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What is a Cappuccino?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cappuccino is one of the most popular and well-known coffee drinks in the world. A combination of espresso, steamed milk, and foam, the drink is a coffee house staple. While there are many different assertions about what makes a perfect cup, the allure of the drink is at least partially its atmospheric capabilities, which can give the lucky drinker a cozy and brief trip to a European cafe.

The drink is named for an order of Franciscan monks called the Capuccini. Despite being the established origin of the name, experts argue about why the beverage is named for the monks. Some suggest it is because the espresso matched the color of the monks’ robes, while others insist that a monk invented the drink in the 17th century and named it after his order. Most origin stories are thought to be apocryphal, but for one reason or another, the drink is named for the monks.

A basic cappuccino is made with a single shot of espresso. What makes the drink unique is the proportion and texture of the added steamed milk and foam. Correctly steamed milk should have a glossy and silky appearance, and should be free of large bubbles. The hot milk is poured into the espresso, usually with a generous scoop of foam on top.

These drinks can be made to fit individual tastes by varying the foam and milk content. A dry cap, or cappuccino scuro has less milk and usually only a hint of foam. Alternatively, a wet version or cappuccino chiaro can be made with extra foam, although adding too much milk will turn the drink into a latte, which may be a serious affront to coffee-drinking purists.

Putting toppings on the drink has become popular in modern times, and can make it look elegant and beautiful. Some people sprinkle cinnamon or cocoa powder on top, or other spices like cloves and nutmeg. Especially skilled baristas are capable of pouring the foam into graphic designs, often to form initials or hearts.

Occasionally, coffee shops will attempt to market an iced or frozen version of this coffee. While this drink may be tasty in its own right, it does not actually fit the profile of the drink. Usually, these drinks are just iced lattes in disguise, as frothing cold milk is complicated and rarely used to top drinks that claim to be iced cappuccinos.

To make a cappuccino at home, a person will likely need a standard espresso maker. Not only will this brew the espresso for the drink, most include a frothing wand for steaming and foaming milk. If the machine does not have a wand, drink foamers can be purchased separately and used on heated or microwaved milk. With this equipment, making perfect drinks is a matter of practice, patience, and discovering the drinker's personal preference.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Azuza — On Aug 28, 2012

@indemnifyme - That's kind of sad, but I know exactly what you mean. When I turned 21, I thought I would be very daring and order a dirty martini. I had no idea it was made with olive juice.

Anyway, my favorite drink is a caramel cappuccino. The cappuccino is flavored with caramel, and they usually drizzle some caramel on top of the drink too. It's delicious!

By indemnifyme — On Aug 27, 2012

I think I enjoy ordering the cappuccino more than I like actually drinking it. As the article said, the term definitely conjures up images of European coffee houses, where everyone is sophisticated, well dressed, and working on a novel. (I've never been to a European coffee house, but that's what I imagine they are like.)

I always feel extra-sophisticated when I order a cappuccino, but the truth is, I don't like the taste much. Usually I drink about half of it, and then throw it away. I should probably stick to something like hot chocolate.

By Pharoah — On Aug 27, 2012

@LoriCharlie - I think I like cappuccino better. However, it's kind of hard to tell. I feel like a lot of places use the terms cappuccino and latte interchangeably. So I'm not sure if my favorite drink is actually a cappuccino, or if it's a latte in disguise.

By LoriCharlie — On Aug 27, 2012
@SarahSon - I don't like milk either, but I love lattes. In fact, I actually like latte's a little bit more than I like cappuccinos. Cappuccinos are usually a little bit too strong for me, but latte's are usually just right.

However, I know I haven't tried all the cappuccino recipes that are out there, so when I go to a new coffee shop, I usually try the cappuccino just to see how it is. Maybe one day I'll find one that I like better than my usual latte.

By stoneMason — On Aug 26, 2012

@honeybees-- I speak a little bit of Italian and I know that "cappuccio" in Italian means "hood." And I think that's where the name Cappuccini came from. But it doesn't really make sense for cappuccinos to be named after the color of the monk's hoods. I think the color of cappuccinos are much lighter than that.

The only logical explanation is if a monk who belonged to this order came up with the drink in the first place like the article said. But even then, wouldn't there be some kind of historical evidence that points to this?

And it's not like the Cappuccini order was a little know Catholic order. I've read about them when I was reading about the Catholic movement in Europe.

By burcidi — On Aug 25, 2012
@kylee07drg-- I like the instant cappuccino from the machines too. I used to have them a lot when I worked at a chain restaurant. I've refilled a cappuccino machine many times too. It's basically just a dry coffee mix with creamer and sugar in it and the machine mixes that with hot water. So it's not really a cappuccino. It's just instant coffee with cappuccino flavoring.

But they really do cost less and it only takes a minute for the machine to make one. When I go to a coffee place, I usually have to wait five to seven minutes for a cappuccino, depending on how busy the shop is.

By fBoyle — On Aug 25, 2012

I like cappuccinos, I think they're delicious. The only thing I don't like about them is the cappuccino froth. When there is a lot of froth, I find it hard to drink the cappuccino. I have to eat through the froth to get to the coffee. I also feel like I'm paying for something that's only a half cup of coffee and the rest of the cup is froth.

I also like my cappuccino with a lot of milk. So when I order a cappuccino with lots of milk and little foam, I'm basically ordering a latte. I actually asked for this at a coffee house once and they asked me if I just want a latte.

So I rarely have cappuccinos these days. I usually just go for a latte instead.

By Kristee — On Aug 24, 2012

My friend got me a gift basket last Christmas that had different types of cappuccino mix in it, along with a mug. I had never tried a cappuccino before, so I was curious.

I just heated up some milk in the microwave and poured it over the mix. I stirred it well, and it became a little foamy on top.

I had both vanilla and mocha cappuccino mix, and I have to say that I prefer the vanilla. The mocha is just too strong, because it is a little bitter, and coupled with the bitterness of the espresso, it becomes too much.

By seag47 — On Aug 24, 2012

I am amazed by the cappuccino art that skilled baristas can create. I have watched them do this before, and it is just awesome.

Most baristas that learn to draw with froth start out small with swirls in various patterns. They learn to make leaves and hearts.

Those who advance learn to make cartoon faces with the froth. One girl made a tiger face, and another made a duck face. Other baristas learn to make intricate flowers instead, and they are equally impressive.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 23, 2012

@julies – The main difference between a cappuccino and a latte is the milk content. Cappuccinos have about as much milk as espresso and a ton of foam, while lattes are mostly milk and little foam.

When I first started drinking coffee, I always ordered lattes. I didn't particularly love the taste of strong coffee, so lattes were perfect for me. The milk really dulled the bitterness of the coffee.

However, as I got used to the flavor, I began to need something stronger. I started ordering cappuccinos instead, and now that I have gotten used to them, I can't stand the bland taste of lattes.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 22, 2012

@LisaLou – Though I love gas station cappuccinos, it seems that they don't really fit the definition of a true cappuccino. They don't have much foam on top at all!

Sure, the machine spits out a few bubbles that sit on top of the drink, but I don't think this constitutes actual cappuccino foam. It doesn't bother me, though. The taste and the caffeine content are what I am after, and a gas station cappuccino provides both.

I've never been much of a purist when it comes to coffee. As long as I like the flavor and it keeps me alert, I am happy with it.

By julies — On Aug 22, 2012

What is the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?

I get overwhelmed when I visit a coffee shop because I don't understand what all the different drinks are.

I usually end up just ordering a plain cup of coffee. It seems almost silly to walk into a gourmet coffee shop and just order a regular cup of coffee when there are so many other choices available.

By SarahSon — On Aug 21, 2012

I never thought I would like a cappuccino because I am not very fond of milk, no matter if it is hot or cold. I do like the taste of coffee though, so thought I better try a cappuccino before I just ruled it out.

I was hooked after my first taste. For me, the milk makes the drink creamy and frothy, and the taste of the espresso is what really comes through.

There are different flavors of cappuccino to choose from, but my favorite is a vanilla cappuccino with a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg. I find myself drinking more of them in the cooler months, but this has become one of my favorite drinks.

By LisaLou — On Aug 20, 2012

I used to stop every morning on my way to work to get a cappuccino. Even though I would buy these at a local gas station, and the cost was much cheaper than going to a regular coffee shop, it still added up.

I bought an espresso maker and have been making my own drinks at home. This not only saves me money and time, but I can have a cappuccino any time I want.

Now that I have my own espresso maker, I find that I will make a cappuccino often on the weekends as well as during the week. I have bought kitchen gadgets before and they just sit around never getting used. I keep the espresso maker on my counter and it gets used most every day of the week.

By honeybees — On Aug 20, 2012

For someone who loves a good cappuccino, I had no idea these were named for monks. I find this very interesting. They probably never would have dreamed how popular these drinks have become.

I have had to cut back on this favorite drink of mine because I was consuming way too many cappuccino calories. You would think with a lot of the drink being made with milk, this wouldn't be that bad, but you would be surprised how many calories you can consume in just one cappuccino.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

Writer

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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