What is a Macchiato? It’s Probably Not What You Think

Order a macchiato, and you may be in for a surprise. 

Everyone seems to have a different take on how to make this drink. And one cafe’s version can be the literal opposite of what you’d get in another cafe across the street. 

Whenever somebody orders a macchiato at my barista station, I always take time to get on the same page before I make the drink. 

Are you looking for something small? Foamy? Sweet? 

With so many variations, you might wonder if there is even such thing as a “true” macchiato.

In this article, I’ll break it down for you. We’ll cover the original macchiato drink, popular spin-offs, and why coffee lovers have difficulty getting on the same page.

What is a Macchiato?

When somebody says “macchiato,” what do they mean?

Traditional Macchiato

A classic macchiato is a fairly straightforward, tiny drink. It’s made with a double espresso “marked” with a small stain of steamed milk or foam. 

This traditional version originated in Italy, where the word “macchiato” literally means “to mark.”

The traditional macchiato is intended for espresso lovers who want a dash of milk to soften the reception of espresso. Served on a small saucer with a spoon, the macchiato is the perfect after-meal drink.

macchiato

Most specialty cafes will serve traditional macchiatos in a “wet” style. This means the barista will mark the espresso with lightly aerated milk rather than a big scoop of dry foam. It all depends on the barista’s or cafe’s preference. 

Latte Macchiato

The latte macchiato is an inverse of the traditional. In this case, the espresso marks the milk instead of the other way around. Since espresso has a higher density than milk, it leaves a mark on the top of the drink before sinking below most of the milk.

If you want a latte macchiato from your favorite specialty cafe, consider asking them for a regular latte. Or kindly explain you want your espresso shot added after your milk.

Americans are not known for their love of strong coffee. (See: history of the Americano.) The popularity of the latte macchiato in the States may be, in part, credited to our love of milky drinks and creative presentation. 

Regardless of your milk preferences, I would give this one a gentle stir before drinking. This way, the espresso is better combined with the milk for a more balanced drinking experience.

Caramel Macchiato

A caramel macchiato is an excellent drink for people who like sweet, dessert-y coffee drinks. This version is like the double inversion of the traditional macchiato.

Since Starbucks’ employee (Hannah Su) invented it to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, the coffee world has never been the same.

Like the latte-macchiato, espresso also “marks” 12+ ounces of milk. But in this case, it’s all iced and sweetened with caramel-flavored syrup or caramel sauce.

Caramel Macchiato

While the presentation is eye-catching (dark espresso on top and creamy white milk at the bottom), my instinct is to immediately stir the drink. I don’t want to drink 8 ounces of sweetened milk, waiting for the flavor of the coffee to arrive until the very end.

This drink is a Starbucks staple. Even if you can’t find caramel on your favorite cafe’s menu, most baristas are familiar enough with this drink to offer you a tasty equivalent. An iced vanilla latte is a close comp.

The caramel macchiato is tasty with any kind of milk or milk alternative, from cow to coconut. If you like lattes and sweetness, you’ll enjoy the caramel macchiato.

Characteristics

Size

A traditional macchiato is served in a “doppio” or espresso glass, which holds about 2-3 ounces of liquid.

Other versions, such as the latte or caramel macchiato, will vary in size. 

For example, the Starbucks caramel macchiato is typically served in a “Grande” or 16-ounce cup.

If you’re hoping for something like a latte or caramel macchiato at a specialty shop, they will likely suggest a 12-ounce, the size of a regular latte.

Again, it depends on where you go and what you’re looking for.

Coffee

All macchiatos are served with a double shot of espresso unless otherwise specified. 

Depending on where you order coffee, they may offer more than one type of espresso. In that case, ask your barista which espresso they think goes best with your chosen milk.

A fruity, bright espresso may clash with whole or oat milk. But a nice, balanced espresso blend could add sweetness and depth. Your barista will know best.

If you’re making a macchiato at home, try using a medium roast from a coffee company you like with “espresso” in the bean’s title. Espresso blends will give you the wiggle room to experiment and nail down your recipe.

espresso on counter

Roasted specifically for espresso, these beans often have a broader range in which they taste delicious.

When in doubt, the next time you stop by your favorite cafe, ask the barista what coffee they would suggest.

Sweetness

Since there is hardly any added milk and sweetener is omitted–macchiatos are only as sweet as their espresso or milk. 

I find a classic macchiato made with whole milk has the perfect natural sweetness.

In a latte macchiato, there is so much milk that the espresso flavor is much more subtle. Again, the sweetness level will vary depending on the espresso you or the barista use. It is common to add sweetener to lattes, like caramel or vanilla, but not a pre-requisite.

In a caramel macchiato, it’s all about the caramel. This drink is intentionally sweet. Starbucks’ recipe not only mixes caramel into the drink but also tops the whole drink off with a heavy drizzle.

Milk 

A traditional macchiato is made using whole milk, which is great if you don’t have any dietary restrictions. Because it has the highest fat content of any other milk, it will produce an excellent, creamy texture.

That said, there are so many great alternatives on the market. With such a small amount of milk in a traditional macchiato, you might pick the milk you like for a latte or cappuccino.

For any of the milkier macchiato variations, choose the milk you’d want to drink 10 or more ounces of. If there’s anything I’ve learned after years behind the bar, it’s that everyone thinks their personal choice of milk or milk alternative is the best. 

Caffeine

Most cafes default to serving macchiatos with a double shot of espresso. You shouldn’t feel a huge variance in caffeine levels between shops.

Double-check the menu to see if different drink sizes include more or fewer espresso shots if you’re caffeine sensitive. While the amount of caffeine will vary, most experts agree that the average 1-oz espresso contains about 65 mg of caffeine.

Calories

A traditional macchiato is so tiny it tops out at ten calories.

And a latte macchiato’s caloric intake will vary depending on the choice of milk.

But, a caramel macchiato? That’s where you’ll get calories. A caramel macchiato has the most calories because it has caramel syrup or flavoring added. According to Starbucks, it’s about 250 calories if you order with 2% milk.

Many of the big coffee chains have resident scientists on staff. This means it’s not uncommon to find calorie count calculated and handy on the menu.

Most mom-and-pop cafes and specialty shops aren’t nearly as sophisticated regarding nutritional stats. They are there to make tasty coffee regardless of the caloric intake. 

How To Make A Macchiato

Step 1: Brew your espresso

Pull espresso shots to your desired specifications. Here’s a handy web story guide to pulling espresso the right way.

While your espresso shots pull, prep the milk. 

Fill a small milk pitcher with about 4-6 ounces of milk. You need more milk than you plan to use to steam the milk without scorching it.

Step 2: Steam your milk

Purge your steam wand into a damp rag to eliminate any residual liquid in the wand, if you don’t have an espresso machine a milk frother will do just fine.

Milk Frother on Marble Counter

Submerge your steam wand and gently aerate the milk until the milk has stretched ¼ inches. 

The whole milk steaming process shouldn’t take longer than 45 seconds. Four ounces of milk heats up fast! Aim for 140-150F.

Swirl your milk in your pitcher to blend the creamy foam with the wetter milk and get rid of any big bubbles.

“Mark” your espresso shots by pouring the creamy, slightly foamy milk on top of the espresso until your demitasse or doppio glass is full. Enjoy!

FAQs

Do you need an espresso machine to make a macchiato?

Yes. If you do not have an espresso machine at home, I would suggest leaving macchiatos to the baristas. The components of a macchiato will not be well-duplicated with drip or other forms of coffee. 

Of course, there are alternatives.

One way to make espresso-like coffee at home is by using an Aeropress following this award-winning barista’s recipe

“Steam” a couple of ounces of milk or cream on the stovetop, and add this to your homemade espresso. Voila, a DIY-macchiato.

Is a macchiato stronger than drip coffee?

In flavor, yes. In caffeine content, it depends.

Different kinds of coffee are brewed at particular ratios that will affect the “strength” of a given coffee.

Since espresso is so concentrated (only a few ounces of water running through upwards of 22 grams of ground coffee), expect to notice a caffeine buzz.

A typical cup of drip has anywhere from 70-140 milligrams of caffeine, while a double espresso averages 125 mg. Again this depends on the coffee and how much espresso you grind for each shot. 

What is the difference between a latte and a macchiato?

Both drinks are made with steamed milk and espresso. A macchiato is traditionally served with very little milk. Only 1-2 ounces.

By contrast, most lattes are served with about 10 or more ounces of milk on top of the double espresso.

Latte and caramel macchiatos use more milk than a traditional macchiato. They actually resemble a cafe latte more than they do traditional macchiatos. 

Coffee language changes quickly as cafes and baristas continue experimenting with and inventing new ways to drink coffee. When in doubt, kindly describe to your barista what you’re looking for, and they will guide you in the right direction. 

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About Lily

Lily Blackburn is a professional barista of 15 years. She's worked extensively behind the bar in America's premier coffee city - Portland, OR - including stops at Upper Left Roasters and Ranger Chocolate. She's the resident coffee expert at Kitchen Ambition, and a regular contributor for Bit of Cream.

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