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The ultimate guide to dairy-free milks

The ultimate guide to dairy-free milks

by Great British Chefs 17 January 2020

What are all these dairy-free milks and how should we use them? Check out our handy guide for the lowdown on the new age world of milk alternatives.

The dairy aisles have got a whole lot more complicated in the last few years. Where once we were faced with a simple choice between skimmed, semi-skimmed and full-fat, now we’re inundated with dairy-free options. Soya milk, oat milk and almond milk are the most common and popular, but there are plenty more besides: cashew, hazelnut, coconut and rice milks, just for starters.

That choice is a good thing, and exists for multiple reasons. We’re certainly more aware of lactose intolerance these days and it has become a more common complaint, with the British Nutrition Foundation estimating that up to seventy percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant to some degree. We’re also more aware than ever of the contribution the dairy industry makes to climate change, and the increasing interest in vegan and plant-based diets shows no signs of stopping. Dairy-free milk alternatives often offer a solution to these problems – the tricky bit is in knowing what to use and when. It's worth seeking out brands and producers (such as Rude Health) that avoid unnatural ingredients such as emulsifiers, thickeners and gums to try to replicate the texture of cow's milk, too.

If you’re new to dairy-free milks, it can be a bit of a minefield. When should I use oat milk over almond milk? Do I want sweetened or unsweetened? What’s different about barista milk? This guide is designed to break down all those questions, so you feel better equipped next time you’re strolling down the milk aisle.

Almond milk

Almond milk has more flavour and sweetness than most other dairy-free milks and lots of people love it in tea and coffee for that reason (though some almond milks are a little prone to curdling, so again, plump for the barista or professional versions when making hot drinks). We use almond milk in cooking too but only where the flavour works with the rest of the dish – the almond milk béchamel in our winter vegan moussaka goes perfectly with the spiced lentil ragù, for example. There has been much said about the sustainability of almond milk; almonds require a huge amount of water to grow, but you can reduce the impact by going with a brand like Rude Health, which uses Sicilian almonds over Californian almonds – the former don't require extra irrigation and are much more sustainable.

Oat milk

Oat milk is a good all-rounder if you’re looking for an easy replacement for normal milk. The oat flavour is pretty mild on the whole and oats have a natural sweetness to them which makes the milk very palatable overall. Oat milk also has a bit of thickness to it too – oats give the milk some structure in comparison to nut milks, which can be a little loose and watery. Grab regular oat milk for cooking and a barista version for coffees (the barista versions often contain lecithin which helps avoid curdling and gives you a nicer foam). Oat milk also has a different nutritional balance to nut milks – nuts (and coconut) contain a lot more fat than oats, so oat milk is great if you’re trying to keep your fat or calorie intake down.

Cashew milk

Cashews are a particularly milky nut, which results in an especially creamy milk alternative. The texture is very similar to regular milk, so cashew milk makes a great replacement for milk in cooking, though like all nut milks, it can curdle when heated or added to something hot. You can use cashew milk to add extra creaminess to all sorts of things, from vegan cashew cream and smoothies to curries and sauces.

Hazelnut milk

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Hazelnut is another strong flavour that suits certain things well (and others less so). We find it works particularly well for desserts where the earthy flavour accompanies the rest of the dish. Hazelnuts have a tinge of bitterness to them so beware when buying unsweetened hazelnut milk – it does work well in coffees and smoothies, however. As with all nut milks, sustainability and environmental impact is an issue – look for a brand like Rude Health that sources hazelnuts sustainably!

Soya milk

Soya milk comes in a variety of different guises – soya on its own tends to be quite bitter so most soya drinks will come sweetened to make them more palatable and sometimes include added thickeners to give them a more viscous texture. Nutritionally, soya milk is fantastic – it contains about the same amount of protein as normal milk but half the calories and fats. Soy milk is a great all-rounder – you can switch it into baking recipes very easily and get very similar results to cow's milk, and unsweetened soy milk is an excellent milk alternative in savoury cooking too.

Coconut milk

Coconut is one of the most versatile dairy-free alternatives, as the flavour really lends itself well to both sweet and savoury cooking. Coconut milk in a carton is very different from the coconut milk you buy in cans, with a completely different texture – the former is made for drinking and is nowhere near as thick. Coconut milk has a higher content of good fats than other dairy-free alternatives and it’s also very nutritious, boasting a good amount of vitamins and minerals. We use it in smoothies all the time for a tropical vibe, as well as adding it to soups, curry sauces and all sorts of other dishes.

Rice milk

Rice milk has a natural sweetness that makes it great for desserts, provided that you enjoy the flavour; custards, panna cottas, ganaches and ice creams are all especially good, and you can use it in rice pudding for extra creaminess. It can be quite watery on its own so it often contains thickeners, and it does have a propensity to curdle when added straight into hot drinks, particularly coffee, which is quite acidic.

Tiger nut milk

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Tiger nuts are not nuts at all – they are in fact tubers, so tiger nut milk is a great milk alternative for anyone with a nut allergy. Tiger nut milk is also known as horchata (though you do get rice milk horchata as well) in Mexico and Valencia, where it is served over ice in the summer as a refreshing drink. Sweet, creamy and luxurious, tiger nut milk has a flavour reminiscent of brazil nuts.

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