Often quoted as the gateway drink for getting non-coffee drinkers to become full-on obsessives, the flat white is going nowhere. A huge 39% of coffee drinks ordered in commercial coffee shops are flat whites, and its popularity continues to grow.
In light of this, we thought we’d create a handy guide on how to make a flat white at home, including the equipment you’ll need, the best kinds of milk, and the process for the perfect pour. You’re welcome.
What is a flat white?
Have you seen those coffees that come with an array of expertly crafted, aesthetically pleasing patterns on top of them, served in chunky earthen mid-century cups sized somewhere between a mug and an espresso? Then you’ve seen a flat white in the wild. With over 2 million pictures using the hashtag #flatwhite on Instagram, it’s clear why it is popular for its looks alone. Yet there’s more to it than a pretty face: this coffee has substance as well as style.
Don’t ask where the flat white comes from - the answer will vary depending on the person - but the consensus is that it was either New Zealand or Australia, sometime near the end of the 1980s. Pioneered by independent coffee shops and their well-travelled workers, the flat white truly took off in the western world in 2015 when Starbucks added it to their menu.
The flat white is now synonymous with coffee shop snootiness, even among those who don’t regularly frequent coffee shops - not least because of a particularly controversial advert about a fast food chain‘s machine-made flat whites. Despite this, there are still a fair few people out there who believe that the somewhat confusing name simply means a black coffee with milk - your bog-standard, freeze-dried cup of joe.
What is a flat white vs a latte?
This is one of those questions that a lot of people want to ask a qualified barista, but are too afraid of looking ill-informed to ever do. Let’s clear it up for you.
Both the flat white and the latte are espresso-based drinks, diluted with steamed milk. The main variation comes in the ratios and quantity of these two key ingredients.
Whereas a latte can technically be any size, as there is no hard and fast rule for the number of espresso shots you put into it, it has to be balanced out with a large percentage of milk. This is why some high-street coffee shops make lattes so large that they require two handles.
Lattes, by their very name (latte means milk in Italian), are the milkiest drink you can order, making them perfect for people who are sensitive to caffeine.
Flat whites on the other hand are much smaller, coming in at around 150–240 ml in total, about the size of a traditional teacup. The emphasis here is very much on the ratio of finely textured milk to espresso, which will always have two shots or two ristretto shots (a shorter, sweeter shot) topped up with a small amount of extremely silky steamed milk.
While the milk in a flat white and latte are similar, it tends to be ‘wetter’ in a latte, although this will vary depending on where you order it from.
Neither lattes nor flat whites will have the big frothy layer of a cappuccino. Instead, you should expect a thin, even layer of microfoam, usually about 5 mm in depth. Remember that a cappuccino is a ratio of foam to milk to coffee of 3:3:3, so the layer can be many centimetres deep!
Either because of its strength, its texture or the artwork on top, people seem to take the crafting of a flat white a bit more seriously than other drinks. You’ll find baristas are more stringent about not making a flat white too foamy than they would be with a latte.
How to make a flat white
You will need:
- Milk. If you are using dairy, choose full fat, as this performs best for both texture and flavour. Alternatively, coconut or soya milk both work well.
- 2 espresso shots, freshly drawn.
- A milk jug.
- A steam wand.
- A small cup.
- Start by selecting the smallest milk jug you can. This is because, unlike foamed milk, you are not trying to stretch the milk to fill the jug.
- Fill the jug with milk until just above the start of the spout. If you are new to flat white milk, err on the side of too much milk rather than not enough. Less milk means it will get hot quicker, and hot milk means frothy milk: the antithesis of flat white!
- Purge the milk wand.
- Now place the wand deep into the milk, but without touching the metal bottom.
- Turn on the wand and tilt the jug a little, making sure you can see where the wand enters the milk.
- *This part is optional, and remains a contentious subject for baristas everywhere, but if you are starting out it can help.* Lower the jug ever so slightly so that the wand is just skimming the surface of the milk. This will create a noise like tearing paper - the same noise that you need to make a cappuccino. Hold it there for half a second before plunging the wand back down into the milk. While some contest that this will make the milk too foamy, other coffee shops train their staff to do this 3-6 times for every flat white or latte.
- For the remainder of the time, you want to keep the wand submerged in the jug, which should be tilted slightly to create a vortex of milk. This is what is adding the texture to the milk with the heat.
- No milk-based coffee drink should be served too hot, as this will burn the milk, but this is especially true for flat whites. As such, try to avoid creating foam as much as possible. Once the milk hits 55–62 °C, turn the wand off and remove it from the jug.
- If you haven't already done so, pour your espresso or ristretto shots into the cup you will serve your coffee in.
- All the while, keep your milk jug swirling, firmly but carefully, to stop the slight foam from separating from the wetter milk (the wetter milk will always sink, so you need to keep it moving).
- If there are larger bubbles in your milk, bang the jug on a work surface to burst them.
- Swirl the coffee around lightly in your cup so that it goes about half of the way up the inside wall.
- Holding the cup in your hand, pour the milk into the centre of the cup slowly, from about a 15cm height. Circle the milk around the centre two or three times, depending on the speed and the size of the cup, until you are a centimetre from the top.
- How you pour the remainder of the milk depends on which pattern you wish to create on top, with the most popular being the heart, rosette or tulip, in that order of difficulty. Experiment and find your favourite!
- For the heart pattern: place the spout of the milk jug on the lip of the cup and wiggle it gently from side to side so that the milk comes forward. Finally, pull the milk jug forward so that the last bit of milk strikes through the pattern, dragging it down to the bottom, forming the heart shape.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a pattern the first few times: the process goes by so quickly that it does take practice to get right. There are plenty of videos online with techniques to help create the various patterns, and nearly every coffee shop has a slightly different way of reaching the same results.
Regardless of the pattern on top, if the texture of the milk is correct then you will have made a beautiful, velvety smooth flat white - the texture and taste that millions of people have come to love.
Final thoughts on how to make a flat white
If you find a flat white a bit too small or weak for your tastes, try to avoid asking for an extra shot, as this will unbalance the careful ratios that make a flat white the sweet, strong drink that it is. At that point, you aren’t asking for a flat white anymore, and you’re probably annoying the barista! Either order another one, or try a cortado: the flat white’s younger, stronger sibling.
As with any coffee drink, however, there are numerous alterations you can make. There are rose flat whites made with rose water and pink beetroot powder, matcha flat whites, mocha flat whites, and a whole range of alternative milk options The only constant is that the milk has to be formulated to be used with a coffee machine - if not, you won’t be able to create the micro-foam needed, as it will not stretch.
Be cautious with anything that will add to the ratios, as it’s usually better to swap out ingredients rather than add to them. While you can theoretically add syrups to any coffee drink, the diminutive size of the flat white doesn't lend itself particularly well to being flavoured; the ratio would be too heavily weighted in the favour of the syrup, which can already taste synthetic, and overpower even the largest milk-based coffee drinks.
Regardless of whether you're a flat white convert or have been drinking them since 1989, always make sure you use the best quality beans, such as the incredible selection we provide. We hope this guide has helped you learn what a flat white is and how to make one, and will help you when it comes to deciding between a flat white or a latte on your next coffee shop visit - or at the very least, give you an answer for the local pub quiz.