As a self-proclaimed coffee aficionado, I’m always on the hunt for new and interesting coffee drinks to try. Two espresso beverages that have piqued my interest are the cortado and the flat white. Though they sound quite similar and are both made with espresso and steamed milk, they are actually quite different drinks.
In this article, I’ll break down the key differences between cortados and flat whites so you can decide which one is right for you. We’ll look at the ingredients, serving sizes, origins, caffeine content, and more. By the end, you’ll be a cortado vs flat white expert!
What is a Cortado?
A cortado is an espresso-based drink that originated in Spain and Portugal. The name comes from the Spanish verb “cortar” which means “to cut.” This refers to how the espresso is “cut” with a small amount of warm steamed milk.
A traditional cortado contains:
- 1-2 shots of espresso – Usually a single shot, but sometimes a double.
- 2-4 oz steamed milk – The milk is steamed but not foamed or textured. Just warm milk.
The defining feature of a cortado is the 1:1 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. The ingredients are evenly distributed to create a balanced flavor.
Traditional Cortado Characteristics
Here are some other traditional characteristics of cortados:
- Made with Robusta coffee beans – This variety naturally has a stronger, chocolatey flavor that pairs well with the milk.
- Rich taste – The heavy use of Robusta beans gives cortados a rich, chocolatey flavor.
- Small size – Cortados are always served small given the limited ingredients.
Cortado Serving Size
When it comes to size, cortados are always served small. Here are the typical serving sizes:
- Single shot cortado – 1-1.5 oz espresso with 1-1.5 oz steamed milk
- Double shot cortado – 2-3 oz espresso with 2-3 oz steamed milk
In Spain, single shot cortados are standard. But in the US, many coffee shops opt for a double shot to fill out a 4.5 oz glass.
No matter what though, a cortado should never exceed 5 ounces total. The small size is part of its identity!
What is a Flat White?
A flat white is an espresso drink from Australia and New Zealand made with espresso and velvety steamed milk. As the name suggests, it has a “flat” white appearance due to the microfoam layer.
Flat White Ingredients
A traditional flat white contains:
- 2 shots of espresso – Most cafes use a double shot as the standard.
- 4-5 oz of steamed, textured milk – The milk is steamed to create a silky microfoam texture.
The ratio is roughly 2 parts espresso to 3 parts steamed milk. The milk still predominates but not as much as in a cappuccino.
Traditional Flat White Characteristics
Some other characteristics of traditional flat whites:
- No foam – The microfoam creates a velvety texture but there’s no big foamy layer.
- “Flat” white appearance – The color is a uniform white rather than dark on top like a cappuccino.
- Rich, sweeter taste – The microfoam incorporates air into the milk, making it creamier and sweeter than just steamed milk.
Flat White Serving Size
When it comes to size, flat whites are served in one standard 6 oz size. This includes:
- 2 shots of espresso (2 oz)
- 4 oz of microfoam steamed milk
This 2:1 espresso to milk ratio in a 6 oz cup is the standard flat white recipe. Anything smaller would be a cortado!
Cortado vs. Flat White: Comparing Origins
Cortados and flat whites also have different geographical origins, which impacted their traditional recipes.
The cortado originated in Spain, likely in the early 20th century.
There are two origin stories:
- One claims it was invented in Basque Country in northern Spain.
- The other attributes it to Madrid in central Spain.
Either way, the cortado arose simply as a popular way to drink coffee in Spain. There are no tales of romantic inventions.
The name comes from the Spanish verb “cortar” meaning to cut the espresso with milk.
The US popularity of cortados is largely thanks to Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, which introduced them to American coffee drinkers in the early 2000s.
Flat White History
The history of the flat white is more contentious. Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have invented it!
Each country has its own origin story:
- In Australia, they say it was created in Sydney in the 1980s. Baristas struggled to foam the milk properly, so the flat white was born out of necessity.
- New Zealanders counter that it arose in Wellington in the 1970s. The local milk was especially good for steaming, so coffees with steamed milk became popular.
Regardless of who exactly invented it, the flat white grew out of an abundance of fresh, high-quality milk in both countries. This allowed specialty coffee cafes to steam large amounts of milk and serve it with espresso.
Key Differences Between Cortados and Flat Whites
Now that we’ve covered the background, let’s directly compare cortados and flat whites across a few key categories:
- Cortados use Robusta beans, which have a stronger, chocolatey profile.
- Flat whites use a double shot of espresso made with any beans. The barista can choose the variety.
- Cortados come in single and double shot sizes from 1-3 ounces.
- Flat whites are only made in one standard 6 oz size with a double shot of espresso.
- Cortados use steamed milk with no texture or foam.
- Flat whites use microfoam textured milk for a velvety consistency and sweeter flavor.
As you can see, the type of espresso, serving size, and use of steamed vs. textured milk are the key points that differentiate cortados and flat whites.
Cortado vs. Flat White: Caffeine Content
When comparing caffeine levels in cortados and flat whites, the main factor is the number of shots of espresso.
- Single shot cortados have about 50-75mg of caffeine on average from 1 ounce of espresso.
- Double shot cortados and flat whites contain 120-150mg of caffeine since they use 2 ounces of espresso.
However, the exact caffeine content can vary quite a bit depending on factors like:
- The coffee shop’s espresso blend
- If they overextract the espresso
- If they use a precise 1 or 2 ounce shot
So use these caffeine content ranges as general ballpark estimates only!
How to Choose Between a Cortado and Flat White
Now for the most important question – should you order a cortado or flat white?
Here are a few tips on deciding between the two:
Pick a Cortado If You Want:
- A smaller, lighter 3-5 oz espresso drink
- The flavor of Robusta beans with chocolate notes
- A 1:1 ratio of coffee to steamed milk
Pick a Flat White If You Prefer:
- A larger, creamier 6 oz coffee
- The taste of any espresso you choose
- More milk with a microfoam texture
Personally, I suggest trying both! The only way to develop your own preference is to experience these drinks for yourself.
We’ve now gone in-depth on all things cortado and flat white – from the origins and ingredients to how to choose between the two.
To wrap it all up, here are the key facts:
- Cortados are smaller drinks that highlight chocolatey Robusta espresso in equal balance with steamed milk.
- Flat whites are larger, creamier coffees that feature espresso with textured, microfoam milk.
- The serving size, espresso beans, and milk texture are the main distinctions.
So don’t let their similar appearances confuse you – the cortado and flat white are very different coffee experiences. Hopefully this breakdown has helped you better understand both beverages.
Now grab your favorite coffee shop and order one, the other, or both to taste for yourself! Your ideal espresso drink is out there waiting to be discovered.
Hi, I’m Ben Holland. I love cooking, traveling, and spending time with my family! Here you’ll find simple and delicious recipes, travel tips, and stories about my adventures with my wife and kids.