Latte vs. Coffee, Explained in Detail

a latte with art in the steamed milk

by Matt Gibson

The latte and a cup of coffee are two of the world’s most popular hot beverages. Each drink is a great choice for a caffeine boost to get your day started the right way. But what is the difference between the two drinks? Is it just steamed milk? What’s the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? Which drink is better, regular coffee, or the latte? We’re here to answer all of these questions for you, and to help you decide which drink to order when you need a caffeinated drink to get your day started right. 

Here’s the shortest answer. A latte is just a shot of espresso into a mug of steamed milk. Espresso is a concentrated form of coffee that comes in small “shots.” Coffee is when you brew ground up coffee beans in hot water and run it through a filter.

You can add milk to coffee if you want, but it’s only a latte if you use an espresso shot and steamed milk. If you use coffee and steamed milk it is called a café au lait. A café au lait tastes similar to a latte, but they are slightly different since one uses regular coffee and the other a concentrated espresso shot.

What Is A Latte? 

The latte comes in many different shapes and sizes, and in a variety of flavors which can dramatically change the way the drink tastes. The standard latte is made from a shot of espresso and steamed milk, that’s it.

To make the standard latte, you simply pull a doubleshot of espresso into a large coffee cup, and top it off with fresh milk. Then you use a milk frother to steam the milk and coffee mixture to perfection, leaving a nice frothy layer of foam on the top. Lattes can be made with one or two shots of espresso, and are typically served in an eight ounce cup. Often, skilled baristas will make their lattes topped with latte art, by adding a heart, a tulip, or some other simple design in the steamed milk on the top of the latte. 

A close relative of the latte is the mocha, which is a chocolate latte, more or less, and is made by pouring chocolate syrup into the cup before pulling the expresso into it and topping it with milk. Aside from the addition of chocolate syrup, the process of making a mocha is practically the same as the process to make a regular latte. Some mocha recipes call for a whipped cream topping instead of a layer of frothy steamed milk, but aside from that, the mocha differs very little from the standard latte.

Flavored lattes can also be concocted by adding a pump or two of flavored syrup to the cup before steaming the milk. Popular latte flavors include caramel, hazelnut, white chocolate, peppermint, lavender, cinnamon, raspberry, French vanilla, Irish creme, toffee, spiced pumpkin, almond, butter rum, and orange. 

Iced lattes are another very popular take on the classic latte in which ice is added to the drink and instead of steamed milk, cold milk is poured on top and stirred to mix the drink’s contents together. Iced lattes can also be flavored by adding a few pumps of your favorite syrup to the mix. 

What Is Coffee? 

Coffee, aside from tea, is the world’s most popular hot beverage and a great way to start your day. Coffee is made by an extraction process in which hot water is filtered through fresh coffee grounds to extract their flavor and caffeine content. The result is a dark brown, nearly black liquid that is piping hot and ready for sipping. Coffee is typically either taken black, or dressed with milk, creamer, and/or sugar for a smoother, sweeter taste. 

Like latte’s, coffee can be flavored by adding a few pumps of your favorite flavored syrup, or by adding a flavored creamer. Iced coffee is also a popular version of the drink which is made by brewing the coffee and then allowing it to cool before pouring it over ice. Iced coffee is a popular alternative to coffee, especially during the summer, when people are less likely to drink hot beverages when it’s already hot outside. 

What’s The Difference Between A Latte and A Coffee? 

The main difference between a latte and coffee is the ingredients used to make the two drinks. Firstly, lattes are made from espresso instead of coffee. Espresso is a much stronger coffee beverage than regular drip coffee. Espresso calls for finely ground coffee grounds, and the extraction process involves pressurized hot water, which is forced through the grounds, extracting a very strong but very small amount of liquid, known as espresso.

Coffee is not as strong as espresso, but comes in a larger serving size. Another difference between the latte and coffee is the steamed milk that is added to the espresso shot when creating a latte. Sure, milk is a common addition to coffee as well, but it is not a required component in the drink. A latte without steamed milk is simply a shot of espresso, and not a latte at all, while coffee without milk is still coffee. 

What’s The Difference Between A Latte and Other Espresso Drinks? 

The latte is one of many popular drinks made from espresso, including cappuccinos, macchiatos, americanos, and more. The latte is very similar to the cappuccino, only differing in the size of the drink, the amount of milk that is used to make the drink, and the level of frothing that is used to steam the milk. Cappuccinos require several ounces less milk than the standard latte, but the milk is frothed to a more foamy consistency, creating a large frothy layer on top, whereas the latte only has a thin layer of foam. A cappuccino is typically served in a four ounce cup, and consists of equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foam. 

A macchiato is a much smaller drink than the latte, and somewhat smaller than the cappuccino. Macchiatos are simply a shot of espresso and a splash of warmed milk. Because the macchiato calls for much less milk than the latte or the cappuccino, it is a much stronger coffee drink. The macchiato is also a much smaller coffee drink than its counterparts, clocking in at just one and one fourth ounces. 

Different Ways In Which Coffee Can Be Brewed

Not all coffee is made in the same way. The extraction process to make coffee is usually very similar across the various brewing methods available, but there are differences between each method which can affect the outcome of the final product. Here are the most popular coffee brewing methods, and a short description of each method, so you can determine which method works best for your coffee making efforts. 

  • Electric Drip Coffee – Probably the most popular coffee brewing method, drip coffee makers are a simple and easy way to brew coffee without being too involved in the brewing process. Simply add coffee grounds into a paper filter and put the filter in place in your electric drip machine, pour fresh water into the reservoir, and press a button, and your coffee should be ready in minutes. 
  • Pour Over Coffee – The pour over coffee movement has slowly but surely become more popular throughout the years since its invention. Pour over extraction is a much more involved process in which the user controls every variable, from the ratio of coffee to water, to the temperature of the water, and the length of the period of extraction. The pour over device is a simple, cone-shaped device that is situated above a carafe. The cone-shaped part of the device is fitted with a filter and loaded with coffee grounds and water is poured over the grounds in slow, concentric circles. The slower the pour, the better the extraction. Though brewing with the pour over method is a much more involved process, the final results are worth the effort. Those that use the pour over method swear by it and refuse to make coffee any other way. 
  • Moka Pot – The moka pot brewing method is a coffee brewing method that is done with a standalone device and a stovetop. The method involves adding cold water to a chamber at the bottom of the device and finely ground coffee to the filter above it. Once everything is in place, the moka pot is placed on the stovetop and heated with the lid open. The end result is a highly concentrated brew that is quite intense and somewhat similar to an espresso. 
  • French Press – The French press brewing method is a simple way to brew a smooth, but strong cup of coffee. Water is heated and coffee grounds are tossed into the bottom of the french press. The hot water is poured over the top and allowed to interact with the coffee grounds below for about five minutes. Then the filtered press of the device is pressed downwards to trap the grounds at the bottom of the device, allowing users to pour out the coffee. The result is a complex and well-balanced brew that does not remove many of the oils and compounds that are removed by paper filtered coffee brewing methods. 

Can I Make a Latte With Homemade Coffee?

Although a coffee shop latte will be made with espresso, you can make a serviceable substitute at home even if you don’t have an espresso machine. Of course, a latte made with brewed coffee instead of espresso won’t have the deep, strong flavor of espresso or contain as much of the oils that make espresso drinks so delicious. The intensity of espresso being balanced by the smooth creaminess of the milk is one of the things that makes a latte so special.

But there’s no reason not to try your own homemade version as a supplement to the espresso drinks you order from your favorite barista. You can even get the foam on top of the latte when you make it at home. Here’s how to do it.

If you don’t have an espresso machine, make the coffee for your homemade latte a little on the strong side to replicate the depth of espresso as best you can. The amount of coffee you need depends on the size and number of lattes you want to make. A good starting point is to make one cup for each latte you’re creating. 

Next, you’ll need to froth the milk, which is actually possible at home without any fancy tools. All you need is milk, a jar with a lid, and a microwave. You won’t need as much milk as you have coffee, so start with about half a cup of milk per cup of coffee you’re making into lattes. Add the milk to your jar, filling it no more full than halfway up. Close the jar’s lid tight, then shake it with all the force you can muster. Within 30 seconds to a minute, you should notice that the milk has transformed into froth and become doubled in size. 

Now, remove the lid from the jar and microwave the jar with the milk froth inside for 30 seconds. Heating the milk froth helps the foam rise to sit on top of your milk in the jar, and heating the milk froth also stabilizes it somewhat. 

Next, pour your coffee into the cups you plan to use. The wider and more shallow the coffee cup is, the better suited it will be for showing off your lattes and enjoying them. Take your jar with the milk froth inside, and use a spoon to keep the foam inside the jar as you pour a bit of warm milk into each cup. This is a lot like adding cream to brewed coffee—the amount you need varies according to taste. 

Once you’ve blended the coffee and milk, use your spoon to add a dollop of milk foam to the top of each coffee cup. If you like, you can sprinkle cinnamon or cocoa powder on top as a garnish. Now your lattes are ready to enjoy.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference in flavor between coffee and a latte, we recommend trying each and choosing for yourself which one you prefer. Each drink has different things to offer, and lots of people enjoy both under different circumstances. Whichever you choose, coffee and lattes are both a great way to start your day, whether you get them from your local coffee shop or make them in your own kitchen.

Learn More About Coffee and Latte Drinks

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