Non-Dairy Milks, Explained
Wondering about non-dairy milk alternatives? Explore the cream of the crop, including types of non-dairy milks, nutrition, and how to use plant-based milks in cooking.
Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum
Good ol’ Bessie’s been getting a break in the past few years … but with so many non-dairy upstarts in an exploding market, it’s not a far reach to wonder: Is she going out to pasture? As of August 2021, plant-based milk commanded 15% of total milk sales in the U.S. and made up 75% of all alt-dairy products. Other industry reports projected a $132.6 billion growth in plant-based food products in ten years, with dairy substitutes vying with fake meat as the category leaders.
All of this to say, wow, what a long way we’ve come since Silk soy milk first entered the refrigerated milk display in 1999, making a “case” for non-moo juice. Today, there are more than a dozen types of milk alternatives, not to mention blends, making the possibilities exponential. With so many options, how do you know which one (or ones!) are for your lifestyle? Let's compare the types of non-dairy milks, how they stack up nutritionally, and how to cook with them.
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What is non-dairy milk?
Any plant beverage that is white, creamy, and resembles the milk of bovines (cow, goat, sheep) can be called a non-dairy “milk.” This word has been used to describe milk-like plant juices since the 1200s, with particular reference to almond milk in old recipes from the Levant region. Predating that, Native American tribes have historically “milked” nuts, North Africans made a milky beverage from tiger nuts prior to 1000 AD, and records of the Chinese making soy milk can be traced back to AD 25.
How is non-dairy milk used?
While it may have a different nutrition profile than dairy milk, it’s primarily used as a substitute for milk. Those who follow a vegan, vegetarian, or kosher diet choose non-dairy milk out of principle or faith. Some people switch to plant-based milks to cut calories or fat. While only 2-3% of humans have an actual milk allergy, with 80% growing out of it by age 16, 75% of the world is lactose-intolerant or lactose-sensitive, with effects as minor as bloat and gas to as major as severe gastrointestinal upset. Others simply perceive plant milk being a “cleaner” option — a misleading and subjective label that isn’t regulated.
Whatever your reason, it’s easy to adapt to non-dairy milk. You can cook with most types; some cultures have centuries-old traditions of cooking with coconut milk. Plant milks can also be made into simulacrums of ice cream, cream cheese, coffee creamer, cheese, and yogurt. And while many have a tendency to break when suddenly heated, special barista blends are designed to steam and foam.
Try making your own! This recipe offers three variations and a maximum of four ingredients.
What is soy milk?
Soy milk was the game-changer that made milk alternatives mainstream in America. Although it had been in wide use in China for centuries and was so beloved by Henry Ford that he built an experimental lab in 1941 after a decade of preaching its virtues, it wasn’t until Silk brand appeared next to dairy milk that soy milk became normalized in the United States. This move was the advent of today’s refrigerated non-dairy milk revolution.
Sadly, in addition to its allergenic properties for some people, soy milk has suffered from negative perception. Soy has fallen victim to speculation (since disproven) that it creates excessive estrogen in men, accusations of “liberal conspiracy,” and affiliation with GMOs.
• Soy milk nutrition. Objectively, soy milk is commonly available, affordable, and is one of the few good sources of plant-based, high-quality complete proteins that contains all of the essential amino acids humans need. In fact, soy milk offers similar protein content as cow’s milk but with fewer calories, fats, and carbohydrates when consumed without added sugars.
• Cooking with soy milk. Modern formulas have smoothed out the “beany” flavor present in traditional soy milk, giving it a mild flavor and beautifully creamy texture. Delicious and commonly served cold in the U.S., soy milk is not uncommon as a warm drink in other countries, like China. Naturally, then, it’s less prone to breakage than other non-dairy milks and can be substituted for dairy milk in any baking or cooking application.
Folding creamy soy milk into seasoned pumpkin adds a lighter kind of sweetness than dairy milk.
Just because you’re going dairy-free doesn’t mean you’ve lost a taste for comfort food. Here’s a perfect workaround.
Got more soy milk than you need? Make your own tofu! Just add water and a little vinegar, and heat to make the magic happen.
What is almond milk?
Almond milk is a beverage native to the Middle East, India, and North Africa, and a common ingredient in Christian and Islamic cultures since the Middle Ages. Today, it’s the best-selling plant milk in the U.S., and has held that title since 2013 — thanks to an epic marketing push by the California almond industry with millions of dollars invested into researching its health benefits. Even with stiff competition, almond milk accounts for over 66% of all plant milks sold.
• Almond milk nutrition. Almond milk is technically a water-based emulsion enriched with oils, sugar, and gums for texture, plus calcium and vitamin A and vitamin D for nutrition. However, its vitamin E content is natural; a glass will provide 20% of your daily recommended dose, beating oat milk. Unsweetened almond milk has no sugar or saturated fat, and minimal carbs, which makes it the lowest-calorie milk-like beverage on the market.
• Cooking with almond milk. Its thinner texture makes it a suitable exchange for skim milk drinkers, or for water in dishes like oatmeal. It’s lovely in cereal for its lightly nutty flavor, and distinct in coffee.
Almond milk works nicely in baking and has a subtle flavor, letting the lavender take the limelight in this delicate, simple recipe. Go with a vegan butter if you're looking for a dairy-free recipe.
This recipe doubles down on almonds — sliced and as milk — in a cake that’s dense in texture but light with the sprightly flavor of lemons.
Did you know you can still make lovely, airy crepes even without milk? It’s almond to the rescue in this rendition designed for desserts.
What is cashew milk?
Like almonds, cashews are technically seeds. The tree they grow on is native to Brazil but became a global crop after Portuguese missionaries introduced it to Africa and Asia. There, cashews gained popularity as a cream substitute in Indian and Pakistani cuisine.
• Cashew milk nutrition. The cashew milk we buy in grocery stores today is much more related to almond milk, as it also contains a low percentage of actual nuts and barely any protein. However, the benefits of this low-calorie, water-based emulsion include half of your daily recommended intake of vitamin E; minimal fat, with what there is being unsaturated; lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health; and up to 12% of your daily vitamin K per cup. Diabetics can benefit from the low carb and sugar content of this non-dairy milk.
• Cooking with cashew milk. More subtle in flavor than almond milk, cashew milk is smoother, thicker, and deliciously rich — an excellent stepping stone from dairy milk in blended and/or simmered preparations like soup, sauces, and comfort foods like risotto and mashed potatoes.
Just a little bit of cashew milk adds creaminess to this earthy entree, enhancing its already rich character.
A lighter riff off the classic curries cashew cream is usually used in, this soup is vibrant in appearance as well as flavor.
This dish may not be dairy-free since butter leads the list and there’s plenty of Parmesan, but using cashew milk works to keep the lactose level minimal.
What other nut milks are there?
Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum
This list is long and growing ever longer.
Macadamia milk is popular among coffee drinkers for its frothing capabilities. But despite a higher fat content that contributes to its creaminess, it can still feel thin since it’s another water-based emulsion and typically only 3% nuts. Unsweetened, this is another good choice for diabetics due to its low carb count, and can provide some heart-healthy monosaturated fats.
Walnut milk is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, another non-dairy milk you can drink for your heart. It’s higher in calories than all of the other nut milks but also nutrient-dense, thanks to special methods used by the main manufacturer, Elmhurst 1925. This gives it a similar nutritional value to raw walnuts, and a distinctly nutty flavor that goes naturally with cookies or hearty fall soups.
Hazelnut milk is available through this maker and process as well. This milk counters its high fat and low calcium cons with the pros of vitamins B and E, and a rich, slightly smoky, cocoa-adjacent flavor that goes well with sweets. For fewer calories — and nuts — try Pacific Foods’ version.
Pistachio milk entered the market in 2020 via Tache, fourth-generation family farmers. As awareness of eco-responsibility increases, so have our options for environmentally friendly nut milks, and pistachios require 75% less water than almonds to grow. This shelf-stable milk is smooth without added oil, froths well, and pops with slight nuttiness and sweetness, even in the unsweetened version.
Pecan milk is another newcomer with sustainability in mind, introduced by Texas-based This PKN. It’s the least milky of the non-dairy milks, unapologetically nut-forward in flavor, with no sugar added and a creamy, buttery profile. That’s because it’s 25% pecans with no thickeners, acquiring its texture by soaking. Soaking also reduces naturally occuring phytic acid so it’s easier to absorb vitamins A, B, and E, omega-3s, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and other minerals.
Coconuts and macadamias are nigh inseparable. This recipe keeps the happy pair that way, embracing the fat and eschewing the carbs.
As a neutral nut milk, macadamia’s natural creaminess plays a supporting role to cream cheese and Parmesan for Alfredo sauce.
Amp up hot chocolate with the power of deep roasted hazelnuts. This recipe teaches you how to make the milk first, then turn it into a liquid dessert.
Who says you need gluten, refined sugar, or animal products to have fun? Not this recipe! It’s everything you love about Nutella and then some.
Infuse your own homemade nut milk with deep flavors for a warm, toasty-tasting treat.
What is coconut milk?
Coconut milk beverage and traditional coconut milk are not to be confused. Nor can coconut milk beverage be mistaken for clear coconut water. The coconut milk in the dairy case is liquid made from grated coconut meat (coconut cream) and water. Its texture depends on the manufacturer and dilution, but it will always taste creamy, sweet, and obviously, coconut-y.
• Coconut milk beverage nutrition. Despite its flavor, unsweetened varieties of coconut milk beverage actually contain negligible natural sugars and only two grams of carbs per cup as opposed to 12 grams for cow’s milk. However, coconut milk beverage can have as much fat as conventional 2% dairy milk, is high in saturated fat, and has no protein.
• Cooking with coconut milk beverage. Because it’s high in saturated fat, coconut milk doesn’t always work well in cooking or baking … but this makes it a wonder as a dairy swap in ice creams and smoothies, and a boon for those with nut allergies, since coconut milk comes from fruit.
What better way to enhance the subtly sweet flavor of jasmine rice than coconut milk? By mixing it with rice milk, too.
What is oat milk?
Oat milk is hot right now, thanks to Sweden’s Oatly brand, which was founded in 1994 but landed with a splash in the U.S. when they partnered with Starbucks. Its benefits are that oats are a sustainable, hardy crop; the oat milk is allergen-free; and it foams like a dream. It also tastes delicious — rich, full, and with a distinct sweetness all its own.
• Oat milk nutrition. While oats help lower cholesterol, oat milk typically has little to no fiber and more carbs than other milk alternatives. It also has much less protein than many other types, including dairy, and it’s expensive, since it’s trendy. To cut costs, you can make it at home, but you’ll lose the benefit of the calcium, riboflavin, and vitamins that big manufacturers usually add.
• Cooking with oat milk. Because oat milk is creamy, luscious, and has good body to it, it lends itself well as a one-to-one substitute for dairy milk. It’s particularly good for baking and grains as it brings out warmth and has a sweetness. If cooking with it, like in soups, consider adjusting for that flavor characteristic.
Oat milk isn’t exactly a health food. So why not steer into it with an over-the-top latte? After all, there’s a reason pairing oat milk with coffee made it famous.
Enhance the wonderfully fragrant, sweet quality of bread by using oat milk in the dough. You could dust the tops with rolled oats for good measure.
Earthy roasted red pepper stays grounded with oat milk, which also enhances its sweetness without sacrificing its savory elements.
What other plant milks are out there?
Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum
Though nuts and soybeans are most prevalent, plant-based milks can be made from grains, pseudo-cereals, legumes, seeds, fruit, and tubers — sometimes a combination of all of the above. The major other players in this space are rice milk and pea milk, with hemp milk and sesame milk bringing up the rear.
Rice milk has been around for awhile, but there’s less buzz about it since its mild, watery qualities don’t work well in tea and coffee and it contains nearly as much naturally occurring sugar as cow’s milk but double the carbs — making it a poor choice for diabetics. Plus, rice milk has the same amount of fat as 1% dairy milk, but none of the protein. However, it is the least allergenic of all existing milk alternatives, has more magnanese and selenium, and is easy to digest.
Pea milk you may recognize more by its brand name, Ripple. Their special process isolates the high amount of protein in yellow peas, retaining all of the benefits and less of the color and flavor. Those who are accustomed to plant-based protein powders will find this very mild and highly palatable, and those needing a hypoallergenic milk substitute will be relieved to discover this option.
Sesame milk is another single-manufacturer alternative milk that will soon see imitators due to its sustainability as a drought-resistant crop that requires no pollinators. While sesame milk contains all nine essential amino acids, Hope & Sesame enhances their milk with pea protein, which brings up the calcium and protein on par with dairy milk, but with a slightly nutty taste. Though it has a much thinner mouthfeel, it has as many calories and fat as 2% cow’s milk.
Hemp milk is made from the hemp seeds of Cannibus sativa and contains only trace amounts of THC. It’s another complete protein, but there’s not much of it per glass. Depending on the manufacturer, it can be higher-calorie and fattier than dairy milk. Although it’s another thin milk in terms of texture, its earthy, green flavor is very strong, making it unsuitable for cooking. However, as a drink it’s low in carbs when unsweetened, and provides omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Can’t have eggs or dairy? Custard is still possible! This versatile base is one you’ll want to keep in your back pocket to serve by the bowl or layered into pastries.
Eat this, not that
There’s a big world of alternative ingredients these days, whether you’re trying to make healthier choices or just making substitutions to avoid a trip to the store. Learn more in these next articles.