What is a Cortado? Discover the Spanish Espresso Classic

Last updated on October 22nd, 2023 by Britt Baker

what is a cortado

If you’re a coffee aficionado like us, you probably enjoy not just trying many different coffees and coffee-based beverages but also learning a bit about the coffee and drinks you enjoy.

You’ve probably seen the cortado mentioned on some of the menus of your favorite coffee shops. Perhaps, you’ve even ordered one yourself after wondering ‘what is a cortado really?’

Take a break between a taste of your current cup of joe to enjoy learning about the cortado and what has made it quite a popular beverage choice over the years.

What is a Cortado?

what is a cortado infographic

A cortado is one of the most popular smaller-sized hot coffee drinks. Cortados combine espresso and steamed milk, with a ratio of about 1:1 (half espresso, half milk). The function of this ratio of milk to espresso is primarily to reduce the acidity the espresso has. 

While this drink contains milk that has been steamed, similar to other popular coffee-based beverages, the cortado doesn’t have as much milk foam or froth.

The cortado has become an increasingly popular coffee beverage due to its small size, making it easy to consume rather quickly, as well as its simple recipe.

While other coffee drinks might have a lot of variations, you won’t see as many with the cortado. Baristas typically prefer to stay true to the cortado’s simple, yet tried and true form.

History and Origin

The cortado was created in Spain’s Basque country. After its initial creation, the cortado became increasingly popular, spreading through northern Portugal’s Galicia region, as well as Cuba.

cortado beverage
A cortado is equal parts espresso and milk with little to no foam. Photo by Bahattin Akgüngör

The word ‘cortado’ originated from the Spanish verb ‘cortar,’ meaning ‘to cut.’ The drink is named as such because the milk in the beverage is intended to ‘cut’ through the acidity and bitterness of the espresso. 

The cortado contains very little to no foam. This is a common characteristic of most Spanish coffee-based beverages. The lack of foam is what allows the steamed milk to cut through the espresso and to blend together smoothly.

Other Variations and Names

While you might not see as many variations of the cortado as you will with some other espresso-based beverages, there are still a few to be found.

In San Francisco, California, Blue Bottle Coffee Company and later Ritual Coffee Roasters, among other coffee roasters, created a trend by serving a coffee-based beverage in a 135mL Gibraltar glass from Libbey Glass Company.

The glass is filled up 60mL with a standard double espresso shot and the remainder with steamed milk. The drink is, in all rights, the same as a cortado, just with a different name.

Cortado vs. Other Popular Drinks

Similar to a traditional macchiato, cappuccino, and latte, the cortado is often made with the same amount of espresso (2 shots). However, there are some notable differences:

  • Cortado vs macchiato – macchiato has a little less milk and, thus, less volume; but more milk foam
  • Cortado vs cappuccino – cappuccino has more milk and more foam, so it is larger in volume but, perhaps, lighter on the punch.
  • Cortado vs latte – latte has much more milk than the cortado, with minimal milk foam; packs the lightest caffeine potency
  • Cortado vs flat white – both generally have the same 2 shots of espresso; but the flat white has more milk and is a thicker beverage

How to Make a Cortado

To make a cortado, the most important instrument to have is an espresso machine. In addition, you will need espresso coffee beans, your milk of choice, and, ideally, a milk steaming device (which is often times built into the espresso machines).

To craft the perfect cortado, here’s a quick guide and recipe:

  1. First, grind, measure, and tamp the espresso grounds and place the portafilter of grounds into the espresso machine.
  2. Next, properly extract two shots of espresso.
  3. Once you’ve pulled your espresso, steam the appropriate amount of your milk of choice, taking care to avoid unnecessary foam.
    • Whole fat dairy milk is perhaps the most popular milk choice.
    • Alternative milk options include oat, almond, coconut, and soy, among others.
  4. Once your espresso and steamed milk are prepared, pour your espresso shots into your cortado glass.
  5. Then, slowly pour an equal amount of steamed milk into the espresso (avoid pouring any foam) until the drink is a 1:1 ratio of espresso and milk. Now you have your cortado!

How Do You Serve a Cortado?

Enjoy yourself a delicious well made cortado.
Photo by Jenna Neal

Traditionally, a barista will serve a cortado in a 5 to 7 ounce glass, unstirred. However, at home, you can choose any vessel of your choosing. A standard coffee mug will do.

The most important factor when serving a cortado is that the ratio of espresso to milk is equal. Beyond that, you can get creative and add flavorings or toppings (such as cinnamon powder) to your liking.

Traditionally, cortados are served in small cups, made of glass or metal. They are typically served undecorated with foam art, as lattes tend to have. Instead, the focus is more on the balance between the flavors of the steamed milk and espresso than the presentation of the drink. 

How Do You Drink a Cortado?

A cortado is meant to be enjoyed through slow sipping. As the caffeine content of this coffee drink is quite strong, the cortado should be enjoyed over a period of time and not hurried. Because of the strength of this drink, some coffee shops will serve a cortado along with a complimentary glass of water to cleanse the palate in between sips.

Want to sip on more coffee drink types? Check these out!

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