How to Make Cortado at Home

Not too hot, not too milky, a little creamy and with a kick from my favorite roasted Brazilian coffee beans. That’s how I like my coffee in the early afternoon before sitting down for a few hours of work. For this ideal flavor, nothing suits better than a cortado. It’s also my go-to when I’m out in town and just want a quick coffee en route to someplace or other.

When I started working from home, I quickly realized I needed to perfect my coffee-making skills. I had to adapt to my home kitchen rather than the fully equipped set up of a coffee shop. As I’m sure you know when you’ve tried to make your favorite coffee at home, it’s not quite as simple to get that creaminess that you get from a barista. 

Luckily, I did find a range of solutions that allowed me to all but replicate the barista cortado at home. It’s my absolute pleasure to share them with you here.

By following these methods you can make the perfect cortado at home. Whether you have all the ideal equipment or nothing but a moka pot and a French press, I have a method that’ll work for you. 

What Exactly Is a Cortado?

What coffee drinks are must be the one of the things I hear people argue about the most.

In another article, we’ve covered the difference between cortado and macchiato.

However, what a cortado is, or should be, will be pretty different depending on whom you ask.

Even in its country of origin, Spain, different baristas will make it differently. Different regions will even look down at a cortado from somewhere else! This is especially true in the northern regions of Galicia and Basque countries.

As with all good things, it’s all about taste and nuance. So, you’re best off finding out exactly how you like your cortado.

Cortado Origins

Although cortado originated in the Basque countries in the north of Spain, it first gained popularity in Portugal and Cuba.

In the US, the drink was introduced thanks to a Cuban-American neighborhood outside of Miami in the 1960s. As its name implies, coming from the Spanish verb corto, to cut, the cortado is a small espresso drink where the warm milk ‘cuts’ or ‘dilutes’ the bitter acidity of the coffee.

In contrast to Italian coffees, the Iberians like their milk to be steamed rather than foamed. So, thinking of it as the milk diluting the coffee rather than sitting on top of it (as milk in a classic cappuccino and caffe latte does) will help you make your cortado a truly Iberian coffee. 

Milk to Espresso Ratio

In a coffee shop in Spain, you’ll easily find someone telling the barista exactly how they want their cortado. It even has a range of different names, all implying slightly different proportions: café cortado, café solo corto, cortado, cortadito… (Interestingly, there’s even an American name for it – gibraltar – that comes from an old Californian coffee roastery advertisement).

In general, the ratio is somewhere between 1:1 and 1:2 of coffee and milk. The milk is warm rather than hot (around 140°F) – steamed with only a tiny bit of foam. My brother, living in Madrid for over a decade now, says that the cortado has to have 1:1 coffee to steamed milk ratio with another fifth of the milk as foam, ending up somewhere in between the 1:1 and 1:2 proportions, with just slightly more milk than coffee.

Is this being too particular about something as simple as a coffee? Perhaps. But because the drink is so small (about 4.5 oz.) you’re going to want every sip to be perfect. 

How to Make a Cortado at Home

Let’s get to it and make the perfect cortado in your home kitchen.

I’m going to look at two ways. Firstly, I’ll show you how to do it with the ideal equipment. I’ll also show you how to make cortado without a steamer and espresso machine. Yes, it’s still possible to make a cortado without this equipment!

However, what is special about an espresso machine is its ability to extract maximum flavor using only a small amount of water.

Here’s how to make cortado at home with an Espresso machine:

What You Need to Make Cortado at Home

  • Coffee bean grinder (optional)
  • Espresso machine
  • Milk steamer or a bellman
  • A small glass or cup: a gibraltar or rocks glass (traditionally)
  • A milk pitcher or an appropriate replacement
  • Coffee beans (or ground coffee, to espresso fineness)
  • Milk (whole milk is best, but soy/almond/etc. works perfectly fine. You’re best off buying the barista version for great texture)

How to Steam The Milk

Milk is primarily made of protein. When you heat it too much, the bindings between the amino acids in the proteins break. This is why when you get your coffee too hot, the milk tastes burnt.

The same goes whether you’re using cow milk, soy, almond or any of your favorite alternatives, as they’re all high in protein.

When steaming the milk with a steamer or bellman, make sure to first let some steam out. Pour the milk into the pitcher, just below the pouring lip. Then, place the wand close to the surface at an angle and turn the steamer on. 

You want it to make a steady sound, so move it a little until you get it just right. Keep one hand on the side of the pitcher and as soon as it gets just about too warm to leave your hand there, turn off the steamer. In the last few seconds, move the pitcher a little bit further down, so you get the appropriate small bit of foam on top.

Tap the pitcher on a table a couple of times to even out the foam.

If you have one of these fancy electric steamers, all you need to do is to pour in the milk and turn it on and it’ll do the job for you, but the machine makes it hard to perfect or alternate the consistency.

How to Prepare the Coffee

You’re best off grinding coffee beans yourself, but if you don’t have a grinder, there are many coffee shops that will grind your coffee fresh for you. Alternativley, get your coffee from a specialty shop that grinds it on the spot.

Fill your coffee holder almost to the top (they tend to hold 0.7 oz., you’re after 0.65 oz. if you want to be very precise). Tamp it by letting the tamper gently rest on the top, without pushing down too strongly as that will make your espresso machine burn the coffee.

Insert the coffee holder into the espresso machine, place your rocks glass or cup underneath and pour a perfect espresso.

Now, swirl the milk around in the pitcher, and pour it slowly into the cup. Make sure that you don’t have too much of an angle until the end so that it’s not too foamy.

That’s it, a perfect glass of cortado, ready to enjoy!

How Do You Make a Cortado at Home Without an Espresso Machine?

So what if you don’t have an espresso machine? Or a milk steamer for that matter? A filter coffee machine or a French press doesn’t work too well to make an espresso, but a moka pot or an air press work pretty close. And there’s quite a neat trick that solves the steamer problem, too!

Preparing the Espresso

Air Press Method

With the air press, use the ‘backwards’ or ‘up-side-down’ methods to maximize the flavor of the coffee. This means you flip it on its head, insert the container for the water inside about a third of the way down, pour in your hot water and coffee, stir and place the filter on top.

Wait for 90 seconds and then put your cup or glass upside down onto the air press, flip everything quickly (be careful not to burn yourself) and then press down slowly.

Moka Pot Method

With a moka pot (this is what I use), fill it with hot water, put in the coffee and place on medium heat (make sure it’s not too high, as this burns the coffee). As soon as you hear the first bubbles, so when it’s gone through about 3/4th of the water, take it off the heat and even perhaps under cold water to stop the coffee from going from an espresso to a semi-Americano.

Frothing Milk By Hand

There’s a very clever trick to avoid a milk steamer and froth your milk by hand, and all it takes is a French press.

Warm up your milk (140°F is ideal, you can test it by putting a drop on your hand – if it’s hot but doesn’t burn you, it’s ready), pour it into the French press and close it.

Now simply move the filter up and down ‘frothing’ the milk, and don’t worry – although the milk is best steamed rather than frothed for cortado, the froth you’ll get from this is closer to steamed milk than anything else. 

How to Serve Cortado 

Cortado is traditionally served in a 4.5 oz. glass filled to the very top, known as the gibraltar or rocks glass. However, you’re at home. You can just as easily use your favorite cup or mug!

Just think of it being one of the smaller ones you like so that you can fill it almost to the brim. In Spain and Portugal, the cortado is enjoyed as is, perhaps with a pastel de nata if you’re in Lisbon – but espresso is best for that.

It’s a perfect coffee to enjoy quickly: perhaps not directly after lunch, but rather on its own before going somewhere without having the frothy milk of a cappuccino fill you up.