While milk may be a source of good calcium for vegetarians, people are increasingly exploring vegan and dairy-free diets due to food allergies, in an effort to reduce fat and cholesterol intake, or for environmental or animal welfare reasons. Need a vegan dairy substitute for baking, cooking, or drinking? Unsweetened, plain soy milk (no vanilla added—check the ingredients list) is almost always a safe bet in any type of stovetop or baking recipe, due to its neutral flavor and thickness.
That said, there are so many different types of milk out there, and it's fun to try different kinds to find one you really like. Different types of non-dairy milk are best suited for different uses, and using the right kind can really make or break your recipe—we'll talk more about that below. Note that brands can differ greatly in flavor, so just because you've tried one almond milk and didn't like it, don't assume you'll dislike them all.
Alternatively, if consuming dairy isn't a concern for you and you've happened to run out of milk, you can always substitute yogurt, powdered milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, or sour cream. We'll discuss both types of options in detail below.
Types of Non-Dairy Milk
There are countless types of non-dairy milk on the market right now: soy, almond, rice, oat, macadamia, or cashew milk are just a few. How to choose between them? Our first rule of thumb: Only cook with it if you'd drink it.
Just like when cooking with wine, if you don't like the taste of something straight, odds are you won't like it in the final recipe—and you'll probably be able to taste it. That said, baked goods are more forgiving with this than stovetop sauces, like vegan mac and cheese or Alfredo sauce. This is because when you reduce any type of liquid, the water in it evaporates, and the flavor concentrates. So if you don't like the taste of something to begin with, thickening it will only make that flavor stronger.
Many people find that rice milk is the closest flavor match to cow's milk. But because it's so thin, it's a poor choice for creating savory, thick sauces like a vegan béchamel, hollandaise, or Alfredo. Almond, macadamia, soy, and oat milk tend to be thicker. Nutritionally speaking, rice milk has less protein than soy or almond milk.
Soy milk was one of the first widespread commercially available types of non-dairy milk in the United States, thanks to the borrowed legacy of soy milk in East Asian cultures, as well as the copious production of soybeans in the United States. Today, it's still an excellent substitute for baking and stovetop sauces. Like rice milk, it tends to have more of a neutral flavor, making it great for a variety of sauces. It's also suitable for thick savory and sweet sauces.
From a nutritional perspective, soy milk has almost as much protein as dairy milk, less fat, no cholesterol, and, since most soy milk is fortified, it is a comparable source of calcium. Vegans should make sure to find a brand that is fortified with vitamin B12.
Oat milk has deservedly risen to fame in coffee shops over the past few years, and for a good reason: Its thick texture makes it the best option for vegan cappuccinos, hands down. It froths up like no other milk alternative on the market right now. Like almond or soy milk, it also has a neutral flavor profile, which makes it just as great in an Indian curry as in a French béchamel sauce.
Unlike the aforementioned milk, coconut milk has a distinct (you guessed it) coconutty flavor that makes it unsuitable for certain types of sauces. While you can certainly prepare French or Italian recipes with it, it will impart a flavor that the recipe may not have originally intended. Also note that there is a major difference between canned coconut milk and refrigerated ready-to-drink coconut milk: The canned version is much thicker, with higher fat content. Unless the recipe specifically calls for the canned version (like in an Indian curry, for example), opt for the ready-to-drink kind.
There are many other types of non-dairy milk, like hemp, flax, and even pea milk (which doesn't taste like peas at all). At the end of the day, the best way to find what you like is to try several different types as well as brands—brands of almond milk, for example, can vary greatly.
Substituting for Buttermilk
If you're making buttermilk pancakes or buttermilk ranch, you can whip up your own vegan buttermilk by adding 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of soy milk. Mix it well. It's not quite as tangy or pucker-inducing as buttermilk, but it'll do the trick.
Non-Dairy Milk in Baking vs. Sauces
As previously mentioned, baking tends to be a lot more forgiving than stovetop cooking when it comes to the type of milk used. As long as you don't hate the taste of it, feel free to use absolutely any non-dairy milk you want.
For creamy sauces, however, thicker milk like soy, almond, oat, hemp, and flax tend to be ideal, as previously mentioned. Avoid rice milk. Another consideration is that some milk can break up and separate when boiled, depending on the level of emulsifiers they're produced with. (Lecithin, which you will commonly see on ingredient lists, is an emulsifier used to prevent the fat, water, and solids from separating.) In general, try to add non-dairy milk toward the end of a recipe so that you don't boil it and cause it to break up. If this happens, you can stir the sauce well and try adding a little bit of cornstarch that's been mixed with water to see if you can thicken up the sauce and give it a uniform consistency.
Unsweetened vs. Sweetened Non-Dairy Milk
This sounds obvious, but make sure you buy unsweetened non-dairy milk when preparing salty or savory dishes. This can be easy to miss sometimes, depending on the packaging of certain brands. Note that "unsweetened" doesn't always mean plain. Soy milk can be labeled "unsweetened" and can still be flavored with vanilla, for example, which would obviously wreak havoc on a vegan mac and cheese recipe.
Furthermore, even when preparing sweet dishes, it's recommended that you buy unsweetened milk. Choosing unsweetened milk allows you to control the specific level of sweetness in your recipe, and gives you greater flexibility as a cook.
Other Milk Substitutes
Depending on what you're baking or cooking, plain yogurt could work well to substitute for milk in something like mac and cheese or pancakes. A creamy, thick Greek yogurt would work better than a runnier yogurt; consider adding a pad of butter to add some fat to cut the tang. Add water until the yogurt is the consistency of milk. If you're creating a sweet dish, you will probably have to add a little more sugar to compensate for the sourness of the yogurt.
Sour cream is a better substitution than yogurt in both baked goods and sauces, usually because it's less acidic and has more fat. Add water to the sour cream until it's the consistency of milk.
Water can also be used as a replacement for milk in an absolute pinch, but you should expect some changes to the flavor and texture of the recipe. Cooked dishes won't be as creamy, and baked dishes may not rise as well as they should. If you decide to use water, consider adding a tablespoon of butter along with each cup of water. This will put back some of the fat that the milk would have contributed to the recipe.
Evaporated milk is an excellent substitute for cow's milk. Just open a can and mix it with an equal amount of water. Then replace the milk measure for measure. If you're making a dessert, sweetened condensed milk can be used in the same way. However, you might need to dial back the sugar in the recipe to account for the sweetness of the milk.