Everything You Need to Know About Milk Alternatives

There used to be just one kind of milk in the grocery store. While the kinds of milk most commonly sold in America today come from traditional sources — cows, goats and sheep – a ton of alternatives have been staking a claim on the market in the last few years.

Each alternative has different dietary benefits, particularly if you’re looking to reduce your intake of dairy products or can’t tolerate regular milk at all. Plant-based milk offers different nutrient profiles, protein and often less lactose (read: sugar) than cow’s milk. Plus, it can be easier to make at home than raising and milking your own cow. Most milk alternatives can be swapped directly into recipes calling for dairy.

With so many alternatives on the market – it can be challenging to know what to choose for your latte, your cereal or your baking project. But don’t worry, we have you covered. Here’s how to best use milk alternatives in place of dairy.

1. Soymilk

Soymilk is a staple of East Asian cuisine and has risen in popularity in the US in the past fifty years as a non-dairy alternative. It’s made from soaked, ground and strained soybeans. The compounds in these legumes, along with an oil emulsion and (usually) artificial stabilizers create the creamy texture that is milk-like although decidedly not at all like milk. Thanks to its high protein content, soy milk is excellent for baking: the protein helps bind ingredients together. Plus, it stands up well to heat.

Soymilk has a slightly nutty, slightly sweet flavor. We recommend the unsweetened varieties whenever possible.

What it’s great for: cooked savory dishes, baking, homemade ice cream and popsicles, pancakes, milkshakes, coffee and espresso drinks (it can also become really frothy if that’s your thing).

2. Almond Milk

A little earthy, a little sweet, almond milk is the product of soaking, blending and straining almonds with water. Commercially prepared versions include stabilizers to prevent separation of water and the nuts’ fat and protein, but homemade, non-stabilized versions will likely need a little shake to return to smooth, creamy form.

Almond milk is a popular option in many coffee chains as an alternative to whole milk: it heats well and has a subtle enough flavor to not detract from coffee. Look for unsweetened, unflavored for the most nutritional bang per sip, but you may also consider checking out naturally sweetened versions using dates, maple or vanilla bean.

What it’s great for: French toast, oatmeal, smoothies, sauces, biscuits, mashed potatoes, creamy soups, coffee and espresso drinks

3. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk comes from the fruit of the coconut tree, a type of palm. (Actually, fun fact, the coconut is not a nut or fruit: it’s a drupe.) The milk is the result of grating and boiling its white flesh, then straining out any solid bits. The extracted white liquid, a combination of water and coconut cream, is coconut milk.

Because it’s high in healthy fats, coconut milk is a great substitute for any dish where you might otherwise use full-fat dairy, including whole or homogenized milk. It has a decidedly coconutty-flavor, so it might not pair well with anything that couldn’t stand a little island influence; however, for just about anything sweet, this alternative is a good one.

What it’s great for: smoothies, puddings, cakes, cream-filled tarts, cookies, curries, soups, sauces, marinades

4. Rice Milk

Rice milk is quite a bit thinner than most other alternatives and closest in consistency to fat-free cow’s milk. It’s made from blending cooked rice with water and straining out solids. The resulting liquid is rice milk.

On its own, it doesn’t have a ton of flavor, although some varieties we tried are a little nuttier than others. Different flavors are usually created by blending a different type of rice, white over brown, for example, and the ratio of water to rice.

Because rice milk is so delicate, we found that it’s best used in its uncooked form. It didn’t thicken sauce as well or make curry quite as creamy. It tends to separate when added to hot liquids, like coffee; however, rice milk works well in place of dairy in cold savory soups.

What it’s great for: cereal, smoothies, straight from a glass

5. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk might be one of the most unique milk alternatives. It is the product of blending hemp seeds with water; in many cases, if the mixture is blended well enough, it does not need to be strained, which means the milk contains all of the fiber, protein, amino acids and omega fatty acids as the seeds do.

It has an earthy, toasted nut flavor which we also found had a little hint of malt to it (No worries: hemp is definitely gluten-free). To preserve the nutrients in this moderately creamy milk, especially if using a homemade version, we recommend sticking to using hemp milk raw. It can be a bit chalky, so blend well.

What it’s great for: raw soups and sauces, even savory ones; smoothies; raw desserts

6. Oat Milk

Oat milk, like rice milk, has a light, mild flavor and a consistency similar to fat-free cow’s milk. It’s made from soaked, blended and strained oat groats. Oat milk contains about 5 grams of protein per serving, coming up just a little short of dairy and soymilk’s 8 grams (but still a contender for great plant-based protein).

It works well at medium temperatures, but isn’t ideal for high-temperature stovetop dishes: it tends to separate and isn’t the best binder. It can replace dairy in baked goods, particularly those with soft, light textures like cookies and biscuits.

What it’s great for: baking, smoothies, slow-cooker dishes, sauces

7. Pea Milk

A relatively new addition to the non-dairy market, pea milk is in fact made from peas, although it has a very un-pea-like taste. We loved its creamy, silky texture, which comes largely from the manufacturing process: rather than soaking and straining peas, as in soymilk, dried peas are milled into flour, the protein separated out and emulsified with water to form a thick, protein-filled drink.

The flavor is nutty, smooth and not overpowering. It’s great on its own or in a savory dish: the unsweetened, unflavored varieties are quite earthy and complement a curry or savory soup well.

What it’s great for: smoothies, cereal, curries, soups, gravy, beverages 

8. Walnut Milk

This was a new one for us in this taste test! Walnut milk is growing in popularity on the market and many options come with a maple-infused flavor. (The unflavored ones were a bit chalky, both in taste and texture.) It’s made from blending nuts and water until smooth; because the walnuts take on water well and break down easily, the mixture doesn’t usually need to be strained. It’s rich in nutrients and healthy fats.

Like hemp milk, it’s best raw. The milk can separate easily, making it less than ideal for coffee and tea, but great in a smoothie or other raw, blended dish.

What it’s great for: smoothies, raw desserts, straight from a glass

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.