Simple but universally beloved, the latte is a celebration of espresso and silky, frothy milk.
With what seems like endless hot and iced renditions, the latte might just be the best-known caffeinated drink in the world. With each passing season, it seems like latte flavors keep getting further from tasting like actual coffee. Perhaps Starbucks is to blame –– they make everything from an apple crisp to a pistachio latte, and of course, pumpkin spice lattes. If you’re like me and really crave the balanced blend of well-made espresso paired with creamy milk, a classic latte might be the drink for you. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
What is A Latte?
“At its core, the latte is a simple and structured coffee drink that respects the espresso,” says Paige Chamberlain, former barista at buzzy artisanal coffee shop Coffee by Design in Portland, ME. Made with steamed milk and espresso, the latte is a barista bar classic, but there are plenty of variations to this two-ingredient drink. They’re all called something different and taste objectively similar, so it’s easy to get them confused. To put the latte in perspective amongst its peers, it’s volumetrically larger than a cortado and flat white, and closer in size to a cappuccino, but with more liquid. A cappuccino is made with equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam, whereas the latte has simply a shot of espresso and steamed milk poured to the top of the mug or cup. Without additional milk foam, the creamy top of a latte is formed by any residual air bubbles that are created as the milk is steamed.
How to Make a Latte
“Lattes are an interesting beverage to talk about because they are [so] milk forward,” says Giovanni Betteo, Director of Sales for Minor Figures, a London-based coffee brand specializing in canned oat milk lattes and boxed oat milk. In a 16 ounce drink — that's a Grande latte at Starbucks, for reference — a latte is built with three ounces of espresso and thirteen ounces of steamed milk, so your choice of milk will greatly affect both the taste and texture of your latte. Luckily, there have never been more options in the milk market, both dairy and non-dairy. To make a latte, milk is steamed to about 160°F and foam is created as air bubbles from hot water vapor are forced into the warm milk. It’s no surprise that creamier milks will lead to a silkier latte.
Barista-style oat milks have a super velvety consistency which, when steamed, create tiny microfoam bubbles which give the latte a luxurious mouthfeel. When it comes to integrating this creamy milk alternative with espresso, it’s a total balancing act: “Most people want to drink an oat milk latte because they are so comforting and have a creamy mouthfeel, but the coffee is not the star of the cup,” says Batteo.
Meanwhile, Rich Labriola has always loved a latte made with whole milk. As the founder of Stan’s Donuts & Coffee, a Chicago-based donut company specializing in delicious handcrafted donuts and classic coffees, Labriola knows a thing or two about coffee drinks and gravitates toward smooth drinks with pure flavors, hence his affinity for the latte. “While personally I have always been drawn to whole milk over other dairy alternatives, when I first tasted Ghost Town, I couldn't believe it was oat milk,” says Labriola. The Black-and-queer-owned oat milk brand creates creamy lattes with a lightly sweet flavor, and “ has the sweetness and creaminess of whole milk with a smooth texture that blends perfectly into lattes.”
A Good Latte Starts with Quality Espresso
“When it comes to the quality of a latte, the crema created as the espresso shot gets pulled will help ensure a silky texture and creamy foam,” says Chamberlain. With espresso, the term crema refers to the puffy cream that forms on top of the liquid espresso as it is extracted from an espresso machine. “Crema is one of the most prized components of a well-made espresso. Caramel-colored and creamy in texture, the foamy puff is created when hot water emulsifies coffee bean oils and floats atop the espresso with smooth little bubbles,” writes Maria Yagoda. While crema is the secret to an ultra-creamy latte, it emulsifies with steamed milk to create a luxurious mouthfeel, it can detract from the experience of drinking a shot of espresso on its own. According to Yagoda, crema is packed with carbon dioxide, which adds extra bitterness to an already bitter espresso.
How to Make an Iced Latte
The higher ratio of milk to espresso in the classic latte makes it a great candidate for serving cold. Iced lattes are typically made by pouring the milk of choice over espresso and ice, without the added step of steaming. “I love the option to make it hot or cold,” says Labriola, “as a Chicago-native where the weather changes quite frequently, lattes are a great option all year round.” Whether you’re enjoying a hot latte in the comfort of your home, iced and on-the-go, and flavored or not, the latte is worthy of your care and attention.