Most of the information below on how to substitute milk for dairy-free diets is excerpted from my book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook. However, I’ve also added product reviews and a few fun recipes that are here on the website.
Tips to Substitute Milk for Dairy-Free Diets
Low-Fat and Non-Fat Milk Subs
The selection of non-dairy milk options has exploded in recent years. Below is a rundown of the choices to substitute milk, their flavor profiles, and best uses …
Almond Milk Alternative: The base of almond milk is typically made from ground almonds, filtered water, and a small amount of sweetener (i.e. brown rice syrup), though you can easily find unsweetened varieties.
Almond milk can best be described as a lightly sweet non-dairy beverage with a delicate almond flavor. The nutty flavor in almond milk can be a plus in various desserts. It has become my personal favorite for smoothies. However, almond milk is best left to sweet dishes, as even the unsweetened varieties can make some savory dishes taste slightly off.
Coconut Milk Beverage: Not to be mistaken with regular or light coconut milk (which are sold in cans), coconut milk beverage is sold in cartons like other milk alternatives, and is relatively light. It does have a hint of coconut flavor, but still works well in sweet recipes, on cereal, or in savory dishes where the flavor blends well, such as Asian entrees or salad dressings with sharp flavors.
Soymilk: This is the classic, the originaly milk alternative. It has been around so long that “soymilk” is a recognized word (versus having to put “milk alternative or beverage” after the name). It does have a distinct but mild “beany” taste that some people love and others loathe.
Nonetheless, soymilk is still considered one of the most versatile milk alternatives. It is slightly heftier in protein and fat than most milk alternatives, making it a good option to substitute milk in savory sauces and in baked goods. It can pretty much be a stand-in for milk in most recipes, but keep that “beany” profile in mind. Soymilk could overpower a delicately-flavored recipe.
Rice Milk Alternative: When soy allergies and milk and soy protein intolerance (MSPI) emerged as concerns, rice milk popped onto the market as another way to substitute milk. Many moms say that rice milk is the most loved by kids. Like soymilk, it is highly versatile and can be used in most recipes, both sweet and savory. Where rice milk falls short is in its heft. It is very light and sometimes a touch watery, so it won’t add much richness to sauces or ice creams. However, unlike soymilk, it works quite well in more delicate dessert recipes that don’t require a lot of fat.
Oat Milk Alternative: Oat milk is more popular in Europe than in Northa America, but I have no idea why, it’s great! Since the only brand in the U.S. is sweetened (good, but sweetened), I prefer to make oat milk at home (see the oat milk recipe in the section below). Oat milk has a nice earthy taste that isn’t too bitter or too sweet. It is great in smoothies, with cereal or granola, and works well in baked goods. I also think it is a good option for savory recipes and some sweets, but oat milk may be a little too earthy for say, a light white sauce or creme brulee.
Hemp Milk Alternative: Hemp milk has fought a few uphill battles. Obviously, regulations on hemp are a primary issue, which is why all brands of hemp milk come from Canadian companies. But hemp also has a strong taste that can be a bit too powerful in milk alternatives at times. Some hemp companies have mellowed out that flavor with sweeteners and certain processing techniques. Like soymilk, some love the flavor while others find it a bit, well, skunky. Still, hemp milk is a great allergen-free milk alternative that is worth trialing – I’d just avoid using it in delicately-flavored recipes.
Flax Milk Alternative: This darling has some huge potential for its ability to truly substitute milk. One reporter did a blind taste-test of milk alternatives with milk drinkers. Flax milk was the resounding winner. It was enjoyed by all and had a taste and consistency that was voted as closest to “the real stuff.”
I’ve enjoyed it myself and have to admit that it is pretty seamless. The fluidity is spot on, and it has just enough fat to impart milky richness without being too thick. The flavor is also quite mild. It should work well in almost any recipe that calls for milk, whether sweet, savory, earthy, or delicate.
Notes: There are a few more types of milk alternatives on the market, including sunflower and grain. As they grow in popularity, I will report back. In the mean time, for a full listing of the types and brands, see the No Dairy Product Lists.
All of the above can be used to substitute milk in a 1:1 ratio for skim or low-fat milk, whether used raw, when cooking, or in baking … with a few exceptions. Things like instant pudding won’t set-up nicely with most milk alternatives. See p.169 in Go Dairy Free for several easy methods to make delicious instant pudding.
Also, if using a milk alternative in savory dishes, purchase the “unsweetened” variety. Original, vanilla, and other milk alternative flavors will often have sweetener added, which could throw off your dish.
Whole Milk Subs
For many recipes, any of the low-fat / non-fat milk substitute options will work well as a substitute for whole milk, too. However, I prefer to use the following non-dairy milk choices when the recipe or my tastes require something with a touch of richness …
Coconut Milk Beverage: This is one of the richest commerically available milk alternatives, containing 5 grams of fat per 1 cup serving, just a bit below the 8 grams of fat in 1 cup of whole milk.
Light Coconut Milk: Canned light coconut milk has roughly double the amount of fat as whole milk. This can be a benefit in some recipes, but if you prefer something a little lighter then use 1 part water and 1 part light coconut milk in place of the whole milk.
Keep in mind, canned light coconut milk has more of a coconut flare than coconut milk beverage, and may impart a coconut vibe on your recipe. This usually works well in many dessert recipes, and in Asian-inspired savory dishes, but may need to be masked by other flavors in recipes such as a linguine alfredo.
Canned light coconut milk is shelf-stable and typically sold in the Asian section of most grocers. Do not confuse it with coconut milk beverage (sold by the quart or half-gallon in aseptic packages or refrigerated cartons), which is lighter in fat, coconut taste, and texture, and may be sweetened.
Recipes: Homemade Milk Alternatives
- Dairy-Free White Canadian (Creamy Maple Hemp Milk)
- Easy Homemade Oat Milk
- Elana’s Non-Dairy Almond Milk
- Homemade Fruit-Sweetened Oat Milk
- Homemade Maple Hemp Milk (Just 5 Minutes!)
- Mexican Dairy-Free Horchata
- Nutty Almond Milk
- The World’s Easiest Homemade Nut Milk
Products: Milk Alternatives at the Store
Below are the products we’ve had a chance to taste-test and review here on Go Dairy Free. For a more extensive list of non-dairy milk options available, get one of our No Dairy Product Lists; they include thousands of dairy-free foods.
- Almond Breeze Almond Coconut Milk
- Almond Breeze Almond Milk
- Better Than Milk Vegan Powders: Soy or Rice
- Califia Farms AlmondMilk Creamer for Coffee and Tea
- Califia Farms Horchata with Almond Milk
- Califia Farms Pure Almondmilk
- Califia Farms Pure Almondmilk with Protein (now Dairy-Free!)
- Califia Nitro Cold Brew Coffee Drinks with Almondmilk
- Coconut Cloud Powdered Coconut Milk Creamer
- GoBeyond Organic Flax Hemp Milk (aka Beyond Milk)
- Good Karma Flaxmilk: The Return of a Dairy-Free Favorite
- Good Karma Probiotic Cultured Flaxmilk Beverages
- Living Harvest Hempmilk
- Living Harvest Hempmilk Vanilla Flavor
- Malk Pure Nut Milks: Organic, Artisan and Dairy-Free!
- New Barn Almondmilk: Organic & Darn Close to Homemade
- Orgain Organic Protein Almond Milk
- Organic Gemini Tigernut Horchata
- Pacific Foods Organic 7 Grain Milk Original and Vanilla
- Pacific Foods Ultra Soy Milk Alternative
- Pacific Hazelnut Non-Dairy Beverage (Milk)
- Rebel Kitchen Organic Coconut Mylk Drinks
- Royal Hawaiian Orchards Macadamia Milk
- Silk PureAlmond – Dark Chocolate
- So Delicious Coconut Milk Beverage
- So Delicious Dairy Free Almondmilk Beverages and Blends
- So Delicious Dairy Free AlmondPlus Milk Alternative
- So Delicious Dairy Free Cashew Milk
- Suncoast Gold Macadamia Milk
- Veggemo Veggie Based Non-Dairy Milk Beverage
- Vitasoy Single Serve Soymilks
Tips for Buying Milk Alternatives
The number of milk alternatives currently on the market is phenomenal, and the list seems to be growing by the day. You can now enjoy delicious creamy soups and sauces as well as rich desserts made from rice, soy, oat, almond, coconut, sunflower, or even flax “milks”. With this in mind, I have a few general tips and bits of information to offer before you head off on your dairy-free shopping spree to substitute milk:
- Cut the Sugar: My best discovery yet! Although plain and unsweetened varieties of milk alternatives are typically a bit sweeter than cow’s milk, most are amazingly lower in sugar! Be sure to look at the labels though, I have seen some brands and flavors (especially chocolate) with sugar levels at around 19 grams per serving. For the healthiest options, opt for the “Unsweetened” or “Light” varieties, these typically have only 1-4g of sugar per 8oz serving. Cow’s milk has a whopping 12 to 16 grams of sugar per serving for your basic regular, low-fat, and skim varieties!
- Dairy-Free: To the best of my knowledge, all of the alternatives that I have listed are 100% dairy-free (lactose-free, casein-free, whey-free, etc.) and suitable for those with dairy sensitivities / allergies.
- Heart Healthy: All of the listed milk alternatives have 0 grams of Trans Fats and 0 grams of cholesterol. With the exception of coconut milk they are free of saturated fat, too.
- Calcium: Check the labels, many varieties of non-dairy milks are fortified to rival the Vitamin D and calcium available in cow’s milk. Manufacturers are working to substitute milk in the nutritional department, too.
- Gluten-Sensitivity: Most non-dairy beverages are gluten free, caution is noted with oat and rice Milks. Just in case, be sure to read the packaging carefully, and contact the manufacturer when in doubt.
- Taste: When experimenting with recipes, you may want to taste the milk alternative both chilled and heated to detect flavor overtones that may affect a particular recipe.
- Flavors: In general, flavored milk alternatives such as chocolate and vanilla are best for drinking and for some desserts. For general cooking, choose the unflavored versions.
- Shelf Life: Always check the expiration date on refrigerated, canned, and aseptic packages. Although aseptic packages do not require refrigeration until opened, popping them in the refrigerator a little early does create that nice cool “milk” taste. Once opened, all milk alternatives must be stored in the refrigerator, where most will keep for 7 to 10 days.
- Shake Well: Instructions on non-dairy milks urge the user to shake well before using – this is a must for some brands to keep the consistency of the product throughout its use.
- In Recipes: Each of the milk substitutes listed can replace cow’s milk in cooking or baking, as noted, using a 1:1 ratio (i.e. 1 cup of cow’s milk = 1 cup of soy milk).
- Potential “Hidden” Allergens: Many brands of milk alternatives have “natural” additives to improve their flavor, texture, and/or shelf life. Those with gluten concerns should double check the label for ingredients such as barley malt (sometimes used in sweetening). In the past, some brands of rice milk utilized barley enzymes in production, but those companies reportedly changed their products to make their rice milk alternatives gluten-free. If you are seeking soy-free, be aware that some types of milk alternatives that appear soy-free may use soy lecithin as an emulsifier. If you are trying to avoid corn, keep an eye out for xanthan gum on the ingredients lists. It is sometimes used as a thickener in milk alternatives and is usually derived from corn.
For more creamy recipes and dairy alternative tips from my kitchen, see Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living.