Cortado vs Cappuccino: Which to Choose?
One of the most common questions I get asked as a coffee enthusiast by people that enjoy coffee, but perhaps are not as well versed in the topic is, “isn’t a cappuccino just a regular coffee?”
The answer is, they are a little bit different…
Not all coffee based drinks are created equal, in fact, they are all just a little bit different!
This is why so many people go into their local coffee shop and are often confused by all of the names and coffee variations presented to them! It can be very overwhelming to try and make a decision on which coffee to have in such a short space of time, especially when you don’t really know what each of them are!
So, I’ve put together this article to take a step in the right direction and explain the difference between a cappuccino and a cortado.
Whilst these espresso based drinks may sound similar, they are actually quite different.
What actually are the differences I hear you ask?
Well, a cappuccino is a larger drink made from ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk and ⅓ foam, whereas a cortado is a smaller drink made from ½ espresso and ½ steamed milk. A cortado may only have a small amount of foam on the top and is usually served in a 4 oz/115 ml espresso cup, whereas a cappuccino contains a lot more foam and is served in a 8 oz/230 ml cup.
If you want to understand more about the differences between a cortado and a cappuccino, continue on reading!
What is a Cappuccino?
A cappuccino is a very popular, traditional espresso based drink that combines rich, earthy, dark roasted espresso with equal parts hot, steamed milk and foam. The foam itself comes from the aeration of the milk, which is produced when the milk steaming wand is held on the surface of the milk.
A cappuccino is usually topped with chocolate sprinkles or cocoa powder, to give it an extra dose of sweetness.
Generally speaking, dark roasted coffee is used to add a bit of sharpness to the drink and cut through all of that milk and foam!
Where a Cappuccino Comes From
The origins of the cappuccino date back to the 1700s, and, as with a lot of coffee history, is a hotly debated topic. Most sources, such as the cappuccino Wikipedia page, concur that the first cappuccinos existed in Vienna and were drunk by the Habsburg Monarchy. In those days, the cappuccino was referred to as “kapuziner”.
The origins of coffee in Europe tended to filter down from royalty, religious leaders and aristocracy to regular folk, and the cappuccino is no different.
The origins of the cappuccino’s original name “kapuziner” was so called because of the dark brown colour of the Capuchin Monk’s robes, as this represented the rich brown foam that topped the cappuccino even back then!
What a Cappuccino is
A cappuccino is a creamy, velvety smooth espresso based drink that is made from equal parts foam, steamed milk and espresso.
Generally speaking, dark roasted coffee beans are used to ensure the drinker can still taste the coffee amongst all of the creamy milk and foam!
I wrote an article explaining what a cappuccino is and how to make one here, so if you are interested in giving it a go yourself from the comfort of your own home, check it out!
What is a Cortado?
A cortado is a small, espresso based coffee that combines a double shot of espresso with an equal amount of lightly steamed milk, and a touch of foam to top it off. This is a much stronger, more intense drink than a cappuccino due to the lack of milk and foam.
A cortado is actually a Spanish coffee that is served in a small espresso cup. The lightly steamed milk in a cortado is added to reduce the acidity and bitterness of the espresso itself, but generally speaking a cortado is drunk quite quickly, just like a shot of espresso.
Where a Cortado Comes From
The cortado originated in Spain, although it is difficult to trace any specific historical record of when it was first invented. The Cortado was popularised back in the 1930s in Cuba, where it got its name.
The word cortado refers to the phrase “to cut” in Spanish, which insinuates that black espresso is cut with hot milk.
What a Cortado is
A cortado is a small, espresso based drink that features roughly a 1:1 ratio of espresso and lightly steamed milk.
Where a cappuccino uses vigorously steamed milk that has a foamy, creamy texture due to the presence of microfoam, the milk used in a cortado is steamed for a much shorter time. Therefore, whilst it is warmer and a little more textured than regular, un-steamed milk, the milk used in a cortado is not as rich, smooth or creamy as that used in a cappuccino.
A small amount of residual foam is used to top the cortado, and this is where some light barista work and patterning can occur.
In terms of ingredients and construction, arguably the most closely related coffee to a cortado is a flat white.
The Differences Between a Cappuccino and a Cordato: Explained
So, here are the main differences between a cappuccino and a cortado. Whilst they may sound relatively similar, there are actually a number of key differences between them!
A Cappuccino is Larger than a Cortado
Generally speaking, a cappuccino tends to be double the size of a cortado. Since a cappuccino contains equal parts espresso, steamed milk and foam, it is usually served in an 8 oz coffee cup. On the other hand, because a cortado is just made from a double shot of espresso and lightly steamed milk, it is usually served in a 4 oz espresso cup.
A Cappuccino Uses Dark Roasted Coffee Beans
Traditionally, a cappuccino will use dark roasted coffee beans, as these tend to be stronger and more earthy in flavor than medium or light toasted beans. The idea is that a dark roasted coffee bean used in the cappuccinos espresso can stand up to the additional steamed milk and foam used to make the drink, so the coffee flavor can still be recognized.
Starbucks also uses dark roasted beans, which tend to be quite bitter. Find out why here.
Cappuccinos Can Use a Single Shot of Espresso
Most chain coffee shops you visit nowadays will serve the majority of their coffee based drinks with a double shot of espresso. However, a cappuccino can also be made using a single shot of espresso.
Whilst a cordado can also technically be made using a single espresso shot, the Spanish drink almost always contains a double shot of espresso, topped up with an equal measurement of lightly steamed milk.
A Cortado Comes from Spain, Whereas a Cappuccino Comes from Vienna
You may think that the majority of coffee drinks come from Italy, but this is not the case with the cappuccino or the cortado!
The cappuccino’s origins are based in Vienna, but it was then later popularised in Italy in the early 1900s. On the other hand, the cortado was first drunk in Spain, and it was later brought into the mainstream in Cuba around the 1930s.
Cortados are Much Stronger than Cappuccinos
Due to the fact that a cortado contains a lot less milk and foam than a cappuccino, but still contains the same double shot of espresso, a cortado tastes a lot stronger than a cappuccino. You can really taste the dark, earthiness of the espresso in a cortado a lot more clearly than you can in a cappuccino.
Cappuccinos Have a Smoother Texture
Due to the extra time that the cappuccino’s milk is spend steaming, coupled with the foam it is topped with, a cappuccino has a much smoother and more creamy texture than a cortado.
Cappuccinos Tend to Take Longer to Drink
Because a cappuccino has a richer texture and simply a greater volume of liquid, it is generally enjoyed as a long drink, compared to a cortado which can be drunk in one fell swoop!
Cortados are More Acidic than Cappuccinos
Since a cortado contains less milk to offset the acidity of the espresso compared to a cappuccino, the cortado is usually more acidic. Another contributing factor to this is that a cappuccino tends to use dark roasted coffee beans, which are less acidic than the medium or light roasted coffee beans used to make a cortado.
A Cappuccino Contains Around 10X the Calories of a Cortado!
Finally, a cappuccino having so much more milk and usually being topped with chocolate of some description means that it can contain up to 10X the calories than a cortado!
According to Nicole Turner of Roasty Coffee December 2021 “Cortado vs Cappuccino: How to Know the Difference”, a cortado usually contains between 15 and 30 calories, whereas a cappuccino can contain anywhere from 150 to 200 calories!
So, Which Should You Choose?
So, cappuccino or cortado, which should you pick!
Well, despite sounding quite similar, a cappuccino and cortado are actually quick different drinks!
If you are looking for a short, sharp coffee to pick you up and don’t mind a strong flavour kick, then a cortado will most likely be the way to go.
Whereas, if you are looking for a silky smooth coffee drinking experience that will last for longer whilst chatting with friends, a cappuccino would suit you better.
Overall, a cappuccino and cortado are very different espresso based drinks, despite being made from similar ingredients! It is the ratios of coffee to milk and length of time steaming the milk itself that sets these two similar sounding coffees apart.
So, next time you are in your local coffee shop and stroll up to the counter, you’ll know which of these two coffees to go for!
Why is a Cortado Smaller than a Cappuccino?
A cortado contains a double shot of espresso, and an equal measurement of lightly steamed milk. With this in mind, a cortado is usually served in a 4 oz espresso cup, whereas, because a cappuccino contains equal measurements of espresso, heavily steamed milk and foam, it tends to be served in a larger 8 oz cup.
Why is Cortado Called Cortado?
A cortado gets its name from the Spanish expression “to cut”. This refers to the fact that a cortado is made from a 1:1 ratio of espresso to lightly steamed milk, so it is referred to as an espresso, cut with milk.