What Is A Cappuccino? It’s Simply The Perfect Morning Cup Of Coffee

When pizza lovers visit Italy for the first time, they can’t wait to taste the real thing.
When ice cream fanatics visit Italy for the first time, they can’t wait to taste real gelato.
When oenophiles (wine connoisseurs) visit Italy, they can’t wait to sample a Chianti Classico, a Barolo – or, if they’re really discriminating, a Brunello di Montalcino.

And when coffee lovers visit Italy, they can’t wait to order their first Italian espresso and cappuccino.

Who is most likely to be disappointed? Sadly, probably the coffee drinker – because great coffee drinks taste the same whether they’re made at local Italian cafés or high-end American coffee shops.

Modern commercial espresso machines are all able to make what’s essentially the perfect espresso. So with the right selection of coffee beans and an accomplished barista, perfect cappuccino can be created just about anywhere, too.

The classic espresso-and-milk beverage just seems more perfect, though, if the sun has just come up on a beautiful new day, the scenery is gorgeous, and you’re surrounded by cultured, attractive people chatting in Italian.

What could be “more Italy” than that?

Well, to be honest, the least Italian thing in that picture may be the cappuccino – because, in some ways, the famed morning beverage was actually an Austrian creation.

That doesn’t make cappuccino any less delicious, needless to say. Let’s pour a cup and talk about it.

The Origins of Cappuccino

People have been adding milk to coffee for more than 400 years, at least according to recorded history. A Dutch ambassador to China is said to have first tried it in 1660, and later in that century a Vienna café owner began serving milk-and-coffee to his customers because they couldn’t stand the overly-strong Turkish coffee he brewed.

In the 1700s, the forebear of the cappuccino became popular in Austria. It was known as kapuziner, named after Vienna’s Kapuzin friars who wore dark, hooded robes similar in color to the coffee drink. In Italy, the same religious order had Capuchin friars – getting the picture? – so cappuccino was the Italian version of kapuziner. (An Austrian version of the drink with more milk and less coffee was called franziskaner, named after the Franciscan monks who wore lighter-colored hoods.)

Kapuziner was served in Vienna coffeehouses first as coffee, milk and sugar, then with additional spices or flavorings, and finally as coffee topped with whipped cream. That same drink is still served in Austria today; a traditional cappuccino made with espresso, steamed milk and milk foam is known in Austria as wiener melange, meaning “Vienna blend.”

What we know today as espresso didn’t really enter the picture until well after the invention and production of the modern espresso machine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, the first published mention of cappuccino in Italy came in the 1930s, and pictures from that time still show it being made with coffee, whipped cream and decorative chocolate – just like the Austrian kapuziner. But once espresso machines with better technology became widely available after the Second World War, espresso – and espresso drinks – quickly became popular around the world.

In the 1950s, one of those espresso drinks, cappuccino, found its way onto coffeehouse menus. One major reason: the new machines didn’t just make terrific thick, dark coffee; they were also able to heat and froth milk. The “new” version of cappuccino, sometimes called a caffè crema, was made from espresso and steamed milk. In later decades, the drink evolved and became the cappuccino we know and love today, equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. (The chocolate or cinnamon garnish has also become somewhat traditional.)

Cappuccino has traditionally been a “morning drink,” replaced with stronger espresso later in the day. Now, even in most of Europe, you’ll see customers enjoying a cappuccino no matter the time of day. And once you’ve tasted this delicious combination, you’ll understand why.

How a Cappuccino Is Made

Unlike some espresso and coffee beverages like the macchiato, which can be made with widely varying ratios of espresso and milk, there’s really just one way to make a cappuccino. It’s a layered drink with either one or two shots of espresso coffee on the bottom, topped with equal amounts of steamed milk and then frothed milk.

In America, a double shot of espresso is commonly used, although some places stick with the more European approach of just a single shot. Either way, the 1/3-1/3-1/3 ratio is the key to a great cappuccino. That’s not to say that you can’t ask your barista to make your drink differently, of course. When more milk is added, the end result is a cappuccino chiaro (sometimes called a wet cappuccino or a light cappuccino). A greater amount of milk than normal, and you have a cappuccino scuro (dry cappuccino).

Dark roast espresso coffee beans are really the only choice for a strong, delicious espresso; whole milk is the best choice for both steaming and foaming, since low-fat milk will produce a cappuccino that’s less smooth and foam that will dissolve quickly.

Some variations on the traditional cappuccino have developed over time: using hot milk instead of steamed milk, using cream instead of milk, or adding flavorings like caramel, peppermint or vanilla (which is just a notch up from what the Austrians did when making kapuziner).

Starbucks and other chains do big business selling iced cappuccino, but the more “authentic” drink, at least in Italy, is a cappuccino freddo made by adding cold milk froth on top of the espresso. (No, it’s no relation to Fredo Corleone’s pina colada.)

You’re a fan of both cappuccino and decadence? Some Italian cafés serve variations like gelato da bere, a blend of espresso and the wonderful Italian ice cream we mentioned at the start.

Many people who aren’t coffee mavens often confuse cappuccino with the latte, which happens to be the most popular coffee drink in America. The confusion is nothing to be ashamed of, since the two drinks are quite similar. Let’s sort that all out next.

Cappuccino, Latte, and Other Confusing Espresso Drinks

Cappuccino vs. Latte

A cappuccino is made with espresso, steamed milk and foam. A latte (more accurately, a caffè latte) is made with espresso, steamed milk and foam.

So what’s the difference?

Someone once said the devil is in the details (many credit the saying to Nietzsche), but both drinks are heavenly when made right. So let’s skip the devil and go with infamous bank robber Willie Sutton instead; he said success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail. Here are the details that make all the difference.

In a cappuccino there are equal amounts of espresso, heated milk and milk foam. By contrast, a latte is made with one-third espresso and two-thirds milk, with a much smaller amount of foam on top. Just like a cappuccino, latte can be made with either one or two shots of espresso. What’s important is keeping the ratio of espresso and milk correct. 

Latte, when made by an accomplished barista, actually has a thin layer of what’s known as microfoam on top; microfoam is denser than ordinary milk foam, with a silkier texture. The density of microfoam is what allows baristas to create elaborate designs on the top of a latte. So-called “latte art” is much more difficult to produce in the softer foam that tops a cappuccino.

The same types of variations are common for both cappuccinos and lattes. They can be sweetened with flavorings or syrups, or iced (usually with the help of cold milk). There are other more subtle changes you can make to a latte, but – to add to the confusion – they have their own specific names.

  • The “flat white” originated in Australia and is made like a single shot latte, but with only a thin layer of microfoam on top. In fact, that’s how it got its name. The top of the drink is flat and white. Get it?
  • The “cortado” is similar, but features equal amounts of espresso (usually a single shot) and steamed milk, with no microfoam. That makes it smoother than a flat white, which is thicker. As you’ve probably guessed, you can thank Spain for coming up with the cortado.
  • A “double latte” might sound uncomplicated, but it’s best to confirm what you’re going to get with your barista. Lattes are usually created with two shots of espresso (that’s why they have to be made in a tall glass), so if you order a double latte – wanting a drink made with a double shot – you might get four shots of espresso instead. Good luck sleeping after that!

Had enough? Then you should probably skip to our next section, because we have more espresso drink confusion to clear up before moving on.

Even More Espresso Drinks That Aren’t Cappuccino

Take a deep breath. We’re basically going to do a crash course on the Starbucks menu – and for good measure, we’ll add a few espresso drinks you can’t even find at Starbucks.

  • Macchiato: The Italian word macchiato means “marked,” which is a good clue to what’s in this drink. The traditional espresso macchiato is “marked with milk,” meaning one or two teaspoons of steamed of foamed milk is added to the top of a shot (or double shot) of espresso. The mirror image is known as a latte macchiato, with a half-shot of espresso added to the top of steamed milk to mark it before it’s topped with foam.
  • Mocha: The caffè mocha is essentially a latte, with either chocolate powder or chocolate syrup added to it. Whipped cream may be served on top. 
  • Mochaccino: This drink, invented by the large coffee chains, is most often a cappuccino with chocolate added to it, but it can also be made with espresso and hot chocolate. Whipped cream on top, of course, unless it’s one of the many variations (like the ubiquitous pumpkin spice flavor) the chains love to put on their menu.
  • Breve: This “almost a latte” is made the same way as a latte, but with steamed half-and-half instead of the steamed milk.
  • Mocha Breve: Probably no mystery here; it’s a mocha with half-and-half substituted for milk.
  • Café Bombón: This must be a Spanish thing – this drink from Spain is half espresso, half condensed milk. You try it first and let us know what you think.
  • Galão: We move over to Portugal, where the galão is a popular version of the latte but with three-quarters milk, one-quarter espresso.
  • Café con Leche: If you’re a foodie, you can think of this one as a “deconstructed” latte; it’s a shot of espresso with hot milk served on the side. In France it’s called café noisette.
  • Con Panna: A shot of espresso topped with whipped cream.
  • Viena: This is a con panna on steroids: a double shot of espresso that’s infused with whipped cream until the coffee mug holding it is completely full.
  • Espresso: We can’t close out this section without a nod to espresso, the granddaddy of them all. You could look at it as cappuccino without the foamed milk, milk froth and “decorations.”
  • Doppio: Easy one. A double shot of espresso.
  • Ristretto: Basically an espresso shot, but made with half the usual amount of water in order to make the coffee twice as potent.
  • Lungo: The reverse of the ristretto, an espresso shot made with twice the usual amount of water to create a milder coffee.
  • Red Eye: For those who never want to sleep again, the red eye is a shot of espresso topped with black coffee. A double shot of espresso and coffee is a black eye, and for obvious reasons, a triple shot and coffee is known as a dead eye.
  • Americano: Leave it to Americans to dilute a great coffee, right? The caffè Americano is a layered drink with hot water poured on top of espresso. 
  • Long Black: Some purists insist that the hot water should go into an Americano first, in order to preserve more of the espresso’s crema. That’s known as a long black, a name coined by Australia where this is a very popular drink.

Yes, there are even more, but we’ll stop here since we have one last bit of business left.

How to Make a Cappuccino at Home

We’ll start with the bad news: you’ll probably never be able to make a cappuccino quite as good as the one you’d get from the barista at one of your favorite upscale coffee bars.
Now, the good news: you should be able to come awfully close, with the right equipment and some practice.

Oops, more bad news: having the “right equipment” includes owning an espresso machine.
Ah, there’s more good news, too: even without the expensive machine, you can still make an extremely good “almost-an-cappuccino.”

Let’s get to it.

Making the Espresso

A two-thousand dollar espresso machine would be ideal for this project. It’s also overkill for most home baristas. You can get a really good espresso maker for your kitchen for about four or five hundred bucks – and if you’re a coffee nut, the investment is well worth it.

A better choice for most people is a Nespresso Vertuo capsule machine, which will only set you back $100-200 if you look for the best deal. The Nespresso is less versatile and it won’t turn out the true full-bodied, rich flavored shot you’d get with a pricey espresso machine. However, it’s much easier to use, and the final product will be a lot closer to coffee-house espresso quality than the stuff you can brew with a drip coffee maker.

Those who don’t want to spend anything extra don’t have to give up and go to Starbucks. The French press in the pantry, or even the drip coffeemaker sitting on the counter, can still turn out a pretty potent cup of coffee – and that’s going to get them pretty close to a darned good cappuccino.

By the way, since you want to make the strongest coffee you can in order to replicate the deep, rich taste of espresso, that means using espresso beans (if you can get them) or a high-quality dark roast. Fine grind, please.

Preparing the Milk

Once again, having an espresso machine with a steam wand makes things easy. But who needs easy, when you can come up with a much less-expensive alternative?

For the steamed milk that goes into a cappuccino, use full-fat milk and heat it to 140-155°F on your stovetop or in your microwave (that will only take a few seconds).

Finally, there are several ways to make the frothed milk that goes on top. A great yet cheap investment for those who plan on playing home barista is a handheld frothing tool, but you can also use a blender or a whisk to froth your milk, or just shake it up thoroughly in a mason jar with a secure top.

Assembling the Cappuccino

Easy-peasy. Pour one or two shots of the espresso or very strong coffee into the bottom of a cup or mug, carefully add an equal amount of steamed milk, and then spoon the same amount of froth onto the top. Decorate with shaved chocolate or cocoa powder for a professional, finished look.

It may take some practice to get the strength of the espresso or coffee right, and to time the preparation so you can assemble your cappuccino and then enjoy it while it’s still hot. Then again, the prospect of repeatedly drinking cups of homemade cappuccino, until you’re completely satisfied with the final product, sounds awfully good.

Written by Liz Moore

4 min read

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