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The Café au Lait vs. Latte: 5 Key Differences You Need to Know

Cafe Au Lait Vs Latte

Cafe Au Lait Vs Latte

The Café au Lait vs. Latte: There’s nothing worse than splurging on a drink at a fancy coffee shop only to find it’s not what you expected. We’re here to save you from that fate!

Cafe au lait and cafe latte both have the same ingredients: coffee and milk, but they’re very different. Let’s explore the two so you can confidently order your favorite.

What Is a Café au Lait?

Although café au lait also means “coffee with milk,” this French drink is quite different from its Italian counterpart. And confusingly, it can vary around the world. In fact, many North American cafes, including Starbucks, call the café au lait the Caffe Misto. No idea why.

In its native France, they make café au lait in coffee shops using a one-to-one mix of espresso and steamed milk. Unlike a café latte, the café au lait doesn’t have any milk foam. It’s traditionally served in a small, wide glass bowl, making it easy to dunk pastries in your coffee drink. Yum!

Elsewhere, it’s more often made with strong brewed coffee in place of a shot of espresso and served in a cappuccino cup for better heat retention. French press coffee, with its oily mouthfeel and heavy body, is a popular choice.

The café au lait is probably the most democratic and accessible milk-based coffee out there.

This makes the café au lait an ideal drink to enjoy at home because you don’t need a latte machine.

The most famous regional variation of the café au lait is found in New Orleans. It combines chicory coffee and scalded milk. The chicory makes it slightly bitter, which they often serve with the very sweet, sugar-coated donuts called beignets.

What Is a Latte?

Latte is a shortened version of café latte, which is Italian for “coffee with milk.” Traditionally, in Europe, a latte will be 8 ounces, of which ⅙ is espresso, ⅔ is steamed milk, and the remaining ⅙ is a thin layer of foam on top.

Lattes are often served in tall and narrow glasses so that the distinct coffee, milk, and foam layers are visible.

They are commonly topped with latte art, stylized images on the top surface. Skilled baristas make latte art by pouring the steamed milk and foam.

Lattes are one of the milkiest espresso drinks. Surprise, surprise: they have a mild and creamy flavor. You might call them the “gateway drug” into strong coffee drinks.

Want to try to make your own? Use a good latte machine and check out our guide on how to make a latte.

More recently, many flavored lattes have become popular in cafés and shops, some of which don’t even include coffee! These include turmeric, pumpkin spice, chai, and matcha lattes, among many others.

Detailed Comparison: Café au Lait vs. Latte

Now that we’ve covered the basics of each drink, let’s delve deeper into their differences and unique characteristics.

1. Coffee Base

The primary distinction between a café au lait and a latte lies in the coffee base. A café au lait is typically made with brewed coffee, often using methods such as drip coffee or French press. This gives it a robust flavor that can vary depending on the coffee beans and brewing method used.

On the other hand, a latte is made with a shot (or more) of espresso. Espresso is a concentrated coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee under high pressure. This results in a strong, intense flavor that forms the backbone of a latte.

2. Milk Preparation

The milk used in these two drinks is also prepared differently. In a café au lait, the milk is steamed and then mixed directly with the brewed coffee. There is no layer of foam on top, making the texture smooth but without the creamy finish that foam provides.

Conversely, a latte involves steaming the milk to create a velvety texture and then pouring it over the espresso. The milk is usually topped with a small amount of foam, adding a creamy layer that enhances the overall drinking experience.

3. Serving Style

Café au lait is traditionally served in a wide, shallow bowl in France, which is perfect for dunking pastries. In other regions, it might be served in a cappuccino cup to retain heat better. This serving style is less common in modern cafés outside France but adds a charming, rustic touch to the drink.

Lattes are typically served in tall, narrow glasses or mugs. This presentation allows the layers of espresso, steamed milk, and foam to be visible, often topped with intricate latte art. The visual appeal of a latte is a significant part of its charm and has made it a popular choice in coffee shops worldwide.

4. Flavor Profile

Due to the differences in coffee base and milk preparation, the flavor profiles of these two drinks are quite distinct. A café au lait offers a strong, robust coffee flavor with a smooth, milky finish. The absence of foam keeps the texture straightforward and allows the coffee’s natural flavors to shine through.

In contrast, a latte has a creamier, milder taste due to the higher milk-to-coffee ratio and the presence of foam. The espresso provides a strong coffee backbone, but the steamed milk and foam balance it out, creating a harmonious blend of flavors.

5. Variations and Customizations

Both café au lait and lattes can be customized to suit individual preferences. For a café au lait, you can experiment with different brewing methods and coffee beans to achieve your desired flavor. Adding flavored syrups or spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, can also create a unique twist on the traditional drink.

Lattes offer even more opportunities for customization. From seasonal flavors like pumpkin spice and peppermint to alternative milk options such as almond, soy, or oat milk, the possibilities are endless. You can also adjust the strength of the espresso or the amount of foam to suit your taste.

How to Make Café au Lait at Home

Making a café au lait at home is simple and requires minimal equipment. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1. Brew Coffee: Start by brewing a strong cup of coffee using your preferred method, such as a French press or drip coffee maker.
2. Steam Milk: While the coffee is brewing, steam your milk. You can use a milk frother, stovetop, or microwave. Heat the milk until it’s warm and slightly frothy.
3. Combine: Pour equal parts of brewed coffee and steamed milk into a cup.
4. Enjoy: Stir gently and enjoy your homemade café au lait.

How to Make a Latte at Home

Making a latte requires an espresso machine or an alternative method to brew espresso. Here’s a simple guide:

1. Brew Espresso: Start by brewing a shot (or more) of espresso.
2. Steam Milk: Steam your milk using the steam wand on your espresso machine or a separate milk frother. Aim for a velvety texture with a small amount of foam.
3. Combine: Pour the steamed milk over the espresso, holding back the foam with a spoon. Once the milk is added, spoon a small amount of foam on top.
4. Latte Art (Optional): If you’re feeling creative, try your hand at latte art by pouring the milk in a way that creates patterns on the surface.
5. Enjoy: Your homemade latte is ready to be savored.

The Verdict: Café au Lait vs. Latte

Ultimately, the choice between a café au lait and a latte comes down to personal preference. If you enjoy a stronger coffee flavor with a smooth, milky finish, a café au lait might be your go-to drink. It’s straightforward to make at home and doesn’t require any special equipment beyond a coffee maker and a way to heat milk.

If you prefer a creamier, milder coffee experience with the option to enjoy beautiful latte art, then a latte is the perfect choice. While it does require an espresso machine for the best results, the investment can be worthwhile for coffee enthusiasts who enjoy crafting their drinks at home.

Both drinks offer unique experiences and can be enjoyed in various settings. Whether you’re savoring a café au lait with a croissant in the morning or sipping a beautifully crafted latte at your favorite café, understanding the differences between these two beloved coffee drinks will enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of each cup.

Exploring More Coffee Delights

As you become more familiar with café au lait and lattes, you might find yourself eager to explore other coffee drinks that feature similar ingredients but offer distinct experiences. Here are a few more options to consider:

1. Cappuccino:
A cappuccino is another popular espresso-based drink that consists of equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam. It has a stronger coffee flavor than a latte due to the higher ratio of espresso to milk. The thick layer of foam on top also makes it a delightful treat for those who enjoy a creamy texture.

2. Flat White:
Originating from Australia and New Zealand, the flat white is similar to a latte but with a higher coffee-to-milk ratio and a thinner layer of microfoam. This results in a stronger coffee flavor and a velvety texture that many coffee aficionados adore.

3. Macchiato:
A macchiato, which means “stained” or “spotted” in Italian, is an espresso with a small amount of steamed milk or milk foam added. It offers a robust coffee flavor with just a hint of creaminess, making it a perfect choice for those who enjoy the taste of espresso but want a slightly smoother finish.

4. Mocha:
A mocha is a delicious blend of espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate syrup, often topped with whipped cream. This decadent drink combines the rich flavors of coffee and chocolate, making it a popular choice for those with a sweet tooth.

5. Cortado:
A cortado is a Spanish coffee drink that consists of equal parts espresso and steamed milk. It has a strong coffee flavor with a smooth, creamy texture, making it a perfect balance for those who enjoy both espresso and milk.

The Café au Lait vs. Latte: Conclusion

In the world of coffee, the café au lait and latte are two delightful options that offer unique experiences while sharing the same basic ingredients. By understanding their differences and knowing how to make them at home, you can enhance your coffee-drinking journey and confidently order your favorite drink at any coffee shop.

Exploring the nuances of these drinks and trying out variations will not only expand your coffee knowledge but also deepen your appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into creating the perfect cup. So, whether you’re a fan of the robust and straightforward café au lait or the creamy and artistic latte, there’s a whole world of coffee delights waiting for you to discover.

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