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Our San Francisco Food Blog

Lattes and Cappuccinos: The Steamy Truth

Espresso drinks have become so ubiquitous in recent years that it’s almost impossible to remember how novel they were in America. Starbucks was the first to offer lattes and cappuccinos to a mass customer base, but now every coffee shop has a hissing espresso machine and a new subculture has sprung up around prizing the “authentic” versions of drinks. While you might have ordered a pumpkin spice latte or caramel macchiato hundreds of times, you might not realize that there is a definite difference between all of these espresso drinks, and some of them are very different in their original Italian form. While all of these drinks contain espresso shots and milk, they are all unique; indeed, it’s remarkable how so much diversity can arise from such simple ingredients.

Latte
Perhaps the most popular espresso drink, the caffè latte has many names and many definitions. Coffee and hot milk have been a part of European dietary habits since at least the 1600s; the French enjoy café au lait, the Spaniards have café con leche. The basic Italian caffè latte consists of a shot of espresso and steamed milk, with a small layer of wet foam on top. Expert baristas can create latte art when the espresso is thick and the milk is steamed just right, which allows them to pour out a design using the microfoam.

Cappuccino
The cappuccino is the latte’s thicker cousin, with far more foam on the top layer of the drink. The traditional proportions call for a cup to be one-third espresso, one-third milk, and one-third wet foam on top. The cappuccino is named for the Capuchin friars of Vienna; their brown robes supposedly resembled the color of coffee with a few drops of hot cream. Some coffee chains offer cappuccinos with dry milk foam on top instead of the traditional shiny wet foam. An authentic wet cappuccino is actually one of the most difficult drinks to make successfully, as it requires careful attention to achieve the correct ratio of foam to milk.

Americano
The Americano got its name during World War II, when American soldiers would pour hot water into their coffees to resemble American drip consistency. An Americano consists of a shot of espresso topped with boiling water, which dilutes the flavor. While it may look similar to percolated brew, the taste remains quite distinct. Some places call this drink a Long Black, and gently pour the espresso shot on top of the hot water, rather than adding the water to the espresso. This method preserves the crema in the drink, resulting (according to some) in a slightly more full-bodied flavor. Either way, it’s delicious!

by sffoodie at December 18, 2012


 

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