If you’ve been drinking coffee for a while, you may have been taken aback when coffee shop menus started adding “flat whites” to their offerings.
If you’ve never traveled to Australia and New Zealand (or the UK), it’s unlikely you’ve ever encountered a flat white. That is — until it finally made its way to the States in 2015, and even Starbucks baristas picked it up!
Flat White Vs Cappuccino Origins
The flat white can trace its origins back to 1989 in Wellington, New Zealand. The story goes that a barista dubbed a low-fat cappuccino that failed to foam as a “flat white,” and the name stuck.
Whoever invented it — the coffee world is grateful for their contribution! The nitro cold brew also has more recent origins.
On the other hand, the cappuccino was invented in Italy (as you might’ve guessed). The cappuccino has hundreds of years of history on the flat white, but its name didn’t come about until the 1700s in Vienna, Austria.
“Kapuziner” was the term used by Viennese coffee sellers to describe coffee with cream and sugar. The brown color of the coffee, which looked strikingly similar to the robes of the Capuchin monks, inspired the name.
Differences Between a Flat White & a Cappuccino
They are both espresso-based drinks, but the amount of milk and how baristas prepare it differs vastly.
A traditional flat white is one-third espresso plus two-thirds steamed milk. Typically, a double shot of espresso and less milk (~ 4 ounces) than a latte.
Flat whites are also served in smaller cups — usually five to six ounces as opposed to eight. The absence of frothed milk allows the smooth cream of the espresso to stay on top of the coffee drink! (Sometimes, it’s topped by a little microfoam latte* art as well.)
A flat white might taste a bit stronger than a cappuccino due to its use of the “ristretto shot.”
In contrast, a cappuccino is foamy and frothy. Though, how foamy depends on whether you order a wet cappuccino or a dry cappuccino. A classic cappuccino is a perfect three-way split between espresso, steamed milk, and dense foam.
*We say latte here because latte art is well-known; however, a flat white is not a latte.
What is a Ristretto Shot?
Ristretto comes from the Italian “restricted.” It involves pulling a shorter shot of espresso, which means it uses less water.
Less water = stronger espresso.
Pros and Cons of a Flat White Vs a Cappuccino
These three things, caffeine content, acidity, and coffee flavor, can be a pro or a con depending on your individual preferences!
A flat white often uses more espresso (two shots), resulting in higher caffeine content.
A shot of espresso contains anywhere from 40-68 milligrams of caffeine (a ristretto shot usually comes in around 63 milligrams). So if you get a double shot in your cappuccino, it’ll be comparable in caffeine to the flat white.
They won’t differ much in terms of acidity, but the flat white may taste smoother due to more milk than foam.
What about the difference in coffee flavor?
The foam in a cappuccino absorbs flavors more easily than the milkiness of the flat white. So even though the flat white has more espresso, the flavor might be more intense when you sip it through the foam of your cappuccino.
Baristas will sometimes add a little extra to a cappuccino, too, like a sprinkle of cinnamon or a dash of cocoa powder.
Other vs. options to explore: Moka Pot vs. French Press
How to Make a Flawless Flat White
To make a flat white, you’ll need an espresso machine with a steam wand*, finely ground coffee beans, and your favorite milk in a milk frothing pitcher. (Choosing milk with some fat in it will help it get that velvety, smooth texture!)
A flat white is commonly served in a tulip cup. If you don’t have one, no problem. Choose a mug that’s on the smaller side; if you have a six-ounce mug — perfect!
Step-by-Step Flat White Directions
Total Time: 4 minutes
- “Preheat” your cup by filling it with hot water; this will help keep your coffee from cooling too quickly.
- Turn on your espresso machine and load your portafilter.
- Pull a ristretto shot, only letting the espresso pour for about 15 seconds. (A coffee scale is very handy for this part. If you have one, weigh your shots, aiming for 15-20 milliliters each.) Dump the grounds, reload, and pull a second.
- Discard the hot water and pour the two shots of espresso into your mug.
- Steam four ounces of milk. You can position the steam wand just under the surface of the milk to produce some silky milk foam if desired (Note: this trick doesn’t always work with plant-based milks). Tap the milk pitcher gently on the countertop to remove any bubbles.
- Slowly pour the steamed milk into the cup of espresso. You can get fancy and wobble the cup at the end of the pour for your own “latte art.”
- Sip and smile!
Don’t have a grinder? Discover: The Best Ground Coffee You Can Get Online
How to Make a Cozy Cappuccino
You’ll need the same equipment and ingredients as you would for making a flat white:
- Espresso machine with a steam wand
- Milk frothing pitcher
- Smaller, wide-mouthed mug
- Finely ground espresso beans
*You can use any milk you like, but 2% or whole milk will froth best.
Wet Cappuccino vs Dry Cappuccino
A wet cappuccino has more steamed milk and less foam than a dry cappuccino. If you’re more into the foam, order yours dry. Or even bone dry, meaning no steamed milk at all, just the foam!
Step-by-Step Cappuccino Directions
For this recipe, we’ll stick to the classic one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foam equation.
Total time: 5 minutes
- It’s a bit odd to make the first step optional, but here we are. You can choose to preheat your coffee mug with hot water if you want your cappuccino to stay hot longer.
- Turn on your machine and grind freshly-roasted whole bean coffee until it’s fine enough for espresso.
- Load and tamp the portafilter for a double shot (you can cut this down to a single shot if you’re watching your caffeine intake).
- Pull your espresso shot(s), dump the hot water from your mug, and add the coffee.
- Fill a milk frothing pitcher with four ounces of milk. Briefly turn the steaming wand on and off to clear any water from the line. Then angle it down just below the surface of the milk, and keep it toward the side of the pitcher.
- Move the pitcher around, up and down, further, then back, and closer to the steam wand to incorporate air bubbles into the milk. Once the milk has doubled in size and the pitcher is almost too hot to hold — turn it off!
- Using a spoon, hold back the foam and pour ~2 ounces of steamed milk into your espresso. Then scoop a dreamy, creamy foam layer onto the very top!
- Optional: Top with cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles.
Types of Coffee for Flat Whites and Cappuccinos
This article wouldn’t be complete without talking about some of the qualities of our favorite specialty coffee beans and espressos! All coffee brewing methods require slightly different beans.
Espresso or Italian roasts are unsurprisingly the go-tos for unforgettable espresso experiences. The best tip we can give you is to always look for freshly-roasted beans and buy them whole for grinding at home (ideally, right before brewing).
For decadent flat whites and cappuccinos, look for flavor profiles that say “chocolate,” “brown sugar,” “molasses,” or “caramel.” These aren’t added flavors; they’re natural flavors that emerge during the roasting process and depend on the coffee bean’s origin!
You’ll notice that different tools also produce different results, such as the Turkish coffee maker.
Most medium-dark to dark roast coffee won’t disappoint. You can read more in-depth about our favorites in this article. Or find out which decaf coffees will satisfy your coffee cravings without the buzz here.
While a flat white and a cappuccino are markedly different, it’s pretty neat that they use the same ingredients — just combined in unique ways!
With these recipes at your fingertips, you can alternate between the two whenever you want. Enjoy a flat white with a muffin for a morning treat, or sip on a cappuccino with amaretti cookies for a weeknight dessert.