Choosing the Right Plant-Based Milk Alternative
The wide range of plant-based milk alternatives offers a considerable choice that meet broad taste or dietary preferences, but there are considerations when choosing a milk alternative for a recipe.
Finding plant-based milk alternatives in any major supermarket these days is not difficult. It’s certainly not like it was…oh, 4 or 5 years ago when these kinds of alternatives were hidden on an obscure shelf of ‘vegan’ foods located next to dried fruits and nuts…or perhaps canned beans. The choices at that time were limited to alternatives made from soy, almond and maybe rice. That was it.
Today, there is an abundance of plant-based milk alternatives filling supermarket shelves. They are aimed at the consumer looking for something to replace cow’s milk – a growing market. There are grain-based alternatives made from oats, rice and millet. Or nut-based milk alternatives like almond, cashew, coconut, macadamia or walnut. Or seeds like hemp and flax. And of course, legume-based milk alternatives like soy or an emerging chickpea variation. There are gluten-free options, calcium-enriched choices, vitamins B-12 and D3 fortified variations. There are sweetened or unsweetened…flavored or unflavored variations – and the list goes on. Clearly, consumer choices today are substantial and appeal to everyone’s taste or dietary preference.
But what happens when you want to replace milk in an interesting recipe for that vegan panna cotta recipe you just spotted on Instagram? Can you use your favorite alternative? Maybe. Look at it this way…most plant-based milk alternatives work adequately as a 1:1 substitution in recipes. But they are not perfect and it’s helpful to consider a few characteristics that can influence the success of a recipe.
Cow’s milk has a slightly chalky flavor and white color. In each cup (240 ml.), cow’s milk has about 9 grams of fat (4,5 grams unsaturated), 12 grams sugar, 8 grams of protein and 12 grams carbohydrates. So, to achieve relative success as a substitute in some recipes, plant-based milk alternatives need to closely mirror these nutritional, flavor and color attributes.
Flavor – Cow’s milk has a mild chalky flavor and slight sweetness from the milk fat. The closest types of plant-based milk alternatives that share these traits are oat and rice milk alternatives. Unsweetened soy milk drinks are often considered ‘beany’. Unsweetened almond milk, although mild tasting, is sometimes too strong in bitter almond notes.
Color – Cow’s milk has a white color that does not turn to off colors when heated. Most plant-based milks are the same, so all are interchangeable in this respect.
Fats – Cow’s milk is relatively high in fat – especially unsaturated fats. Fats play an important role in creating pleasing mouthfeel and light crumb structures in baking. Most plant-based milk alternatives are much lower in fat, with oat having the least amount and coconut the highest amount. Soy and hemp milk alternatives are similar in total fat (but less saturated) and work best in baking recipes that benefit from similar levels as cow’s milk.
Proteins – Cow’s milk is considered high in protein (we’ve all seen those ads). Their main culinary role is to coagulate and provide structure when heat is applied to the milk in an acidic environment. To a lesser extent, the high protein in milk also allows for the creation of foams (think cappuccino). Plant-based milk alternatives generally have much lower levels of protein, with the notable exception of soy milk drinks; they have a similar protein amount as cow’s milk.
I should point out that I’m referencing plant-based milk alternatives that are purchased. Homemade milk alternatives – especially from soaked nuts, seeds or grain – have stronger flavors and much higher amounts of fats, protein and starches. They generally work better as a milk substitution in baking, soups/stews and creamy sauces. But remember…the flavor of homemade milk alternatives will be much stronger and that alone may be a reason to consider a supermarket version.
Curdling…and how to minimize it!
Most of us have experienced that frustration of wanting a cup of coffee or tea, pouring in a bit of your favorite plant-based milk alternative and then…the ugly little clumps begin to form on the beverage surface. It’s not very appealing.
And this curdling is not exclusive to coffee or tea. Sauces are equally affected…and it’s just as frustrating.
So, what causes plant-based milks to curdle so easily? The answer boils down to heat and acid. Combining an acidic liquid (coffee, tea, lemon) with a non-acidic liquid (plant-based milk alternative) encourages curdling. Add some heat to one of the elements and the curdling effect increases. Dealing with both the acidic and heat issue is the best way to prevent curdling.
Let’s look at coffee as an example. Coffee is naturally acidic. More intensely roasted coffee has less acidity because the process of roasting eliminates a good deal of acid, making the coffee more pleasing to drink for some. Choosing strongly roasted coffee is one option to reduce the likelihood of curdling to occur. On the heat side of the equation, tempering the liquids helps to reduce curdling. Gently heating the milk alternative before pouring it into the coffee is one way. Another is to add some of the hot coffee slowly to the cold milk alternative to slowly raise the temperature and create a more favorable environment that will resist curdling.
I think it is also important to consider some plant-based milk alternatives are more likely to curdle than others. According to an article in Mashed, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk and rice milk generally curdle more than oat milk. My personal experience tells me it has much more to do with the protein and fat levels in the milk, which is why I mostly struggle with soy milk and almond milk (I personally avoid coconut milk) and stick to rice and oat milk for my coffee, tea or when making a sauce. It’s not full proof…but it works for me.
Common Plant-Based Milks and How They Function in the Kitchen
Soy Milk: Unsweetened soy milk without additives is rich and creamy. Its protein and fat levels are similar to cow’s milk. Soy milk plus vinegar works extremely well in baking to create an excellent rise in cakes or bread that have an excellent crumb structure. I recommend as an excellent all-purpose substitute.
Almond Milk: Unsweetened almond milk is strongly flavored. The color is white and the consistency is mostly thin. Because of the stronger flavor, almond milk can influence the flavor of sauces like béchamel. I recommend for use in beverages, baked goods and grain dishes.
Cashew Milk: Similar to almond milk but with a more neutral flavor. Homemade milk made from soaked cashew nuts is extremely creamy and rich. I recommend store-purchased cashew milk for beverages and baked goods (sauces and creams if homemade).
Coconut Milk: Coconut milk drink is different than coconut milk (cream) from a can. The drink is rich and creamy with adequate amounts of fat and protein and a moderate flavor. Coconut milk from a can is very thick and very high in fat. Drinks are best in beverages, baking and cereals. Canned versions are best in soups, stews, baked goods and sauces – especially curries.
Rice Milk: Unsweetened rice milk is thinner in consistency than other milk types. The flavor is slightly sweet and the color is mostly white. Because of the low amounts of fat, protein and starch, rice milk needs additional thickening when used in baking recipes. I recommend for use in beverages.
Oat Milk: Unsweetened oat milk is light with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. It is slightly richer in fat and protein than rice milk. The color is off-white. I recommend for use in beverages, light soups or stews and baked goods.
Hemp Milk: High amounts of protein, with a thick and creamy consistency. Strong flavors may work well in grain-based dishes. I recommend for use in beverages, baked goods, grain dishes, nutty creams and soups/stews.
There are certainly a number of plant-based milk alternatives on the market. Because many people make their choices based on flavor or because of a dietary limitation (gluten intolerance, nut allergy, etc.), some perfectly good options are left off the table.
In general terms…and if you can, I think it is a good idea to explore different types of milk alternatives in the kitchen depending on what you’re making. I find nut and seed milks are excellent in desserts, grain dishes and thick soups. Grain milks are mostly neutral in flavor, have a thinner consistency and may be slightly sweet. They are great options in warm drinks and smoothies. Soy milk is high in protein, fat and starch. It can have a stronger flavor but soy milk is widely considered the best all-around milk for cooking because of its consistency.
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I like using oat cream in gratin dishes like my Macaroni and ‘Cheese’ Gratin or my Pommes Dauphinois recipes. I like the way the cream thickens and…well, gratinates (yep, that is a word) without leaving behind a cloyingly sweet goo or curdling. I also like making my own oat cream because most of the products I’ve tried in shops have added oils (usually undefined), thickeners, emulsifiers and probably way too much salt. I think a good oat cream should only have oats, water and a pinch of salt.
When making your own oat cream, the first item on your shopping list is rolled oats. I prefer rolled oats because they are not overly processed cut up too small. Rolled oats produce a creamier consistency than steel-cut oats, but you can make oat cream with the latter if that is what’s available. Got it? Good, your shopping is done!
Let’s start preparing the oat cream by first soaking the oats. I like using hot water and adding about twice as much (by weight) water to oats (see my recipe below). Cover the oats and refrigerate them overnight. Some people just allow the oats to soak for an hour or so before processing and you can do this too. But soaking the oats overnight softens them more and creates more substantial flavor. I think fast-soaked oats makes a product that’s…well, a bit like white water.
After soaking the oats, it’s time to make the cream. I recommend using a high-speed blender like a Vitamix, because it gets the job done quickly and the blended oats tend to have a higher yield. The oats need some straining after they’ve been processed; I recommend using a nut bag for this job (nut bags are simple to find online). Don’t stress too much if you don’t own a nut bag; you can make your own, or use an old nylon.