The world of café beverages can be intimidating and confusing for a novice. Many of the drinks consist solely of milk and espresso but somehow still manage to taste unique from each other.
Even worse, you’ll often find ordering a cappuccino gives you a very different drink from one coffee shop to the next—and that’s ignoring the gas station “cappuccino” many Americans grew up with.
So what exactly is a cappuccino, and how do you make one at home? We set out to answer all these questions and more in this article.
A cappuccino is an Italian café beverage made with steamed milk and espresso. In that sense, it’s very similar to drinks like a latte or a cortado, though there are distinctive differences in the preparation. The main thing that’s important to a cappuccino is that it contains a significant amount of foam, not only textured steamed milk.
The exact definition of a cappuccino varies depending on who you ask. According to the Italian Espresso National Institute, a cappuccino contains slightly more foam and milk than espresso.
Other Italian cafes consider the appropriate ratio of ingredients to be equal parts espresso, textured milk, and microfoam, and many American cafes follow this lead. Other American cafes use a harder, thicker foam that’s more distinct in texture from the textured milk beneath.
This range of preparations and definitions makes the cappuccino the second-most confusing drink on most coffee shop menus (after the mysterious and oft-misunderstood macchiato).
While all of them start with an expertly-brewed shot of espresso as the base, how the milk is steamed and poured can make a big impact on the overall taste.
While the cappuccino is a hot beverage by default, you may find iced or even blended versions of the drink in many cafes. The official name for this is a cappuccino freddo. Usually, these iced drinks do away with the layer of foam on top, though you may find them served topped with whipped cream instead.
The biggest difference between Italian-style and American-style cappuccinos is the amount of milk in the drink. You won’t usually see different size options listed for cappuccinos in an Italian café. It’s typically a 5-6 ounce beverage, with 4-5 ounces of milk.
American cappuccinos range from 8 ounces to 20 ounces, with 1-2 ounces of espresso and the rest made up of milk. This makes for a less concentrated drink that won’t taste as much like coffee as the Italian-style beverage.
Many American cafes also use a different approach to steaming and pouring the milk. The Italian style calls for the barista to texture the milk and create microfoam, which is frothy and smooth with no visible bubbles.
While some cafes in the United States use this approach, as well, others incorporate more air into the milk while it’s steaming to create a thicker foam, known as a dry foam, then allow it to firm and separate from the steamed milk before preparing the drink.In some cases, this foam is so thick you can stand a metal spoon upright in the pitcher and it won’t topple over, something that would not be possible in a pitcher of microfoam.
In an Italian-style cappuccino, the milk is free poured, which means the barista pours straight from the steaming pitcher into the espresso without physically separating the steamed milk from the foam.
The correct ratio of milk to foam relies on the milk being steamed correctly. Once it’s in the cup, the foam rises to the top naturally since it’s less dense. In many American cafes, you’ll see the barista using a spoon to hold the foam back while they pour the correct amount of milk, after which the foam is spooned on top. This is more common in cafes that use the dry foam steaming method.
You may also note a difference in the type of beans used for the espresso. Many American espresso blends are roasted very dark, giving them a more bitter taste with less sweetness and acidity.
Conversely, you’ll see some third-wave coffee shops that use light or medium roasted single-origin beans, sometimes even using brighter, fruitier beans from Ethiopia or Kenya.
Baristas in Italy tend to use beans that fall between these two extremes. They’re relatively dark but not overly roasted and it’s typical to use a blend, often one that incorporates both Arabica and Robusta beans.
Some people prefer a milkier beverage, while others want a lighter drink that’s made up of more foam. If you’re particularly picky about the ratio of foam to milk in your cappuccino, you can specify which one you want using the terms wet and dry.
There are equal quantities of milk and foam in the standard cappuccino.
A wet cappuccino a higher ratio of milk, usually about 2 parts milk for every 1 part foam. This makes it heavier and gives it a texture more similar to a very foamy latte.
On the other end of the spectrum, a dry cappuccino has about 2 parts foam for every 1 part milk. These drinks are very light in weight and have a prominent espresso flavor. They’re more similar to a large espresso macchiato in that sense, just with a lot more foam topping off the beverage.
Both the cappuccino and the cafe macchiato are layered drinks containing some combination of espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. The difference between them comes down to size and ratio.
The cafe macchiato is a smaller drink, first of all, containing 1-2 shots of espresso with a small amount of steamed milk and a dollop of milk foam on top. The total amount of liquid in the drink is only about 1.5-3 ounces, depending on how many shots of espresso you use. Even an Italian-style cappuccino is 5-6 ounces, and American cappuccinos can be much larger than that.
More important to the taste difference, though, is the ratio of ingredients. The bulk of an espresso macchiato is espresso. The milk is mostly there to smooth out the taste of the espresso slightly and cut down on the bitterness. In a cappuccino, the taste of the espresso is more prominent, but the milk is equally important to the flavor. It’s normally equal parts espresso, milk, and foam, which means the milk-based components of the drink outweigh the espresso by about 2 to 1.
These are the two drinks that are most commonly confused in cafes, especially American cafes where they come in the same sizes and for the most part look quite similar, especially in coffee houses that put latte art on their cappuccinos.
Both drinks use 1-2 shots of espresso as the base, which are poured into the cup first (or brewed straight into the cup, in many cases) with the milk poured in on top of them.
The main difference here is the amount of foam at the top of the drink. A cafe latte is mostly made up of steamed milk, with just a thin layer of microfoam on the surface of the beverage. As the drink is poured, the crema from the espresso shot rises to the top, allowing baristas to make latte art and designs on the surface using the milk foam.
A standard cappuccino has equal parts steamed milk and milk foam in the drink. Because there’s more foam, the surface of an Italian cappuccino is mostly white, with just a small ring of darker crema around the outside of the cup.
In the case of cappuccinos made with dry foam, the entire surface of the drink will be white, especially in cafes that spoon the foam on top after pouring the milk. Even in shops that use a microfoam, a cappuccino will be lighter in weight than a latte. Since the overall volume of the milk is lower, you’ll also get a stronger espresso taste from a cappuccino, rather than the predominantly milky flavor of a latte.
A cortado is also called a Gibraltar, a name derived from the glass tumbler it’s typically served in (which is known as a “Gibraltar glass”). The name cortado comes from the Spanish word cortar, meaning “to cut”. And that points us toward the first difference between them: whereas the cappuccino originated in Italy, the cortado hails from Spain.
Moving on to the drink itself, you can think of a cortado as being a very small latte, though the milk is steamed a bit differently. Rather than being textured into microfoam, the milk in a cortado is simply steamed. There is often still a small amount of foam on top but it’s a very thin layer. The total volume of a cortado is only about 4 ounces, with half of that being espresso and half of it being steamed milk. In a sense, this makes it like an Italian cappuccino with the foam removed.
Taste-wise, a cortado will be stronger than a cappuccino but slightly less espresso-forward than a cafe macchiato. It’s meant to be consumed quickly, like an espresso, rather than savored and lingered over like a cappuccino. The surface appearance will be similar to a latte and some cafes even put latte art on their cortados, although this is much more difficult both because of the smaller volume and the limited amount of foam.
The flat white was invented in Australia in the 1980s but has only recently gained popularity in the United States. It’s similar in size to a cappuccino, ideally around 5-6 ounces.
The biggest difference between a cappuccino and a flat white is similar to the comparison with the cortado above: the amount of foam. In fact, the milk in a flat white is steamed about the same way for a flat white and a cortado. It’s not textured into microfoam but instead just steamed, and often to a lower temperature—about 140°F instead of 160°F.
While there may be a small amount of foam on top, the ideal flat white has a minimum amount of foam, and in some cafes they’ll even use a spoon to hold the foam back while they pour.
The way the espresso is brewed in a flat white is different, as well. In most cases, it’s served with ristretto shots. This means the shots are brewed more quickly, resulting in a lower volume and less bitterness, which comes out in the later stages of the extraction.
The flavor of the espresso is stronger than a latte but slightly less pronounced than in a cappuccino since the milk is denser. The use of ristretto shots also gives the flat white a smoother taste than what you’ll get from a full-brewed espresso.
Of all the drinks compared here, these two are the most different. Both the cappuccino and the americano start with espresso in the cup, but that’s where the similarities end. In an americano, hot water is used to dilute the espresso rather than milk.
This gives the beverage a taste more similar to brewed coffee, though a bit stronger in both flavor and caffeine, and with some crema at the surface of the drink to enhance the aroma. Americanos also usually use more espresso than a cappuccino of the same size—typically 2 shots in a drink 12-ounces or smaller, with 3 or 4 shots in larger beverages.
Making a traditional Italian cappuccino requires you to have a high-end espresso machine that can both steam café-quality microfoam and brew shots at 9 bars of pressure.
They’re one of the most difficult drinks to prepare correctly, especially for anyone who’s not a trained barista. If you have the right equipment and want to put your skills to the test, it’s a great way to gauge how good you really are at navigating your espresso machine.
The trick to making a delicious Italian cappuccino is knowing how to steam a pitcher of perfect microfoam, and that takes a lot of practice.
The recipe below might seem pretty complicated, but most of the steps are about texturing microfoam correctly. Once you master that, you simply have to brew, steam, and pour—a process that should take you no longer than a minute.
Until you’re comfortable using your espresso machine, it can be a bit overwhelming to brew shots at the same time you’re steaming the milk. Some home espresso machines won’t even allow you to do both at once since the group head and steam wand use the same pressure.
If you can’t do them at the same time steam your milk first, then pour your shot. You can swirl the milk in the pitcher to keep it at the right texture until you’re ready to pour, but espresso shots will lose their crema if they’re sitting too long before you make the drink.
Since there’s no steaming involved, making a cappuccino freddo is a bit easier for most beginners, letting you focus just on brewing the perfect shot. Even though it’s not the traditional way to enjoy the beverage, it’s a great option if you want the taste of a cappuccino in the summertime.
To get an airy texture, use a cold frother, a blender, or a mixer, not a steam wand. Pouring hot milk over ice may cause the milk to curdle, ruining its texture (and potentially even making you sick).
If you want to add sugar or powdered sweetener to an iced cappuccino, mix it into the espresso before you pour it over the ice so the heat can dissolve it properly.
Alternatively, you could use a simple syrup or flavored syrup. These liquid sweeteners can be incorporated into drinks of any temperature.
Just like the cappuccino freddo above, a blended iced cappuccino starts with a well-brewed shot of espresso. In this case, however, the quality of the crema isn’t as important, since the blender is going to destroy it anyway. This means it’s often better to brew your shot first and let it sit for a moment before pouring it in with the ice. Giving the espresso a little time to cool down keeps it from melting as much of the ice and gives you a stronger flavor in the cup.
You’ll notice no frothing or steaming is going on here. Just like with the crema, a microfoam (or even a dry foam) will be completely destroyed by the blending process. If you want to add a bit more airiness to your drink, use slightly less ice and put it on a cold frother after blending.
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), a cappuccino is a 5-6 ounce beverage containing one shot of espresso, textured milk, and at least 1 centimeter of foam on top. This doesn’t quite work out to the equal parts ratio you’ll usually hear, instead aligning more with the definition used by espresso officials in Italy.
While a lot of attention is paid to specific quantities of ingredients when defining an Italian cappuccino, in truth it’s more about the taste and drinking experience in the minds of most baristas. The result should be a well-balanced drink. You should experience both the rich taste of the espresso and the sweetness and creaminess of the steamed milk.
Unlike espresso macchiatos (which mostly taste like espresso) and lattes (which emphasize the milk), both of these ingredients are celebrated in a cappuccino. This is one reason it’s often considered to be the true test of a barista’s skills. You can’t make a cappuccino correctly unless both your shot pulling and your milk steaming abilities are on point.
All baristas agree that a cappuccino should taste good—but the truth is, that’s just about all they agree on. The inclusion of latte art is one big point of contention. Many cafes in the United States pride themselves on being able to put beautiful designs on the surfaces of their cappuccinos. You’ll rarely see this in Italy, though; the official definition of the beverage indicates the top should be a clean, unblemished dome of white microfoam.
The bottom line is, you shouldn’t expect that a cappuccino will taste exactly the same at every cafe. While all follow the same basic guidelines for the quality of the shots and the presence of the foam, individual baristas tend to have diverse ideas of what makes a perfect cappuccino.
This is why it’s a great drink to order if you’re sampling a range of cafes. You’ll experience a much broader range of preparations than you will between drinks like drip coffee or lattes.
Depending on the type of bean that’s used to brew it, a shot of espresso contains between 60 and 70 milligrams of caffeine.
A single-shot Italian cappuccino has about 10 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, which is actually slightly lower than the amount of caffeine per ounce in brewed coffee (drip-brewed coffee has about 90-100 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup, or roughly 11-12 milligrams per ounce).
16 or 20-ounce American cappuccinos often contain two shots of espresso, which would give them a caffeine content somewhere around 120-130 milligrams. Keep in mind, though, that they also have far more milk, so the per-ounce caffeine content is still lower than your typical cup of coffee.
We’ve said that a cappuccino is a celebration of both the espresso and milk used to make it. If you want to make the best cappuccino you can, you need to start with the right ingredients.
Given how many different kinds of milk exist on today’s market—and the seemingly endless array of coffee bean options—that can be a very intimidating prospect.
A lot of this comes down to personal taste. Some people like the bitter finish of a dark-roasted bean, while others are drawn toward a brighter, more sour espresso shot. When it comes to milk, it’s a question of both flavor and health.
People who are lactose intolerant veer toward alternative milk options out of necessity and those non-dairy milk isn’t without their issues, either, since soy, macadamia nuts, almonds, and cashews are all potential allergens.
Having said that, there are some preferred choices among baristas and coffee aficionados. Let’s take a quick look at the options so you know what kind of milk and beans to ask for when you’re in the café (and which to grab from the store if you’re making drinks at home).
The fat and protein content of the milk is what determines whether or not it can form the foam you need in a cappuccino. Any beverage can be steamed, from chai tea to apple cider, but not all of them will form foam during the process.
When it comes to cow’s milk, the ratio of fat to protein will determine the type and texture of the foam produced when you steam it. Whole milk is 3.5%-4% fat and about 3.3% protein. This near-even mix is ideal for making microfoam, producing a frothy, creamy foam with relatively small bubbles.
Removing that fat to make 1% or skim milk produces a higher ratio of protein to fat. As a result, these milks will naturally have larger air bubbles once they’re foamed, and the foam will firm up faster.
As a general rule of thumb, whole milk will make the best Italian-style cappuccino and is the best choice for creating latte art. Serious baristas who compete in latte art competitions go a step further, preferring specifically whole milk produced by Jersey cows, though for making cappuccinos at home you don’t necessarily need to know what kind of cow it came from.
Conversely, skim or 1% milk is the best choice if you’re making an American-style or dry cappuccino. It will more readily form the dry foam you need for 3D cappuccino art, and that foam will stay firm longer, giving you more time to create your designs (or just enjoy your beverage).
If you’re using non-dairy milks, things get a bit trickier. First of all, not all non-dairy milks are created equal. Even within a specific type, like soy milk or almond milk, there’s a difference between the varieties you’ll find at the grocery store and the ones used by baristas.
There are companies like Califia Farms and Pacific Natural that sell specially formulated versions of their non-dairy milks designed to react more like cow’s milk when they’re foamed. You’ll have a much easier time creating foam with these products than you will with the majority of soy, almond, or hemp milks.
That being said, here is a breakdown of the 4 best milks for making cappuccinos, ranked from best to worst:
While almond and cashew milk have a delicious sweetness and taste pretty good in lattes, they’re too thin to foam effectively. Even barista formulas produce more large bubbles than microfoam and they separate too quickly in the pitcher for latte art.
Some brands also have an unappetizing grainy mouthfeel when steamed. Similarly, coconut milk and rice milk are too thin to foam properly and should be avoided if you’re making a cappuccino.
Espresso is a brewing method, not a bean. You can use any type of coffee that you want to make espresso for your cappuccino, though not all of them will taste equally as good.
If you want to simulate that rich, creamy taste of an Italian cappuccino made in a café, follow the tips below for selecting your beans:
Latte art starts with a pitcher of perfectly steamed microfoam and a high-quality espresso shot with a good amount of crema. Once you have those two components perfected, it’s all about how you pour the milk. Ideally, you want to begin pouring the drink within seconds of steaming the milk and brewing the shot.
This is important for two reasons. First, the crema will naturally sink into the espresso over time, and you need the crema as the background of your design.
Second, it prevents the milk from separating, keeping the foam incorporated so you can create designs.
There are a lot of different designs you can make with latte art, many of which get quite complex. Some baristas use a process known as etching, where they dip the tip of a milk thermometer into crema or chocolate sauce and draw designs on the surface of the drink.
There are also a lot of designs you can make simply by free-pouring, though. The two most common (and easiest for a beginner to learn) are the heart and the rosetta.
The rosetta is the leaf shape that’s perhaps the most iconic and popular latte art design. While it’s a bit trickier to get the separation between the leaves than it is to make a heart, the basic movements aren’t complicated:
You can also give the rosetta a heart-shaped flower at its top. After you’ve finished forming the leaves, end with a solid dot in the center, similar to how you make the heart above. At the end, draw the pitcher down through both the dot and the leaves, connecting them into a rosetta with a flower.
If you’d rather make an American-style cappuccino, you can still make it pretty. Foam art requires a bit of sculpting and can be trickier to learn than free-poured latte art.
On the plus side, it allows you to create impressive 3D pieces of art on top of your drinks—a great party trick, once you get the hang of it.
To start with, you’ll need to learn how to make dry foam:
Once you have a firm dry foam, you can spoon it onto your drink and sculpt it into whatever shape you want using a combination of tools like frothing spoons and milk thermometers. The most popular design is a cat climbing out of the cup. To make this design:
As you can see, making 3D art is less about knowing how to pour the foam than it is having the artistic ability to sculpt and draw the details. If your dry foam is nice and firm, you can shape and sculpt it into whatever shape you want.
The traditional broad definition of cappuccino is a drink that’s equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam. This ratio is the main thing differentiating the drink from something like a latte or flat white. More foam translates to a lighter beverage, with more emphasis on the taste of the coffee than the milk.
If you’re looking for a particularly exact definition, the Italian Espresso National Institute has come up with a much more stringent set of guidelines for something to be named a Certified Italian Cappuccino.
By these regulations, the drink should contain precisely 25 milliliters of espresso and 100 milliliters of milk. It also states it should be made with cow’s milk with a minimum fat content of 3.5% to guarantee the right mouthfeel, taste, and aroma.
Whether you’re preparing an American or Italian cappuccino, the difference between that and a latte is the same: the milk is steamed differently. This is the underlying cause of the difference in the ratios discussed above.
Both drinks contain the same two ingredients—espresso and milk. With a cappuccino, however, the milk is airier and frothier, giving it a lighter weight and a higher ratio of coffee to milk. Because of this, you’ll taste more coffee in a cappuccino, with significantly more foam on the top of the drink.
Traditionally, no sugar is added to a cappuccino. This means it won’t be sweet like a mocha or flavored latte. Having said that, you may detect a bit of sweetness in the drink if the milk has been properly steamed.
When milk is heated, the chain carbohydrates like lactose break down into the simpler sugars that they’re made up of. These simple sugars are easier for the human palate to taste and the reason for the subtle sweetness you’ll get from café beverages like cappuccinos, even without the addition of sugar.
That depends on what qualities you’re looking for. Coffee’s high acidity can cause problems for those with sensitive stomachs or conditions like acid reflux. Cutting this acidity with the foamed milk in a cappuccino can help reduce its effect, making it less likely to cause heartburn or other stomach troubles. For those with a sensitivity to acid, a cappuccino is a healthier option than black coffee.
From a caloric perspective, black coffee is the better option. An 8-ounce cup of black coffee only contains about 3-5 calories. There are between 40 and 75 calories in an 8-ounce cappuccino, depending on the type of milk used to make it. This is fewer calories than in a latte or mocha, so it’s still a lower-calorie option (if not as low-cal as something like an americano, which contains only espresso and water).
Those calories aren’t necessarily a bad thing, however. If you’re using skim milk, 40% of the calories are from protein (about 4 grams in an 8-ounce cup). The milk in a cappuccino is also a great natural source of key nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B2. While you’ll find quite a few B vitamins in coffee, too—including B2, B3, and B5—it’s not as nutritionally rich as a cappuccino.
The caffeine content of both drinks will depend on how many espresso shots are used, and in many American cafes will be the same (typically 1 shot in anything 12 ounces or less, and 2 shots in larger beverages). A cappuccino will taste stronger, however. This is because much of the milk is foamed rather than simply steamed, incorporating more air into it and making it less concentrated. Because of this, the ratio of coffee to milk is higher, and the taste of the espresso is more pronounced in the final beverage.
It does. Primarily this is because of the caffeine, but even a cappuccino made with decaffeinated espresso will give you a bit of a boost. This comes from the protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the milk.
Your body converts these compounds into energy during digestion. A beverage that contains all three of these, like a cappuccino, will give you a more sustained energy boost than sugary drinks like sodas without the accompanying crash.
Italians traditionally drink cappuccinos in the morning, switching to stronger drinks like doppio espresso or espresso macchiato later in the day. While you don’t have to hold to this rule, the energy boost noted above can make it a good drink to start your day—and since it does contain caffeine, you probably won’t want to drink one too late in the evening.
The frothed milk in a cappuccino is more filling than something like a black coffee, too, which can help you to stave off hunger until it’s time for lunch.
European coffee drinking customs have evolved over the years. In many parts of Europe, especially the UK, Spain, France, and Germany, cappuccinos are considered an all-day drink.
They’re popular to order after dinner with dessert or as an afternoon pick-me-up. So while a die-hard Italian cappuccino fan might scoff at you drinking one past noon, you’re certainly welcome to enjoy one whenever you please.
The name cappuccino is derived from “Capuchin”, an order of friars within the Catholic church who wear habits of a similar color to espresso with milk. Confusingly, modern cappuccinos are a much lighter color than the robes of these friars—in fact, most will have a surface that’s a mix of pure white and pale brown. This is because the term “cappuccino” is much older than the drink it’s associated with today.
While cappuccinos as we know them today originated in Italy, the first drink to bear the name came from coffee houses in Vienna. A beverage known as the kapuziner started to appear on coffee house menus in the 18th century. This drink consisted of coffee, cream, sugar, and spices like cinnamon and cardamom.
One important thing to note is this drink would have contained no espresso, for the simple fact that the technology hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, the coffee was finely-ground and boiled in a copper pot in the traditional Ottoman style.
The invention of the espresso machine in the late 19th century revolutionized coffee preparation. In the early 1900s, Italian baristas invented their own version of the kapuziner, rebranding it a “cappuccino”, a term that first appeared in the 1930s.
This drink still didn’t match the modern definition, though. In fact, it was more similar to what we’d today call a con panna: espresso or brewed coffee topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with cocoa or cinnamon.
Espresso machines became more widespread throughout Italy after World War II. During the 1950s, the term cappuccino took on its current meaning of a drink made from espresso and frothed milk. As espresso machines gradually improved through the decades, baristas gained the ability to produce finely-textured microfoam, and the modern cappuccino was born.
Because the drink went through so many iterations, the term still means different things depending on where you are in the world. In much of Europe, the cappuccino you’ll get at a coffee house is the original 1930s version: dark-brewed coffee topped with whipped cream.
You’ll even see this style of the drink in some parts of Italy, specifically the city of Trieste, which has been claimed by various nations over the years because of its location on the border with Slovenia.
When the cappuccino crossed the Atlantic to America, things got even more confused. Specialty coffee shops added the cappuccino to their menu, following the model of the drink served in Italy at that time but making slight variations to the texture and quantity of foam.
As this drink became more popular, automatic machines adopted the name for a beverage based on instant coffee and powdered milk. These powders were whipped together with hot water inside the machine, rather than steamed.
Often, large quantities of flavorings and sugar were added to cover up the poor quality of the instant coffee, producing a taste more similar to a flavored latte or mocha than a true cappuccino (though at a significantly lower quality than either).
The Certified Italian Espresso and Cappuccino
Is That Cappuccino You’re Drinking Really A Cappuccino?
History of the Cappuccino
How to Select the Best Milk for Coffee Foam & Latte Art