I really like milk milk.
My partner, though, is very allergic—not pop-a-Lactaid allergic, but hives-and-EpiPen allergic. So, sharing meals (and spaces) has necessarily meant a sharp decline in my dairy consumption (bye, cream). It’s not that having dairy at the table will poison him, but I’ve come to learn that meals are just slightly less enjoyable, less meaningful when you can’t share them with the person you love. (OK, the reality is less virtuous: I ordered a burrata appetizer at a restaurant a few months ago and had to eat the entire ball alone.)
Enter non-dairy milk—aka “milk” made from blending then filtering mashed nuts, seeds, beans or grains, and water. The best have a thick, creamy body and a singular flavor. The worst are thin, gummy, and flavored. But, even the best sometimes can’t take the heat (literally, so many of them curdle), hence why the thin, gummy ones exist. Here are 6 of the best non-dairy substitutes for milk—some are more suited for cooking and baking, others for cereal, whipping, or drinking straight.
For Drinking Straight, Dunking, Cereal-ing
Oat milk is so creamy, foams well (hello, matcha), and tastes slightly sweet (in a grain, not sugar, kind of way). It’s my go-to for cereal, cookie dunking, and even cooking. I’ve had great success subbing it into enriched bread doughs and creamy pasta sauces. It’s also the gentlest on our planet—a huge win, in my book.
Nut milks now come in a dizzying array of flavors and sweetness levels. I’ve found it more helpful to instead go by the nutrition label, electing for cartons with single-item ingredient lists (“almonds”) and a decently high amount of fat (which, to me, has been the surest marker of creaminess). Nut milk production is very water- and bee-demanding, so if you can avoid it, do.
Soy milk is delicious as-is, even more so when fresh and hot, lightly sweetened, and served with fan tuan and you tiao for dipping. While its consistency is on the thinner side, I’ve always been struck by how “milky” soy milk tastes. Undeservedly, soy’s developed a bit of a bad reputation, as vegetarian cookbook author Lukas Volger shared with me in a recent interview:
I also think there’s a big misconception about soy and its effects on one’s estrogen levels—it’s important to understand that that fear of soy is so much more about how it’s used in processed foods (in the form of soy isolate, where soybeans are stripped of all the good fibers and fats that make them a healthful whole food) to boost the protein counts. It’d take a lot of soybeans to get a tablespoon’s worth of soy isolate.
Soybeans’ land and water requirements are comparable to oat’s, and so, soy milk is considered one of the eco-friendlier alt-milks.
Hemp milk tastes subtly sweet, grassy, and has a thin body that foams well. Like oat and soy, hemp requires little water and of the land, and has actually been proven to be beneficial to soil health.
For Baking & Cooking
Coconut milk is one of the few, and perhaps only, non-dairy milks that can function as heavy cream in a recipe. Chilled coconut cream can be whipped to lofty heights—for topping berries, frosting cakes, even aerating a vegan mousse. When heated, it doesn’t curdle, making it an especially smart choice for soups, stews, or braises. Like almond milk, coconut milk is now offered by many brands in many variants—check the back of the can for as short an ingredient list as possible.
I had forgotten about rice milk—made from ground raw rice and water—until Food Editor Emma Laperruque’s Rice-Milk Rice Pudding reminded me of its deliciousness. Rice milk is a smart choice for starchy, rice-y applications: rice pudding, grain bowls (sweet and savory), or horchata, to name a few. While homemade rice milk may be slightly more tolerant of heating than commercial, boiling can make it separate, so keep things to a simmer. Rice production is rather water-intensive and greenhouse-gas-emitting, so try to avoid going out of your way to purchase commercial rice milk.