Gotten milk recently? It’s no easy feat.
The dairy case used to hold a couple of cow’s milks with varying fat contents. Then soy milk appeared as a non-dairy alternative. Now we have a slew of non-dairy and non-soy milk alternatives crowding the case, made from nut varieties, grains, and even law-skirting hemp seeds.
Why all the milk alternatives?
We know that a cow’s life on a dairy farm is hardly the bucolic idyll of our imaginations. Supporters of animal rights and those looking to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics have already moved on from large-scale, conventional milk producers. Then there are vegans, the allergic and lactose intolerant, and other dieters looking to reduce fat and cholesterol.
The first stop for most was soy milk, but there is growing awareness that soy is a high spray, intensively farmed, rain forest-depleting crop, and most of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified. There are also concerns that soy protein can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb potassium, and it may be linked to breast cancer.
Now what are we supposed to put on our cereal?
Rice milk is often the alt-milk gateway because it tastes closest to cow’s milk, but sweeter. It’s low in fat but high in carbohydrates (rice, y’know) and thin as water so it’s not the most pleasing replacement for your usual splash of half-and-half in your morning coffee, but it can hold a decent cappuccino foam.
Almond milk is low in fat and high in protein. It’s creamy and slightly sweet with slightly bitter undertones. It foams impressively, although in an off-white shade, and makes a good dairy substitute for cooking and baking. It’s dairy-free, but commercially produced almond milk isn’t always soy-free.
Hazelnut milk is light in consistency but has a rich flavor, a powerful nutty fragrance, and just a tiny touch of sweetness. The hazelnutty taste is boosted when it’s made from roasted nuts, rather than the more common raw nuts. Not everyone is a fan of the hazelnut taste, but if you are it’s a good choice in sweet coffee drinks and desserts. If you’re not, have it warmed—hazelnut milk holds a credible foam for espresso drinks and the flavor dissipates in the heat.
The coconut milk you find in half gallon cartons is not the same as the unctuous cooking ingredient that comes in a can. It’s also not the same beverage as coconut water. It falls somewhere between the two when it comes to fat content, sweetness, and creaminess; this means it’s still pretty sweet, fatty, and lush. It tastes undeniably of coconut, so use it where you want the flavor. It’s perfect for non-dairy smoothies and creamy desserts, and has the virtue of being made from just one ingredient: coconut.
I’ll warn you that oat milk is a bit thick. It doesn’t go down like porridge, but it’s not what you would call light and refreshing. Oat milk is not the best option for coffee, but it’s great on cereal and in baking where the grainy flavor is welcome. It’s low in fat, when compared with nut or dairy-based milks, and actually has more calcium than cow’s milk. It also avoids the natural sweetness of most of the dairy substitutes, making it a good option for savory dishes like mashed potatoes.
Hemp milk is made from the same seeds as pot plants. It’s not legally grown in most parts of the U.S., so most is brought over the border from Canada. It will not have you playing Pink Floyd and eating vast quantities of pizza—the hemp used in milk is bred and processed to contain almost no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The milk is, shall we say, an acquired taste—off white, slightly chalky, with tart, grassy notes. It’s as high in fat as cow’s milk, but the good kind, with lots of healthy Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. It holds a respectable foam for cappuccino.
If you’re new to the alt milks category, you need to know a few general rules that always apply to the milk alternatives:
- they’re always more palatable when served chilled, especially if you’re drinking them straight-up
- shake them up; they all separate like crazy
- read the labels— the ingredients aren’t always organic, and they can even contain dairy in the form of casein and other milk-derived additives
- you don’t want to dive headfirst into hemp or oat milk; ease into the category by trying some of the flavored milk varieties or maybe a nice almond milk ice cream