Both cappuccino and latte are smooth, milky coffees, but the former is slightly more indulgent thanks to thicker foam and powder dusting.

Despite appearances, cappuccino and latte both start out with an equal shot of espresso coffee, whose creamy head is essential in creating the foam art favored by top baristas.

The latte typically comprises one-third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk, with a thin layer of so-called microfoam on top.

Cappuccino, on the other hand, is made up of one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk and one-third milk foam. Usually, cocoa or chocolate powder is shaken on top.

  • In Italy, Neapolitans enjoy a nocciolato cappu with hazelnut cream.
  • Milan, by contrast, embraces the short marocchino, served in a small glass. 
  • Cappuccino scuro, or dry cappu, holds back on some of the steamed milk for a drier, foamier coffee. 
  • The opposite is the cappuccino chiaro, with more steamed milk and less foam. 

Both beverages require steaming milk in a beaker to give it texture and viscosity. For the latte, the milk should be steamed until it takes on the uniform thickness of paint. The cappuccino goes further by steaming the milk further as it rises, yielding a tacky foam that will hold peaks. The final flourish is to let the milk settle in the jug for about 15 seconds, then to swirl it to bring the heavier foam to the center.

The technique requires significant skill. Steam too low and the milk will heat up too quickly. Steam too high and only the surface will be aerated, creating little more than milky bubble bath that quickly collapses, while the rest of the milk is cold.

When the milk is poured over the espresso for a latte, the majority of the coffee blends in to give a light tan mousse. With the cappuccino, however, the foam cap is provided as the remaining heavy foam folds onto the steamed milk.

Tips

  • Don’t fill the milk beaker more than halfway, as the milk needs plenty of room to form a vortex.
  • Using cold milk and a pitcher kept in the fridge creates a thicker mousse, as the milk expands more rapidly.
  • Use whole milk for cappuccino to get the thick foam. Skimmed milk is fine for latte, as it will produce a light, fluffy mousse. 
  • Use espresso coffee only. Straightforward filter or French press coffee, for their part, would take the coffee in the direction of an Americano.

While it is possible to steam milk on the stove top and froth it with a handheld blender, a coffee machine with a dedicated steamer nozzle is indispensable for making both drinks to cafe standard.

Pour the milk into a steel pitcher or jug and insert the steamer nozzle an inch or so below the surface. The jug should be angled slightly to encourage the milk to circulate.

Many baristas also use a milk thermometer to gauge the rapidly rising temperature of the milk once the steamer nozzle is released by spinning a dial. Between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, the milk will be sweet and thick. The milk should not be allowed to go higher than 170 degrees Fahrenheit, however, as it will not only lose most of its taste, but it will also be scalding hot.

Cappuccino is a daily ritual in Italy, whereas latte is less common, owing its popularity more to America. Note that both are strictly morning drinks in Italy, and neither should be taken after a meal, since the idea of rounding off a heavy pasta lunch with a milk-based beverage is anathema to Italian cuisine. Instead, espresso dominates from mid-morning onward.