Café Au Lait vs. Latte: What's the Difference?

Because there is a difference.

Latte in a white mug
Photo: House of Aqua

There's a reason there's so much confusion surrounding the difference between a café au lait and a café latte: They both mean the same exact thing (coffee with milk) in different languages.

However, they are actually quite different beverages:

What Is a Café Au Lait?

The French café au lait sounds fancier than it is — espresso with hot (usually steamed) milk added. This is not to be confused with white coffee, which is espresso with cold milk added.

"Café au lait" doesn't have to refer to a specific drink with one method of preparation. It can be made at home using a run-of-the-mill coffee pot and stove-warmed milk, or in a café with an expensive espresso machine and steamed milk. When we say "café au lait," we're really just referring to the coffee and heated milk combo.

Café au lait, which is traditionally served in a white mug or bowl, is usually half coffee, half (traditionally) milk.

What Is a Latte?

The Italian café latte is made with espresso, steamed milk, and milk froth (thick, foamy milk that is created by aeration).

A latte requires more milk than a café au lait — the ratio is usually 2:1, or two parts milk, one part coffee.

Lattes are traditionally served in a tall glass.

It's important to note that, while we call these beverages "lattes" in the U.S., ordering a "latte" in Italy will get you a glass of plain milk. The correct Italian term is "café latte."

Get the recipes: 40 Coffee Shop Drinks You Can Make at Home

close up view of a No Coffee Pumpkin Latte in a green cup
Holiday Baker

Regional Variations

In much of Europe, the terms "café latte" and "café au lait" are used interchangeably — so you might want to be specific while traveling.

In the U.S., lattes are significantly sweeter than in Europe. Coffee chains like Starbucks have popularized the addition of flavored syrups to lattes. It's almost more common in the States to order a vanilla or hazelnut latte than a plain latte.

Similarly, the café au lait served in New Orleans is markedly different than the café au lait served in Europe.

This Southern variation, made with chicory, is extremely robust and intensely flavored. It's traditionally served with sugary beignets to offset the drink's bitterness.

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