You enter your favorite coffee shop and ask the barista for a delicious latte. But then, they throw a question back at you: “Would you like it hot or cold?”
This might take you by surprise, especially if you’re a fledgling coffee lover. And then things get even more confusing when you hear about iced lattes. So which is it — is a latte hot or cold?
Read on and learn about the ideal serving temperature for a latte. You’ll also learn some great tips on how to make a perfect latte at home.
Are lattes supposed to be hot or cold?
Traditionally, a latte is a hot coffee drink. A hot latte is the standard variety, prepared with espresso and steamed milk.
Lattes are some of, if not the most popular beverages on the milky coffee menu. Their immense popularity has resulted in a wide variety of lattes and latte-based drinks, both hot and cold.
It is a bit misleading to talk about a “traditional” latte. Sure, there’s a standard way to prepare it, but the latte you know is not a very old invention.
Let’s take a quick look at the latte history to figure out what temperature a latte is “supposed” to be.
The modern latte is based on an Italian drink called caffè latte, meaning simply “coffee and milk.” This drink, prepared for breakfast for at least a couple hundred years, is quite different from the latte you order in specialty coffee shops. The Italians make caffè latte at home using strong black coffee and warm but not steamed milk.
Today’s popular Starbucks lattes are fairly young. In fact, as an espresso-based drink, it couldn’t be very old since the first commercial espresso machine was made only in 1905!
The American latte version was created in the U.S. after World War II and started gaining popularity in Seattle in the 1980s with the emerging modern coffee shop trend. Since the original Italian café latte and the American version were historically served warm, you could say they are supposed to be hot beverages.
Claiming that only a hot latte is authentic wouldn’t be quite right, though. Iced lattes, prepared by pouring espresso over ice and cold milk, are about as old as hot lattes.
Iced coffee has a centuries-long history, stretching back to the 1800s. Of course, not all iced coffees are lattes. It’s unclear when or who made the first iced latte, but just like the hot variety, it cropped up after WWII in the 1950s.
Despite its origins, you shouldn’t worry about whether you are drinking a latte the way it’s “supposed” to be. Since they share much of their history, enjoy your drinks, whether you like hot or cold lattes!
What is the perfect temperature for a latte?
The serving temperature for a latte and most other espresso-based drinks at coffee shops is between 145-165°F (63-74°C). The ideal latte temperature is around 160°F (71°C).
Like many other milky coffee drinks, such as cappuccino, flat white, or dirty coffee, a regular latte consists of only two ingredients — espresso and milk. They ultimately determine how warm the prepared drink will be. A latte is also topped with a thin layer of frothed milk, which has a negligible effect on its temperature.
Espresso is always prepared with water heated to very high temperatures. Steamed milk, although still warm, is nowhere near as hot as espresso.
When you combine these two ingredients, the final temperature settles. A seasoned coffee professional or a home barista who knows their espresso machine well can achieve an optimum temperature with remarkable consistency.
But varying the espresso and milk temperatures can significantly affect the resulting drink. So let’s look at how serving the latte hotter or colder affects your coffee experience.
The temperature of espresso in a latte
Espresso is a strong coffee drink prepared by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans. Because of how it is made, the water temperature hugely impacts espresso extraction and the flavor of the espresso shot.
The ideal brewing temperature for perfect espresso ranges around 190-200°F (88-93°C). Some baristas may push the water to 205°F, which is considered the upper limit for espresso brewing.
Increasing the water temperature affects how many flavorful compounds it extracts from the coffee grinds. Lower temperatures result in mellower coffee with less caffeine. Going hotter will give the coffee a bitter taste and higher caffeine content.
If the brewing temperature is too hot, the pleasantly bitter coffee flavor becomes overwhelmingly astringent, and the coffee tastes too strong. Conversely, if you go too low, the coffee won’t be extracted properly, and you’ll get a bland shot of espresso that tastes watery.
How hot espresso should be is ultimately a matter of the barista’s preference. Some modern espresso machines have built-in thermometers that display the water temperature on a digital screen.
If you don’t have one of these machines, you can measure the temperature by sticking a thermometer into the coffee as soon as you’re done pulling the shot.
The temperature of milk in a latte
Unlike with espresso temperature, coffee professionals disagree on the ideal latte milk temperature. The consensus is that you should always start with cold milk when you steam or froth it. But after that, how warm the milk should get depends on what you want to do with it.
The general rule is that you shouldn’t heat the milk beyond 145°F (63°C) if you want to make latte art. At this point, you’ll get only a thin layer of milk foam that will dissipate quickly.
If you want the most milk foam, you can go up to 160°F (71°C). Hotter milk makes a latte foamier, with a long-lasting layer of froth.
But this is where you need to stop. If you heat milk to 170°F (76°C) and beyond, it begins to scald. As a result, the milk will taste burnt, become too bubbly to make good foam, and develop brown off-colors.
Additionally, heating will affect the natural sweetness of the milk. At 140°F (60°C), the lactose in the milk begins to break down and release sugar compounds that increase the sweetness. But as it gets hotter, the milk gradually loses its flavor.
Note that I am talking about dairy milk. Plant milk, like almond or oat milk, can make a great latte but have different nutrients and proteins. They won’t behave the same when heated, so you may need to experiment more.
Should you order extra-hot lattes?
You might have heard someone at a coffee shop order their latte extra hot. Or maybe you enjoy your latte hotter than it’s typically served. But do you really want your coffee to be scalding?
There are situations where an extra-hot latte is welcome, like on freezing winter mornings or long commutes. But if you want to appreciate the flavor of your drink, going excessively hot is not a good idea.
The espresso in your drink is already served nearly at the boiling point, so your barista can’t make it any hotter. The only way to warm up the drink is to increase the temperature of the steamed milk. When you ask for an extra-hot latte, the barista may bring the milk’s temperature up to 180°F (82°C) — in other words, right to the scalding point.
As you learned, hot milk produces more foam and loses its sweetness. A hotter-than-hot latte is likely to be excessively frothy and may have a bland or even burnt taste.
Ask your barista to preheat your cup if you want to savor a warm latte for longer. Of course, this will only work if you drink your coffee from a ceramic cup, as paper cups can’t be preheated.
8 solutions for a latte that is too cold
If you make a latte at home, you can enjoy a delicious drink and save time and money. But what if your latte always ends up being cooler than you’d like? Here are some tips and tricks to help you enjoy hot lattes at home.
1. Invest in a thermometer
Making a latte is an art, but introducing a bit of scientific accuracy definitely won’t hurt. A milk frothing thermometer will help you measure your milk temperature and ensure it is not too hot and not too cold.
You can also use a contactless thermometer so you don’t burn yourself with the scorching coffee.
2. Steam milk at a higher temperature
Steaming milk at a higher temperature will result in a hot latte. Heat your steamed milk to 160°F (71°C) to get a hotter drink.
That said, playing around with temperature will impact milk flavor, and you may end up with burnt milk.
3. Steam milk while pulling the espresso
If you steam your milk only after you brew coffee, your espresso cools down while sitting on the counter. Learning to multitask and prepare your steamed milk while pulling the espresso shot is best.
This is an easy task using double-boiler espresso machines — just pull one shot of espresso while steaming the milk simultaneously. With a single-boiler machine, you’ll have to quickly swap from pulling the shot of espresso to steaming milk and work fast.
If you don’t have an espresso machine and make strong coffee for your latte using alternative brewing methods, such as Moka Pot, you will have more time to steam the milk.
4. Preheat the cup
A hot cup naturally keeps lattes hot longer. Using an espresso machine, simply run a brew cycle without coffee and fill your cup. Let the hot water sit in the cup while preparing your coffee grounds, and dump it before you start brewing.
If you don’t have an espresso machine, you can heat your cup by pouring boiling water into it. You could also simply microwave a cup filled with water. Just make sure your cup is microwave-safe.
5. Use a different cup or mug
The cup you use can have a surprisingly big impact on your drink’s temperature. The cup thickness is the main factor, but its shape and material also play important roles.
A cup or mug with thicker walls retains heat longer. Additionally, a narrow and tall cup keeps your latte hot for a longer period than a wide-mouthed regular cup.
Finally, porcelain cups slow down the cooling rate significantly compared to glass or metal cups. If you usually have your latte on the go, opting for an insulated travel mug is best.
6. Avoid coffee add-ins
Many delicious coffee recipes include additional ingredients to a latte on top of espresso and milk, like flavored syrups or sauces. The problem with coffee add-ins is that you usually don’t heat them before they’re poured into the cup.
You may be able to warm some add-ins, such as flavored syrup, before using them. Others will be ruined by heating, though.
So if you want more flavor in your drink, you may have to live with a slightly cooler beverage or stick to a regular latte. You might also want to consider other sweeter hot drinks, like a breve — a coffee drink made with espresso and a mixture of milk and cream served hot.
7. Buy a cup warmer
An electric cup warmer can help keep your espresso coffee hot after brewing. In case you can’t make the steamed milk while pulling the espresso, simply place the shot of espresso on the warmer while you work your frothing equipment.
You can also use it to maintain your drink’s temperature after serving. An electric cup warmer can be a welcome addition to any work desk.
8. Make an iced latte
You might consider giving an iced latte a shot if you constantly end up with a cold drink despite your best efforts. Hot or iced, a good latte will still please your taste buds.
It’s easy to start exploring the iced latte world. Make a single or double shot of espresso (or even brewed strong instant coffee), and add some ice cubes and chilled milk into your mug. You can also make cold-frothed milk for a truly luxurious treat.
A latte is traditionally a hot drink, but nothing stops you from enjoying it cold on a hot summer day. That said, it’s good to know why your favorite coffee drinks are served the way they are, whether you make them in your kitchen or order them at a coffee shop. So now you can confidently answer your barista when they ask you: “Would you like your latte hot or cold?”