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What Is a Latte: Your Guide to the Classic Coffee Drink

what is a latte: green mug with milk and espresso

Many coffee drinkers order beverages without fully knowing the nuances of the drink. For example, you’ve probably ordered a latte before without even giving a second thought to what makes a latte a latte. Learning about the finer details of coffee drinks can help further your enjoyment of this cheery cup of caffeine. If you find yourself asking “what is a latte”, you’ve come to the right place.

Known by the formal name caffe latte, this little beverage blends milk and espresso into a creamy, indulgent treat. So what is a latte? Here, you’ll learn everything there is to know about the popular coffee drink.

What Is a Latte?

woman holding latte in hands

So what is a latte exactly? A latte is an espresso-based coffee drink made with steamed milk and topped with a small layer of micro-foam. Like many coffee drinks including cappuccinos, a latte uses a shot of espresso as the base. Steamed milk is added on top and the drink is topped with a small amount of milk foam. In general, lattes have one part espresso and two parts steamed milk. 

This drink’s official name is caffé latte. It originated in Italy and is widely served across the European continent as well as in America. If you go to a coffee shop and simply order a latte, you’ll likely get served the mixture of coffee, steamed milk, and milk foam. The only exception would be in Italy. If you order a “latte” in Italy, you’ll be served milk since latte is the word for milk in Italian. So when you’re out exploring the world of coffee on an Italian journey, make sure to order this drink by its proper name — caffe latte.

Caffe lattes have a rich and creamy texture thanks to the steamed milk and foam. The espresso offers bold coffee notes, creating a powerful contrast to the milk in the beverage. 

Thanks to Starbucks and American inventions, lattes also come in many flavors including vanilla, lavender, and caramel. They can be sweetened or unsweetened as well. In addition, you’ll find iced lattes in addition to the hot coffee beverage. Lattes are also popular due to latte art — a practice where the barista creates shapes like animals, leaves, and hearts in the layer of foam on top.

Cappuccino vs Latte and Other Espresso Drinks

When answering the question “what is a latte”, it’s important to make a distinction between other coffee drinks. Many coffee drinkers—  and even some coffee houses! — mix up lattes with other espresso drinks like macchiatos and cappuccinos. The layering of ingredients is the main differentiator.

Macchiato: 1-2 teaspoons of steamed milk poured into 1 ounce of espresso 

Cappuccino: 1 shot of espresso plus equal parts of steamed milk and milk foam (usually in a 1:1 ratio of milk to foam and topped with cocoa powder)

Caffe Latte: 1 part espresso, two parts steamed milk

In essence, a latte has more steamed milk and less foam than macchiatos and cappuccinos. In a latte the ingredients are mixed together, but layered in a cappuccino. A cappuccino has a stronger coffee flavor compared to a latte because it has more foam and less milk. A cappuccino also tends to be thicker and creamier due to the higher amounts of milk foam. Since there’s more liquid in a latte, it’s easier to add flavorings and additives than in a cappuccino.

How To Make a Caffe Latte

what is a latte: barista pouring steamed milk

Now that you know that answer to “what is a latte”, you can learn how to make one at home. Whether you’re a barista or home brewer, making a café latte requires using an espresso machine and a milk steamer. The espresso machine pulls water through the espresso to create the espresso shot. The milk frother steams the milk and creates the foam that you’ll layer on top of your caffe latte. You’ll also want to make sure you’re using dark roast espresso coffee beans for the best flavor possible.

Cafe Latte Instructions

When it comes to making a caffe latte, you can make it the traditional way — using just espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam or you can add other ingredients and flavors. Popular options include chai lattes, pumpkin spice lattes, and matcha lattes. You can also choose the strength of your drink. In general, a normal caffe latte uses just one shot of espresso, but many American recipes call for a double shot of espresso if you want an extra energy kick.

  • Make the espresso using your espresso machine. You can also use an Aeropress or an espresso maker if preferred.
  • Steam the milk (tips on steaming methods below) and pour it on top of the espresso
  • Add flavored syrups if desired.
  • Scoop out a small layer of milk foam and add on top.

Tips for Steaming Milk

The key to making a great caffe latte is steaming the milk properly. While you can heat milk on the stovetop and use a handheld frother, the best way to steam milk is to use a milk steamer — usually as part of an espresso machine.

  • Use cold milk as it froths better than milk that’s room temperature. Take the milk out of the fridge and steam it immediately rather than letting it sit out while you gather your tools and ingredients.
  • Use fresh milk as it froths better than milk that’s closer to its expiration date.
  • Fill the steamer only one-third full with milk. Steaming milk adds pressurized air which causes the milk to grow in size. If you fill the steamer too high, it will bubble over and can cause burns.
  • You can still use alternative milk like almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk, but these don’t froth as well as traditional whole milk. Look for barista brands of alternative milk as these contain special foaming agents to bulk up the milk foam.
  • Purge the steam wand before each use. This helps to get rid of any water or gunk in the wand. To do this, just grab a damp towel, hold it over the wand, and run the steam for a few seconds.

Once you’re ready to steam your milk, place the container under the milk frother and put the steam wand in the milk. Aim the steam wand so it is off-center as this creates a circular frothing motion. Turn on the steamer, making sure to keep the steam wand submerged. If you pull the wand out, it will create light, airy bubbles that aren’t as creamy as a traditional caffe latte. If you’re holding the steam wand properly, you should hear a hissing noise similar to a sizzling grill. 

Don’t steam the milk to temperatures above 150 degrees Fahrenheit or you may scald the milk. If done properly, the frother milk should have small bubbles with a smooth texture. When you finish, wipe down and clean the steam wand.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

woman holding a cup of coffee near computer

So now that we’ve answered the question “what is a latte”, it’s time to start enjoying the coffee. With this handy guide, you can order a caffe latte like a pro or whip one up right in your own home. 

When it comes to coffee, there’s a whole world of flavor waiting to be discovered. From Spanish-inspired cortados and French cafe au laits to mochas, flat whites, and plain old brewed coffee and drip coffee: there’s a type of coffee you’ll love. Keep browsing our blog to learn more about different types of coffee and how to brew your favorites at home.

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