The Febu-NON-dairy showdown

Culture Food and Drink

Have you ever found yourself lost in the non-dairy aisle, flummoxed by the sheer volume of non-dairy milk in front of you? Which to choose? Which brand? What on earth is pea milk? In this wholly scientific (Sample population – One. Me.) we take an in-depth look at which non-dairy beverage performs best in several milk-requiring situations you may find yourself in.

For your cuppa
There is simply no better bedfellow for your coffee or tea than oat milk. It is creamy, has a neutral flavour, and is the only plant milk that steams up, like a cloud, giving you the perfect microfoam on top your morning latte or cappuccino. Good microfoam means good latte art. Which, obviously, means a cuppa good enough to snap for Instagram, if that’s your jam. Oat milk is also, as a perk, the plant milk that requires the least amount of water to produce – good for your cuppa, and for the planet.
The soy milk that is preferred by cafes and the like is a good second, only because soy has a more assertive taste than oat does, and certain brands tend to curdle when met with the acidic tea or coffee, giving you a coffee that is speckled with flecks of soy clumps. Not sexy. For the best bet, get a barista soy milk – these tend to be more resilient – and warm the milk up before adding to your coffee/tea situation. The sudden change in temperature you get from plunging fridge-cold soy milk into a hot beverage, more often than not, freaks your soy milk out and causes it to seize.
We like: Oatly Barista Edition, £1.80, Tesco /  Alpro Barista Soya UHT,  £1.90. Sainsbury’s

To drown your cereal or thicken your porridge
I know the joke has been made before, but I will make it again. Oat milk and oats – oatception, if you will – are an excellent pair for the ultimate porridge situation. The perfect example of ingredients coming full circle. On the same thread, rice milk is slightly sweeter than oat and works well to perk up any bowl of cereal. Particularly the bran-y, whole-wheat, no-fuss sort (I am looking at you, all-bran). If you prefer your cereal on the sugary side – pick oat over rice as it won’t overwhelm your palate, but will still provide the creamy velvet background number to your cereal-saturated breakfast.
We like: Rice Dream Original, £1.55, Waitrose  / Oatly Original Oat Drink, £1.50, Sainsbury’s

For baking
Soy milk matches dairy milk in its silkiness, and because of this, it can be used as a substitute, in equal proportions, for dairy milk in your favourite baked good. Its distinctive soy flavour mellows out when subject to the heat of the oven, so don’t let that worry you. Soy is also the best of all the non-dairy milk for a buttermilk substitute, where its coagulation property rather works in your favour. Before I went vegan, whenever a recipe called for a cup of buttermilk, I would fill a cup measurement with a tablespoon of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, et cetera), then top it up with dairy milk. When left to its own devices, the acid causes the milk to thicken and curdle. Soy appears to be the one non-dairy milk that performs this role just as well. Since you will be baking with it, I tend to go for whatever is cheapest, and Tesco’s home brand version has been instrumental to all my vegan baking experiments.
We like: Tesco Longlife Unsweetened Soya Milk Alternative, £0.85, Tesco

For savoury cooking
If your next savoury dish requires a splash of milk (soups, pasta sauces, or similar) – two of the plant milk rise above the rest. Hemp milk, with its ever-so-slightly vegetal taste, works well when paired with grains or pulses. The herbaceous quality of it bounces off the neutral, grainy taste of quinoa – for example. For something slightly more neutral where there are already a lot of flavours in attendance, cashew milk imparts maximum creaminess with only a vestige of a pleasant nutty taste.
We like: Good Hemp Creamy Seed Milk, £2, Sainsbury’s / Plenish Organic Cashew M*lk, £2.55, Waitrose 

For the whipped-cream enthusiast
I always keep a tin of coconut milk (none of the low-fat stuff, please) in my fridge, ready to deploy whenever a dessert calls for a crowning of whipped cream. When picking a brand to use for your next dessert, keep two things in mind. One, the higher the fat content the better; and two, try to find one with little or no stabilisers (Guar Gum, Carboxymethylcellulose…). The Essential Waitrose brand has never failed me. Keep a can in the fridge overnight. Open it, and scoop out the thick, solidified coconut cream that will have settled in a layer on the top of the can, leaving the clear coconut water behind. Use a hand whisk, or sheer elbow grease, to whip as much air as you can into the coconut cream. The colder it is the better your whip. Keep whatever residual coconut water you have – the high electrolyte content makes it a great post-workout drink, and it also makes a terrific addition to a smoothie.
We like: Essential Waitrose Coconut Milk, £1.55, Waitrose

For the ambitious vegan ice-cream maker
I use the word ambitious, here, because ambition is necessary to cultivate the compulsion to make one’s own ice cream. But if you are a better person than I am, and resolve to make your own non-dairy frozen dessert (we aren’t legally allowed to call it ice cream, with it lacking the cream and all…) – pick a higher fat plant milk. Coconut reigns supreme here, and just like for a good whip, look for more fat and less stabilisers. If you are looking for a lower fat option, consider using soy milk – although your resulting ice cream (pardon me – frozen dessert) may not be nearly as luscious.
We like: Essential Waitrose Coconut Milk, £1.55, Waitrose / Alpro Soya Unsweetened Longlife Drink Alternative, £1.30, Tesco

For drinking, solo. With a cookie, perhaps.
One of life’s simple pleasures involves a cookie and a cold glass of milk. Some alchemy is at work here, giving you a treat that is greater than the sum of its parts. Rice milk, with its sweet subtlety and velvety mouthfeel, works wonderful tricks when it is soaked up by the cookie. It is also perfect as a stand-alone drink – and while I was never the sort of person to neck a glass of milk when I was parched – I am perfectly content with a glass of ice-cold rice milk to sip on. I imagine that Santa wouldn’t mind in the slightest.
We like: Rice Dream Original, £1.55, Waitrose 

For the Health Junkie
And now – a curveball. Sure, we all know almond milk. You may already hold a special place in your heart for Oatly. What was once bizarre (you can milk a nut?!?) we have since come to accept without much thought. When I first heard of pea milk, I thought it was a step too far. Come on, milk from peas? I spotted it on offer a couple of months ago and decided to give it a whirl. I am happy to report back that pea milk does not, in fact, taste of peas. It is delightfully creamy, thick like soy but with a very slight savoury edge. It has the highest protein content of all the plant milks, perfect for the gym bunny on the quest for a post-workout smoothie. It is hypoallergenic, so if you have a nut allergy (bless you) – here is your answer to delicious, anaphylactic shock-free plant goodness.
We like: Sproud Original Pea Milk, £1.80, Waitrose

It is worth adding that while plant milk is a little pricier than the regular ol’ pint of cow’s milk you can grab from Tesco, it is sometimes worth investing a little more in a product that is better for our planet. Every little counts (a fitting phrase to add in here), even if you just swap out for a plant alternative once a week. One or two varieties are, seemingly, always on offer. Since so many of these are shelf-stable, stocking up whenever a discount hits can save you in the long run. Now go forth and proceed to add oat milk to everything you consume, we’ve all been there.

Image Credit: Sasha Gill

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