Q: Kristin - I was wondering if you could tell me what the best milk alternative is to cook with (for things like mashed potatoes)? Rice Milk? Almond Milk?
A: Alisa – This is a big question and one that will certainly be recipe-specific. Each milk alternative (type, brand, flavor, etc.) has its own special nuances and uses. So rather than call out one specific type, I will give a quick general overview and some suggestions based on how I cook.
First, if you are preparing savory items, I recommend using only unsweetened milk alternatives specifically. There will be ones labeled as "Original" or "Plain," but these are often sweetened (a little or a lot). Look for the word "Unsweetened" on the label or check the ingredients to ensure that no sweeteners (sugar, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, etc.) have been added. A sweetened version would really make for some funky mashed potatoes.
Now, from there I think you have a few good options depending on your personal tastes …
Soymilk is rich, and works well in savory items, though it can add a slight “beany” taste which is undetectable by some, and completely noticeable by others. It isn’t a milk alternative that I typically use, but many people love it for cooking since it performs well in place of milk in most recipes.
Rice Milk tends to be the sweetest naturally, even when no sugar is added, but it is usually neutral enough to work well in savory dishes. The only issue is that it tends to be the most watery of the milks, and may not add that nice richness to your dish. When I do use rice milk, it is more often in baked goods, but I have used it to thin soup a time or two, and had good results with it in mashed potatoes when another fatty ingredient is added (ie dairy-free margarine).
Oat Milk is hearty in taste, and goes surprisingly well with mashed potatoes, since they tend to be rustic. The only problem is most brands are sweetened. I believe Oat Dream (which is new) has an unsweetened version, but I haven’t tested it yet. Luckily, oat milk is quite easy to make at home. There are two very simple recipes in Go Dairy Free The Guide and Cookbook (the Effortless Overnight Oat Milk being my favorite for taste and cheapness), which I have successfully used in the Traditional Mashed Potatoes recipe.
Coconut Milk Beverage is my new “cooking” milk of choice as it is the richest and has a surprisingly neutral taste. There is a slight coconut flavor, but since it is so diluted (this beverage is roughly equivalent in fat to 2% milk) it goes undetected by most taste buds (including my coconut-supertasting husband) when used in recipes. I have used it to make savory sauces and soups that went over well. Currently, the only brand is So Delicious, and it is sold in the refrigerated section, so unfortunately, it can’t be purchased online. The good news is that it is well distributed and available to even major grocers in small towns. Request it if you don’t see it in store.
Cashew Milk is something I whip up in a pinch or when I want to vary the richness of the milk I need. It tends to be the most neutral-tasting of the nuts, so it works fairly well in both savory and sweet dishes. I have not tested it with potatoes (only in soups and sauces) so I can’t say that it would be a flavor match, but since cashews also make a great base for homemade “cheese” sauces, I would imagine it could work with potatoes. My recipe for cashew milk, in addition to some soup and instant pudding recipes where I use it, can be found in Go Dairy Free.
Almond Milk is an old favorite that I typically seem to have on hand. However, I rarely if ever use it in savory dishes. Almonds have a lightly sweet and pronounced flavor that just doesn’t work in savory dishes in my opinion. I reserve it for smoothies and desserts primarily.
Hemp Milk is a good option for some, particularly since it tends to be “allergen-free,” is thicker with protein and fat than rice milk, and it does lean toward the savory side. Nonetheless, the flavor can be a bit strong for some taste buds, so be sure to taste test it on its own before adding it to your dish to ensure the flavors will jive with what you are making.
Finally, you can always skip the milk alternative altogether if the whole idea is just too overwhelming. The “Whipped Mashed Potatoes” in Go Dairy Free use olive oil and garlic for a naturally rich and rustic flavor without the dairy.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.