When it comes to espresso-based coffees, the variations can seem endless. Slight changes in espresso-to-milk ratios and preparation techniques produce drinks that are subtly, though no less noticeably, distinct in flavor and mouthfeel.
But, remembering what differentiates one espresso-based coffee from another can be a challenge. And it doesn’t help that American coffee shops have put their spin on these drinks so that preparations even vary from one cafe to another.
Of these drinks, the Macchiato is maybe the most misunderstood. Sugary, chocolate-syrupy versions of the Macchiato haunt the menus of coffee shops all across America. But these “Macchiatos” are a far cry from the traditional Italian drink.
The Macchiato: What is it?
In Italian, “Macchiato” roughly translates to “stained”. Odd, right? Well, the stain refers to the process of creating a Macchiato– that is, by “staining” dark espresso with white milk, producing the signature spot of white foam in the center of the espresso’s crema.
Unlike many of its Americanized versions, the traditional Caffe Macchiato is made up of just two ingredients:
And that’s it! When it comes to the many different espresso-based coffees, the Macchiato is one of the simplest to prepare. The espresso goes in first, followed by the milk, which is frothed to make that enticing, delicate foam.
But its simple recipe doesn’t mean this drink is lacking in flavor! If you like the punch of espresso, but prefer your coffee a little subdued, the Macchiato might be for you.
The Macchiato’s ratio of milk-to-espresso is the lowest of all the espresso-based coffees, meaning it packs the powerful taste of plain espresso, with a little cream to soften the edges.
The History of the Macchiato
A version of the Macchiato first came onto the scene during the first half of the 1930s in Italy. Craving a little midday pick-me-up, cafe patrons started ordering espressos with their lunch.
However, for many, the full-bodied flavor of espresso proved a little too strong for an afternoon drink. Soon, it became standard for patrons to order their espresso with a little milk, to mute the harsher notes of the espresso.
Growing weary of asking patrons exactly how much milk they preferred before relaying this information to the staff, servers came up with a way of demonstrating the precise amount of milk to put in a midday espresso.
One single “spot” of milk foam was added to the center of the espresso’s crema. The name “Macchiato” was born as a reference to this spot.
The Caffe Macchiato quickly became a noontime staple across Italy. A variant of the Caffe Macchiato called the Latte Macchiato rose to prominence soon after. These days, the Latte Macchiato is enjoyed in Italy and abroad just as much as the standard Café Macchiato.
How is it Different from a Cappuccino?
As with many espresso-based coffees, the differences between the Caffe Macchiato and the Cappuccino are subtle but distinct enough to produce two noticeably different drinks.
While the Macchiato only has two ingredients (milk foam and espresso), the Cappuccino has three: milk foam, steamed milk, and espresso. The addition of steamed milk gives the Cappuccino a smoother, creamier consistency and reduces the strong flavor of the espresso.
The Cappuccino’s easy, agreeable nature is the reason many Italian’s prefer it as a morning drink while preferring the biting edge of the Macchiato for an afternoon jolt.
Besides the addition of steamed milk, the ratios of the Macchiato and the Cappuccino also differ. The Cappuccino is made of equal parts of its ingredients, while the Macchiato is mostly espresso, with just a splash of frothed milk on top.
Just because the Macchiato is stronger in flavor, doesn’t mean it’s better at waking you up. Because both the Cappuccino and the Macchiato are made with the same amount of espresso, their caffeine content is the same.
So, if you want the caffeinated punch of espresso without the harsh flavor, you might want to go with the Cappuccino over the Macchiato.
Latte Macchiato Vs. Caffe Macchiato: What’s the Difference?
While they share a name, the Latte Macchiato is quite different from the Caffee Macchiato.
First, the preparation of the Latte Macchiato is a little more technical. To make a proper Latte Macchiato, the barista starts with steamed milk over which espresso is poured. This process creates that signature dark stain in the middle of the milk foam– kind of an inverse of the Caffee Macchiato’s foam.
The Latte Macchiato also contains more milk and less espresso than the Caffe Macchiato. The emphasis on the milk makes this drink more creamy and subtle in flavor, sort of like an even milder Cappuccino.
The preparation of the Latte Macchiato is an art, and if performed correctly, will create a distinct layering effect to the appearance of the drink, beginning with the steamed milk on the bottom, the espresso, and the cream on top.
The trick is to pour the espresso slowly, gradually over the milk, allowing it to settle on top of the milk without mixing. Some baristas even pour the espresso over the back of a spoon to further diffuse it.
How to Make a Macchiato
As I’ve discussed, there are two versions of the Macchiato: the Caffe version, and the latte version. If you prefer your Macchiato with a little more punch, then I suggest going with the Caffe Macchiato.
However, if you’re in the mood for a smooth, pleasant drink with more of a subtle coffee flavor, you can’t go wrong with the Latte Macchiato. Whichever version you choose, feel free to use these recipes as guides:
- 1 oz steamed milk
- 2 oz espresso
- Using the espresso maker of your choice, pull a 2 oz shot of espresso.
- Steam your milk until the pitcher feels warm. Be careful not to scorch the milk.
- Add just a spot of milk to the center of the espresso shot, creating the signature “stain” in the middle of the crema.
This drink contains around 15 calories and more or less 64 mg of caffeine.
- 6 oz steamed milk
- 1.5 oz espresso
- Pour steamed milk into a 12 oz glass.
- Pour over espresso very gradually to achieve layering.
This recipe contains around 90 calories and about 48 mg of caffeine.
Tip: You can’t put the milk directly into the coffee maker/espresso machine. You have to use a milk frother for that. Some espresso machines don’t come with their own milk frothers.
We have reviewed the best budget espresso machines for you, a number of which come with milk frothers. Check it out.