What is a Macchiato? Discover Your New Favorite Coffee

Hot cup of Macchiato

You may never find a more dedicated and particular group of people than coffee lovers. From the macchiato to the Americano, frappuccinos to a flat white, coffee culture has taken the world by storm. With the simple smell of the beans, that craving hits, and fanatic’s mouths water at the prospect of a good old cup of Joe.

For many, a cup of coffee is a necessity in starting the day off on the right foot. With Italian and American styles (and everything in between), you have practically endless names and variations of the famous bean. Some like to order from their favorite coffee shops, while others want to be their own at-home barista. No matter your preference, we’re here to support you on your journey to finding your ultimate coffee match.

coffee guide infographic

Today, we want to talk about the macchiato. So many people don’t know the difference between the types of coffee and can get stage fright when they see the menu at a coffee shop. The only way to know what you like is to start trying them. Breaking down the mystique of an Italian favorite, let’s see if the macchiato will become your usual.


What is Macchiato?

Caramel Macchiato Coffee Pods

Before you can learn about a macchiato, you need to understand espresso. The pride and joy of Italian coffee, espresso is a pure black coffee with a high source of caffeine. Some people drink espresso shots all on their own to give them a quick kick of power. It’s essentially the strongest form of coffee out there.

It acts as the base for many Italian coffees, the macchiato included. Essentially, the macchiato is an espresso shot with a milk splash. Emphasis on splash!

The Italian word macchiato translates to marked or stained. This means that you are staining the espresso with some milk. Think of a shirt with a stain on it. It’s mostly a shirt, but you will notice a stain or something else on it.

Espresso macchiato is the technical name for this. Mostly espresso, you get one full shot of the black coffee and then add 1-2 teaspoons of milk or foam. Depending on where you go, some will make it with just milk, some foamed milk, and others both. You can almost always see the distinct white dot of milk on top of the golden espresso color.

Depending on where you order, the milk-to-espresso proportions can vary widely. Two coffee shops on the same block can produce two very different-tasting macchiatos. However, the emphasis should be on the espresso (rather than the milk).

This perk-me-up is good for those who are calorie conscious or are worried about consuming lots of dairy. In the coffee world, it’s one of the simpler and more health-conscious options out there.


What’s the Difference Between a Latte and a Macchiato?

hot latte with milk in a heart shape

So now that you’re feeling clearer about the definition of a macchiato, it only makes sense to complicate things a bit more. Lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos are all very similar on the surface in that they all use espresso and milk. But to a coffee fanatic, the drinks couldn’t be more different.

A latte contains steamed milk with a shot of espresso. The foamed milk is much more prominent, and the layers are blended together. Cappuccinos, however, are equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and a layer of milk foam on top. Completely unblended, a cappuccino should be distinctly layered.

Both cappuccinos and lattes are less strong than an espresso or macchiato and tend to be favored more as a morning drink. You sneak macchiatos at lunch or in the afternoon when you need a pick-me-up.

You can also have a latte macchiato to make things even more confusing (sorry!). While similar to a latte, the latte macchiato has more milk, less espresso and is poured in layers rather than blended. In a clear glass, you see a thick layer of steamed milk, followed by espresso, and topped with a layer of foam. The emphasis of this style of macchiato is the milk. Rather than “staining” the espresso with milk, you are staining the milk with espresso. Typically, you will see 1/3 to ½ cup of milk.

Another espresso drink, the Americano, is when you dilute espresso with hot water. The strength varies immensely depending on the ratio.


The Origin of Espresso

Espresso machine

Without a doubt, Italy is the center of coffee culture. In a way, there seems to be a never-ending coffee war between Americans and Italians. Both countries have their own takes on many drinks, preferring differing strengths and techniques when it comes to brewing the perfect cup. One thing is certain no matter where you are, though… everyone has their favorite!

Venice was one of the first European ports to import coffee beans in the 16th century. Already widespread in Arab countries, Arabic coffee was used to stay awake for night prayers and for healing purposes. It became a drink for the wealthy in Italy due to its high costs.

As supply increased, coffee shops became very popular in the 18th century. They became a place for friends and lovers to meet, a tradition that certainly carries on to this day. Everybody loves to chat over a cup of Joe!

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that espresso made its way to the scene. In 1901, a Milanese inventor names Luigi Bezzera came up with the espresso shot. He created a machine that shot pressurized water through coffee powder in order to make a small, highly concentrated drink. The name espresso means to express or to press out. This not only describes how the coffee is made but also how quickly it can go from bean to consumer. The drink was a hit and quickly become trendy for many shops to carry and serve.


Introducing the Macchiato

Caramel Macchiato pod

Italian coffee, as a whole, tends to come from a dark roast, being bitter and flatter. This is why milk became a popular additive for the drink, making it more creamy and less bitter. However, we now know how different tasting the combination of espresso and milk combined can be. The proportions of milk to espresso can make either a latte, cappuccino, or macchiato.

To make things easier for themselves, baristas came up with the term macchiato. This would help them explain how much milk they would like added to their espresso. After all, better communication equals happy customers.

Macchiatos started to become popular in the 1980s. In Italy, people drink it at lunchtime to perk themselves up for the rest of the day. As time has passed, the definition of macchiato becomes increasingly blurred.

Things got complicated with the introduction of the latte macchiato and then Starbucks‘ famous milkshake-like drink, the caramel macchiato. Most recipes you find online will give you a latte macchiato rather than an espresso macchiato.


How to Order a Macchiato

cup of Macchiato

If you’ve read this far, you probably are interested in trying a macchiato for yourself! The key to getting a tasty macchiato is knowing how to order one and identify an authentic cup.

A macchiato is best served in a glass or ceramic demitasse cup. You can get them to go, but the Italian experience is sitting down and enjoying your drink! It usually comes with a teaspoon and a sugar bowl if you want to sweeten it up. However, the flavor is considered delicate, and most leave it as is.

People order macchiato when they don’t want the full-strength taste of an espresso. It is still strong in flavor and not too milky like a cappuccino or latte.

If you order a macchiato from a specialty coffee shop, you will likely be given an espresso macchiato (espresso stained with milk). If you order from a chain coffee shop, that will more likely be a latte macchiato (milk stained with espresso). Some places won’t have it listed on the menu, but most baristas should know what you want. To order a classic macchiato, be sure to clarify and say espresso macchiato when at the till.


Iced Version

iced coffee

Like most coffees, you can also get the beverage iced. Essentially, you get a macchiato with ice cubes. The best way to make an iced macchiato is with a cold brew. This is where you take use cold water and let the coffee brew for 12-24 hours. Less than 12 hours, and it will be too weak, and more than 24 hours, it will be over-brewed and too bitter. If you make a regular brew (fresh and hot), adding ice cubes will instantly make the drink more watery and runny.

Extra special baristas will actually make espresso ice cubes for the macchiato. This ensures the taste stays consistent, and you can enjoy an ice-cold macchiato without compromising the flavor.


Caramel Version

On the rise, caramel macchiatos offer sweetness that is missing from a regular one. More than just a sprinkle of caramel on top, the recipe also involves vanilla syrup. Before adding the espresso to the cup, the barista will add a layer of vanilla syrup. The espresso, dash of milk, and caramel drizzle are then added in that order.

Some places will serve it to you stirred, while others will leave it as it is. If you don’t stir it upon arrival, your first sip of a caramel macchiato will likely be nothing but vanilla syrup. However, it’s nice to have the initial aesthetic of an unstirred one upon serving.


How to Make a Macchiato

Making a macchiato doesn’t take much if you’re at home and want to mix up your morning coffee. Of course, having an espresso machine will make the process much easier. If you don’t have one, you can still make a macchiato. Use a French press or the classic Italian Moka pot. The key is to have a strong enough coffee to resemble an espresso.

To make your macchiato rival the best coffee shops, grind high-quality beans fresh for your morning cup. The key to a good cup is all in the quality of an espresso. Since you add so little to the drink, you can’t hide a bad coffee flavor. Mastering the art of making espresso and keeping it consistent results in the perfect drink. This is why ordering any kind of espresso drink is a good way to tell the quality of a coffee shop and test the baristas’ skills.

Feel free to play with proportions to suit your taste, but here is a good starting point:

  • Steam one ounce of milk in a pitcher. You want it to feel warm but not hot when ready.
  • Take a 2-ounce shot of espresso and add a dash of your steamed milk, approximately half an ounce. Remember to only “stain” the espresso.
  • If you’re feeling extra fancy, you can add toppings such as caramel, cinnamon, or grated chocolate. While not traditional, only you know how you like your coffee!


What to Pair with a Macchiato

chocolate muffin

Interested in more than just a cup of coffee? The best cups are those paired with delicious offerings. Those who can go into a coffee shop and pass all the other gourmet goodies sure have strong willpower. Or maybe, they’re just in a rush!

Because a macchiato is on the bitter side of things, pairing it with sweeter items creates a nice contrast. Caramel or nut-based desserts are an espresso favorite. You can also never go wrong with chocolate or fruits and berries. An especially nice morning treat is crepes covered with fruit with a macchiato on the side.

Of course, Italians enjoy the drink in the afternoon and with their lunch. All in all, take some time to savor a macchiato’s unique and strong flavor. And if you can do it in an Italian coffee shop on a sunny afternoon along with a pizzelle, that’s even better!


What Does a Caramel Macchiato Taste Like?

A Caramel Macchiato tastes like a perfect combination of rich espresso, sweet caramel, and creamy milk. The caramel drizzle adds an extra touch of sweetness, while the espresso gives a bold and robust flavor. You’ll experience an amazing balance of flavors that complement each other, satisfying both your sweet tooth and coffee cravings.

Are You Supposed to Stir a Macchiato?

Traditionally, you’re not supposed to stir a Macchiato. The coffee is poured over the milk creating a beautiful layered effect, which looks great and allows for a gradual mixing of flavors as you sip.


What Is an Upside-Down Caramel Macchiato?

An Upside-Down Caramel Macchiato is prepared by pouring the espresso first and then adding the steamed milk and caramel on top. This results in a more blended drink, almost like a latte, but with a distinct caramel flavor. It’s perfect for those who enjoy a more even mix of flavors from the start.


Is a Macchiato Hot or Cold?

A Macchiato can be both hot and cold. The traditional Italian version is a hot espresso drink with a dollop of frothy milk on top. However, the Caramel Macchiato has gained popularity as a cold iced beverage, too—a refreshing choice for those hot summer days. So, it’s up to your preference whether you want to enjoy your Macchiato hot or cold.


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Written by Laurie Graves

Laurie is a 50-something wife and boy mom, who loves to share easy recipes, DIY home ideas, and food hacks. She truly believes that with a little inspiration, anyone can make their home and meals feel special.