What Is A Macchiato?

In coffee terms, “macchiato” can refer to a number of different beverages. The word comes from Italian and means “stained” or “marked.” Depending on your angle, this could mean an espresso stained with just a touch of milk—or milk stained with just a touch of espresso. In commercial coffee shops, there are many flavored variations as well.

What is a macchiato?

Traditional macchiato

The original espresso macchiato comes from Italy, where it is called caffè macchiato. This macchiato is a cup of espresso just barely marked with milk.

A classic macchiato.
A classic macchiato. (© Neil Conway | Creative Commons)

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The beverage hits the point between an espresso and a cappuccino, with just a teaspoon full of steamed milk and/or milk foam added to the top to cut the bitterness. You sip the coffee through the foam to temper its strong taste. This foam enhances the crema produced during an espresso pull.

The macchiato is sometimes confused with the marocchino, which is made with chocolate.

Latte macchiato

In Italian, latte macchiato means “stained milk.” For this drink, one steams a tall, thin glass of milk and then gently pours an espresso in the top.

In a latte macchiato, the coffee stains the milk—not the other way around.
In a latte macchiato, the coffee stains the milk—not the other way around. (© Stephanie Kraus | Creative Commons)

The slow pour creates a layered look and taste, stronger at the top and milder at the bottom. If poured correctly, there should be one small mark of dark espresso at the top.

Iced sweet macchiatos

When the macchiato reached America, coffee shops began playing around with it. Starbucks made the Iced Caramel Macchiato famous. This drink has milk and vanilla syrup poured over ice and then marked first with espresso, then with caramel.


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Since then, the chain has developed other drinks with the macchiato name, such as the Iced Coconut Milk Mocha Macchiato and the Iced Cinnamon Almond Milk Macchiato.

For customers of vendors specializing in sweet coffee drinks, an iced macchiato is a relatively weak and sweet coffee drink. Coffee purists are more likely to call this drink a milkshake. However, the coffee spectrum allows room for a variety of tastes.

Other macchiatos and macchiato-like drinks

The long macchiato is a popular drink in Australia. It is like the espresso macchiato but contains two espresso shots and a dash of milk. Spain has its cortado, with more milk than an espresso macchiato—espresso and milk in equal quantities. Spain’s piccolo latte is closer to an espresso macchiato, but experts say it has just a touch more milk.

History and origins of the macchiato

The macchiato comes from Italy, with a tip of the hat to Portugal who developed a separate but similar drink. Portugal’s café pingado means espresso with a drop of milk.

The Italian macchiato has everything to do with the time of day. Italians were searching for an afternoon coffee beverage. In the morning, most Italians will drink a cappuccino to wake them (espresso) and fortify them (milk) for the day ahead. Drinks with milk and foam are considered breakfast-only drinks by most Italians.

A typical Italian breakfast.
A typical Italian breakfast. (© WordRidden | Creative Commons)

By afternoon, energy is lagging but many people are not ready for a full-on espresso shot. Those folks gravitate to the traditional macchiato. This coffee drink grants enough energy to boost them through the rest of the day, while cutting the harshness enough to make it enjoyable.

Macchiato ratios

There is no universally accepted ratio of coffee to milk in a traditional macchiato. Generally, 1-2 teaspoons of milk, a combination of milk and foam, or simply foam is added. In recent years this has begun to standardize around twice as much coffee as milk. However, for some, that is still too much milk. The traditional macchiato has two or three parts coffee to each part of milk/foam.

Other coffee drinks, by comparison, have more milk to the same amount of coffee. A cortado has equal parts coffee and milk. A cappuccino has one part coffee, one part milk, and one part milk foam. A latte has one part coffee to 3-5 parts of milk, with a latte macchiato trending to the weaker part of that range.

Who drinks a macchiato?

The espresso macchiato is ideal for people who find espresso just a little too strong. When the coffee is sipped through a hint of milk, it sweetens the brew just slightly and tempers the bitterness. The drink is perfect for lunch or an afternoon pick-me-up, as the Italians drink it. When made with foam, a macchiato acquires a texture that makes it different and interesting.

How to make a macchiato

To make any macchiato, you start by pulling an espresso shot.

The second ingredient you need is milk. Today, many health-conscious consumers opt for coconut milk or almond milk. Oat milk is a newcomer to the market that is gaining many coffee-drinking fans for its thicker texture. However, if you are making an espresso macchiato, go for the milk, as there is too little used to make a difference.

How to make an espresso macchiato

Pour your shot of espresso into a demitasse cup. (These are the tiniest cups found in coffeehouses). Steam a small bit of milk. Very gently, scoop two teaspoons of hot milk and foam into the center of the surface of the cup. If you like, you can draw a design like the traditional feathered pattern in the milk.

How to make a latte macchiato

Prewarm a 12-ounce class and fill it halfway full of steamed milk (or a little less milk if you prefer). Pour one shot of espresso very slowly, as slow as you possibly can, into the center of the milk.

If you take it really slow, the top of your latte macchiato will look like this.
If you take it really slow, the top of your latte macchiato will look like this. (© Thorsten Hartmann | Creative Commons)

This should create a layered look with milk at the bottom slowly darkening into espresso, with a layer of lighter-colored foam on top.

It is a beautiful drink. The layering creates a flavor gradient where each sip can be savored for its changing taste. In a pinch, if you have no access to espresso, you can substitute very strong coffee.

How to make an iced caramel macchiato

To make an iced caramel macchiato at home:

  1. Start with five ounces of milk and one tablespoon of vanilla syrup. Stir them together.
  2. Take a tall clear glass and drizzle caramel syrup around the inside of the glass.
  3. Fill the glass with ice.
  4. Pour the milk mixture into the glass.
  5. Slowly pour your shot of espresso into the middle of the glass and top with more caramel syrup.

This can be made hot by omitting the ice and heating the milk.

Is a macchiato stronger than a coffee?

An espresso macchiato tastes stronger than a standard American coffee. However, a single espresso macchiato has less caffeine than a standard cup of coffee. The espresso used to make it has more caffeine per ounce, but a macchiato is traditionally served in a tiny cup, so it has less caffeine overall.

For any other macchiato, the amount of caffeine will depend on the amount of espresso used, given the size of the drink. Most are heavy on the milk, so the taste is much milder than a regular coffee. When the drink becomes sugary, that blunts the coffee flavor even more.

Try a macchiato

A traditional macchiato may not be on the menu at your favorite coffee shop. Still, any good barista will be able to make one if you order an espresso macchiato. If that drink sounds too strong for you, a latte macchiato with steamed milk is mild and pleasant.

Image at top: Jonathan McIntosh | Creative Commons