There are two types of people in this world: latte people and cappuccino people.
Ok, that’s actually not true at all, but it’s true that somehow the question of difference between a latte and a cappuccino has become a hot-button topic for coffee people of all types, from the hater to the dilettante to the professional. Why is it so hard to distinguish between these two drinks? A few different reasons leap to mind, including the fact that they have literally the exact same ingredients—espresso, steamed milk, and foam—and the truth that in most cafés, specialty or not, the baristas are wildly inconsistent with their preparation of both beverages, though not necessarily on purpose (or even knowingly).
Let’s get right to it: What is the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?
Fundamentally, these drinks are defined by their texture, which is determined by the ratio of ingredients: A cappuccino has more foam by volume than a latte does. A latte tends to comprise mostly of gently steamed milk with a kiss of foam on top, just enough so that it’s mostly gone after a sip or two, though it informs the overall mouthfeel of the entire delightful drink. One really easy way to remember this is to translate the word latte from the Italian to the English: It simply means “milk.” (In fact, in lots of smart-alecky Italian bars, if you simply order a latte they will give you a glass of milk; a caffe latte is actually what you want, and will more often produce the correct results.)
The term cappuccino has disputed origins, but many repeat the legend that the drink is named for the Capuchin monks, an order of Catholic brothers who wore brown cowls and shaved their heads bald. If you look down on a properly poured cappuccino, it has a design on it called a “monk’s head,” a ring of brown espresso circling a thick white ball of foam—just like an aerial view of one of these monks, or so it goes. (Just think of a “cap” as a hat, or a topping, of foam—that should help you remember the difference.) Ideally, or traditionally speaking, a cappuccino is meant to be a perfect ratio of the components: 1/3 espresso coffee, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam.
In many specialty-coffee shops today, however, baristas are trained to add the same amount of texture to their steamed milk by utilizing the same technique regardless of drink. Often the way they compensate for the identical milk is to simply make the drinks different sizes, with a cappuccino running smaller (say, six ounces) and a latte tending a little larger (say, eight, ten, or 12 ounces). The size difference alone changes the perception of texture when there’s any amount of foam involved, but often it’s not enough: If you like foam on your cappuccino (as you should!), you might want to request the barista make it a touch on the “dry” side, which means stretching the milk more to give it an airier, lighter, fluffier texture.
You might like one or the other, or you might like both. No matter how you like your espresso mixed with milk and foam, here are a few recipes and tips to bring you to a level of warm-caffeinated-drink nirvana.
Alton Brown is a coffee nerd from way back and he gets almost everything (except the milk, actually) right in this episode of Good Eats. Watch this for your espresso basics—but turn it off once he goes into the milk section.
Foam at Home
It’s hard, but not impossible to make foamed milk (or “frothed” milk, which is a term that makes me vaguely uncomfortable) at home without an espresso machine. If you have a stove or a microwave, you can whip up some whipped milk in basically no time.
Once you’ve gotten your milk just gently textured, you’re ready to rock and roll with some of the hottest drink trends. A little sprinkle of turmeric into your espresso or strong-brewed coffee will bring you close to the Instagram craze of a golden latte (or, fine, a golden cappuccino—whatever you prefer). PS: Replace the “instant coffee” in this recipe with the real stuff. You’re worth it. Get the recipe.
Mocha (Which, by the way, is just basically a chocolate latte)
Splash some chocolate syrup into your hot coffee, mix it with steamed milk, and voila, you’ve got yourself a caffe mocha, one of the most perfect drinks to grace the earth. If you’re feeling cappuccino-y, no worries: In Italy and in Australia, cappuccinos often come with a sprinkle of cocoa powder on top, which is basically an invitation to add chocolate however you see fit. (Also, try steaming chocolate milk and mixing it with hot coffee for a treat—you won’t be sorry.) Get the recipe.
Technically an “iced cappuccino” doesn’t really exist (who wants to scoop hot foam onto an iced drink?), but iced lattes are so easy and so delicious you won’t even care. Shaken all together, they can even have a fizzy texture that delights without the fuss! Get the recipe.
Flat White (The perfect marriage of a latte and a cappuccino!)
Ask three Australians or New Zealanders what a flat white is and you’ll probably get three different answers. Generally speaking, the drink appears to be a latte-textured beverage (that is, very little foam) served in traditional cappuccino-size proportions (that is, slightly smaller, say five or six ounces total). The name is cute and ordering it makes one feel well-traveled and savvy, so if you like milky coffee drinks and are easy(ish) to please, this little number might be just the ticket for you. Get the recipe.