Guide to dairy-free MILK ALTERNATIVES

Guide to dairy milk alternatives - Embers on the hearth

Milk is in my list of basic ingredients because it is used in so many recipes, as well as being used on its own for things as common as coffee and cereal, or just a good ol’ glass of milk!

However, this doesn’t mean you have to stick to dairy milk. There are many plant-based milk alternatives in the market, with more coming out each year.

There are options for all budgets, and with so many to choose from, there’s definitely one you will like.

7 things to keep in mind if you’ve never had non-dairy milk before

  1. All nutritional values I mention are based on 100 millilitres of milk (about 1/3 of a cup), however the numbers can change drastically depending on the brand or if the milk is homemade. These are only approximate numbers to have a rough idea of what you’re getting with each.
  1. It’s important to notice that most commercial plant milks have added calcium, vitamin D, and B12 vitamin so that their amounts are equivalent to dairy milk. But don’t assume the one you buy does, always check!
  1. Plant-based milks can be bought as UHT or fresh (from the fridge), just like dairy milk. UHT milk will last for months and months, while fresh milk (even if it comes in an UHT-looking carton) will go off in a few days.
  1. All plant-based milks can be made at home with just a blender and a cheesecloth (those made with beans or grains need to be boiled too). But keep in mind that they usually go bad very fast because they don’t have any preservatives. Don’t keep them around for more than 3 days. And they will usually separate and you’ll need to give them a good shake (or stir) before using.
  1. I have never been able to find powder 100% plant-based milks (other than for babies), so if you have, let me know. However, you can buy powdered soy and coconut milk mixed with powdered dairy milk, and millet milk mixed with other grains and usually also sugar or honey. Those can be found in large supermarkets, ‘ethnic’ food shops (I’ve had luck in Indian and Chinese supermarkets), and online.
  1. Plant milks can have a lot of fibre! So if you use a lot of milk and suddenly swap from dairy to plant-based, you might notice some unexpected changes in your toilet routine, but you’ll be back to normal after a few days when your body has had time to adjust.
  1. Companies often mix different kinds of plant milks to create new products with a nicer flavour or texture, or to lower costs. Rice and oats are the most common ‘filler’ milks as their flavours are quite neutral. So always check labels to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want and that surprisingly cheap milk is in fact 100% what it claims to be!

Semi-skimmed dairy milk (for comparison)

I’m going to be listing the nutritional information of most of the milk alternatives I talk about, so here are the details of the most commonly consumed dairy milk: semi-skimmed (also called reduced fat milk).

  • Fat: 2 grams, saturated 1.2 grams, polyunsaturated 0.3 grams
  • Protein: 3.5 grams
  • Sugar: 5 grams
  • Fibre: 0 grams

Soy milk

Soy milk is probably the plant milk with the closest mouthfeel to semi-skimmed dairy milk. Depending on the brand, the taste of the beans could be quite strong or virtually undetectable. You need to try several before you find one you like, and even when you do find one you love, you might find the flavour changed again. For some reason brands change their recipes quite regularly.

Soy milk can be unsweetened or sweetened (different brands use different sweeteners). Always double check the ingredients as ‘original’ means sweetened for some brands and unsweetened for others. If you’re going to use the milk in savoury cooking, you need unsweetened soy milk. For drinking or baking you can use either, but make sure you adjust sugar levels.

Soy milk is also the cheapest and easiest to find of all the dairy alternatives. Supermarket own brands are often the same price as dairy milk or cheaper. It is also quite easy to find flavoured soy milk, usually vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and banana.

Tofu is made from soy milk, which means soy milk curdles like nobody’s business! To avoid that, there are some tips you can follow

  • make sure you don’t mix it with very acidic liquids
  • make sure you don’t mix it with boiling liquids
  • make sure you always add it last

The perfect cup of coffee or tea would be: a low acidity tea or coffee (one that is not very strong), wait for a minute or two for the temperature of the drink to go down, and add the milk last. If you like your drink boiling hot, just pop it into the microwave for a few seconds!

  • Fat: 1.7 grams, saturated 0.3 grams, polyunsaturated 1 gram
  • Protein: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 0.1 grams (sweetened can go up to 3 grams)
  • Fibre: 0.5 grams

Almond milk

Almond milk is thinner than semi-skimmed milk, and quite similar to skimmed dairy milk. Depending on the brand, the flavour can vary quite dramatically, even more than with soy milk. And brands also like to change their recipes all the time! As with soy milk, almond milk can also be sweetened or unsweetened.

Almond milk doesn’t curdle as easily as soya milk, but it can sometimes happen too.

  • Fat: 1.1 grams, saturated 0.1 grams, polyunsaturated 0.3 grams
  • Protein: 0.4 grams
  • Sugar: 0.1 grams (sweetened can go up to 3 grams)
  • Fibre: 0.4 grams

Oat milk

Oat milk is also quite similar to semi-skimmed milk and it is probably the plant milk with the subtlest flavour. These characteristics make it a good ‘newbie’ or transitioning milk. It also steams and froths beautifully, which makes it a great milk for hot drinks.

Oat milk can be a bit pricier than soy or almond milk, and also harder to find in smaller non-specialised shops.

Most varieties are unsweetened as oats are already quite sweet. Before using you always need to give it a good shake as oat milk likes to settle at the bottom and if you don’t mix it, you’ll end up with white water on top and a weird thick goop at the bottom.

  • Fat: between 0.5 and 1.5 grams, saturated 0.2 grams, polyunsaturated 0.7 grams
  • Protein: 1 grams
  • Sugar: 4.1 grams
  • Fibre: 0.8 grams

Coconut milk

Coconut milk can come in cans or in cartons. Generally speaking, when talking about dairy milk alternatives, people refer to the carton one.

Coconut milk has a very distinctive flavour, which can be fantastic for the right recipes (hot chocolate or muffins, for example) or absolutely disgusting for the wrong ones (like mash potatoes). If coconut would go well with whatever you’re eating or drinking, you can go ahead and use it, otherwise skip it and switch to a different milk.

It also feels quite fatty compared to other plant milks, even if the fat content is quite similar to semi-skimmed milk. If you haven’t had dairy milk in a while and don’t regularly have coconut milk, the extra fat could feel strange.

  • Fat: between 1 and 2 grams, saturated between 1 and 2 grams, polyunsaturated 0 grams
  • Protein: 0.1 grams
  • Sugar: 1.8 grams
  • Fibre: 0.1 grams

Rice milk

Rice milk comes in two varieties: regular and brown. The milk made with brown rice tends to be a bit nuttier in flavour, and also harder to find.

Both are quite thin, similar to skimmed milk, and usually only come in the unsweetened variety. Some people refer to rice milk as ‘white water’, but it is a good option for when you want (or need) milk but want to keep your drink or recipe light.

  • Fat: 1 grams, saturated 0.1 grams, polyunsaturated 0.6 grams
  • Protein: 0.1 grams
  • Sugar: 3.4 grams
  • Fibre: 0.3 grams

Hemp milk

Hemp milk is the most expensive of the commonly available plant milks.

The flavour is quite nutty and the high fat content makes it similar to coconut milk and semi-skimmed milk in mouthfeel, even if it is usually somewhat thinner than those.

  • Fat: 2.8 grams, saturated 0.3 grams, polyunsaturated 2 grams
  • Protein: 0.6 grams
  • Sugar: 0.1 grams (sweetened can be up to 2 grams)
  • Fibre: 0.5 grams

Pea milk

Pea milk is the new kid on the block of plant milks. It is made from yellow peas and is a cream colour. The texture is creamy, much like full-fat milk, and it can be a bit chalky.

There are only a few brands of pea milk in the market, which means it is quite expensive for now (even if the base ingredient is ridiculously cheap). It comes in sweetened and unsweetened versions.

  • Fat: 1.9 grams, saturated 0.3 grams, polyunsaturated 0.8 grams
  • Protein: 3.2 grams
  • Sugar: 0.2 grams
  • Fibre: 0.1 grams

Cashew milk

Cashew milk is very creamy and similar to full-fat milk in texture, with a subtle nutty flavour. It is still quite hard to find in shops, it almost always comes in small cartons and it can be very expensive. If you’re a fan, making it at home is a good option.

  • Fat: 2.5 grams, saturated 0.4 grams, polyunsaturated 0.4 grams
  • Protein: 0.9 grams
  • Sugar: 0.3 grams
  • Fibre: 0.3 grams

Peanut milk

Peanut milk dates back to the Incas, but it has only become a commercial product in the past few years.

It resembles cashew milk in texture, but tastes very much like peanuts! This makes it a great addition to baked goods, porridge, and recipes that would benefit from that peanut flavour.

  • Nutrition varies between brands

Tiger nut milk

Tiger nuts are used to make traditional drinks from Spain (horchata de chufa) and some West African countries (kunnu aya). Generally, these drinks are sweetened with sugar. It is usually drunk on its own, either hot or cold, but can also be used as any other plant-based milk.

The flavour is very distinctive, but the texture is similar to semi-skimmed milk.

  • Nutrition varies between brands

Other plant-based milks

Besides the most common ones, there are some other plant-based milks around. These are either harder to find or they are not available commercially, and have to be made at home. The ones you can buy, tend to be more expensive than the more common types.

  • barley: it has only just become commercially available and only in a handful of countries.
  • brazil nuts: there doesn’t seem to be any brazil nut milks available to buy, but it is very easy to make at home (if somewhat pricey!)
  • buckwheat: also very hard to find commercially, but easy and cheap to make.
  • flaxseed: commercially, flax or linseed is used mixed with other milks to up the nutritional content or give it a better flavour or texture.
  • hazelnuts: usually only available in small cartons and often chocolate-flavoured. It is sweet and nutty.
  • macadamia nuts: same as hazelnut milk, but more expensive.
  • millet: millet milk can be found in liquid and powder forms but it is mixed with a lot of other ingredients like soya, rice, and oats.
  • pecans: doesn’t seem to be available commercially, but there are many recipes available to make your own.
  • pistachios: so far there seems to be only one brand available in a small carton and it’s quite expensive.
  • pumpkin seed: like pecan milk, it doesn’t seem to be available commercially.
  • quinoa: quinoa milk is available mixed with either rice or oat milk, even those brands that call their milk ‘quinoa milk’ seem to add something else to it.
  • sesame seed: I have only come across one brand so far, and it seems to be mixed with pea protein. Luckily, another milk that can be made at home very easily.
  • sunflower seed: another one that I haven’t been able to find commercially.
  • walnuts: I have only found one brand that produces walnut milk.