What Is A Cortado?

Around the world, ordering a cortado could weald very different results, as there is no strict one way to make it. Some think that there should be a particular ratio of coffee to milk, and others simply see it as a smaller version of the flat white.

But there is one thing which is definite. Originating in Spain’s Basque region, the phrase Cortado is from the past participle of the Spanish verb cortar (to cut).

In the sense of making coffee, this basically means to ‘dilute’ the drink and is commonly used to refer to either coffee or espresso drinks throughout Spain, Portugal and Cuba.

Traditionally, when served in Spain, a cortado consists of espresso mixed with an equal amount of warm milk to reduce the acidity. A ratio of 1:1 is ideal, but around 1:0.5 is common today amongst our more coffee-loving world. Either way, there is less milk than coffee most of the time.

This means that technically, a cortado can be as small as three ounces or as big as 16 ounces – as long as that ratio is there.

How Does A Cortado Differ From Other Coffee?

It may not sound particularly like anything special, but one big difference is that the milk will be steamed, but not frothy and texturised as you would find in most Italian coffee drinks.

In non-Spanish speaking countries, it is still a regular item on the menus of coffee shops but is often interchanged or indistinguishable from a caffè macchiato, cappuccino, or a flat white. The traditional method of making them all if very different, however.

A macchiato has only a small amount of milk foam added, while a cappuccino has a head of both foam and milk. A flat white is possibly the closest you would get if a cortado wasn’t available, but while it is made with a similar equivalent ratio of espresso to milk, the milk is steamed and textured.

The steaming should just result in a very light foam which sits atop the drink, so while it may look like a smaller latte or flat white if presented in a glass, it is far from it. Here is how you make a flat white. 

Variations Of A Cortado

Because there are no steadfast rules of making a cortado so to speak, many cultural influences have emerged in countries around the world, so you will likely experience a very different drink in Spain than you would any other country.

Cortado Around The World

There are a couple of very notable variations – café cortado is an espresso with a dash of milk, which results in a stronger flavour but would probably otherwise be frowned upon in a lot of countries where coffee is big business.

In Cuba, the cortadito is popular, which is instead cut with heated sweetened condensed milk (being a more available preserved form of milk as fresh milk was historically often unavailable).

It is a drink which has crept its way into the mainstream coffee shops too, with Starbucks, Cafe Nero and Costa all having their own variations. This is something which has become a slight inconvenience for customers, with no standardisation.

The cost of coffees is also increasing, which means smaller drinks at higher prices. Shops who already keep the cortado small here could struggle. Another factor which could see the cortado struggle is the preference for a little dash of milk in coffee for anybody cutting out dairy, which is a big trend at the moment. Given the cortado’s reliance on milk ratio, it could be a drink which falls out of favour with people.

If you hear of the ‘Gibraltar’ coffee and wonder how this differs from the cortado, then the short answer is that they are both actually the exact same drink! The name ‘Gibraltar’ actually originated in San Francisco and was crafted by Blue Bottle Coffee Company. Unlike the cortado, Gibraltar is named after the cup that it is served in, which is the 4.5 oz Libbey ‘Gibraltar’ Glass.

Many third-wave coffee shops on the Westers coast of the United States will now use this term, which is good to know if you have a trip planned there.

How To Make A Cortado

If you simply don’t want to see the cortado go, or have never tried a traditional version, then you may want to have a whirl at making one from home.

You will ideally have an espresso machine, and your choice of milk to hand, as well as a serving glass (around 120ml+). Our choice of milk would be whole for a fully creamy experience, but oat is also good if you want something dairy-free.

  1. Extract two shots of espresso into the glass
  2. Steam your milk of choice (around 60ml for 1:1 ratio)
  3. Tilt the glass and slowly pour the milk into it

It is really that simple. You may want to experiment with more/less milk, keep it smaller with 30ml of each liquid, or create a light froth on the top of the drink. It can also be served in a coffee mug of course; you just won’t see the layering. Flavouring can be added too, but just try to keep that ratio.

A cortado is meant to be drunk slowly since the caffeine content is strong. In some cafes, it is even served with a glass of water for the cleansing of the palate in between drinks.

what is a cortado

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