What is a Latte? A Complete Guide to The History & How to Make One

Updated on: August 1, 2023
Author: Alex DeCapri
If you click on a product while reading this article and decide to buy it, we might earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for all your support!
What is a Latte

The latte might be the most popular coffee drink around the world. Every type of coffee consumer can find a version they like with its many variations. The latte comes in all shapes and sizes (and flavors).

A latte is a coffee beverage made from espresso, steamed milk, and a layer of microfoam. Does that sound like a cappuccino or a flat white to you?

What is a latte, and what makes it unique from other milk-based espresso drinks? In this article, we discuss the latte’s history, how to make one, and all its variations.

The Origin of the Latte

Café Latte

The word latte is actually the shortened English form of “caffè latte”. This Italian phrase literally translates to “milk coffee”, and Europeans have probably been enjoying this style of drink in coffee houses since the 17th century (1).

Many cultures have their version of coffee with milk, the predecessors to the modern-day latte as we know it. Much like the Italian caffè latte, Spain has its “café con leche”, while France serves a “café au lait”.

If you ask for a latte (or leche or lait) in any of these countries, you will most likely be given a glass of steamed or foamed milk.

In English, “latte” was first used in 1867 by William Dean Howells in his essay called Italian Journeys, where he describes a drink made of coffee and frothed milk.

Kenneth Davids is a coffee professional involved in the industry since the 1970s and the author of three coffee-related books. He claims that the latte is an American invention of similar espresso drinks that have existed in Europe for generations (2).

Another theory states that Americans invented the latte shortly after World War II. When the war ended and Americans started to import espresso machines into the country, they wanted to enjoy their coffee as they had during the war.

General consumers found the taste of espresso too strong and bitter, so many added foamed milk to make it sweeter and easier to drink, with a more subtle coffee taste. Thus, the latte was born.  (There is a similar story about the origins of the Americano).

A third theory claims its origin in the United States. Caffè Mediterraneum, an Italian-style coffee shop located in Berkeley, California, argues that they created the latte in the 1950s.

Whether or not any of these myths are facts, the latte was quickly popularized in Seattle, Washington, in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the trend had taken the entire country by storm.

What is a Latte, Exactly? 

Caffè e Latte

With its many variations around the world, it can be tricky to pinpoint exactly what a latte is. Maybe you’ve seen pumpkin spice lattes or vanilla iced lattes for sale? We’ll get to all that later, but let’s talk about the fundamentals first.

According to European tradition, a latte consists of 1-2 shots of espresso, around 8 ounces of steamed milk, and a thin layer of microfoam. It’s primarily a drink for someone who wants to focus on the milk’s flavors and sweetness over the flavor of the espresso.

The milk is creamy in texture with no visible bubbles. Unlike the airy and foamy milk in a cappuccino, a latte has a smoother, more velvety texture.

Lattes are served in tall, clear glasses so that consumers can see the layers and the gradual blending between the brewed coffee, milk, and foam.

Oat Milk Latte

In the United States, you may find the latte as a much larger drink using 10-12 ounces of milk! Starbucks and other large coffee chains tend to serve their versions of the latte like this.

For example, have you heard of the gargantuan 20-oz venti cup size from Starbucks?

Nowadays, lattes come with designs of hearts and flowers on the top of the drink. Due to the texture of the milk being perfect for designs, latte art has become a massive trend.

How to Make a Caffe Latte

Steamed Milk Ratio

Before making your latte, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Ingredients: 8-18 grams of ground coffee, 8 ounces of milk.

  • Equipment needed: espresso machine with steam wand and pitcher.

  • Grind size: Make sure to grind your coffee “very fine” whenever making espresso. We recommend using a electric burr grinder or a manual burr grinder for consistent particle sizes, but you can ask your local coffee shop to grind your beans for you, too.

  • Coffee roast: Start with a medium to dark roast when you first make this drink. Try to stick to origins known for having notes of chocolate, nuts, and caramel. We recommend a Central or South American coffee over an African coffee in this case. These flavors tend to pair well with the sweetness of milk.

  • Milk: Since this is a milk-heavy coffee drink, you want to pick the right milk. Milk with higher fat content will froth quickly, but make sure not to overdo it. You want to get a creamy, velvety texture out of your milk when steaming.

    Whole milk is the most fat-heavy dairy milk, while oat milk would be a good plant-based alternative for an oat milk latte. Coconut milk is a tasty option but doesn’t provide the right texture for this drink.

Steps to Making a Latte with Steamed Milk

Step 1: Pull the espresso shots

What is a latte without a shot of espresso?

Using an espresso machine, make the espresso by pulling a 1-ounce espresso shot for a weaker coffee flavor or a 2-ounce shot of double espresso for a stronger coffee flavor. You can use a dedicated espresso cup like the one in the image above or you can make these directly into a clear latte glass that is at least 10 ounces large.

Step 2: Steam the milk

Almond Milk

Pour the 8 ounces of whole milk or plant-based milk into the pitcher. Use the steam wand on your espresso machine to froth the milk. This step works better if both the milk and pitcher are chilled before starting. 

Keep the pitcher at an angle to create a vortex in the pitcher, and slowly steam the milk until a layer of foam appears on top. Keeping the steam wand deeper in the pitcher until the very end will create a creamier microfoam, perfect for a latte. For dairy milk, the ideal temperature you want to reach is 150°F (65°C).

Step 3: Pour the milk into the espresso

Latte Drinkers

Pour the milk into the glass that already has the espresso shot(s). Hold the pitcher slightly above the glass, bringing it gradually closer to the surface of the drink while pouring in the center.

Perform this step slowly, making sure that the milk flows first, with the thicker froth following at the end of the pour. Channel your inner barista and try your hand at some latte art!

How to Make a Latte At Home Without an Espresso Machine

While an espresso machine makes it much easier to make a latte, you can get by without one. Since many people don’t have espresso machines in their homes, here’s a recipe to make a modified latte using a French press, Aeropress, Moka pot, or pod espresso machine.

Step 1: Make the “espresso”

Moka Pot Espresso

We recommend making a very concentrated 1-2 ounces of coffee to mimic a single or double shot of espresso (depending on how weak or strong you want the coffee flavor to be).

You can do this with a French press, Aeropress, or Moka pot. Just make sure to increase the amount of coffee you normally use. If you have a pod machine available, like a Nespresso, make sure you select a single or double Nespresso coffee pod.

The most traditional method for making a latte without an espresso machine is with a Moka pot. Many Italians still make their morning caffè latte using this method and the best coffee for Moka pot brewing.

Step 2: Froth the milk

French Press Milk

This step is optional. For many, heated milk will do the trick just fine without being steamed or frothed. You can even microwave milk but read our post before microwaving to make sure you do it right.

If you have a dedicated milk frother, use that to froth 8 ounces of milk into a pitcher. If you don’t have a frother, you can use a French press. Simply fill the device with warm milk and move the plunger up and down until you get a frothy texture. Who knew making coffee could also serve as a workout? 

Step 3: Combine coffee and milk

Remove the plunger from the French press and tap it gently on the table to remove any large air bubbles. Remember: you want to keep the texture as creamy as possible and not overly airy. Slowly pour the milk into the glass with the “espresso” and enjoy!

Flavors, Syrups, and the Iced Latte

Iced Latte

Over the years, many different types of lattes have come into existence. Across the United States and the world, coffee shops have their own takes on this famous drink, often depending on the season.

Because the latte is such a sweet, milky beverage, a lot of flavors pair well with it. You can add spices like lavender and pumpkin to create totally new flavors for winter and autumn.

Is it the middle of summer? Order an iced latte and have a whole new experience while you enjoy this famous beverage with cold milk.

Many coffee shops create simple syrups of different flavors to add as well, intensifying the sweetness. For many people, lattes are a gateway into the coffee world. With time they may find they like a bolder coffee flavor and order drinks that focus more on the coffee.

Either way, there are hundreds of options depending on where you go. You can even forego coffee altogether and try a matcha latte or chai latte

Don’t forget about the endless combinations of plant-based milk. Oat, almond, soy, coconut, rice, and hemp milk all lend different flavors and textures to a latte.

Latte vs Flat White

Latte vs Flat White

When people order a flat white, sometimes they are given something very close to a latte. Is there a difference?

While the latte was born in Italy, the flat white hails from Australia or New Zealand (depending on who you ask). Flat whites are normally served with two shots of espresso, while lattes can come with one or two.

Another big difference is size. The latte tends to be larger than a flat white, using between 6-10 ounces of milk and a thicker layer of milk foam. The flavors of the espresso are more muted as the milk dominates the drink’s taste and sweetness.

Lattes also tend to be served in tall, clear glasses, while most flat whites come in ceramic mugs.

Latte vs Cappuccino

Latte vs Cappuccino

Lattes and cappuccinos are both of Italian origin, but they are extremely different.

While they both use espresso and steamed milk, everything from texture to size is different.

Lattes come in tall, clear glasses that are 10 ounces or larger. Cappuccinos are served in ceramic mugs that are 5-6 ounces.

The milk in lattes has a richer, creamier texture that lends itself better to latte art. Cappuccinos use milk that is frothed more and airer in texture.

You can see and feel air bubbles on your tongue when drinking the milk foam of a cappuccino. With the thin microfoam layer of a latte, you shouldn’t be able to feel the bubbles.

People Also Search For:

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a latte stronger than regular coffee?

Lattes have a weaker coffee flavor than regular coffee. Depending on the size of the regular coffee you are drinking, lattes may have less caffeine too. A latte is made up of espresso and even more steamed milk, so it’s much sweeter than regular coffee.

What exactly is in a latte?

A latte is an espresso-based beverage made with a generous amount of steamed milk and a thin layer of microfoam. You can use one or two shots of espresso, 8+ ounces of steamed milk with a creamy texture, and then a layer of frothed milk on top.

The drink should have a creamy texture and be pretty sweet. The focus is on the milk’s flavor and texture over those of the coffee. The actual espresso is muted by the sweetness of the milk.

Lattes can use dairy milk or plant-based alternatives like oat, hemp, coconut, or soy milk.

Some people even add flavored spices or simple syrups to their drinks for added sweetness.

What is the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?

Lattes and cappuccinos are both of Italian origin, but they are extremely different.

Lattes come in tall, clear glasses that are 10 ounces or larger. Cappuccinos are served in ceramic mugs that are 5-6 ounces.

The milk in lattes has a richer, creamier texture that lends itself better to latte art. Cappuccinos use milk that is frothed more and airer in texture. You can see and feel air bubbles on your tongue when drinking the foam of a cappuccino. With the thin microfoam layer of a latte, you shouldn’t be able to feel the bubbles.

How is a latte different from coffee?

The caffe latte is a creamier and milkier version of coffee. It uses one or two shots of espresso and pairs that with 8+ ounces of steamed milk and a thin layer of foamed milk.

The milk-to-coffee ratio in lattes is very large. The emphasis of the drink is on the flavor and sweetness of the milk, not on the espresso coffee that serves as a base.

What is a Latte

Final Thoughts

That wraps up our complete guide on "What is a latte?". Now you know the drink’s cloudy origins and how to make one at home.

The latte might be the coffee drink that focuses most on the milk over the coffee. The sweetness and texture of the steamed milk take over the nuanced flavors of the espresso. It’s a great morning drink that can be served hot or cold.

Try it with added flavors for a whole new type of drink. The caffe latte is an extremely versatile coffee beverage that can be made to fit any style! 

Alex DeCapri is a curious coffee writer and specialty coffee roaster. Currently, he is slowly making his way from the United States to Brazil in his camper van, visiting as many coffee farms as possible!

This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace professional medical advice, treatment or diagnosis. Do not consume any type of coffee, tea or herbal infusion if you are allergic to it. The information in this article is not intended to treat serious medical conditions. Please seek professional medical advice before using home remedies.

Copyright © 2023. Your Coffee and Tea Essentials.
YourCoffeeAndTea.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. 
As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites at no extra cost to you.
YourCoffeeAndTea.com is a participant in the GoAffPro Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to the partner site.