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What's the difference between café con leche and cortado?

What's the difference between café con leche and cortado?

Clearing up confusion around two of the world’s favorite coffees.

Coffee and milk is a match made in heaven.

The sweet, creaminess of the milk provides a perfect counterbalance to the bitterness of coffee, while adding body and texture in the form of foam, leading to a delicious and comforting drink.

In Latin America, two of the most popular versions of coffee with milk are café con leche and cortado. They are staples on the menus of coffee shops across the continent, both offering both a morning pick-me-up and an opportunity to socialize and share moments with friends.

Having grown up around them and seeing them as an important part of daily life, most Latinos don’t even need to consider the differences between cortados and cafés con leche  – they know exactly what they will get when they order them.

However, some countries have a slightly different take on the drinks, which can make it a little confusing when looking to order a cortado or café con leche from one place to the next.

So, to remove any doubt, we’ve put together a simple guide to ensure you always know the differences between these two delicious drinks.

What is a cortado?

Not too strong and not too creamy, a cortado is one of the most popular types of coffee served in Latin America.

The name "cortado" refers to how coffee is cut with milk. It typically involves mixing equal parts of espresso and steamed milk, with a small amount of foam on top. A double espresso is the most commonly used measure for the coffee and it is usually served in a small cup (an espresso cup) to keep it nice and warm.

However, unlike its standardized Italian cousin – the macchiato – a cortado can be prepared in a number of ways. In Costa Rica, for example, it usually consists of a shot of espresso with one ounce of milk.

This is because “cortado” can sometimes be used simply to refer to black coffee with a small dash of milk, rather than a specifically measured drink.

A US variation that was inspired by the Latino cortado, is the “Gibraltar”.

This variation, which was supposedly invented by Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco in 2005, is served in a four and a half ounce Libbey Gibraltar glass tumbler, and features two shots of espresso and two shots of steamed milk. It’s for this reason that in many “third-wave” coffee shops, you will find the cortado served in this glass.

However, as Latinos will know, this is uncommon in Latin America.

mayorga café con leche

What is a café con leche?

Few drinks are more iconic than the café con leche. A larger, creamier, and more mild version of a cortado, café con leche is typically prepared with black coffee and warm (sometimes steamed) milk. It is usually served in a large cup and can sometimes be topped with foam.

The ratio of coffee to milk varies greatly according to each person's preference, although one part coffee and two parts milk is widespread. 

The thin layer of foam can also be flavored with syrups or toppings. Variations of the traditional café con leche involve adding chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, or nutmeg.

However, most recognize that its beauty lies in its simplicity: you don't need any fancy equipment to make it. A stovetop moka pot is ideal, but you can pretty much opt for anything you have at hand, from a traditional coffee maker to an on-the-go AeroPress.

The café con leche is an ideal option for those seeking a tasty and pleasant coffee throughout the day. It provides a balanced combination of flavors and aromas that make it a favorite of both coffee connoisseurs and occasional drinkers.

What is the difference in taste between cortado and café con leche?

When it comes to a café con leche and a cortado, there are clear differences in flavor profiles.

As the café con leche is usually prepared with steamed milk and a layer of foam, the beverage acquires a creamy and frothy texture, making it a popular choice for those who enjoy sweet and smooth coffees.

In the case of a cortado, the proportion of milk is lower, a stronger, slightly bitter flavor is produced, due to the high concentration of espresso. The espresso crema also provides a velvety texture, different from the creamy texture of café con leche.

Choosing the best coffee to use in a cortado and café con leche

Like many coffee-based drinks with milk, a dark roast coffee tends to work best for both cortados and cafés con leche. This is because the sweetness of a dark roasted coffee complements the hot milk, creating a comforting drink that can be enjoyed morning, noon, or night.

Overall, both beverages offer unique and delicious experiences. The café con leche is a great option for those looking for a sweet and smooth cup of coffee, while the cortado is perfect for those looking for more intense flavors. Ultimately, it all depends on personal preference and which of the two beverages you like best.

If you’re searching for the perfect coffee to make a cortado or café con leche at home, then look no further. Mayorga Coffee’s Café Cubano Roast is rich and bold, with a smooth finish that pairs well with hot steamed milk.




Daniela Jerez

Daniela is a foodie, coffee, and culture writer based in Miami, Florida. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and has written for Orgullo Latino since 2022.

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