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Deep Dive: Cortado

Small but mighty.

by Maciej Kasperowicz | March 02, 2020

We’re putting on our wetsuits and taking a deep dive into some of our favorite coffee drinks. This time out, we’re going in on a drink that’s really gained a foothold in the US in the last decade: the cortado.

Cortado definition

“Cortado” means “cut” in Spanish, and it’s usually a drink of around four or five ounces with a double espresso topped with a few ounces of steamed milk. That makes the cortado slightly larger than most macchiatos and smaller than most cappuccinos.

History of the cortado

The Cortado made its way to the US from Spain, where it is as ubiquitous as a flat white in Australia or a Cappuccino in Italy. As detailed in Oliver Strand’s classic NYT article A Cortado is Not a Minivan, it became popular at Blue Bottle in San Francisco before spreading east in the following half decade.

How a cortado is made

Cortados are made with espresso and milk, steamed on an espresso machine steam wand. The milk is poured onto the espresso, usually in a way that makes it possible to create latte art. Cortados are often, though not exclusively, served in a small glass like the Gibraltar made by the Ohio-based glass company Libbey.

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Flavor profile

Most coffee/espresso drinks have only two ingredients, so it’s easy to predict the relative flavor balance from how much milk you’re putting into your coffee. So a cortado will be less coffee forward than a macchiato but more coffee forward than cappuccino. Any of the flavors you find in your espresso should translate, so if your coffee tastes like oranges, expect the espresso to taste like an orange creamsicle.

Similar drinks

The macchiato is similar enough that some shops make their macchiato and cortado the exact same size, with the macc more foamy and the cortado less foamy. Some folks refer to the cortado as a Gibraltar, named after the glass the specialty coffee cortado is often served in. Down under, “piccolo” is an order that’ll get you pretty much the same thing.

How to make it at home

Make a double espresso with your favorite coffee. You don’t want to pull a shot that’s super duper, long, but a two to one ratio (a 36 gram drink made with 18 grams of coffee) is a perfectly appropriate place to start. Much like the macchiato, the difficulty with the cortado is that it’s tough to steam the small amount of milk you need to make one and get the texture right. However, since you’re only adding a little bit of foam, you can start with a little more milk and be less wasteful. Put 3oz of milk in that pitcher, put your steam wand below the milk’s surface and turn it on. Lower your steam wand to get a little air in there and then raise it back up after a second. When you’re finished steaming, pour your milk gently into the center of your espresso, then pour faster to create some pretty latte art.

What coffees go well with it?

There’s an equal enough balance of coffee and milk in a cortado that any coffee that tastes good as espresso will probably stand up to it nicely. On the flip side, any coffee that you don’t like as espresso probably won’t get drowned out by milk enough for it to be acceptable. So pick your favorite spro and go!

PT’s Southpaw is full of super soft, sweet flavors which make it really to use as espresso. Combine it with a few ounces of milk for a sweet cortado with little risk of sharp or bitter flavors.

Temple roasted this Nariño SOE Colombian Microlot specifically to make it taste better as espresso, and its complex dark chocolate flavors mix beautifully with milk.

We love what milk does to a really sweet natural coffee. Dial in Equator’s Thailand Doi Pangkhon Natural, which gets better and better every year and will taste like a berries and cream when paired with a cortado’s amount of dairy.

I’ve heard folks call decaf espresso oxymoronic, but there’s no reason a cortado can’t be just as delicious minus the caffeine. Dune’s Presidio blend is sweet and super flavorful, and it’ll taste really balanced with milk.