What Is a Macchiato, Exactly?

Lattes, cappuccinos, cortados…Coffee shop menus can require a dictionary (and translator) to read. If you've ever wondered what a macchiato is, consider this your guide.

Reading over the menu at your local coffee shop—including if that coffee shop is a Starbucks—can feel overwhelming. Before you even get to the six different types of milk or figure out if you should specify the size of your drink in Italian or ounces, first you have to decide what type of coffee drink you want in the first place.

Lattes, cappuccinos, cortados, americanos, cold brews…What’s the difference between them all? No wonder the line moves so slow. One coffee drink you have likely heard the barista shout out is a macchiato or maybe even a caramel macchiato. But what is a macchiato, and how is it different from the other coffee drinks on the menu?

If anyone knows, it’s Andreas Willhoff, co-author of Craft Coffee, director of education at Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and the director of operations at The Wormhole, a craft coffee shop located in Chicago. Here, he explains everything you need to know about the macchiato, including tips on ordering it at a cafe and instructions for making one at home.

History of the macchiato

As the name may have tipped you off, macchiatos originated in Italy. “My understanding is that the cappuccino is consumed in the morning, but people shift to espresso and macchiato in the afternoon,” Willhoff says. “You can think of the espresso as drinking coffee black and the macchiato like putting a little cream in your coffee.”

According to Willhoff, a traditional macchiato only has two ingredients. “A macchiato is a shot of espresso with a small amount of foam on top,” he says. Willhoff explains that the word “macchiato” translates to “stained” or “marked” in Italian. “The drink is simply ‘marked’ by the foam,'” he explains. While in Italy macchiatos are often made with one shot of espresso and topped with a small amount of foam, Willhoff says that here in the United States, most coffee shops will make it with two shots of espresso instead of one.

What is a macchiato vs. latte vs. cappuccino?

If you’re thinking that this drink sounds a lot like a cappuccino, you’re right. Willhoff says that cappuccinos are also made with espresso and foamed milk. The difference is that there’s more foam on a cappuccino. “Whereas a macchiato just has a spot of foam on top, the cappuccino is traditionally about 4 to 5 ounces [of foam],” he says. Lattes are also made with espresso and foam, but again, the difference is in the ratio of the ingredients: Cappuccinos are equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam; lattes are primarily steamed milk with a shot of espresso added; and a macchiato is mostly espresso with a small amount of steamed milk foam. And of course, this being the 2020s, many cafes offer the option of subbing out cow’s milk with almond, oat, soy, or macadamia for your macchiato if you want to skip the dairy.

Depending on where you are ordering your macchiato, you may see the option for a cafe or espresso macchiato or a latte macchiato. “A cafe [or espresso] macchiato is the traditional version, while a latte macchiato is an American version that you would buy at Starbucks,” Willhoff says. “[At Starbucks] they adhere to the ‘marked’ definition by pouring the espresso over top of the foamed milk so the espresso marks the milk instead of the other way around.” In either case, a macchiato is not stirred, but it is layered with the milk foam resting on top of the espresso.

What is a macchiato with caramel, aka the uber-popular caramel macchiato at Starbucks? This means that caramel is used to “mark” the top of the drink above the foam. Starbucks’ caramel macchiatos are actually lattes, meaning that they include a larger ratio of steamed milk with the espresso, and the caramel syrup is incorporated into the beverage as well as being drizzled on top. Some cafes give their own twist to flavored macchiato drinks. Starbucks, for example, also adds vanilla syrup to their caramel latte macchiatos.

Is a macchiato stronger than a latte?

Since a macchiato is made mostly of espresso while a latte is made mostly of milk, a macchiato is considerably stronger than a latte. It is also stronger than a cappuccino because it has more espresso than a cappuccino as well.

How strong your macchiato is of course depends on the number of shots in it as well; the bigger size macchiato you order, the more espresso it will have and the stronger it will be. The addition of a syrup (such as in a caramel macchiato) will not affect how strong your macchiato is as the amount of espresso remains the same, though of course, it will up the calorie count.

Tips for ordering a macchiato

Now that you know what’s in a macchiato, how can you order one at a cafe and ensure you’re getting exactly what you want? Willhoff offers up a few key tips. If you want a traditional macchiato with just the espresso and a small amount of foamed milk on top, he says you can stick with ordering a macchiato—no further instructions needed. (Unless you want to specify your milk choice.)

If you want to try something a little out-of-the-box, you can ask for what Willhoff prefers, a One and One. “Not every coffee shop can do it, but it’s a double shot of espresso split between two demitasses [a small coffee cup used to serve espresso],” he says. “One of those is served as is, and the other is turned into a macchiato. It’s a fun way to compare espresso with and without milk.”

To add a little sweetness, you can ask for your macchiato to be “marked” with a syrup, such as caramel or vanilla. Order this by saying you want a “caramel macchiato” or a “vanilla macchiato,” for example.

How to make a macchiato at home

To make your own macchiato, Willhoff says you’ll need a few pieces of equipment, specifically an espresso machine, grinder, and small milk pitcher (since you just need a small amount of milk, a 12-ounce pitcher should work just fine). Then you’ll need your espresso and milk.

“Since the drink is mostly espresso, you want to make sure you have some beans you like,” Willhoff says.

When it comes to steaming the milk for the foam, Willhoff recommends filling the pitcher to about a centimeter below the start of the spout. (Different pitchers have slightly different spout geometry, but in general, this is a good guideline to go by.) Once your milk is steamed, simply put a spoonful of the foam on top of your cup of espresso. That’s it!

Whether you’re making your macchiato at home or ordering it at a cafe, Willhoff says that what’s most important is that you order what you like; don’t get caught up in what’s “traditional” or “right.” “It’s the coffee shop’s job to try to make something that appeals to as many people as possible, but if you are making something for yourself or a loved one, do it however you want!” he says. “Brew what you love and love what you brew.” That’s good advice no matter what you order.

Sources:

  • Andreas Willhoff, co-author of Craft Coffeedirector of education at Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and director of operations at The Wormhole, a craft coffee shop located in Chicago

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Emily Laurence
Emily Laurence is a journalist, freelance writer, and certified health coach living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in writing about health, lifestyle, and entertainment. For six years, Emily was an editor and senior writer at Well+Good and she has also worked at Seventeen magazine. Her work has been featured on MarieClare.com, Parade.com, and TeenVogue.com. Emily graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, with a B.S. in magazine journalism. You can follow her on Instagram @EmLaurence.