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A cynic might think that coffee shops have come up with so many variations on their coffee drinks simply to confuse us.
Espresso? Doppio? Red Eye? Black Eye? Americano? Long Black?
Cappuccino? Latte? Flat White? Café au Lait? Breve? Mocha? Mocacchino?
For people who have difficulty remembering their friends’ names, that’s a bit much.
Add macchiato to the mix – not to mention long macchiato and cortado? It’s enough to send you running from Starbucks to your local diner just to order a simple, uncomplicated cup of coffee.
Calm down. Those huge menus posted at coffee chains aren’t designed to make you feel dumb, or to make coffee drinking seem more complicated and sophisticated than it really is.
Here’s the truth: no one takes their coffee or espresso exactly the same way. All of the variations you have to choose from at a coffeehouse are simply the most popular variations on the most popular coffee drinks.
Sure, some of the more-exotic choices may have been created for marketing purposes. Coffee lovers in Italy certainly haven’t been ordering pumpkin spice lattes for centuries.
But the big two, espresso and cappuccino, are as Italian as pizza and fast cars. So is the macchiato, which could be viewed as a midday compromise between those two venerable espresso drinks.
It’s delicious, too – even though not everyone agrees on the right way to make a macchiato. We’ll be looking at that issue and a lot more, as we dig into this sometimes underappreciated Italian coffee.
Espresso is said to have been the brainchild of an Italian inventor, Angelo Moriondo, who patented the first espresso machine in the late 19th century. Strong coffee with milk was served throughout Europe in the 1700s, but modern-day cappuccino first appeared in Northern Italy in the 1930s.
By contrast, no one has any real idea when the first macchiato was made.
The story that’s often told, however, is that it originated in the 1980s as a way for baristas to let waiters know that an espresso contained a small amount of milk. “Macchiato” means “marked” in Italian, and these drinks were marked with a few drops of milk on top of the espresso. The idea of marking a drink wasn’t a new one; they were already serving café pingado, or “coffee with a drop,” in Portugal.
It didn’t take long before the macchiato made it to every upscale coffee shop in America. That doesn’t mean, however, that they all serve the same drink when you order one.
First things first: there’s no accepted and “right” way to make a macchiato (full name: caffè macchiato). But even though it hasn’t been around for all that long, two common versions have emerged. A coffee shop or barista may serve just one of them regularly, but will always be happy to prepare the other.
The first is the classic or traditional macchiato, also known as the espresso macchiato. It consists of one or two shots of espresso, topped by a teaspoon or two of steamed milk or foamed milk (or both) as the “stain” in the middle of the cup. Baristas may show their personal flair by creating latte art if the macchiato has milk foam on top, and those who have trouble handling the powerful coffee taste of espresso may add sweeteners as well.
This is the macchiato usually served in Italy. A classic macchiato is usually served in an espresso cup; it’s the perfect choice if you think espresso is too strong but cappuccino isn’t strong enough.
The second type of macchiato is the latte macchiato, so named because it’s somewhat similar to a caffè latte. It’s built with a base of hot milk, half-a-shot or a shot of espresso is then slowly added, and the drink is topped with foam. The end result is a very attractive layered coffee drink.
Many coffee houses add their own twist to the latte macchiato. Some layer both steamed and cold milk as a base, while others add extra flavorings. The latte macchiato is usually served in a tall glass.
In short, an espresso macchiato is espresso stained with milk. A latte macchiato is milk stained with espresso. The latter is a better choice for those who aren’t fans of strong coffee, or are just getting used to the strong kick of espresso. Some aficionados will tell you that a macchiato was created specifically as the perfect afternoon coffee, to bridge the gap between morning cappuccinos and evening espressos.
That may seem complicated enough, but we’re not close to being finished with macchiato alternatives.
Many coffee shops, particularly chains, seem to have developed entire menus around the macchiato. The most often-seen is the caramel macchiato. It’s a latte macchiato (marked with espresso), with vanilla syrup added and finished with a drizzle of caramel on top of a dollop of foam. This one is also popular when served over ice.
Purists who don’t really consider anything featuring caramel a macchiato probably hate the many other variations being sold by Starbucks and Dunkin’: chocolate macchiato (made with added chocolate syrup), hazelnut macchiato, vanilla macchiato, marble mocha macchiato – and of course, during the fall, pumpkin macchiato. Most are made just by varying the drizzle on top.
You may even see vegan macchiatos made with oat, coconut or almond milk instead of regular steamed milk. (Oat milk will be more foamy than the other two.) That may seem a bit sacrilegious to devoted coffee drinkers, but obviously, not to vegans. Just don’t even get us started on the hot chocolate “macchiato” mixes you can buy at the supermarket.
Putting flavor aside, the percentages of espresso, steamed milk, foamed milk and/or cold milk can also be changed up.
And there are many other variations found in many other shops, most without fancy names.
You can only alter the macchiato so much, however, before it becomes a different coffee beverage.
It’s easy to get confused when confronting a modern coffee menu. In part, that’s because some of the coffee drinks have long and storied histories, while others are inventions of a marketing department.
For instance, those not fluent in Italian (or coffee) can easily confuse a macchiato with a mochaccino, but the two are very different drinks.
You already know what usually goes into a macchiato: espresso and steamed milk. A mochaccino, however, is one of those beverages recently invented for sale at coffee chains. It’s most often prepared in one of two ways, either as a cappuccino made with chocolate powder or chocolate sauce, or simply as espresso added to hot chocolate milk. You’ll often see whipped cream on top. Delicious, but not exactly traditional.
(Isn’t a mochaccino the same as a mocha, more formally known as a caffè mocha? Some shops use the terms interchangeably, but the more classic mocha is made by adding chocolate syrup to a latte.)
It would probably be helpful at this point to briefly define the other coffee drinks that have some similarities to a macchiato, in order to clear up any other confusion or misconceptions.
Believe it or not, that’s not all of them. We haven’t even gotten into ristrettos, café con leches, affogatos (worth checking out, it’s espresso poured over vanilla ice cream), café bombóns, or a number of other fabulous espresso drinks. But that’s why you have Google, right?
There’s nothing like going out to a restaurant and ordering an espresso, latte – or macchiato – after dinner. It’s nice to be able to stop by your local coffee shop and order them, too.
Unfortunately, that gets expensive pretty quickly. It also doesn’t take bad weather or transportation difficulties into account. It’s cheaper and more convenient to make your own espresso drinks at home – and whipping up a macchiato can certainly impress your house guests.
Here’s how to go about it.
Needless to say, it would be best if you have an espresso machine sitting on your kitchen counter. Also needless to say, most people don’t. Those glorious machines can get awfully pricey.
No worries. You can still make a macchiato, or something very close to it, without an appliance that costs many hundreds or thousands of dollars.
The best second choice is to use a Nespresso capsule machine. It doesn’t produce the same quality espresso you’d get from a professional machine, but it produces enough pressure to get the job done. That means the brew it makes from ground coffee is an excellent espresso substitute.
Third choice: Either a French press, or a machine like the Aeropress which does much the same thing but in less time and with less work. It doesn’t produce espresso, but the coffee is extremely strong and potent.
The fourth choice isn’t a bad one, either. Simply use a home drip machine to brew the strongest coffee you can, but with less water than you’d normally use to make an ordinary cup of coffee.
When choosing coffee beans, look for ones which will produce a bitter, dark flavor. Espresso beans are best if you can find them, but definitely use a dark roast. A fine grind will produce the best espresso.
Now, let’s talk steamed milk. Heating is easy – on the stovetop or in the microwave is fine. The best option for creating foam is the frothing wand on an espresso machine but there are several acceptable hacks, particularly since the foam doesn’t have to be as bubbly as the microfoam on a latte. You can use a handheld milk frother (which isn’t too expensive if you’ll be using it a lot), a whisk, or a blender; you can even shake it up really hard in a covered mason jar.
Ready to put your macchiato together? Pour the espresso, mark it with a little of the steamed milk, then spoon a bit of the fluffy milk froth on top. Serve in an espresso or demitasse glass, unless you’re using a double or triple shot of espresso. That may require a latte glass.
Becoming a great barista takes a lot of training and experience. Thankfully, preparing a great macchiato at home is easy.
Published: March 25, 2021
Last Updated: October 8, 2021
4 min read
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