The vegan chef Alexis Gauthier is weaning himself from milk: “I drink black coffee, black tea; I don’t eat muesli. When else would you use it?” But at his plant-based London restaurant, Gauthier Soho, he can’t ignore our craving for the satisfying richness that milk brings to many foods. “Part of my USP is French gastronomy. I understand why people expect the classics without animal fats. We use a variety of mostly nut-based plant-based milks.”
Milk is clearly not going anywhere, even if the milk we drink is changing. Last year, research agency Mintel found that nearly a third of Britons drink plant-based milk. Plant milk sales at Waitrose increased by 18% between 2019 and 2021. Oat milk is the best-selling supermarket, as well as nationwide, followed by almonds, soy and coconut.
“It’s better to make it yourself,” advises James Lowe, the chef and owner of Lyle’s in London. Simple recipes abound on the internet. “You can control taste, strength, texture and sugar content.”
Plant milk also ranges from thin to richly creamy, from recognizably nutty (almond, coconut) to neutral (soy, potato milk). Choosing the right one for every kitchen task can be tricky, so we turned to a few experts for help. Which plant milk works where? And are there times when just dairy will do?
tea and coffee
In the past, non-dairy milk was notorious for splitting in hot beverages, with almonds and soy unappealingly coagulating in sour coffees. Nowadays stabilizers minimize this problem. Plant milk producers make “barista” milks that can be steamed, heated, and combined smoothly.
For Dave Wolinski, co-owner of coffee shop Idle Hands in Manchester, oat milk is the most compelling milk substitute, although he also notes Bonsoy (£4.15 a litre, Ocado) as being particularly silky soy. The Oatly milk used in Idle Hands is stable, creamy and, despite the cereal edge, has a comparatively neutral taste: “It vaporizes well and for us it’s about tasting coffee, not milk.”
While some prefer the distinctive taste of coconut or almond in coffee – these flavors could be considered natural partners – such milks can present a greater challenge in tea. Judging by a quick taste test at home, oat and soy are fine, while Dug’s barista version potato milk suits those who like sweeter tea. In general, however, plant-based milk yields a brew that feels “thin.” Without a coffee maker’s steam nozzle to stretch and froth them, they lack the creamy richness of dairy.
Juliet Sampson’s vegan café in London, Copperhouse Chocolate, uses oat milk as a standard. “But I have milk that I like that has chocolate with different flavors,” she says. “Almond milk goes really well with cinnamon.”
This intuitive matching of traditionally complementary flavors isn’t a bad rule of thumb when using plant-based milks. Sampson hasn’t found potato milk that she likes in hot drinks, but “we made nice oatbread with it.” Like oats, potato milk has an earthy note that’s useful in savory dishes.
Canned coconut milk is “one of the best milk alternatives in the bar, where milk is used to add thickness,” says Giulia Cuccurullo, head bartender at Artesian in London. Rice and almond milk are “pretty watery,” but coconut milk, whipped for two minutes, adds deliciousness to a milk punch. For a White Russian, she advises mixing 40ml each of vodka and coffee liqueur over ice and adding a “finger-thick” layer of coconut milk.
Béchamel or white sauce is one of the basic building blocks of the kitchen. Alex Rushmer, chef de cuisine at veggie restaurant Vanderlyle in Cambridge, argues that oat milk is best prepared: “Its toasty, bready and hearty nature works. Combined with vegan cheese, it makes a more than passable sauce for macaroni cheese or lasagna.”
To prepare 500ml, melt 65g Naturli’ vegan block (“by far the best butter alternative”) in a pan over low heat, stir in two tablespoons of flour and cook “until it smells like shortcrust pastry”. Slowly stir in 500ml oat milk, gradually bringing to a simmer until thickened. Season and season to taste (mustard, mushrooms, herbs).
“Fats have a muted flavor,” says Andrew Dargue, executive chef and owner of meatless cooking school Vanilla Black. Consequently, the high-fat canned coconut milk often used in vegan ice creams can be a bully. Try low-fat, relatively neutral soy milk: “We made a pretty boring avocado ice cream once, but substituting soy for dairy allowed the avocado to come through.”
“Pancakes are very indulgent,” says Patricia Trijbits, whose two London restaurants, Where The Pancakes Are, serve vegan, wheat-free pancakes. These are made with organic rice, buckwheat flour, and soy milk, with eggs swapped out for aquafaba (chickpea water) for US-style fluffiness.
However, you can make a much simpler vegan pancake. Whisk together 300g self-raising flour with about twice the amount of plant-based milk (sugar optional) and you should have decent crepes for four. “Almond milk is great in pancakes,” says Bettina Campolucci Bordi, author of Celebrate: Plant-based Recipes for Every Occasion.
Increasing the flour content will make the pancakes fluffier, as will adding a teaspoon of baking powder. Alternatively, Campolucci Bordi says, “Flash the mixture in a blender to aerate it, giving you fluffy pancakes without using baking powder or bicarb.”
Hempmilk has its fans (“Oats with hempmilk, cinnamon, and apple are really comforting, like apple pie,” says Kimberly Lin, the pastry chef at Lilly’s Cafe in London), but oatmilk makes the ideal oatmeal. At 26 Grains in London, they soak blended grains in water overnight, then cook them with oat milk over medium-high heat for about seven minutes to release the beta-glucans that make oatmeal creamy. “A lot of people turn up the hob and eat as soon as the liquid is warm,” says owner Alex Hely-Hutchinson. Be patient.
Sauces, purees and soups
“Plant-free milk can add great flavor,” says Ruth Hansom, the chef at The Princess of Shoreditch. “Nutty hazelnuts or almonds work well in cauliflower or celeriac soups.”
Kamil Witek, the chef at Edinburgh’s Aurora, does something similar. After caramelizing shallots, garlic, celery and leeks, he gently poaches diced Jerusalem artichoke in pea milk or celeriac in almond milk over low heat before flashing them into clean, light purees and soups. “Pea milk doesn’t mask the subtle flavor of artichoke like cream does,” he says.
Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, owner of West African caterer and future London restaurant Tatale, uses soy milk because it’s “the least sweet” to spice up the already sweet roasted plantain puree in his Eto tarts: “Their higher protein content also works best when so that the puree keeps its shape.”
Sarah Brion, pastry chef at the Hotel Marine in North Berwick, recommends soy milk as a milk substitute in sponge cakes or scones. “Scientifically, it’s the plant-based milk with the highest protein content that enhances the effects of leavening agents like baking soda.”
Seven-store Edinburgh bakery Twelve Triangles uses oat milk in their vegan options. Plant-based milk behaves largely in a familiar way, says co-owner Emily Cuddeford, but its sugars take longer to react with yeast. The dough needs “a little longer to rise and a little more yeast than cow’s milk,” she says.
There are plant-based cream alternatives, but whipping them up into a milk-based double is tricky. An expert refuses to share his secret. Dargue agrees it’s difficult: “Some products can’t entirely replace dairy. Whipped non-dairy cream doesn’t have the melt quality or flavor.”
Brion prefers canned coconut milk for whipping, but says, “The strong coconut flavor can’t be used in every dish.” To concentrate coconut milk, refrigerate it so the fat and water separate, then use the fat to sweeten to make Chantilly-style flavored creams.
Aurora’s Witek blends light Cullisse canola oil and a 50:50 blend of oat double cream and oat milk into spuds to create a dairy-free porridge that’s “same, if not better” than its dairy equivalent.
“We found that soy milk, with its natural sweetness and texture, works best for pouring or setting puddings,” says Vanderlyle’s Rushmer. To thicken, use cornstarch or – “even better” – bird pudding powder. (Bird powder isn’t made from animal products, it’s made where they’re available. Consequently, it’s not labeled vegan. Some vegans eat it, some don’t.)
For the cream, scrape the vanilla bean into a liter of soy milk and heat gently for 30 minutes. In a second saucepan, mix two tablespoons each of cornstarch and sugar, add some warm soy milk and stir to form a paste. Gradually add the infused milk to the paste and beat over medium-high heat until simmering and thickened.