What Is an Espresso Macchiato?

A Guide to Buying, Making, and Drinking Espresso Macchiato

Coffee and cake in a London cafe

lechatnoir / Getty Images

Espresso macchiato (pronounced ess-press-oh mock-e-ah-toe) is a single or double espresso topped with a dollop of heated, foamed milk and (usually) served in a small cup. In Italy, it is referred to as Caffe macchiato. If you prefer your espresso to take charge of your drink's flavor, you will probably enjoy an espresso macchiato.

Along with espresso and cappuccino, a macchiato is part of the foundation of Italian coffee culture. Whereas Italians drink a cappuccino in the morning, a macchiato is a nice pick-me-up in the afternoon—a stronger drink with a touch of sweetness. And for those who might find a cappuccino too light and milky tasting, the espresso macchiato is the perfect blend.

History of the Name

The name for this coffee featuring espresso takes on the Italian word “macchiato” meaning “mark,” “stain,” or "spot." In this case, the “mark” is a dollop of milk on top of the espresso. One explanation of the drink's origin is that baristas needed to distinguish between plain espresso and espresso with milk so the waiters could tell the difference; they would "mark" the coffee that had the milk, hence the word "macchiato." Other accounts of the name's origin are that the milk is a "stain" in the espresso and that the hot coffee drink contains a "spot" of milk.

The Portuguese version of this espresso drink is called cafe pingado, meaning coffee with a drop. In Mexico, it is called a cortado, which can cause confusion since in other countries a coffee beverage also called cortado has a larger amount of milk in it compared to the macchiato.

How to Make a Macchiato 

What distinguishes a macchiato from other espresso-based coffee drinks is the ratio of milk to espresso. An average size espresso macchiato has a 2 to 1 ratio of espresso to milk whereas an average cappuccino is 1 to 2 and a latte is 1 to 3. The intention is that the espresso is not overwhelmed by the milk, and instead, the milk adds a touch of sweetness enhancing the flavors of the coffee.

A traditional macchiato is about 1 1/4 ounce—one shot (1 ounce) of espresso with a small amount of milk (1 to 2 teaspoons) that is mostly steamed with slight foam so there is a visible mark. The milk is often heated to 140 to 150 F, introducing steam into the milk causing the fats to expand and develop a layer of little bubbles, kind of a "micro-foam." This is most often done using an espresso machine and a steam wand.

What Is Espresso?

Although you may have heard the term "espresso beans," any type of coffee bean—from dark to lighter—can be used to make espresso. The important thing is that the beans are finely ground and that it is made with a process of pressurized brewing, forcing almost boiling water through the very finely ground beans, and then tamping down the beans to encourage even distribution of the water. Thus, the flavors become very concentrated. As a result of pressurized brewing, the coffee is thick and syrup-like with an emulsified layer on top (called crema). 

And it may surprise you to know that although there is more caffeine per ounce in espresso compared to regular coffee, an espresso provides less caffeine than a regular cup of coffee since you drink such a small amount at a time.

How to Order an Espresso Macchiato

If you are ordering from a reputable coffee house, asking for a "macchiato" should result in the diminutive beverage with a dollop of foamed milk. It may not even be on the drink menu, but the barista will know what it is. If you are at a coffee chain, however, you will need to specify "espresso macchiato" in order to avoid receiving some kind of drink flavored with caramel and topped with whipped cream. Also, do not confuse the espresso or Caffe macchiato with a latte macchiato, which is the absolute opposite of an espresso macchiato. Latte macchiato means "stained milk" and is foamed milk with a small amount of espresso in it. 

You may come across espresso macchiato spelled incorrectly as espresso machiato, espresso macciato, espresso macchiatto, or expresso macchiato.