What Is a Cortado (And How To Make One)

A popular coffee-based drink in Spain and Spanish speaking countries, if you’ve ever been on holiday in one and visited a coffee shop, you were sure to have seen a cortado on the menu.

But, what is a cortado? And how do you make one?

That is what we’re going to answer in this article, let’s get started.

What is a Cortado?

We are all familiar with the Italian origins of the espresso machine and the resulting coffee variations based on a shot of espresso coffee. We tend to think that these also all originated in Italy.

However, there is one coffee drink that actually started life in Spain, in the Basque country. By some process of migration it also ended up in Spanish-speaking Cuba, and from there throughout Latin America.

A Cortado (meaning cut or diluted in Spanish) is an espresso drink with equal proportions of coffee and steamed milk, served in a small glass. 

It has several variations – for example in Cuba it is usually made with condensed milk due to the historical difficulty with the availability of fresh milk and is called a Cordatito.

The same drink is known in Portugal as a Pingado, which in Portuguese means “covered”, as in covered in milk.

Almost a small latte, this is an easy, smooth way to drink espresso: a shot of coffee, with the same amount of steamed milk.

What is a cortado?

Cortado vs Flat White vs Latte: What’s the difference?

The cortado is made with a ratio of 1:1, coffee to milk. It has a stronger espresso flavor, just sweetened by the milk. A flat white has more milk, in 2:1 milk to coffee ratio, and so the coffee flavor is less pronounced.

A latte has even more milk and is topped with a couple of centimeters of milk foam. Also, the milk in a latte has a more velvety texture and is the most dominant flavor in the drink.

How to make a Cortado at home

If you have a home espresso machine and milk steamer in your kitchen, it’s easy enough to pull a shot of espresso into a small tumbler and add the same amount of steamed milk.

If you don’t have all the fancy equipment you can still make a reasonable cortado, using a French press. You can make the shot of full-strength coffee first, then make the milk, which should be warming at the same time (but not boiling).

Pour the warm milk into the French press (obviously, after the coffee has been cleaned out) and pump the press up and down a few times, stopping before it gets frothy. This will give you a close imitation of steamed milk.

You will have to face the fact that a homemade cortado, regardless of the equipment, will not be the same as in a coffee shop made by a trained barista, but you will still get an enjoyable cup of coffee.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Gibraltar coffee?

A Gibraltar is similar to a cortado, but with a double shot of espresso. It gets its name from being served in Gibraltar Rocks glass – not related to the Rock of Gibraltar, but to alcoholic drinks served “on the rocks”, and is the registered name for what is called in many bars, a whisky tumbler.

It does not have much history, dating back to just 2005 in San Francisco when local cafes started serving an extra-shot cortado in a Gibraltar glass.

What is Piccolo coffee?

The piccolo, or piccolo latte, is another variation on the cortado, but made with a ristretto shot, meaning less water is used to extract the espresso shot.

Served in a small demitasse cup or glass, the piccolo is virtually a small latte, with the same high milk to coffee ratio.

Final thoughts on the cortado

The world of coffee keeps getting more complex as new drinks are created, some would say adding more interest to their daily routine.

The beauty of the cortado, and its variants, is that it can be the coffee you have when you don’t have time for a big cup or mug of java, you just want a wake-up or a pick-me-up mid-afternoon.

Small but strong and smooth, definitely worth a try next time you drop into your local café.

And if it’s not on the menu, you now have the facts so you can tell the barista how to prepare one for you.

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