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Why Shaken Espresso Is So Dang Delicious

A cocktail shaker and some ice can make espresso even better. Here’s why.

I didn’t know what shaken espresso was a year ago. Now I don’t know how I ever enjoyed coffee without it.

I was first introduced to this frothy and refreshing brew when Starbucks released its line of shaken espresso drinks. In fact, I still remember the video I sent to my friends when I tried it for the first time. It was basically 45 seconds of me rambling about how delicious it was.

What Is a Shaken Espresso?

The shaken espresso wasn’t invented by Starbucks. It actually stems from a popular Italian iced espresso beverage known as the shakerato.

Traditionally, a shakerato includes ice, one or two shots of espresso, and some sugar or simple syrup, all shaken up in a cocktail shaker. What you’re left with is a light, frothy, and refreshing cup of chilled espresso.

Starbucks’ version includes an additional ingredient: milk or cream. The milk provides extra froth to the drink, which I love.

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The Shaken versus Stirred Showdown

I can’t go and spend $5 on the Starbucks version every day. Luckily it’s easy to make at home. (Sometimes I’ll even add a few pumps of vanilla syrup for sweetness.) But it got me wondering: Does my espresso actually taste better shaken? Or is this all just a marketing scheme?

To find out if Starbucks had me fooled, I decided to try two different espressos side by side, one shaken and one stirred. In both espressos, I used the same combination of ingredients I like in my shaken espresso: ice, espresso, vanilla syrup, and milk.

My shaken version tasted just as expected: smooth, easy to drink, and well-balanced. But the version where I stirred my ingredients just wasn’t the same. The espresso tasted harsher, the ingredients didn’t seem as well combined, and it was of course missing that beautiful froth.

The Science Behind the Shake

So why does the shaken one taste better? I went to Cook’s Illustrated’s science editor Paul Adams for some insight.

He told me that the light smoothness in the shaken version comes from a combination of the aeration, dilution, and chilling that happens within the cocktail shaker.

“Shaking the mix with ice makes it very cold very fast, increases dilution, and lightens the texture by churning microbubbles of air into it,” Adams said.

Dilution takes the harsh edge off acid (and alcohol, in shaken cocktails). But it’s also why it’s so important that you use only espresso and not another type of coffee in this drink. Since espresso is so concentrated, it’s able to handle the dilution without losing all its flavor.

“[Dilution is] one reason why this doesn’t work well with drip coffee, which is already more dilute,” Adams added.

Milk, though not a traditional part of the shakerato, is an important component of this drink in my opinion. The added creaminess contributes to the smoothness that makes this drink so special. It also helps the signature froth last longer.

“The protein in milk or cream stabilizes the foam, so it lasts longer in the glass; without that, the shakerato is still great but loses its frothy texture after a minute or two,” according to Adams.

So if you’re looking for a new iced drink to enjoy as the weather gets warmer, look no further than shaken espresso. It’s customizable, easy to make, and ridiculously refreshing. If you want to make it at home, here are some tips from Adams.

Tips for Making a Shaken Espresso at Home

  • There’s no such thing as too much ice in your shaker. In fact, too little ice will actually make your drink more watery. Don’t be shy: Fill up the shaker.
  • When adding ice to your shaker, the bigger and colder it is, the better. If you can, use this bartending trick: Add one big cube and fill in the shaker with regular cubes. This combination provides the most aeration.
  • When it comes to how long you should shake, aim for somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds. Fifteen seconds is a little short of maximum chilling, and by 30 seconds the aeration will plateau.

Photo: Getty Images/Baramyou0708