What Is A Cappuccino? And What’s It Made Of? Answered!

Did you ever wonder “what is a cappuccino?” Nothing tastes quite as divine as losing yourself in the perfect cup of morning cappuccino. It’s a slow dance between the senses. 

The warmth of a steaming cup cradled in your palms, the tantalizing aroma wafting up to your nose, the fluffiness of frothed milk sliding over your tongue, and the balanced flavors delighting the taste buds invite nostalgia, calm and peace that sweep you away. 

The cappuccino is touted as the fourth most consumed coffee drink in the world, after Espresso, Iced-coffee and Americano. With its distinctive Old World flavors and irresistible textures, no wonder it tops the drink list for millions of people every day.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what a cappuccino actually is, where it came from, and how it compares to other popular coffee drinks? Let’s take a minute to explore these questions.

What’s A Cappuccino?

At first glance, the composition of the cappuccino appears quite simple. It contains only three key ingredients: espresso, steamed milk and milk froth

However, many contributing factors can determine the overall caliber of the final beverage.

If you’ve ever taken a sip of a second-rate cappuccino only to find yourself cringing from the bitter undertones and unpleasant aftertaste, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

How Do You Make the Perfect Cappuccino?

The quintessential cup takes skill and finesse but can be achieved with knowledge, practice and time. A master barista knows the importance of understanding how each element comes together to create a masterpiece for the taste buds.

Now that we have the answer to “what’s a cappuccino?” how do you make it? A cappuccino consists of equal parts espresso, hot milk and milk froth. The precise measurements matter if you are looking for that unforgettable, pleasant cappuccino experience.

When the traditional Italian cappuccino is made correctly, the espresso and hot milk fill the elliptical cup to its brim, then the coffee mixture is capped with a thick dome of frothy milk for the most aesthetically pleasing effect.

In less traditional coffee shops, cappuccinos are sometimes served with a sprinkling of cinnamon or cocoa on top for an added splash of color and flavor.

The size and shape of the cup are also important factors in the overall beverage outcome. This is one of the most widely overlooked aspects of creating the perfect cappuccino. The best cups should be between 150-160 mL (5-6 ounces) in size, which is the professionally agreed upon threshold for a correctly prepared cappuccino. 

This volume leaves the correct amount of headspace for the frothy dome that traditionally tops the drink. The cup should feature an elliptical bottom with thick walls that thin toward the opening to allow for the proper incorporation of the steamed milk and espresso at the bottom of the cup while leaving room at the top for the milk froth (as opposed to a teacup whose walls are uniformly thin). 

The cup’s material should retain the drink’s heat evenly. Ceramic is the most popular and widely accepted choice, though stoneware or double-walled glass sometimes suffice. For the most traditional effect, the cup should be pure white. 

While the vessel does not affect the quality of the drink, it contributes to the drinker’s overall perception and experience. After all, foods and beverages are best experienced with all the senses. 

The cappuccino is already on the road to failure or success long before it touches the lips of a connoisseur. The quality of the espresso extraction or the dissolving of ground coffee in hot water (also called the pour) is a defining factor between a brilliant cup of cappuccino and a terrible one. 

Brew ratio is the balance between the amount of ground coffee and water used and is incredibly important in the making of a cappuccino. Making this specialty drink is a learned art and incredibly difficult to get just right.

Espresso poured too quickly (called under-extraction) will result in a weak, flavorless drink. Espresso poured too slowly (or over-extraction) will turn out a bitter beverage. Drinks rendered with under- or over-extracted espresso may very well be unforgettable but not in a desirable way! 

The grind size and temperature also affect the speed and quality of the pour process, and these factors must all skillfully come together to extract an espresso base that is luxuriously creamy with a hint of foamy crema (a type of brownish foam) and a lingering aftertaste.

The final result should be a perfect balance of acidity and bitterness with a slightly sweet note.

A well-made cappuccino is a twofold experience. The flavors should be defined by a well-derived balance between the boldness of perfectly extracted espresso and the natural sweetness of milk, which is further accentuated by the steaming process. 

The texture, likewise, should be a pleasing encounter in the mouth between the slightly thick composition of espresso offset by the light, velvety characteristics of milk froth.

How Did the Cappuccino Get Its Name?

The word cappuccino derived from the term cappuccio, a simple, brown, hooded robe worn by the Capuchin friars, a Franciscan order of monks established during the 1700s. In Italian, cappuccino literally translates to “little hood.”

The rich brown color of the espresso mixed with the hot milk closely resembles that of the monks’ robes, and thus lent its name to the popular coffee drink. 

Where Did the Cappuccino Originate?

Though it didn’t make its way to America until the 1980s, the cappuccino actually dates back to centuries earlier in Italy and Europe. The drink’s recent history is closely tied to advances in espresso machine technology. 

While the name, Kapuziner, was first used in Vienna as early as the 1700s in association with coffee drinks, the cappuccino as we know it today originated in Italy in the early 1900s. The drink immediately followed the popularization of the first espresso machines. 

Postwar affluence, coupled with advancements and wider availability of the espresso machines in the 1930s, brought the cappuccino into the spotlight. From there, the drink’s popularity eventually moved across Europe, Australia, South America and finally to North America. It grew in popularity as coffee shops proliferated.

What are the Variations of the Cappuccino?

Though the traditional Italian cappuccino is made with equal parts single-shot espresso (30-44ml), hot milk, and milk froth, many variations of the coffee drink are available in today’s coffee shops. 

The double-shot (60ml) is the most common variation, where a double espresso is used instead of the single shot. A dry cappuccino has less milk than the traditional version, lending to a stronger or “darker” flavor. Wet cappuccinos contain more milk than traditional varieties creating a creamier, slightly more diluted drink. 

Iced cappuccinos are a cold version of the hot drink derived by adding cold milk (in Italy) or ice (in the United States). Flavored cappuccinos, created by adding any number of flavored simple syrups, have also become increasingly popular in the United States, though still generally frowned upon in Italy.  

How Does Cappuccino Compare to Other Coffee Drinks?

Many coffee drinks on the menu look similar to the cappuccino at first glance, but a seasoned coffee connoisseur will tell you that the beverages are indeed very different. The Café Americano and long black share an espresso base with the cappuccino. However, that is where the similarities abruptly end. The other drinks don’t contain milk products. Instead, both depend upon hot water techniques for dilution. 

The latte and flat white are more closely related to the cappuccino. All three drinks use the same key ingredients: espresso, steamed milk and milk froth. However, the difference is in the milk.

The latte is the milky cousin of the cappuccino. It is considerably larger at approximately 8-10 ounces and contains considerably more milk and less foam, lending a slightly sweeter, more mellow flavoring to the drink. 

The flat white coffee is on the opposite end of the spectrum and specifically highlights the espresso flavors. It contains the least milk of the three and is topped by a thin layer of microfoam instead of the dome of froth that adorns the cappuccino.

The Final Word on ‘What is a Cappuccino?’

The cappuccino is a favorite coffee drink of connoisseurs around the world. This popular Italian drink, with its lovely balance of textures and flavors, has worked its way into the hearts of coffee drinkers everywhere. Though it takes some practice to render that perfect cup, the result is well worth the effort! 


  • Aisling O'Connor

    Aisling is an Irish food and drinks writer and journalist fueled by coffee and herbal tea. She followed up her journalism degree with nutrition studies. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.