Cortado, latte, flat white, cappuccino, Americano with hot and foamy milk…I’m sure you’ve been there, trying to figure out what is the best coffee for this particular moment of your day. The options seem endless. Especially because you can add on all sorts of particularities to how you want your cortado, or latte, or flat white.
The truth of it is: it all boils down to the barista making the coffee. I’m sure you’ve overheard the endless debate over what really is the difference between a cortado vs a flat white. In some coffee shops, I can’t even distinguish between the two. However there is, or at least should be, a difference.
The most obvious difference between a cortado and a flat white is the size, a cortado being about an ounce smaller than a flat white.
However, the major thing that differentiates one from the other is the texture of the milk. The milk in the cortado is steamed, sometimes with a teaspoon or two of foam on top. On the other hand, the milk in a flat white is microfoamed. This microfoam is in fact what makes it so light, and what makes it so deliciously creamy.
Let’s take a closer look at the ins and outs of each drink!
What is a Cortado?
To put it simply, a cortado is an Iberian-style small coffee. It has a 1:1 or 1:2 coffee to steamed milk ratio. The milk cuts through the acidity of the coffee, making it a deliciously light drink that gives you a quick kick of coffee.
In contrast to Italian coffee drinks, the cortado has hardly any foam. It also has a rather low temperature overall – again, making it perfect to drink it quickly. It’s also, together with caffe machiatto, one of the smallest milky coffees: only 4.5 oz.
Because of the coffee to milk ratio and the steamed quality of the milk, the coffee itself has center stage in a cortado.
If you’re using really high-quality coffee, for example, this might be the best coffee drink to make. It lets the coffee speak for itself without too much interference from the milk.
A key feature of a cortado is its light creaminess. Think of it as the first coffee made to be creamy without being too creamy.
Whilst the milk in a flat white is microfoamed, the cortado is steamed with just a little bit of microfoam on top.
How to Make a Cortado
Making cortado at home or in a coffee shop is pretty simple.
Grab a rocks glass or gibraltar glass (4.5 oz). Pour a double shot of coffee into the glass with the help of your espresso machine, and steam the milk.
If you’re doing this by hand, make sure that the milk doesn’t get too hot. You should be able to hold your hand on the pitcher while steaming the milk.
Pour the milk slowly into the coffee at an angle, tilting it just at the very end to get that last spoonful of more foamy milk on top. Voilà – a delicious, classic cortado.
There are ways of doing this without having to use an espresso machine or a milk steamer. However, you’ll get the best results with the proper equipment.
If you want to learn more about the best ways to make cortado at home, check out our complete guide!
What is a Flat White?
A flat white is a warm, rather than hot, 5.5 oz coffee drink. It’s made up of two shots of espresso and microfoamed milk at a 1:1.25 ratio.
While the cortado has been around for quite some time, the flat white is a more recent invention.
It seems to have originated in either Australia or New Zealand sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s as a white coffee that’s ‘flat’. That means we’ve got microfoam instead of the larger foam bubbles used in for example a cappuccino.
Today, it’s one of the most popular coffee drinks around the world. In the 1980s, though, it seems to have been seen as something to make fun of. It was referred to as a ‘failed cappuccino’!
The most important – and delicious – part of the flat white is its texture. The velvet microfoam that folds into the coffee does most of the talking in this drink.
Here, the milk is more important than in the cortado, as it makes up more of the drink.
How to Make a Flat White
A flat white is one of the hardest coffees to get right. You’re best off using a proper milk steamer or a bellman and an espresso machine to make it.
Pour a double espresso shot into a medium to small sized cup. 5.5 oz is the ideal. While it’s pouring, steam your milk.
You can use either cow’s milk or any soy/almond/rice milk alternative. However if you’re using an alternative, opt for the barista version. This is because the microfoam is especially hard to replicate with these.
Regardless of the kind of milk you use, it will take some practice. So, experiment with how deep you keep the wand in the pitcher and the angle of it.
To create the perfect microfoam for a flat white and get the small bubbles necessary, keep the wand just under the surface of the milk, slightly higher up and at a bigger angle than when you’re steaming milk for a cortado, but further down than if you’d be making a cappuccino or a latte.
Make sure that the milk doesn’t get too hot by keeping one hand on the pitcher. Measure the temperature and turn off the steam as soon as it’s too hot to touch. For an ideal flat white, the milk here should be somewhat hotter than the milk you’d prepare for a cortado.
Once the milk is foamed, tap your jug repeatedly on the counter and swirl the milk around. This helps to even out the texture. Then, pour it in one slow movement into the coffee, swirling it slightly and keeping it at a higher angle to make sure that you don’t get a cap of foam on top. This way, you’ll get the small bubbles that form at the bottom of the pitcher.
What’s the Difference Between a Cortado vs Flat White?
They sound quite similar, don’t they?
I’ve often heard people in the past say that a flat white is simply a bigger cortado, but this isn’t quite right.
Although the ratio of milk and coffee is similar, the flat white has more regular foam (microfoam) and it folds into the coffee rather than cutting it or mixed into it as with a cortado. The shape of the cup itself will also change the texture and feel of the drink.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between a cortado vs flat white…
A cortado is 4.5 oz, while a flat white is 5.5 oz. Both hold a double shot of espresso, and since each shot is about 1 oz, we’ll get different proportions.
But it’s not just the size of the drink that changes, it’s also the type of glass you’re using. Traditionally, a cortado is served in a small glass, a gibraltar, while the flat white comes in a medium-to-small-sized cup.
Because of the almost straight shape of the gibraltar glass, the milk is rather combined with the coffee, while the cup-shape used for the flat white makes the microfoam fold into the coffee, changing its very texture and ending up slightly more ‘on top’ of the coffee.
Type of Milk used in Cortado vs Flat White
You can use any kind of milk for both, cow’s milk, almond milk, rice milk, oat milk, you name it.
However, the texture of the milk used for a flat white is hardest to achieve so it’s the more beneficial to use a barista version of the cow’s milk alternative.
Although the milk in both is steamed rather than foamed, when you steam milk you still do get a bit of foam in it. You could say that the milk in the flat white is slightly more foamed, using a consistently microfoamed milk that is then poured onto the coffee.
When I was first working as a barista, the flat white was the trickiest coffee to perfect – and the one customers would be most particular about. This is because a flat white with too foamy milk just becomes a smaller latte, and with too steamed milk becomes a cortado.
Espresso to Milk Ratio
Although what the milk to espresso ratio is in a cortado is somewhat contested (in Spain and Portugal especially!) ranging from 1:1 to 1:2, the flat white tends to have a somewhat higher proportion of milk.
The classic cortado is closer to 1:1 or 1:1.5 and the flat white to a 1:1.75, and since you’re using double shots in both while the cup you’d be using for a flat white is bigger, you’ll get a higher milk to espresso ratio.
When Should You Drink Cortado vs Flat White?
Both are delicious. Both are not quite as foamy as a latte or cappuccino, so both are deliciously light, easy coffee drinks.
For me, a flat white is more of a morning or a sit-down-for-a-chat coffee, simply because it’s bigger and hotter than a cortado, letting you drink it slower without it getting too cold.
The cortado, on the other hand, is made to be drunk quickly: a great choice when you want to grab a quick coffee and get on your way.
Cortado vs Flat White – Which is Healthier?
When it comes to different kinds of coffee, which one is healthier is a tricky decision to take.
You have the same amount of coffee in both, so in terms of your caffeine intake, it really won’t matter.
However, since there’s more milk in a flat white, you’ll be getting more proteins – but also more fats, unless you opt for a skimmed milk.
If you drink cow’s milk in your coffee, which is harder to digest for most adults, the flat white will make you feel more bloated than a cortado does. So it all depends on what you’re going for in terms of health.
Overall, a cortado might be a lighter choice for your stomach, even when you’re drinking it with other alternatives to cow milk.