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What Is A Flat White Coffee? Definition, Origins and Recipes

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With all of the specialty coffee options available at your favorite local cafe, it can be hard to tell between a macchiato and an americano.

One of the most often misunderstood drinks is the flat white.

So, what is a flat white, and what sets it apart from other delicious brews on the menu?

Here, we discuss what makes a flat white unique, the origins behind this velvety smooth drink, and offer tips on making the perfect flat white coffee beverage at home.

What Is a Flat White?

A flat white is a combination of espresso and steamed milk.

What makes it unique is the proportions of milk to espresso.

Traditionally, a flat white consists of espresso and about 20mm of band of microfoam, which gives it a shinier surface.

Microfoam is finely textured milk often used in espresso shot drinks.

The amount of microfoamed milk and espresso combine to make a velvety, giving the flat white its characteristic texture.

The Origins of the Flat White

A flat white is relatively new to the coffee scene, given that the first evidence of a coffee drinker dates back to the 15th century.

Supposedly, the first mention of a flat white by name was in the mid-1980s in a review of a Sydney, Australia cafe that served the drink.

The country and historical period of origin of the flat white is a contentious matter between New Zealand and Australia.

Accounts from coffee shop owners and baristas from both countries claim responsibility for inventing the drink.

Still, we may never know the true inventor of this delicious mix of espresso and crema.

Why Is it Called a Flat White?

Its name lies in the proportion of steamed milk in the drink.

The small amount of milk foam creates a meniscus in the coffee.

You may have heard the term in science class referring to the tendency of fluids to curve downwards when they touch another material.

In coffee terms, it’s the opposite!

A meniscus is when the foam produces a rounded dome in the liquid instead of an inverted dome shape.

Other than the ratio of espresso to foamed milk, that’s what truly answers the age-old question, “What is a flat white?”

The meniscus forms because there is not enough milk to create a dense, inverted dome.

The drink has microfoamed milk but not as much milk froth, resulting in a “flatter” drink.

It should be velvety rather than fluffy.

If a regular flat white is too strong because it doesn’t have the same milk content as a latte, you could use ristretto shots to keep the flavor mild.

Ristretto espressos require less water than standard espresso pulls, so you get a smoother, sweeter flavor.

How Is a Flat White Different From a Latte?

Though both have the same main ingredients — espresso and milk — the latte and flat white have fundamental differences in the milk ratio.

Flat whites have no more than 20mm of milk foam added to the drink, though your local barista may make them with much less than that.

Lattes consist of one to two ounces of espresso, six to seven ounces of steamed milk, and a 12 mm layer of milk foam.

Some places even make their lattes with no foam at all.

Additionally, in some countries like the US, sweetening the latte with syrups and sugars is common.

Is a Flat White Stronger Than a Latte?

While you’ll be getting the same punch of caffeine in both a latte and a flat white, they won’t taste the same.

Because a flat white uses less milk, it will taste stronger.

If you want a flat white with a milder taste, ask for a ristretto shot.

Flat White vs. Latte vs. Cappuccino

Now, let’s go over the key differences between a flat white, a latte, and a cappuccino.

Each drink consists of the same basic ingredients and processes, but they do have features that set them apart from each other.

Flat White vs. Latte

The flat white and the latte are similar drinks.

The ratio of milk to espresso and the milk foam topping, and the possible addition of sweet flavors to a latte sets them apart.

Flat White vs. Cafe Latte

A cafe latte, also known as a caffe latte, is precisely the same thing as a latte.

Caffe is Italian for ‘coffee’, while latte means ‘milk’.

You may be thinking of a cafe au lait, which is another coffee drink and is French for coffee with milk.

A cafe au lait isn’t a latte, but a regular drip cup of coffee with milk.

Flat White vs. Cappuccino

Some people say the flat white originates from a “failed cappuccino.”

This is because a cappuccino is made by pouring one ounce of espresso into a glass then pouring equal parts milk and milk foam.

It is a small drink, and when poured correctly, it should have a layer of espresso, a layer of steamed milk, then a layer of microfoam.

The difference between a flat white and a cappuccino lies in the thickness of the added milk.

This is likely where the flat white gets its name.

The foam is much flatter in a flat white than a cappuccino or latte.

Best Ingredients for a Flat White

So, now you want to know how to make a flat white.

The ingredient list is short, but it is crucial to have the correct tools and ingredients to produce a flawless flat white.

You will need:

  • Ristretto Espresso (1 ounce)
  • Around a half cup of milk
  • Milk frother or milk steamer
  • Espresso machine

The type and brand of these materials are not as particular as you may think.

Pick milk and coffee beans that you like the flavor of, and use them in the recipe.

Regarding equipment, use machines that you are familiar with so you know it will come out just right.

Many home machines have a built-in steam wand to make things easier, so long as you understand how to operate it without scorching your milk.

How to Make a Flat White at Home Step-by-Step

Let’s go over how to make the recipe at home.

You will need to follow a few easy steps:

  • Step 1: Heat 6-7 US ounces of water and pour it into the small serving cup to keep it warm.
  • Step 2: Follow the necessary instructions on your espresso machine.
  • Step 3: Pour out the heated water from the cup. Then, pull 1 to 2 ounces of espresso into your warmed cup
  • Step 4: Steam your milk in the appropriate milk pitcher for your machine
  • Step 5: Steam the milk until it is about 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit (Tip: don’t prepare this on the stove and be sure the milk has a glossy finish)
  • Step 6: Pour the milk into the cup with espresso and tilt the cup, so the microfoam floats to the top.

Other Questions about Flat Whites

Now that the flat white has entered the mainstream world, thanks to big coffee brewers like Starbucks, you may have a few additional questions about the drink.

Why are flat whites so popular at Starbucks?

Many people prefer the flat white because of its velvety texture and sweeter flavor profile than most espresso drinks.

This is also true for the Starbucks flat white.

Coffee drinkers also enjoy it because it is not as sweet as lattes and doesn’t contain as much milk, so you get good espresso flavor.

How does Starbucks make a flat white?

Your Starbucks barista makes flat whites with the same traditional flat white process.

They use two shots of Starbucks Espresso Roast coffee and 1 ¼ cup of whole milk.

First, they pull the espresso.

Then, the steamed milk is poured into the mug gently.

They fill the glass until it is almost full.

Lastly, the barista finishes pouring the milk into the cup quickly and focuses on the center to create that iconic centered white dot.

Are flat whites good for you?

There’s some good news for flat white fans! Flat whites are one of the healthiest coffee orders, thanks to its lower calorie content.

Because it has less milk than other popular coffees, and given its smaller size overall, the flat white is a great option for coffee lovers who don’t want their favorite beverage to negatively affect their health and weight too much.

Final Thoughts

The flat white is not an espresso-based drink with a long history – it is relatively new compared to drinks like the latte, which extends back hundreds of years.

However, its youth does not make it any less influential or popular in coffee chains and coffeehouses across the globe.

Now that you know a bit of coffee history and more technical information on the question “what is a flat white,” we hope you’re ready to embark on a brand new journey to finding your favorite espresso drink.

Happy brewing!

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