What is the best non-dairy milk for you? Here’s how to choose and use them.
When it comes to using plant-based milks for traditional dairy, “you can pretty much do it 1 for 1,” says recipe creator and blogger Jessica Hylton Leckie of Jessica in the kitchen.
In one piece about oat milk on Serious Eats, Elazar Sontag shares insights from baking expert and cookbook author Stella Parks. Parks says dairy is often used primarily for hydration, while it also helps with browning (from its natural sugars) and body (it’s thicker than water). Plant-based milks can serve many of the same purposes. Parks only warns against plant milks in recipes where the primary flavor is dairy, such as vanilla custards.
“People assume they’ll taste bad,” Hylton Leckie says of non-dairy milks. With so many extra options and upgrades, that’s increasingly unlikely.
Gan Chin Lin, a vegan recipe developer and writer, says soy and oat milks are among the most neutral in flavor. Some people may be sensitive to some of the bitter compounds in almonds. Keep in mind that flavors may dissipate once cooked, but you should use milk that you like the flavor of.
Rice is neutral, while you’re more likely to get stronger flavors with nut or hemp milks. If you’re leaning into a nut-based dessert, says Gan, an almond or cashew milk might be perfect. Check out Hylton Leckie’s Vegan Eggnog Cookies in our 2021 Holiday Cookie Collection.
All Hail oat milk, the cheap and easy dairy alternative to make at home
Doron Petersan, cookbook author and owner of the Washington Vegan Sticky Finger Bakerysays store-bought milks tend to have a more neutral flavor than fresh or homemade versions.
There is an array of textures when it comes to non-dairy milk. “Soy is magical in that it holds 100 times its weight in water,” Petersan says of his favorite option. It is full of starches which gelatinize and give a thick and creamy texture. Oats are similar in this way. Coconut milk (the canned version, not the chilled drink) is thick due to its high fat content.
You’ll find rice, flax, hemp, and almond milks on the thinner side.
Consistency and flavor can vary between brands, even among a single type of milk, so you may need to try a few to see what you like.
Plant-based milks can be fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D or vitamin B12 to help people following a vegan diet.
Other additives “are there to keep the milk from separating and give it a better mouthfeel,” says Petersan. Examples include gellan gum, locust bean gum, soy lecithin and, in the case of oat milk, vegetable oil. Even with additives, it’s important to shake plant milk well before using it, says Gan.
Avoid baking or cooking with flavored (i.e. vanilla) milks. Milks labeled “original” may contain added sugar. Hylton Leckie says these have better texture and color, “closer to the creaminess and texture of dairy milk”, ideal for cereals and recipes. “It’s not necessarily ‘sweetened’ but is that milk you might drink by the glass.” If you want fewer calories or less sugar, use unsweetened milks, although they are thinner with a different flavor.
If a recipe calls for a particular type of plant milk, use that if possible. The consensus, however, of everyone I spoke to was that herbal options are largely interchangeable. Although you may have variations in results based on fat content or thickness, generally “it will work,” says Petersan. Muffins, pancakes, waffles and cookies are examples of indulgent recipes where the type of milk is not too heavy. Likewise, with an oil-based chocolate cake, where cocoa is the predominant flavor and oil the predominant fat, don’t worry too much about the type of milk.
Let’s take a side-by-side look at cow’s milk and some plant-based options. I will address flavor, consistency, where they are good substitutes (King Arthur cooking provides helpful tips (although not hard and fast) and nutritional information per cup, unless otherwise specified, in some common store brands. Some offer blends with multiple types.
Cow milk (all generic). Calories: 150; Total fat: 8 g; Saturated fat: 4.5 g; sodium: 95mg; Carbohydrates: 12g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 12g; Protein: 8g
Almond. Stronger flavor. Thin. Substitute skim, reduced or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Original Almond Breeze): Calories: 60; Total fat: 2.5 g; Saturated fat: 0 g; sodium: 150mg; Carbohydrates: 8g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 7g; Protein: 1g
Coconut. Stronger flavor. Canned substitute for whole milk (may curdle if cooked too long at high heat); The coconut milk drink is ideal for drinking or as a substitute for skimmed, reduced or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Thai Kitchen canned unsweetened, per 1/3 cup): Calories: 120; Total fat: 12 g; Saturated fat: 11 g; Sodium: 30mg; Carbohydrates: 2g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 1g; Protein: 1g
Nutrition (SO Delicious original organic drink): Calories: 70; Total fat: 4.5 g; Saturated fat: 4 g; Sodium: 30mg; Carbohydrates: 8g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 7g; Protein: 0g
Hemp. Stronger flavor. Thin. Substitute skim, reduced or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Original Pacific Foods): Calories: 140; Total fat: 6 g; Saturated fat: 1 g; Sodium: 130mg; Carbohydrates: 19g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 12g; Protein: 4g
Oats. Neutral. Thick. Substitute for whole milk.
Nutrition (Oatly-original): Calories: 120; Total fat: 5 g; Saturated fat: 0.5g; Sodium: 100mg; Carbohydrates: 16g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 7g; Protein: 3g
Rice. Neutral. Thin. Substitute skim, reduced or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Original rice dream): Calories: 130; Total fat: 2.5 g; Saturated fat: 0 g; sodium: 95mg; Carbohydrates: 27g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 12g; Protein: 0g
Soy. Neutral. Thick. Substitute for whole milk (cashew also works well here).
Nutrition (original silk): Calories: 80; Total fat: 4 g; Saturated fat: 0.5g; Sodium: 75mg; Carbohydrates: 3g; Dietary fiber: 2g; Sugar: 1g; Protein: 7g