Cortado vs Espresso: Unraveling the Coffee Mystique

Cortado vs Espresso Unraveling the Coffee Mystique Featured Image

When it comes to coffee, the choices are vast and varied, often leaving aficionados and newcomers alike pondering their options. One such intriguing choice lies between cortado and espresso. In this article, we will demystify the differences and similarities, pros and cons, and the ideal situations for choosing one over the other.

What is Cortado and What is Espresso?

Cortado is a Spanish-origin coffee drink that combines espresso shots with a small amount of warmed milk. The intention is to reduce the acidity. The word “cortado” is the past participle of the Spanish verb “cortar,” which means “to cut,” referring here to the way the milk cuts the espresso.

Espresso, on the other hand, is a concentrated coffee brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through finely-ground coffee beans. It serves as the foundation for many other coffee drinks but is also enjoyed on its own.

What is the Main Difference Between Cortado and Espresso?

The main difference between cortado and espresso is that a cortado is made by “cutting” a shot of espresso with a roughly equal amount of warm milk to reduce its acidity and intensity, resulting in a smoother, creamier beverage. In contrast, an espresso is a pure, concentrated coffee shot without any additives, offering a more robust and intense coffee flavor.

Key Differences Between Cortado and Espresso

  1. Composition: A cortado consists of espresso mixed with a small amount of warm milk, whereas an espresso is purely concentrated coffee without any added milk.
  2. Origin: Cortado has Spanish roots, while espresso originates from Italy.
  3. Texture: Due to the addition of milk, a cortado has a creamier texture compared to the robust and thicker consistency of pure espresso.
  4. Serving Size: Typically, both are served in small amounts, but a cortado is usually slightly larger because of the added milk.
  5. Acidity: The milk in a cortado reduces its acidity, making it milder compared to the bold and more acidic taste of espresso.
  6. Purpose: Espresso acts as a base for many other coffee drinks, while cortado is generally enjoyed as it is.
  7. Milk Froth: Espresso can be topped with a layer of creamy foam when brewed perfectly, but cortado has a more consistent mix of milk throughout.
  8. Taste: Cortado offers a balanced flavor due to the mix of milk, while espresso offers a deep, rich coffee taste.
  9. Preparation: While both require an espresso machine for the best quality, cortado also involves the step of warming and adding milk.

Key Similarities Between Cortado and Espresso

  1. Base Ingredient: Both cortado and espresso have espresso as their primary ingredient.
  2. Concentration: Compared to many other coffee beverages, both cortado and espresso are more concentrated drinks.
  3. Serving Style: Both drinks are traditionally served hot, often in smaller cups than larger coffee beverages.
  4. Popularity: Both are favored choices in coffee shops around the world and are essential offerings in any café menu.
  5. Caffeine Content: Due to the espresso base, both drinks have a higher caffeine concentration than regular drip coffee.
  6. Cultural Importance: Both drinks have rich histories in their respective countries of origin and have become integral parts of coffee culture globally.
  7. Brewing Method: Both require high pressure for extraction, typically using an espresso machine.

Pros of Cortado Over Espresso

  1. Balanced Flavor: Due to the addition of milk, cortado offers a milder and more balanced flavor, which can be appealing to those who find straight espresso too intense.
  2. Reduced Acidity: The milk in a cortado neutralizes some of the coffee’s acidity, making it gentler on the stomach and palate.
  3. Creamy Texture: The warm milk provides a creamy and smooth consistency, adding to the overall drinking experience.
  4. Versatile: A cortado is flexible and can be adjusted easily for those who want a touch more or less milk.
  5. Warmth Retention: The addition of warmed milk can help the drink retain its warmth slightly longer than a straight shot of espresso.
  6. Appeal to Wider Audience: Its milder taste profile means it’s often more palatable to people who are not accustomed to the robust flavor of espresso.
  7. Cultural Experience: Drinking a cortado offers a taste of Spanish coffee culture, which can be a unique experience for many.

Cons of Cortado Compared to Espresso

  1. Diluted Coffee Flavor: The addition of milk can mask some of the intricate flavors of the espresso.
  2. Caloric Content: Due to the milk, a cortado has more calories compared to a pure shot of espresso.
  3. Preparation Time: Making a cortado can take a bit longer as there’s the additional step of warming and adding milk.
  4. Not Traditional: For purists, the addition of milk might deviate from the traditional espresso experience.
  5. Less Caffeine Per Volume: As there’s milk added, you might get slightly less caffeine in a cortado cup compared to an espresso of the same volume.
  6. Special Requests: Some people might have dairy restrictions or preferences which can complicate the order.
  7. Variability: The taste and texture can vary more significantly based on how much and what type of milk is added, leading to inconsistency in experience for some drinkers.

Pros of Espresso Over Cortado

  1. Pure Coffee Experience: Espresso offers a concentrated coffee flavor, allowing drinkers to savor the nuances and complexities of the coffee beans.
  2. Lower Caloric Content: Without the addition of milk, espresso contains fewer calories.
  3. Quick Preparation: Making an espresso typically takes less time since there’s no need to warm and add milk.
  4. Cultural Authenticity: Espresso provides a taste of traditional Italian coffee culture.
  5. Higher Caffeine Per Volume: With no milk to dilute it, a shot of espresso delivers a more concentrated caffeine punch per sip.
  6. Consistency: Espresso shots, when prepared by skilled baristas, can offer more consistent taste and texture across different servings.
  7. Versatile Base: Espresso serves as the foundational element for a variety of coffee beverages, from lattes to Americanos.

Cons of Espresso Compared to Cortado

  1. Intense Flavor: The robust flavor of espresso might be overpowering for some, especially those new to coffee or with sensitive palates.
  2. Higher Acidity: Without milk to neutralize it, espresso can be more acidic and might not suit everyone’s stomach.
  3. Cooling Rate: Espresso shots can cool down faster due to the absence of warm milk, potentially changing the taste profile if not consumed quickly.
  4. Size: Typically, espresso servings are smaller, which might not be satisfying for those looking for a longer coffee experience.
  5. Not Everyone’s Cup of Coffee: The boldness and intensity of espresso can be a bit much for some individuals, especially those accustomed to milkier beverages.
  6. Caffeine Sensitivity: The concentrated nature of espresso might be too much for those sensitive to caffeine or looking to limit their intake.
  7. Learning Curve: Properly enjoying and understanding the depth of an espresso might require a bit of a learning curve for newcomers to the coffee scene.

Situations When Cortado is Better Than Espresso

  1. Milder Coffee Preference: For those who find the intense flavor of espresso overpowering, a cortado provides a balanced taste.
  2. Sensitive Stomachs: Due to its reduced acidity from the milk, cortado might be a better choice for individuals with sensitive stomachs.
  3. Longer Sipping Time: If someone wishes to enjoy their coffee over an extended period, the milk in a cortado can help retain warmth.
  4. Casual Coffee Drinkers: For those who don’t drink coffee regularly and are not accustomed to the boldness of espresso, a cortado is an excellent introduction.
  5. Nutritional Needs: If someone needs the additional nutrients from milk, such as calcium and protein, a cortado provides that benefit.
  6. Adaptable Flavor: Those who want to customize their drink with varying milk types (e.g., almond, oat, soy) might find a cortado more adaptable.
  7. Conversation Setting: Cortado, being slightly larger, can be a good choice for casual meetings or conversations as it lasts longer than a quick shot of espresso.

Situations When Espresso is Better Than Cortado

  1. Coffee Connoisseurs: For those who want to savor the intricacies of coffee flavors, an undiluted espresso shot provides a pure experience.
  2. Quick Energy Boost: Needing a quick caffeine fix? Espresso, with its concentrated form, delivers an immediate jolt.
  3. Caloric Intake Concern: If someone is watching their caloric intake, espresso, without added milk, is a lower-calorie option.
  4. Traditional Experience: For a taste of Italian coffee culture, a straight shot of espresso is the way to go.
  5. Customization of Drinks: Espresso is the base for various other coffee beverages, allowing for a broader range of drink customization.
  6. Time Constraint: If time is of the essence, brewing an espresso is quicker than preparing a cortado.
  7. Dairy Restrictions: For those who are lactose intolerant or avoiding dairy, a pure espresso avoids potential milk additives.
  8. Culinary Pairing: When paired with certain desserts or meals, the boldness of espresso complements flavors in a way that a milder cortado might not.

Cortado vs Espresso Summary

Understanding the nuances between cortado and espresso can greatly enhance one’s coffee experience, allowing for more informed choices tailored to individual preferences. Whether you’re a fan of the balanced flavors of a cortado or the robust intensity of an espresso, knowing the intricacies of each offers a richer appreciation for the art of coffee-making.

CompositionEspresso with a small amount of warm milkConcentrated coffee with no milk
TextureCreamy due to milkRobust and thicker
TasteBalanced due to milkDeep, rich coffee taste
AcidityReduced due to milkMore pronounced
Base IngredientEspressoEspresso
Serving StyleHotHot
Pros Over the Other
Balanced Flavor
Quick Preparation
Cultural AuthenticitySpanish coffee cultureTraditional Italian coffee culture
Cons Compared to the Other
Diluted Coffee Flavor
Intense Flavor
Situations Better Suited
Milder Coffee Preference
Coffee Connoisseurs
Casual Coffee Drinkers
Quick Energy Boost
Cortado vs Espresso Summary


  1. What is the origin of the cortado?
    The cortado originated in Spain and its name is derived from the Spanish verb “cortar”, meaning “to cut”. Essentially, the espresso is “cut” with a small amount of warm milk to reduce its acidity.
  2. How does the caffeine content compare between cortado and espresso?
    Both drinks contain espresso as the base, so their caffeine content is primarily determined by the amount of espresso used. Typically, a single shot of espresso is used for both, so their caffeine content is similar. However, since a cortado has milk, its caffeine concentration is slightly diluted.
  3. Which drink is creamier, cortado or espresso?
    A cortado is creamier due to the addition of milk, which gives it a smooth texture. Espresso, being a pure coffee shot, lacks this creaminess.
  4. Is there a specific type of milk best suited for a cortado?
    Traditionally, cortados are made with whole milk because it offers a rich and creamy texture. However, the choice of milk can vary based on personal preference, and alternatives like almond, soy, or oat milk can be used.
  5. How does serving size typically differ between cortado and espresso?
    An espresso shot is generally smaller, often served in 30ml servings. A cortado, on the other hand, includes the addition of milk, increasing its volume, and is usually served in 100-150ml glasses or cups.

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