Is that a cappuccino or a latte? Here’s how to tell

Do you find yourself in coffee shops sometimes, looking at the menu, totally confused about what to order? Not only are there different types of coffee beans and roasts, but also different types of coffee drinks. Between shots of espresso, macchiatos, Americanos, cappuccinos and lattes, there is just so much to choose from.

And it doesn’t help if you’re not quite sure about the differences between all these coffee drinks. It gets especially complicated when drinks have almost identical components—which is the case when you’re looking at the cappuccino vs. latte.

The difference between a cappuccino and a latte lies in the way the barista crafts the drink, rather than the ingredients. Both drinks have espresso, steamed milk and foamed milk. The cappuccino uses equal parts of all three, while the latte combines its steamed milk and foamed milk into a sort of microfoam that fills the cup above the espresso. 

coffee on a ledge that looks like a cappuccino or a latte
Is it a cappuccino or a latte?

Asking the barista about the difference might not seem like a fun thing to do, especially if you’ve been frequenting the place for a while. We love a good barista, but we’ve also encountered some who regard newbie questions with an air of contempt. Getting a response from one of these types might be off-putting and uncomfortable.

Before you head to your neighborhood cafe and place your next order (you may even be Googling this while you’re in line right now—we’ve been there), take a look below to learn the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, and which one might be a better fit for you.

What the cappuccino and latte have in common

In addition to having the same basic building blocks, cappuccinos and lattes are both Italian drinks. They’re very structure-oriented drinks, in the sense that there are certain steps baristas must follow in order to make them. It’s nothing like pouring a cup of black coffee into your reusable mug. How the drink comes together is what makes it either a cappuccino or a latte.

In Italy, and many parts of Europe, a cappuccino is actually considered a breakfast drink. In fact, all milk-based coffee drinks are for the morning. But of course these rules don’t apply to your personal preferences. You should feel free to drink whatever, whenever—as long as it doesn’t keep you up at night. 

Patrons sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Rome
When in Rome…well, try not to order a cappuccino or latte in the afternoon. It’s not the Italian way.

What’s in a cappuccino? 

Let’s go over some basics. We already know that a cappuccino has espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk. What makes it a cappuccino is how it comes together. A traditional cappuccino is evenly split among those three ingredients and served in a six-ounce ceramic cup. That means one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third milk froth. But instead of being blended together, they are poured in distinct layers, such that if you were to take a cross-section of your drink, you might see three even tiers. 

Cappuccino in a glass cup
When it’s made in a glass cup, you can really see the even proportions of a typical cappuccino.

Espresso

On the bottom, you start with either one or two shots of espresso. You’ll find that two shots are much more common in the U.S., whereas one shot is more common elsewhere. 

Steamed milk

Next, the barista adds a second layer of consisting of steamed milk. It sounds fancy but it’s really just milk that’s been heated to a desirable temperature.  

Milk foam

Finally, your cappuccino will be topped with a thick and airy dollop of foam, like the meringue on top of a pie. This is usually made with a small steaming wand on the side of the espresso machine. It can sound a little bit like a vacuum cleaner or an electric toothbrush whirring away. That’s because the barista is literally whipping and foaming the milk to lay on top of the cappuccino. 

This might seem like just a simple matter of layering, but a cappuccino isn’t the easiest drink to make. Professional baristas are tested on whether they can craft the perfect cappuccino based on the ratio of liquid to foam. As such, cappuccinos are sometimes considered the ultimate test of a barista’s skills. Of course, you may not find such a high-quality cappuccino at your local coffee shop, but frankly your barista will probably get pretty darn close. I’ve personally never had a cappuccino that I didn’t like. 

What’s in a latte?

A latte, or caffe latte, is made differently even though it contains the same ingredients. Let’s take a look at how the process differs. 

Caffe latte in a glass cup
A latte in a glass cup doesn’t have quite the same layered structure as a cappuccino.

Espresso

A caffe latte begins in the same way, with a base of a single or double shot of espresso. This is pretty straightforward so far. 

Steamed milk

When it comes to the milk, however, this is where things differ. Instead of a 1:1 ratio, the espresso is then combined with several ounces of milk to create a coffee drink that has a more subtle espresso taste. Whereas you’ll be able to taste the espresso much more in a cappuccino, a caffe latte will have more volume, with the espresso considerably diluted by milk. The typical espresso-to-milk ratio for a latte is usually about 1:2, so you can imagine how it would taste quite different from a cappuccino. 

Milk foam

While the steamed milk that fills the cup is slightly foamed, your barista may also top the drink with pure microfoam in such a way as to create an intricate design known as latte art.

Recently, flavored lattes have become popular as well. French vanilla or hazelnut are two popular flavors which are added using flavored syrups. Then you have matcha or turmeric lattes in the more trendy cafes and restaurants. These drinks, instead of having a shot of espresso, have a matcha or turmeric base, which is then blended with heated milk and top with foamed milk. It might not even be caffeinated, so it’s more about the flavor than it is about getting a buzz (although of course matcha does contain some caffeine).

In my experience, coffee shops tend to experiment more with the caffe latte because the ratio of espresso to milk makes it a more forgiving drink. Sometimes you’ll see something called a Havana cappuccino, which is a cappuccino that’s been sweetened by condensed milk without significantly altering the structure of the drink. 

Does it matter what kind of milk you use in a cappuccino or latte?

Now that you know the difference, you might wonder whether alternative milks will change up the drink. From a structural perspective, using almond or oat milk as a substitute for whole milk won’t change the structure much but it will alter the taste. Almond milk, for example, tends to be much creamier and viscous than oat milk. That will affect the consistency of your drink. Drinks made with these milks will have a more distinct taste, and I find it can clash a bit with cappuccinos—especially if you’re looking for the taste of the espresso shot. 

That said, if your local coffee shop provides it then these variations are worth a try. I like macadamia and cashew milk when I switch it up, because both of them have a natural sweetness and healthy fats which complement the espresso rather than competing with the coffee taste that I enjoy. 

Hopefully with this guide, you’re well on your way to ordering your next drink like a pro. Definitely look into how you can switch up your morning routine, knowing what you now know about how the cappuccino and latte are made.