What is a Café au lait? (and how to make one)

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Have you tried a Café au lait?

This drink is extremely popular in France and several other countries, mostly in Europe. It is generally consumed at breakfast.

It’s a mixture of two liquids: coffee and warm milk. In fact, its name literally means “coffee with milk” in French.

Want to learn more about this interesting brew? Read on as we do a deep dive on the Café au lait.

What is a Café au lait?

A café au lait is a French drink coffee drink made with equal parts of steamed milk and strong coffee. These ingredients are combined to make a creamy beverage that is traditionally consumed at home in the morning.

Each European country has their own version of this drink in some form or another.

In France, a Café au lait is made with equal parts steamed milk and strong brewed coffee (made in a french press, or coffee plunger).

In the United States, the term Café au lait may refer to a beverage made from drip-filtered coffee rather than espresso served with heated milk on the side.

In New Orleans, where Café au lait is a longstanding tradition, it refers to drip-filtered coffee with very hot milk and the addition of chicory.

In Italy, variations of the Café au lait include many of the espresso-bassed drinks we know well, including caffè latte and cappuccino.

In some parts of the world, an alternative preparation involves mixing two parts of freshly brewed coffee with one part of hot milk without heating either ingredient separately.

How to make a Café au lait

The method for preparing a Café au lait will differ from country to country and even between regions and cafes.

However, note that the drink must be made with warm or steamed milk. An equivalent drink made with cold milk would simply be called “white coffee”.

Steaming or heating milk brings out its bring out milk’s natural sweetness. This is due to the effect the heating has on the lactose in the milk, which also gives it a more creamy texture.

Café au lait recipe (French style)

  1. Preheat your french press by adding some boiling water to the base and swirling it around, then discard.
  2. Grind your coffee to a medium coarse grind size. This grind size is somewhere between the size of sand and that of sea salt. It’s not a good idea to use fine grinds with a plunger, as these can pass through the filter and into your cup.
  3. Add your coffee to the french press.
  4. Bloom your coffee. Pre-wet your coffee grounds with a small amount of hot water and leave for 30 seconds before adding the rest. The purpose of blooming is to provide your ground coffee with some time to make space for the hot water. Further, blooming prevents the sour taste of carbon dioxide from infusing into your coffee.
  5. Add your water. Water should be around 96 degrees Celsius, so don’t pour it straight from a coiled kettle.
  6. A standard coffee to water ratio is 1:15 for french press, however, for a Café au lait, we want a strong brew. Therefore, try 1:10 (1 gram of coffee for every 10 grams of water).
  7. Let the coffee steep for between 4 and 8 minutes.
  8. Prepare the milk while the coffee is brewing. Add your milk to a saucepan ( the volume should be the same as your coffee) and place it on the stove at medium heat.
  9. Slowly warm the milk while continuing to stir. Aim for a temperature of 65-70 degrees Celcius.
  10. You’re now ready to serve. Once both your milk and coffee are ready, pour equal parts of each into a large mug and stir so the ingredients combine.


Café au lait vs Café crème

Café crème consists of espresso coffee mixed with steamed milk, like an Italian latte.

Café au lait, on the other hand, uses coffee made using a french press.

Worth noting also is that Café crème is what people in France would normally order out at a cafe, which Café au lait is more commonly made and consumed at home.

Café au lait vs Café latte

While the two drinks are similar, there are a few key differences between a latte and a café au lait.

Latte is made with espresso and more milk, which is steamed using the steam wand on an espresso machine.

On the other hand, a Café au lait uses strong coffee (usually brewed in a french press) and milk that is heated in a pan to a high temperature.