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A Guide to Dairy Free Milk

If you’re overwhelmed by all the varieties of dairy free milk, this guide is for you! We’ll talk about the most popular non dairy milk varieties including soy milk, almond milk and cashew milk, covering everything you need to know including taste, nutrition, and popular brands to look for!

Plant based milk being poured from a jug into a glass.

It was back in the mid-1990’s when I first braved the world of dairy free milk. I was a new vegetarian and just exploring the possibility of a dairy free lifestyle. What I found was that the options back then were pretty sparse! Soy milk was about all that was available at my local health food store, and they only carried only one brand in vanilla flavor.

We’ve come a long way, baby! These days there are SO MANY types of plant based milk on the shelf at any regular old grocery store — it can kind of make your head spin. In a way I count myself lucky for having so few options back in the day. It certainly made decision making easier!

So what’s the best dairy free milk? It depends, partly on personal preference and dietary needs, partly on what you’re using it for.

The good news? Many types of plant based milk are shelf stable, so feel free to stock up on a bunch while you figure out what you like best.

Jump to:

What is Dairy Free Milk?

No, you don’t have to get up early to milk the almonds!

Dairy-free milks are drinkable liquids that resemble cow’s milk, but are made from plant-based ingredients. Most are made by soaking and then blending up the main ingredient with some water. A few, like coconut milk, are directly extracted from the source (i.e., the coconut) without adding any water.

Where to Get Plant Based Milk

Most regular supermarkets carry dairy alternatives these days. Non dairy milks are available in shelf stable varieties, which can usually be found in the natural foods section, as well as refrigerated varieties, which are located in the refrigerator case, usually near the regular dairy products.

If your store doesn’t carry milk alternatives, or if you’re not happy with the selection at your store, try a natural foods store like Whole Foods. You should find lots of options!

Glass of dairy free milk with a straw in it.

Brands to Try

This is absolutely nowhere near an exhaustive list! But here are a few popular brands of non dairy milk to check out.

Silk. Silk makes dairy free milk from a wide variety of ingredients in lots of flavors.

Blue Diamond. These guys are primarily known for their line of almond milks, but they’ve also got a few hybrid flavors including other ingredients, like coconut.

Oatly. Oatly is all about oat milk!

Dream. Dream also has lots of types of vegan milk in many flavors.

Milkadamia. This is a new one I’ve seen popping up on store shelves (and I’m a fan of!). This milk is made from macadamia nuts.

Varieties

Soy Milk

Made by soaking and blending soybeans, and then straining out the pulp, soymilk is one of the most versatile dairy alternatives.

Flavor. Soy milk is my favorite in terms of flavor. It generally has more fat and protein than other varieties, such as nut, rice and oat milks, and this gives it a creamy mouthfeel that, to me at least, is closest to dairy.

Soy does have a distinct flavor, which is somewhat metallic, and you might be able to pick up on when drinking it from a glass. If you don’t like the taste, try a flavored variety of soymilk like chocolate or vanilla.

Nutrition. Soy milk has more calories than lots of other vegan milks, but that’s partly due to the high protein content (about 8 grams of protein per cup!), which I consider a good thing. It also has a bit more fat than most other types, with the exception being coconut milk.

Use. Soy milk is great for drinking, and it’s also an excellent substitute for cow’s milk in recipes. I often find that other types of milks will give me watery soups and sauces where soy holds up nicely. One thing to watch out for is recipes that include acidic ingredients like citrus or vinegar. These can cause your soy milk to curdle due to it’s high protein content.

Coconut Milk

Open can of coconut milk with a spoon in it.

First off to be clear, we’re talking about the canned variety of coconut milk, which is pressed right from coconut meat. Varieties you see in cartons are usually labelled “coconut milk beverage” and are usually blended with other plant milks or produced much the same way as nut milks.

Flavor. Coconut milk has an intense coconut flavor. It’s also super rich and creamy.

Nutrition. Coconut milk is loaded with fat, which is what gives it that creamy texture I just mentioned.

Use. Being as rich and fatty as it is, you probably wouldn’t want to drink coconut milk straight up. It does, however, work great in combination with other ingredients in smoothies. It’s also an excellent substitute for heavy cream in both sweet and savory recipes.

I generally don’t recommend substituting coconut milk for dairy milk in baked goods, as the fat content totally messes with the texture.

Almond Milk

Raw almonds on a white surface.

Almond milk is probably second to soy in terms of versatility. It’s widely available, and made by blending and straining soaked raw almonds. It’s even super easy to make using a blender — check out my DIY almond milk tutorial if you’re interested.

Flavor. Almond milk has a clean, neutral flavor with just a touch of nuttiness.

Nutrition. Almond milk has been under fire in the past for having very low actual almond content, and as a result, not a whole lot going on in the nutrition department. The good news is that it’s generally pretty low in calories.

Use. Almond milk is a great dairy free milk for drinking, since the flavor is so nice! Unsweetened almond milk is also my favorite for enjoying with cereal. I’m generally not a fan of using almond milk in savory recipes, but it’s great to have on hand for sweet recipes, and an excellent substitute for dairy based milk in baking.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is made by soaking raw cashews and blending them up with water. Unlike soy or almond milk, the nuts themselves aren’t always strained out of the mixture. This one is also very easy to make and I just happen to have a tutorial on how to make cashew milk.

Flavor. Cashew milk has a very mild flavor that’s probably closest to dairy milk and it can be as rich as whole milk, particularly if it’s not strained. Surprise: it doesn’t taste much like cashews. This is because the cashews that are used to make cashew milk are raw, and most of the nutty flavor we associate with cashews comes out when they’re roasted.

Nutrition. Cashew milk can vary a lot in terms of nutrition. In varieties where the cashews aren’t strained out (usually homemade), the nutrition of cashew milk is similar to that of cashews themselves. It’s got a bit of protein and some fat. Just how much fat and protein will depend on the ratio of cashews to water that’s used to make a particular batch of cashew milk. Many store-bought varieties are strained though, so the nutritional content of these is relatively lacking and the calories are low.

Use. Cashew milk is great for drinking and as a milk substitute in savory recipes. More dilute versions of cashew milk (most store-bought varieties) can be used in baked goods.

Thicker, homemade varieties of cashew milk (very thick versions may be called cashew cream) can be used in place of heavy cream, or as a dairy-free coffee creamer!

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made the same way as nut milks, but using rice instead of nuts! Soak the rice, blend it up, and strain. It’s one of the cheapest and most accessible non dairy milks.

Flavor. Rice milk is a touch sweeter and more watery than most non-dairy milks. If you grew up drinking skim milk, this might be the drinking milk for you.

Nutrition. As with most nut milks, not much actual rice makes it into rice milk, so it’s pretty low in calories and micronutrients.

Use. Rice milk is best for drinking and baking with. I would definitely steer clear of using it in savory recipes, as the sweetness could throw off the flavor.

Oat Milk

Whole oats on a white surface.

Oat milk is having a moment, with good reason! It’s versatile, cheap, made by simply soaking, blending and straining rolled oats. Homemade oat milk is one of the easiest DIY milk alternatives.

Flavor. Oat milk tastes like (surprise!) oatmeal, and let’s face it, oatmeal is delicious. It’s also very thick and creamy, thanks to the natural starch in oats.

Nutrition. Most of the oat material gets strained out of oatmilk, so most of the nutritional content is removed.

Use. Oat milk is delicious for drinking, making smoothies and as a coffee creamer! It works well in savory recipes, but I don’t recommend baking with it, as the little bit of starch could potentially cause issues.

Other Non Dairy Milks

There are plenty of other varieties of non dairy milk — too many to cover in one article! But look out for hemp milk, flax milk, macadamia milk, hazelnut milk, pea milk, and quinoa milk, among others. Try different flavors and brands: you may find that while one variety of almond milk doesn’t do it for you in terms of flavor, there are others that you love!

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