Each piece of equipment contributes to the quality and authenticity of the beverage.

Preparation Techniques

Preparing a cortado involves several precise techniques to ensure the best flavor extraction from the beans and the perfect texture of milk. Each step, from grinding the coffee to assembling the drink, is crucial.

Grinding the Coffee

One begins by selecting high-quality coffee beans to achieve the right balance of flavor and acidity. They measure the coffee beans and grind them to achieve a fine espresso grind. The consistency of the grind affects the extraction process; too coarse a grind will under-extract, resulting in a weak cortado, while too fine may over-extract, leading to bitterness.

Espresso Extraction

For the ideal double shot of espresso, the ground coffee is distributed evenly in the portafilter and then properly tamped with a firm, even pressure to ensure uniform extraction. The espresso machine is then engaged to extract precisely 2 ounces — the standard for a double shot. The barista monitors the extraction time, which should be around 25-30 seconds, to ensure a balanced flavor without excessive bitterness or acidity.

Steaming the Milk

Milk steaming requires attention to texture as well as temperature. The barista should use a frothing pitcher, introducing just enough air to create fine, not bubbly, foam. They heat the milk until it reaches a temperature that is warm to the touch, typically around 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. This results in smooth, velvety-frothed milk that complements, rather than overwhelms, the espresso.

Assembling the Cortado

The cortado is assembled by first pouring the double shot of espresso into a pre-warmed cup. The barista then gently pours the steamed milk over the espresso, usually in a ratio close to 1:1, which allows the natural sweetness and richness of the milk to harmonize with the robust, concentrated espresso. Sugar is optional and should be added based on the drinker’s preference. The final result is a harmoniously balanced cortado, showcasing both the strength of the espresso and the creamy texture of the steamed milk.

Cortado Variations

Exploring the world of cortado variations reveals a spectrum of adaptations and flavors that may change the essence of this espresso-based classic depending on regional preferences and dietary needs.

International Twists

The cortado coffee may have a simple foundation, but its global interpretations inject local character. For instance, the Cuban cortadito is a sweeter variant that traditionally blends espresso with steamed sweetened condensed milk. A close relative in taste and texture is the Spanish bombon, with its distinctive layers of espresso and condensed milk. Another Spanish twist is the leche y leche, which combines both steamed milk and milk condensate with coffee.

In contrast to its Spanish counterparts, the Gibraltar, an American take on the cortado, comes served in a tumbler glass and has a precise ratio of milk to coffee, creating a smoother experience. While not strictly cortado variations, it’s worth noting how international coffee drinks compare: the latte opts for a creamier texture with more milk, the cappuccino bears a frothier character with equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam, and the flat white presents a velvety consistency with more focus on the espresso. The macchiato, on the other hand, offers merely a hint of milk to the espresso, and the Americano eschews milk entirely for a watered-down espresso experience.

Alternatives to Milk

Milk defines a cortado, yet for those avoiding dairy, dairy-free milk alternatives like oat milk, almond milk, and coconut milk can transform a cortado into a completely new beverage. Oat milk imparts a creamy texture with a subtle sweetness and is also eco-friendly. Almond milk offers a nuttier flavor and is lower in calories and coconut milk brings a tropical hint to the taste profile.

In dairy alternatives, it’s critical to consider the steaming properties of these milks; they may alter the texture of the traditional cortado. Cortado condensate, for example, could be made with coconut condensed milk for a vegan interpretation, although this will present a notably different flavor profile from the classic. The rise of veganism and lactose intolerance has seen these milk alternatives gaining popularity, offering cortado enthusiasts the chance to indulge regardless of dietary restrictions.

Serving and Presentation

When serving a cortado, the presentation is almost as important as the drink itself. The cortado, balancing espresso and a small amount of warm milk, should ideally showcase a layer of microfoam. This textural element distinguishes it from other espresso-based drinks by providing a velvety mouthfeel.

Glassware: The cortado is traditionally served in a Gibraltar glass. This specific glass type enhances the visual appeal of the layers in the drink. In Latin America and Portugal, a similarly small, thick-walled glass may be used.

Microfoam: The milk must be steamed to create fine, silky microfoam. The milk should be folded into the espresso gently, allowing the microfoam to rest atop the liquid to create a smooth texture.

Ingredient Requirement
Espresso Well-extracted shot
Milk Steamed with microfoam
Glass Gibraltar or equivalent

Latte Art: While not mandatory, a simple design such as a heart or leaf can be attempted with the foam to enhance the visual elegance of the cortado. Achieving latte art requires a steady hand and well-steamed milk.

Spoon: A small spoon is often provided alongside the drink, allowing the drinker to stir if they wish to mix the foam with the espresso further.

Ratio: The ideal ratio in a cortado recipe is a 1:1 to 1:2 ratio of espresso to milk. This allows the coffee’s intensity to be felt without the milk overwhelming it.

For those unfamiliar with the smaller sibling of the cortado, the ‘cortadito,’ commonly found in Cuban coffee culture, is similar but often sweetened.

In summary, serving a cortado requires attention to the type of glass used, the quality of microfoam, and the optional but aesthetically pleasing touch of latte art. The drink’s presentation should exude simplicity and elegance, reflecting its rich cultural background and delectable balance of flavors.

Nutrition and Consumption

A cortado, which typically consists of equal parts espresso and steamed milk, is a modest but flavorful coffee beverage. The nutritional profile of a cortado is influenced primarily by its two main components.

A standard cortado may range between 60 to 120 calories depending on the fat content of the milk used. Skim milk will be on the lower end, while whole milk will lend more calories to the drink.

Milk Type Estimated Calories
Skim milk 60
2% milk 90
Whole milk 120

Caffeine Content:
The caffeine content in a cortado is generally about the same as a single shot of espresso, roughly 63 milligrams. However, the exact amount can vary based on the coffee bean origin and preparation method.

Milk Foam:
It is significant to mention that in a cortado, the milk is not foamy as in other espresso-based drinks like cappuccinos; hence, the milk foam is minimal. The purpose is to reduce the acidity of the espresso, providing a smooth texture and slightly sweet taste, without adding significant nutritional value.

Individuals who are sensitive to caffeine or watching their caloric intake should consider these factors when consuming a cortado. In contrast, those seeking a modest boost of energy without the higher calorie count found in larger, more elaborate coffee drinks might find the cortado to be an appropriate choice.

Understanding Espresso Drinks

Espresso-based beverages are a staple of coffee culture, each with its balance of espresso, milk, and foam. When considering different drinks, one should note their key components and proportions:

  • Espresso: The foundation of all espresso drinks, made by forcing hot water through finely ground coffee.
  • Steamed Milk: Hot milk steamed to create a creamy texture.
  • Microfoam: Fine bubbles of milk, giving a velvety consistency, ideal for latte art.

Here’s a brief overview of popular espresso drinks:

Drink Espresso Steamed Milk Microfoam Notes
Cappuccino Single or Double Shot Equal Part Equal Part Known for its rich foam layer.
Latte Single or Double Shot Majority Thin Layer Milkier with subtle coffee flavor.
Macchiato Single or Double Shot Dab Dot Strong with a hint of milk.
Flat White Double Shot More than Latte Very Thin Stronger espresso flavor.

Coffee enthusiasts appreciate the distinct layers in a macchiato, while lattes offer a canvas for intricate latte art. A cappuccino’s equal thirds of espresso, milk, and foam provide a balanced experience. The flat white, hailing from Australia and New Zealand, emphasizes a stronger espresso taste with less milk than a latte.

Each beverage can be modified according to personal preference, but baristas adhere to traditional coffee recipes to maintain consistency. Knowing the nuances of these drinks shapes one’s appreciation and allows them to order confidently.

Coffee and Culture

The cortado, a beloved espresso-based beverage, traces its name back to the Spanish verb cortar, meaning “to cut.” This refers to how espresso is “cut” with a small amount of warm milk to reduce its acidity. In Spain, and across Latin America, where coffee culture is deeply ingrained, the cortado serves as a mid-morning staple, rich in flavors and tradition.

Italy, acclaimed for its coffee culture, is often credited with inspiring the cortado through its similar macchiato—espresso “stained” with milk. Yet, the cortado stands distinct, offering a higher milk-to-coffee ratio.

Locale Coffee Variation Milk Ratio
Spain Cortado Equal parts
Italy Macchiato Just a stain of milk
Cuba Cortadito Sweetened condensed milk

In San Francisco and the Basque Country, two regions with vibrant, contemporary coffee scenes, the cortado has been embraced and integrated into daily life, becoming a token of social interaction. Cuban coffee shops, adding a twist to tradition, serve a cortadito, a cortado sweetened with condensed milk, linking it to the region’s own cultural identity.

The cortado encapsulates the essence of Spanish and Latin American coffee culture—casual yet precise, inviting aficionados to savor the nuanced balance of bold espresso and creamy milk. As it

Advanced Home Brewing

When endeavoring to craft a cortado, which harmonizes robust espresso with frothy milk, the selection of the coffee-making method is paramount. Below are techniques and devices that epitomize advanced brewing:

  • French Press: To elicit deep flavors and reduce bitterness, one should use a coarse grind and steep for four minutes. The French Roast beans are ideal for a full-bodied base.
  • Moka Pot: This stovetop espresso maker is revered for creating strong, concentrated coffee. Fill the lower chamber with water, add finely ground coffee to the basket, and heat until it percolates.
  • AeroPress: Versatile and efficient, the AeroPress facilitates extraction at various temperatures and durations. A fine grind yields a more bitter but richer taste.
Method Coffee Grind Extraction Time
French Press Coarse 4 minutes
Moka Pot Fine Until percolated
AeroPress Fine/Custom 1-2 minutes
  • Espresso Machines (Nespresso, Keurig): These machines are user-friendly, offering pods that provide consistency. For an espresso macchiato, use the espresso setting with a quality pod.

Grinder: A coffee grinder is a critical tool in advanced home brewing. A burr grinder offers uniformity which is crucial for even extraction and taste.

Finally, to achieve the silky layer of frothy milk needed for a cortado, use a steam wand or a milk frother until the milk is heated and has formed soft, pillowy foam. This combined with a robust espresso creates the balanced character of a cortado.

The Coffeehouse Experience

When one enters a coffeehouse, such as Starbucks, the atmosphere is an intricate part of savoring a cortado. It’s a symphony of the espresso machine’s hiss, the murmur of conversations, and the clinking of cups. The cortado—a balanced beverage where equal parts of espresso and warm milk meet—is a favorite among coffee connoisseurs who prefer a stronger coffee flavor without the full intensity of black coffee.

Choosing the Drink:

  • Cortado Coffee: A precise ratio of espresso to milk, offering a strong yet mellow taste.
  • Gibraltar: Named after the glass it’s served in, similar to a cortado but with specific dimensions.
  • Cuban Cortadito: A cortado’s sweet cousin, usually enhanced with sugar.

Menu Comparison:

  • Unlike a mocha or a café au lait, a cortado doesn’t hide the espresso’s profile under layers of frothed milk or chocolate.
  • Patrons seeking the pure coffee drink experience will find their match in a cortado.

Ordering Tips:

  1. Communicate with your barista about your preferences; they can tailor the cortado to your liking.
  2. Opt for a small size to maintain the intended espresso-to-milk balance.

In summary, the coffeehouse presents an inviting space for the ritual of enjoying cortados. Every sip of this carefully crafted coffee drink is a nod to the barista’s skill and the coffeehouse’s ambiance that together create a delightful coffee experience.

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