What is a Macchiato? The Ultimate Guide

What is a Macchiato?

A macchiato is an espresso that is “stained” or “marked” with a small amount of milk or foam.

In the intricate tapestry of coffee drinks, one particular brew captures the essence of balance: the macchiato. For aficionados and casual drinkers alike, a visit to a cherished coffee haunt might involve savoring this unique concoction.

Distinct from the milky latte or the stark espresso, the macchiato offers a harmonious blend of strong coffee flavor lightly softened by milk. It epitomizes the delicate craft of coffee-making, where the interplay between espresso and milk is paramount.

As we navigate the diverse realm of coffee, the macchiato emerges as an emblem of sophistication. Whether you’re a skilled barista or embarking on your coffee odyssey, grasping the macchiato is essential to understanding the expansive coffee spectrum.

  • Origin: Italy
  • Description: Espresso “stained” or “marked” with a touch of milk or foam.
  • Preparation: A shot of espresso with a small amount of milk added on top.
  • Taste Profile: Robust coffee flavor with a hint of creaminess.
  • Unique Feature: Emphasizes the espresso, with milk serving merely as a softening agent.
  • Popularity: Cherished by those desiring a strong coffee taste with a touch of smoothness.
Table of Contents

Macchiato Etymology

The word ‘macchiato’ hails from the Italian verb ‘macchiare’, which means ‘to stain’ or ‘to spot’. This term provides a direct insight into the essence of this coffee drink. When one thinks of a macchiato, the image that often comes to mind is that of a shot of espresso stained or marked with a small amount of milk.

The choice of the term ‘stain’ is not arbitrary. In traditional Italian coffee culture, the essence of a macchiato is to retain the strong flavor and character of the espresso coffee, while the small amount of milk serves to soften its intensity just slightly. It’s a delicate balance, ensuring that the taste of the espresso remains the star of the show.

In many coffee shops around the world, the term ‘macchiato’ is used to denote this specific type of macchiato. However, as the drink has evolved and been adapted by different coffee chains and cultures, the precise meaning and preparation of a macchiato have also shifted, leading to various interpretations.

It’s interesting to note that while other coffee names like ‘cappuccino’ or ‘latte’ focus on the milk component, ‘macchiato’ is centered on the espresso and its interaction with a bit of milk. This distinction highlights the drink’s emphasis on the espresso flavor and its unique position among other coffee drinks.

Macchiato History

The macchiato, much like many coffee concoctions, has its roots firmly planted in Italy. But what circumstances and coffee trends led to its creation?

Origins in Italy

Italy’s coffee culture is renowned for its intricate tapestry of drinks, each with its unique preparation and significance. The macchiato was born out of a need for a middle ground—a coffee that provided the punch of an espresso but with a touch of milk to cut through its robustness.

Evolution Over Time

  1. Early Days: The traditional macchiato was a simple drink—just an espresso shot with a small amount of milk. Baristas needed a way to signify which espresso had milk, leading to the term ‘macchiato’ or ‘stained’.
  2. Adaptation by Coffee Chains: As the drink became more popular and reached coffee chains like Starbucks, variations such as the caramel macchiato started to emerge. These drinks, while inspired by the original, often bore little resemblance in taste and preparation.
  3. Global Spread: The macchiato began appearing in coffee shops around the world. Each region added its own twist, leading to a plethora of variations. In some places, the macchiato retained its traditional form, while in others, it evolved into something entirely different.

Macchiato’s Place in Modern Coffee Culture

With the rise of specialty coffee shops and a renewed interest in artisanal coffee making, the macchiato has found its place among coffee lovers who appreciate the nuanced taste of espresso.

Whether it’s the layered espresso of a latte macchiato or the strong coffee kick of an espresso macchiato, this drink caters to a wide range of palates.

The Basics of Macchiato

When delving into the world of coffee, the macchiato holds a unique space. It’s neither as milk-laden as a latte nor as stark as a straight shot of espresso. But what exactly goes into making this distinctive drink?


The beauty of a macchiato lies in its simplicity. At its core, a traditional macchiato requires:

  • A single shot of espresso or a double shot of espresso for those who prefer a stronger coffee flavor.
  • A small amount of milk, usually steamed but sometimes frothy milk foam, to stain or mark the espresso.

Espresso Macchiato vs. Latte Macchiato

Understanding the macchiato begins with distinguishing its two primary types:

  • Espresso Macchiato:

    • Description: This is the closest to the original concept. It’s essentially a shot of espresso with a bit of milk added on top.
    • Key Point: The emphasis here is on the espresso. The milk is merely an accompaniment, softening the espresso’s strong flavor.
  • Latte Macchiato:

    • Description: Quite the opposite of its counterpart, the latte macchiato starts with steamed milk, which is then marked or stained by pouring a shot of espresso on top.
    • Key Point: The milk dominates this drink, with the espresso serving to add a coffee kick.

Traditional Preparation Methods

Making a macchiato is an art, and like all art forms, it has its techniques:

  1. Brewing the Espresso: The foundation of a good macchiato is a perfectly brewed shot of espresso. This requires finely ground coffee beans, pressure, and the right amount of water.
  2. Steaming the Milk: The milk for a macchiato is steamed but not too frothy. It should have tiny, uniform bubbles, giving it a velvety texture.
  3. Pouring: For an espresso macchiato, the milk is added to the espresso. For a latte macchiato, it’s the other way around. The manner of pouring affects the drink’s taste and presentation.

By grasping these basics, one can appreciate the macchiato in its entirety, from its rich espresso flavor to its velvety milk texture.

Variations of Macchiato

The macchiato, in its essence, is an espresso coffee drink. But, like all celebrated beverages, it has seen numerous variations that cater to different tastes and preferences.

Espresso Macchiato

This is the drink that most closely aligns with the traditional definition. The espresso macchiato differs from other variations in that it’s primarily about the espresso.

It’s made by adding a small amount of steamed milk or foam to a shot of espresso. This drink has the highest ratio of espresso to milk, making it a favorite for those who love a strong coffee flavor in the morning.

Latte Macchiato

Unlike the espresso macchiato, the latte macchiato starts with milk and foam. The espresso is added afterward, marking the milk. The latte macchiato is served in a taller glass, showcasing its beautiful layers.

It’s made with a shot of espresso poured into the milk, resulting in a drink that’s softer on the palate.

Caramel Macchiato

Popularized by coffee chains like Starbucks, the caramel macchiato is an iced coffee variation that’s sweet and indulgent. It’s made with espresso, milk, and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

Starbucks’ macchiato version, especially the Starbucks caramel macchiato, has become synonymous with this sweet treat.

Iced Macchiato

Perfect for a hot day or as a refreshing afternoon coffee, the iced macchiato combines cold milk with espresso. Espresso is poured on top of the milk, creating a visually appealing layered espresso effect. Some variations might include caramel sauce or even latte art on top for added flair.

Cortado vs. Macchiato

The cortado is another espresso drink that’s often compared to the macchiato. The main difference between an espresso macchiato and a cortado lies in the ratio of espresso to milk.

A cortado has a higher amount of milk, but it’s not frothy. It’s a middle ground between an espresso and a latte.

Other Notable Variations

  • Mocha Macchiato: Combines the rich flavors of chocolate with espresso and milk.
  • Espresso and Hot Water: Some believe adding hot water to an espresso creates a variation of the macchiato, although this is closer to an Americano.
  • Espresso with a Bit More Milk: Some baristas needing to show a distinction between a regular espresso and one with a bit more milk might refer to the latter as a macchiato.

It’s essential to know exactly what each coffee is and their differences when navigating a coffee menu. Whether you’re ordering at Starbucks, explaining to waiters the difference between drinks, or just making your own morning coffee, understanding the nuances ensures you get the perfect cup every time.

The Difference Between a Macchiato and a Latte or Cappuccino

With a myriad of coffee drinks available, it’s easy to get them mixed up. Here, we’ll compare the macchiato to some other popular coffee beverages to highlight the key differences in preparation, texture, and taste.

Coffee DrinkPrimary IngredientsDescriptionKey Differences from Macchiato
MacchiatoEspresso, small amount of milk or foamAn espresso drink where the focus is on the coffee, “stained” or “marked” with milk.
EspressoEspressoA concentrated coffee brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through finely-ground coffee beans.No milk added.
LatteEspresso, steamed milk, foamA creamy coffee drink made with espresso and steamed milk, topped with a bit of foam.Has a larger amount of milk.
CappuccinoEspresso, steamed milk, thick foamEqual parts of espresso, steamed milk, and frothy foam.The foam on a cappuccino is thicker and more voluminous.
CortadoEspresso, warm milkEspresso cut with a small amount of warm milk.The milk in a cortado is not frothy and is in a higher ratio than a macchiato.
AmericanoEspresso, hot waterEspresso with added hot water, diluting its strength but retaining the flavor.No milk, more diluted than a macchiato.


The world of coffee is vast, and while drinks like the latte and cappuccino might seem similar to the macchiato, nuances in preparation and ingredient ratios create distinct tastes and textures.

For instance, unlike the cappuccino, which has a significant foam layer, the macchiato is usually more about the espresso with just a hint of milk.

From the strong and straightforward espresso to the milk-heavy latte, each coffee drink offers a unique experience.

Understanding these differences ensures that whether you’re at a specialty coffee shop or just browsing a coffee menu, you can choose the perfect drink to match your mood.

Cultural Impact of Macchiato

In recent decades, the macchiato has made its mark not only on coffee menus but also on popular culture. Let’s explore the influence and significance of this drink in our modern world.

Macchiato in Popular Culture

From film scenes in quaint Italian cafés to TV show characters debating over how to pronounce “macchiato,” this drink has found its way into contemporary media. Movies and TV series, especially those set in urban landscapes, often feature characters with a macchiato in hand, symbolizing sophistication and a penchant for refined tastes.

The Role of Coffee Chains

Starbucks, among other major coffee chains, has played a pivotal role in popularizing the macchiato, especially variants like the Starbucks caramel macchiato.

Their interpretation, often sweeter and larger in size than the traditional macchiato, has introduced this drink to a global audience. For many, their first macchiato experience might have been from a Starbucks menu, accompanied by a drizzle of caramel sauce or an artistic espresso poured design.

Global Adaptations

As the macchiato traveled the globe, different cultures infused it with their unique flavors and styles. In some places, the morning coffee ritual might involve a macchiato made with local beans, offering a distinct taste. In others, evening gatherings might favor an iced macchiato as a refreshing companion to conversations.

Broader Coffee Culture

The macchiato holds a special place among coffee enthusiasts. It’s often the topic of discussions, debates, and even friendly banter between baristas and customers. Questions like “Exactly what is a macchiato?” or clarifying to waiters the difference between a latte and a macchiato highlight its nuanced nature.

In specialty coffee shops, the macchiato is a testament to the barista’s skill. Balancing the strong espresso with just the right amount of milk requires precision and an understanding of coffee. For many, a well-made macchiato is the epitome of the perfect afternoon coffee, striking a balance between strength and creaminess.

Making a Perfect Macchiato at Home

While enjoying a macchiato from your favorite coffee shop is a treat, there’s a unique satisfaction in crafting one yourself. Here’s a step-by-step guide to making both espresso and latte macchiatos at home, ensuring you capture the essence of this beloved drink.

Equipment Needed

  1. Espresso Machine: Essential for brewing a concentrated shot of espresso.
  2. Steam Wand or Milk Frother: For steaming and frothing the milk.
  3. Coffee Grinder: Freshly ground beans make a world of difference.
  4. Measuring Tools: To get the right ratio of espresso to milk.

Espresso Macchiato

  1. Brew the Espresso: Grind your coffee beans to a fine consistency. Use the espresso machine to brew a single or double shot of espresso, depending on your preference.
  2. Steam a Small Amount of Milk: Using the steam wand, steam 1-2 teaspoons of milk. You’re aiming for a velvety texture rather than a thick foam.
  3. Combine: Pour the steamed milk over the espresso. The result should be a strong coffee flavor marked by a hint of creaminess.

Latte Macchiato

  1. Steam the Milk: Start with a larger amount of milk (compared to the espresso macchiato). Steam it until it’s hot and has a slight foam on top.
  2. Brew the Espresso: While the milk is steaming, brew your shot of espresso.
  3. Layer: In a transparent glass, pour the steamed milk. Slowly add the espresso, ensuring it ‘stains’ or ‘marks’ the milk. The latte macchiato is served with distinct layers, showcasing the espresso and milk’s interaction.

Tips for the Best Flavor and Presentation

  • Bean Quality: Opt for high-quality, freshly roasted beans.
  • Water Temperature: Ensure the water temperature is optimal for extracting the flavors from the coffee grounds.
  • Milk Quality: Fresh, cold milk produces the best steam and froth.
  • Latte Art: For those feeling adventurous, use the milk and foam to create beautiful latte art atop your macchiato.
  • Caramel or Mocha Variation: For a sweeter touch, add a drizzle of caramel sauce or some chocolate to craft a caramel or mocha macchiato.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Over-steaming the Milk: This can result in a burnt taste.
  • Using Stale Coffee Beans: Freshness is key to a vibrant espresso flavor.
  • Incorrect Ratios: Remember, the macchiato has the highest ratio of espresso to milk, so don’t drown your espresso!

With this guide, you’re well-equipped to enjoy a perfect macchiato in the comfort of your home. Whether it’s your morning coffee ritual or an afternoon pick-me-up, mastering the macchiato ensures a delightful coffee experience.

Pairing Macchiato with Food

A macchiato, with its rich espresso flavor complemented by a hint of milk, is a delight on its own. However, pairing it with the right foods can elevate the experience. Let’s delve into some traditional and popular accompaniments that complement the flavors of a macchiato.

Traditional Italian Accompaniments

  • Biscotti: These twice-baked cookies are a staple in many Italian coffee shops. Their crunchy texture and nutty flavors make them a perfect match for the strong coffee taste of a macchiato.

  • Cannoli: Filled with sweet ricotta and often dotted with chocolate chips or candied fruits, cannoli offers a sweet counterpoint to the macchiato’s robustness.

  • Tiramisu: This coffee-flavored dessert, with its layers of mascarpone cheese, coffee-soaked ladyfingers, and cocoa, mirrors the flavors in a macchiato, making it an ideal pairing.

Popular Foods for a Global Palate

  • Croissants: Whether plain or filled with almond paste or chocolate, the buttery layers of a croissant complement the macchiato beautifully, especially for a morning coffee routine.

  • Chocolate: Dark chocolate, with its bitter undertones, can enhance the depth of the espresso in a macchiato.

  • Berries: The tartness of berries like raspberries or blueberries can cut through the richness of the macchiato, offering a refreshing contrast.

Ideas for Different Times of the Day

  • Breakfast: Pair your morning coffee macchiato with a hearty breakfast sandwich, toast with avocado, or a fruit-filled Danish.

  • Brunch: Think quiches, savory muffins, or even a light salad with a tangy dressing to balance out the macchiato’s flavors.

  • Afternoon Snacks: Opt for light pastries, scones with clotted cream and jam, or even a slice of cheesecake.

Whether you’re enjoying a traditional macchiato made with a shot of espresso and a small amount of milk or venturing into variations like the iced macchiato, finding the right food pairing enhances the overall experience. So, the next time you’re sipping on this delightful coffee drink, consider these pairing options to make the moment even more special.


How does a macchiato differ from a regular espresso?

A macchiato is essentially an espresso “marked” or “stained” with a small amount of milk. While an espresso is just the concentrated coffee shot, a macchiato has a touch of milk to soften its strong flavor.

Why is my Starbucks macchiato sweet?

The Starbucks caramel macchiato, one of their popular versions, includes vanilla syrup and a drizzle of caramel sauce, which adds sweetness to the drink. This variation is quite different from the traditional macchiato.

Is macchiato stronger than a latte?

Yes, a macchiato has the highest ratio of espresso to milk when compared to a latte. A latte has a lot more milk, which dilutes the coffee flavor, making the macchiato a stronger coffee drink.

What does “macchiato” mean in Italian?

“Macchiato” translates to “stained” or “spotted” in English. This refers to the coffee being “stained” by the milk.

Can I make a macchiato without an espresso machine?

While an espresso machine is ideal, you can make a makeshift macchiato using strong brewed coffee. However, the flavor might not be as intense as with an espresso shot.

How is a latte macchiato different from an espresso macchiato?

The main difference lies in the preparation. An espresso macchiato starts with espresso, with milk added on top. In contrast, a latte macchiato begins with steamed milk, and the espresso is poured on top, “staining” the milk.

Why is latte art not common on a macchiato?

Given the small amount of milk or foam in a traditional macchiato, it’s challenging to create detailed latte art. However, some baristas might add a simple design or swirl.

I find the espresso in a macchiato too strong. What can I do?

You can adjust the amount of milk to suit your taste. Alternatively, consider opting for a cortado or a latte, both of which have a higher milk-to-espresso ratio.


The world of coffee is vast and varied, with each drink carrying its unique history, preparation method, and flavor profile. The macchiato, with its Italian roots and simple elegance, stands out as a testament to the beauty of balance in coffee drinks.

From its traditional form, where a shot of espresso is merely “stained” with a hint of milk, to its myriad modern variations influenced by global coffee chains and evolving palates, the macchiato remains a favorite among many.

Its popularity stems not only from its delightful flavor but also from its versatility. Whether you prefer the robustness of an espresso macchiato in the morning or the layered subtlety of a latte macchiato in the afternoon, there’s a macchiato for every coffee lover.

As we’ve journeyed through the history, variations, cultural impact, and preparation of the macchiato, one thing becomes clear: coffee is more than just a beverage. It’s an experience, a ritual, and, for many, an essential part of daily life.

Whether you’re a seasoned barista, a coffee shop regular, or someone making their first foray into the world of coffee, understanding the nuances of drinks like the macchiato enriches the coffee-drinking experience.

So, the next time you’re at a coffee shop or brewing a cup at home, take a moment to savor the flavors, appreciate the artistry, and immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of coffee culture.

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How Do You Order a Macchiato at a Coffee Shop?

A cup of caramel macchiato being poured.

How Am I Supposed to Drink a Caramel Macchiato?

An espresso macchiato on a wooden table.

How Do You Drink a Macchiato?

A cup of coffee with a croissant on a plate.

Does Macchiato Mean Shots on Top?

Two latte drinks on a background.

Does a Macchiato Have More Caffeine Than a Latte?

A macchiato with whipped cream and coffee beans.

Do You Sweeten a Macchiato?

An latte being poured into a glass.

Do You Put Milk or Espresso in a Macchiato First?

Two latte glasses on a black tray.

Do Lattes and Macchiatos Taste Different?

A cup of coffee with latte art and milk.

Do You Put Milk in a Macchiato?

Two cups of latte next to a candle on a table.

Do Macchiatos Taste Like Lattes?

Two glasses of coffee on a black background with macchiatos.

Do Macchiatos Have More Caffeine?

A cup of latte on a plate with a spoon.

Do Italians Put Sugar in Macchiato?

A macchiato with whipped cream and coffee beans.

Can Kids Drink Macchiatos?

A cup of coffee with steam and stir.

Are You Supposed to Stir a Macchiato?