The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
The third wave of coffee has ushered in a whole new lexicon and made into everyday language what just a few short decades ago was considered exotic and mysterious. In the 90s, Niles Crane’s order of a non-fat, half-caf double cappuccino at Cafe Nervosa was a sitcom punchline, whereas now we’re all more or less fluent in “coffee speak.” Espresso. Americano. Latte. Ristretto. Affogato. The terms roll off the tongue.
Except the cortado.
This coffee beverage has taken a little more time to make its way into common parlance. It still inspires puzzled looks and murmurings in cafes all across the country. Ask any barista and they can tell you how many times they’ve had to answer the question “what is a cortado?”
We’ll save you the trip to your local cafe, and give you both the short and long answer here.
The short answer is that the cortado is an espresso-based drink that falls somewhere between a latte and a macchiato. The steamed milk gives it a silky texture and velvety mouthfeel, with just a minimal pinky-width layer of foam on top.
Now here’s the long(er) answer.
Cortado is a Spanish word meaning “to cut,” and the coffee is so named because steamed milk is used to cut the coffee—specifically, its acidity and bitterness.
The two components, steamed milk and espresso, are used in equal proportion in a cortado (ideally, 2 ounces of each) to produce a creamy coffee drink that is bright, light, and sweet, with just a small band of foam at the top. The smaller size and lower heat of the cortado (more on this in the step by step guide below) make it a drink that should be consumed quickly and intentionally, not sipped and lingered over.
The cortado’s history is somewhat shrouded in mystery but what we know is that it originated in the Basque region of Spain and spread out from there, making its way to Portugal, Cuba, Australia, and other parts.
As it took hold in other regions, variations naturally evolved. In Cuba, for example, a cortado is made with sweetened condensed milk and served in a glass with a metal ring base and wire handle. In Australia, it’s called a piccolo and veers a bit more toward the realm of the latte.
The drink also has a particular association with San Francisco, where it began being served in the style it’s known for today: in a Gibraltar cup. Blue Bottle Coffee was the first roastery to start offering this beverage, in a hush-hush “secret menu” kind of way. So naturally it became a cult hit among the mid-2000s San Francisco coffee community. Since nothing stays secret for long, especially not something as fabulous as the cortado, it began popping up in more and more cafes over the years.
Now, about the serving glass. The cortado is like the martini of the coffee world in that it simply demands to be served in a very specific style of cup. Anything else and the drinking experience is just off.
As we mentioned, the typical vessel for a cortado is a short, glass cup with no handles known as a Gibraltar, or a rocks glass. There are a couple of reasons why this became the customary (compulsory, if you ask us) way to serve it. (see above)
A Gibraltar cup has a distinctive narrow base, fluted sides, and a flared top, all of which impact the coffee it holds. The flared top creates a wide rim that in turn creates an ample canvas for foam art. The fluted sides are just right for holding between a thumb and an index finger, which is important when the cup has no handle and you’re meant to hold the glass directly with your hand. Even though the cortado is not served steaming hot, you still won’t want to wrap your palm around this glass unless you’ve got hands made of Teflon.
Not to harp too much on the cup (it’s actually fine if you don’t happen to have a set of Gibraltars ready to go at all times) but we love any opportunity to talk about all the factors that create the ideal drinking experience. And this level of nuance is something that coffee enthusiasts geek out on, especially those whose love for coffee brings them to the Good Fika community. How can I get started brewing cortados at home? The cortado is an excellent beverage to make at home, especially since it’s not as widespread and available in coffeeshops as lattes and cappuccinos. The only piece of special equipment you need is an espresso maker.
What you need:
This is the method for how to make a cortado in the original Spanish style. Once you’ve mastered this technique, you may want to try out the numerous variations that have proliferated around the world.
To make the process as smooth as possible, minimizing pauses in the action and ensuring that your espresso shot doesn’t sit around on your counter waiting any longer than it has to (an espresso shot starts to go stale as soon as ten seconds after being pulled), get everything prepped and ready to go:
Start by steaming your milk. The cortado is meant to be less hot and foamy than a latte or cappuccino, so you’ll know your milk is ready when the pitcher is warm, but not hot, to the touch. If you’ve measuring the temperature with a thermometer, you’ll want to aim for 120 degrees. Also, it can be a little tricky to steam just 2 ounces of milk—it’s easier to burn in such a small portion—so if you’re having difficulty, double the amount of milk and consider making a second cortado for a friend.
Pull a double shot of espresso straight into the pre-warmed Gibraltar glass.
Slowly pour the milk into the espresso. If you want to add a little flourish of foam art, pour the milk more slowly, since you have less room in the cup to fill, which translates to less time to achieve your foam design on the top of the beverage. The foam layer should be about the width of your pinky finger.
Enjoy your cortado!
Once you’ve tried your hand at brewing a cortado, be sure to note your impressions in the Good Fika app, so you can keep track of your technique and fine-tune it to perfection.