Cortado vs. Flat White: What’s the Difference?

Whether you’re a coffee connoisseur or simply craving caffeine, it’s important to know what that morning cup of Joe is really made of. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the complicated order options at your local coffee shop. With the help of this article, placing your next Starbucks order won’t be so difficult.

Understanding Espresso

First and foremost, it helps to understand how most espresso beverages are categorized and served. Most espresso drinks are characterized by the ratio of espresso to other ingredients (usually foam, milk, or both). Likewise, the cortado and flat white are both made from espresso, but in different styles.

What is a Cortado?

A cortado is a beverage made from espresso and steamed milk. It’s about as simple as it sounds! Originating in Spain, the cortado has remained a staple among espresso fanatics across the world. It takes its name from the Spanish word “cortado”, meaning “cut”, because the espresso in this drink is often cut with other ingredients.

The core concept behind a cortado is this: hot espresso and an addition of milk, often consumed very quickly, not unlike a shot. Ideally, the milk tones down the acidity of the espresso. Sometimes sugar is also added to introduce some sweetness.

In a cortado, the milk is steamed to a specific point referred to as a light froth or a microfoam. This is a very thin, airy foam that sits at the top of the beverage, and fans of the cortado delight in the creamy texture it brings to the table. A cortado is also most often served in a 3-5 fluid oz cup.

What is a Flat White?

Another popular way to drink espresso is the flat white. You’ve likely heard this term before, even if you don’t know exactly what’s in it. Similar to the cortado, a flat white contains espresso and steamed milk, but there’s a few key differences that separate it from its smaller counterpart.

There has been a long-term ongoing debate between Australia and New Zealand regarding who was the actual inventor of the flat white. Both countries claim to have started the trend, and so far, there’s been no real conclusion about who can really be credited for the creation of this delicious drink. 

What we do know, however, is that it was created due to complaints about excess foam in espresso beverages. Customers wanted more milk and less foam, so the answer was simple: cut back the foam until it’s just a thin top layer – hence the term “flat white”.

A cortado is served in a small glass, and is about equal parts espresso and milk. A flat white, on the other hand, is often served in servings smaller than 6 oz, but the exact size can vary from place to place. Any larger than 6 oz and you’ve essentially ordered a latte.

How They Taste

A cortado is going to give you an intense caffeine boost, and tends to have a much stronger, darker flavor. If you’re new to espresso, you might want to try a flat white before you try a cortado, just to see if you can handle the bitterness of that espresso – it tends to be an acquired taste.

A flat white, on the other hand, doesn’t pack as hard a punch but still contains some espresso. This is a great option for anyone looking to transition from sweet, over-the-top lattes or blended coffee into the great wide world of espresso.

The flat white has a thicker, frothier, and creamier texture than the cortado, and is meant to be sipped on rather than ingested quickly like the cortado. Additionally, the flat white is highly compatible with syrups, flavorings, and toppings, which can contribute some sweetness to dial back the espresso’s intensity.

Make it at Home

You might think that these beverages are too complex to make from the comfort of your home, but actually, you can! It’s simpler than you think. Keep in mind that you do need to own an espresso machine – but beyond that, it’s easy. Here’s how you can make your very own cortado or flat white from scratch, right from your own kitchen.

Making a Cortado

  1. First, preheat your glass or ceramic mug by filling it with boiling water and allowing it to sit for a while. Dump the water out before pouring the rest of the beverage!
  2. Using your espresso machine, extract 2 shots of espresso.
  3. Steam the type of milk you want to use in your drink.
  4. Pour the milk into the espresso. Make sure it’s a 1:1 ratio of espresso to milk.

Just like that, Voila! You have made your very own cortado at home.

Making a Flat White

When making a flat white, it may help to make sure you grab a larger cup than you think you’ll need. The milk and foam really add up, and you don’t want to risk overfilling your glass or not having enough room for the signature ingredients.

  1. Preheat your glass or ceramic mug with boiling water and allow it to sit. Make sure you dump the water out before pouring the drink!
  2. Using your espresso machine, extract just 1 shot of espresso.
  3. Pour in the milk of your choice, but be careful that the amount of milk doesn’t surpass about 70% of the cup’s volume.
  4. Use a spoon to fold the microbubbles onto the surface of the drink. There should ideally be about ¼” of foam along the surface.

Just like that, you’ve created your very own flat white. If you want to add a little creativity, you can also add some latte art to the foam. 

Why it matters

As with all things coffee-related, this is a matter of personal taste. If you like more of that bold, full-bodied espresso taste, the cortado could be your new favorite. It’s strong and flavorful, and the milk really brings it together. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a little creamier and sweeter, or something you can fix up with some syrups and flavorings, the flat white is definitely worth a try. Either way, experiment with both to find out which is your favorite.