If you’re more than just a casual fan of caffeinated beverages, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about the coffeehouse staple known as the caffè latte – often shortened to simply latte in the United States (though you’ll also learn why this is considered a major gaffe in the drink’s country of origin). When you’re through, you’ll be a well-versed member of the caffè latte community, with enough knowledge and capability to create a perfect cup each and every time.
What is Caffè Latte?
Caffè Latte (the Italian phrase translates to “milk coffee”) is a coffee beverage made from espresso and steamed milk. Typically, a latte consists of one-third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk, with a light topping of denser milk foam. Purists might insist that the latte be topped with no more than a centimeter of foam, but this is an approximate measure and should be used as a guideline, rather than a hard and fast rule.
While the basic ingredients are identical to those used to make a cappuccino, the formula is different: A cappuccino is made with one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foam. This is why you’ll usually see cappuccinos served in shallow mugs, whereas a latte is typically presented in a taller vessel.
On the subject of foam, you might hear the terms “wet” and “dry” tossed around in reference to lattes. A “wet” latte contains more steamed milk and only a smidgen of foam (as per tradition), while a “dry” latte will be more like a cappuccino, with more foam than milk.
Lattes can be served either hot or iced, but when serving them cold, it’s best to brew the espresso in advance and allow it to cool to room temperature before adding the milk. Adding ice to freshly brewed espresso will dilute the potency, making for a weaker and less flavorful beverage. Note that it’s not necessary to steam the milk for an iced latte, but by all means, add that dollop of milk foam on top.
Finally, be aware that while the term caffè latte is usually shortened to simply latte in the United States, ordering a latte in a true European restaurant (especially an Italian one) will get you a cup of steamed milk with no espresso added. When in doubt, be sure to remember the caffè part.
The history of Caffè Latte
As anyone who’s ever drunk a shot of undiluted espresso can attest, the strong, bitter flavor is not for everyone. In fact, back in the mid-1800s, the majority of Americans couldn’t tolerate the taste at all – at least, according to essayist and author William Dean Howell, who penned a book called Italian Journeys in 1867. Howell credits himself with coining the term caffè latte, going on to explain that its inception took place in the regions of Italy that were most popular with American tourists. The creamy richness of the milk had the effect of mellowing out the intense espresso, thereby making it more appealing to the American palate. Another type of coffee that has been adapted to fit the American taste buds is the Caffè Americano.
Other European countries have their own form of “milk coffee,” some of which have been around even longer. France’s café au lait, for example, dates back to the 17th century. In Spain, one can order a café con leche and receive a drink that’s quite similar to the Italian version, though it may be richer and sweeter if made with condensed milk. Visitors to Austria and Hungary may be treated to a concoction called the “Kapuziner,” a heady blend of coffee and cream with hints of sugar and spice, usually topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
The caffè latte’s migration to the United States likely began in the 1950s, when the owner of a Berkeley café added the beverage to its menu. However, its Stateside popularity saw a marked upswing with the insurgence of Seattle coffeehouses some 30 years later. By the turn of the millennium, the shortened term latte no longer needed to be explained to non-Italian speakers – it had entered the American vernacular, where it remains comfortably ensconced to this day.
More recently, coffee shops (especially large chains) have had great success experimenting with various sweetened syrups to create flavored lattes. Mocha lattes (lattes with chocolate syrup added) have been all the rage for decades, but the conceit has been taken still further in recent years. Pumpkin spice, for example, is a popular choice in autumn, and the holiday season heralds the arrival of peppermint and gingerbread lattes. While the practice of sweetening coffee beverages is not new, many coffee aficionados scoff at this trend.
What does Caffè Latte taste like?
If your caffè latte has been prepared properly, you’re likely to notice the sweetness of the hot milk above all else. The bold espresso flavor will be noticeable but subtle, acting as an enhancement to the steamed milk, instead of the other way around. A good shot of espresso will have notes of caramel in it, an effect that’s underlined with the addition of the milk and foam.
Is a Caffè Latte the same as a Macchiato?
While a macchiato is also an espresso drink with milk added, there is a distinct difference between the two. While a latte consists mainly of steamed milk, a macchiato is simply a shot of espresso topped with milk foam. As a result, it’s a more intense and concentrated beverage, not really suited for long sipping.
How to make Caffè Latte
In this section, we’ll walk you through the latte-making process, from the grinding of the espresso beans to the addition of the all-important foam flourish.
The most important step is beginning with equipment and ingredients of the highest quality that you can find. An espresso machine that won’t heat properly will result in inadequate foam and watery shots. Similarly, low-quality espresso won’t give you the intense flavor and velvety texture that are central characteristics of the caffè latte.
1. Be sure your state-of-the-art espresso machine is plugged in, with the power on
Give it at least 10 minutes to heat up before attempting to pull your first shot of espresso. Some models might take as little as five minutes to achieve the proper temperature, but until you’ve gotten to know the quirks and foibles of your machine, it’s best to wait a bit longer.
2. Heat your cups using the warmers located on top of your espresso machine
If your unit doesn’t have this function, fill the cups with boiling water and let them stand for at least one minute.
3. Start with fresh whole milk, the colder the better
Cold milk will help create tight pockets of steam, resulting in a denser foam. Similarly, whole milk is preferable when making lattes, as the milk fat helps contribute to the silken texture you’re looking for. If you must substitute a low-fat or non-dairy option, be prepared for suboptimal results.
4. Select a stainless steel pitcher that’s large enough to hold the amount of milk you need
Take care to fill it only halfway. If you fill the pitcher any more than halfway, the milk won’t have sufficient room to expand. Make sure to use a pitcher that has a heatproof handle.
5. Place a thermometer in the pitcher along with the milk
Do not use an instant-read thermometer, as the temperature will fluctuate too quickly for you to get an accurate readout on a digital display.
6. Position the pitcher so the tip of the wand reaches about a quarter-inch below milk surface
Turn on the steamer nozzle until the milk begins to bubble beneath the pressure.
7. As the milk steams, bounce the pitcher up and down slightly using your wrist
Do this until tiny bubbles form on the surface. As you’re making a latte and not a cappuccino, you won’t need much foam, so you can stop the bouncing motion as soon as you have a light cloud of froth resting atop the steamed milk. Continue to steam, raising the pitcher slightly so that the tip of the wand reaches about an inch below the surface, until the thermometer shows a temperature of 160 degrees.
8. Deactivate the steamer nozzle while carefully extracting the pitcher from the wand’s reach
Take care to avoid burns as the wand will be extremely hot to the touch.
9. Set the pitcher aside
Tap the bottom lightly against the table or countertop to allow the foam to settle.
10. Measure and grind the coffee beans to prepare for a perfect shot of espresso
To begin, use your grinder to measure around 7 grams of finely ground espresso into your portafilter. The actual weight of the coffee may vary slightly, but you likely won’t be able to fit more than 10 grams into your single-serve portafilter. You’ll want the texture to resemble granulated sugar. Any finer, and the flavor may have a burnt or overly bitter quality; if the grind is too coarse, the shot will be too weak. It’s a good idea to experiment with your grinder beforehand, to look for the perfect consistency.
11. Hold your elbow at a 90 degree angle and allow the portafilter to rest on a stable surface
Use an espresso tamper to press down on the measured grounds, smoothing the surface until it’s even. If you’ve done the job properly, the tamped espresso will resemble a small, rounded puck.
12. Secure the portafilter to the brew head, making sure the handle is pulled tightly
Position your warmed cup beneath the spout. Don’t be tempted to measure the espresso into a smaller cup first; doing so will disrupt the integrity of your finished shot.
13. Use the appropriate controls to begin the flow of hot water and pull the espresso
If your grind is the proper consistency and you’ve done your tamping job correctly, the flow should begin as a quick dark stream before slowing and thinning to a tawny, foamy consistency. A single shot of espresso (one ounce) should take about 25-30 seconds to pull, and the surface should be covered in a tan, glossy foam known as the crema.
14. Be sure to pay careful attention to the flow and the color of your shot
If the flow is uneven, you need to tamp the grounds more firmly (and possibly adjust the coarseness of the grind). If the flow is too quick, you’ll likewise need to make adjustments to either the grind, the tamp, and the measure of espresso (also known as the “dose”).
15. Use a spoon or spatula to hold the milk foam back while pouring steamed milk into the cup
If you’ve done this properly, the latte will have a thin brown layer on top. Finish the latte off with just the merest dollop of foam.
Note: Many baristas like to add a flourish to the finished latte by creating a design or pattern on the surface of the steamed milk. This is known as “latte art” and it’s fairly simple to achieve with a little practice. It involves careful manipulation of both the pitcher and the cup while the steamed milk is added to the espresso. More complicated designs can be drawn on the surface using a toothpick. While this makes for an eye-catching beverage, it’s not essential. As long as you’ve followed the above steps, your caffè latte will already have everything it needs.
We hope you’ve found our guide to the caffè latte both entertaining and informative. As time progresses, new trends are likely to pop up in the world of espresso beverages, but we’re confident that this honored classic will continue to hold up to its flashier cousins.