The best alternatives for non dairy milk
In this article, we take a dive into the best milk alternatives for coffee
Full disclosure: this article is about the wide and wonderful world of dairy-free milk alternatives, so if you tend to take your coffee black, you’re welcome to read on—just know what you’re getting yourself into.
First, a little history
Few industries can match the explosive rise of dairy-free milk alternatives. For a while there were only soya and rice-based “drinks” (as EU laws prohibit calling any non-dairy beverage a “milk”) sold as alternatives to cow’s milk, intended mainly for the minority comprising the lactose-intolerant, allergic to milk, vegans, and those who for whatever reason eschewed cow’s milk. But suddenly, and without warning, things got interesting. Soya-based brand Silk hit the US market, followed by Alpro in the UK, giving milk alternatives a fashionable new edge. Soon, the clinical-looking cartons of yore were kicked to the kerb and new brands with flashy packaging and sassy names like Oatly, MYLK and Mooala took their place, providing consumers with innovative new choices made from a variety of nuts, grains and seeds, whilst really ‘milking’ (sorry, we had to) the wave toward achieving sustainability through plant-based alternatives.
Naturally, as the great white wave of milk alternatives closed in, those of us in the coffee business took note of how this changed the way people were taking their brew. We found that, in addition to a host of nutritional goodies, many nut milks and plant-based alternatives also bring a special something to coffee, from extra foam to a dash of nuttiness. And so we bring you the most inclusive guide we could gather on the top types of milk alternatives and what’s so special about each. Milk for coffee just got way more interesting.
Made from one of the most versatile plants on earth, soya milk is an oldie, but goodie. It’s a combo of either soybean pulp or soy protein isolate, made milky with a variety of thickeners and vegetable oils to achieve just the right flavour and viscosity. Soya milk has a mild flavour that’s not completely unlike milk, but still definitely not milk. (If your ultimate goal for a milk alternative includes one that actually tastes like milk, keep reading—there is such a thing). The decent amount of protein and low fat content makes it ideal for the calorie-conscious, and on the price spectrum of milk alternatives, it’s definitely on the more affordable end.
How it works with coffee: overall, soya milk adds a decent creamy body to coffee without affecting the flavour, and with the right foaming skills, it can match that of regular milk making it optimal for a variety of coffee drinks. The only downside is that soya milk tends to curdle in hot coffee, but to remedy this try warming it before adding it to your coffee.
Made from milled white or brown rice, blended with water and thickeners and—in some cases—sugar, rice milk is sweet and nutty in flavour. As far as composition goes, there’s not much to rice milk in terms of protein, though it makes a great bowl of cereal. One of the most touted benefits of rice milk is its hypoallergenic qualities, ideal for those with nut allergies.
How it works with coffee: if you’re just looking to cut the acidity and add a little cream to your coffee in order to make it cool enough to drink, rice milk is a good option. However, its low protein content means it won’t foam much, so rice milk is a no-go for fancy foamy drinks.
Almond milk is close to becoming one of the most popular milk alternatives out there. It’s made from crushed whole almonds or almond butter that’s blended with water and sieved, leaving a sweet, nutty milk with a mild overall flavour. Almond milk is quite versatile, and low in calories and fat so you can go heavy-handed on it without worrying. If you’re extra health-conscious, you’ll appreciate that almond milk is a natural source of vitamin E.
How it works with coffee: almond milk can be a bit on the watery side, so while it foams nicely, that foam could turn thin on the underside. Some baristas also notice a slight bitterness on the first few sips, but that could nicely complement the coffee. Like soy milk, almond milk can curdle if the coffee is too hot, but all in all, it’s a versatile alternative favoured by many.
Think of the dairy alternative coconut milk as a thinner version of the thick stuff you buy in tins and add to a curry. Essentially it’s water and coconut flesh, blended together to form a rich, creamy milk that tastes oh so subtly of coconuts. For this reason, if you’re not a coconut lover, you probably won’t fall head over heels for coconut milk. On the health side, it’s got half the fat and less calories than cow’s milk, but not a whole lot of protein. Coconut milk also contains MCTs, a saturated fat that’s been shown to improve cholesterol levels.
How it works with coffee: coconut milk foams up beautifully, making it ideal for cappuccinos, flat whites, cortados, you name it. And thanks to its rich consistency, coconut milk adds a nice, creamy body to your brew with the bonus of a hint of coconut. Since it’s quite sweet, you may find that using coconut milk cuts the need for added sugar.
If you’re a fan of porridge, then you’re indubitably a fan of oat milk too, made from a mix of oats and water all whooshed up with thickeners and a dash of salt. It’s got a nicely sweet, malty, wheaty flavour and a whole bunch of health benefits, including fibre, protein, and beta-glucans which are good for cholesterol. There are many brands of oat milk on the market nowadays, however if you find yourself without, you can easily mix up a batch using oats and water.
How it works with coffee: the thick and creamy texture of oat milk makes it an ace in coffee, as it renders a thick foam that lasts. The malty notes mix in really well with coffee’s natural bitterness and acidity, so it’s ideal for when you’re in the mood for an easy-like-Sunday-morning cup. Like many of the milk alternatives we’ve just discussed, oat milk can split once it hits hot coffee, but heating it up usually prevents that.
Made from a combo of crushed cashew nuts or cashew butter and water, cashew milk is thick and rich and bursting with nutty flavour. Some even say it’s close to dairy milk. That’s quite unique, actually, because cashews aren’t all that common in our everyday beverage consumption. Nutrition wise, cashew milk has a nominal amount of protein, carbs and fat, and it’s low in sugar, meaning you can drink as much as you want and not really worry.
How it works with coffee: overall, cashew milk is pretty good with coffee, adding body and sweetness. However, when it comes to foam, the bubbles can be a bit larger than regular milk, rendering the foam less dense. So if it’s foam you fancy, opt for something like soya.
Produced from the seeds of the cannabis sativa (hemp) plant, hemp milk brings a sweet, earthy flavour with nice nutty hints. The texture is thinner than most milk alternatives, but what it lacks in body it more than makes up for in nutrition, so if you want to bulk up your coffee’s feel good factor, hemp is where it’s at. Hemp milk is low in fat, high in protein, and loaded with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.
How it works with coffee: generally, hemp milk and coffee is a win/win for both, adding a nice nutty flavour and plenty of body. It can be a bit thin, so if you like your brew ultra creamy, you may need to add more. The high protein of hemp milk creates a good amount of foam.
Pea milk is made from the protein of yellow peas, giving it a very mild, neutral flavour that’s not the least bit like peas. In fact, if you didn’t know what pea milk was made from, we reckon you’d never guess. As far as milk alternatives go, pea milk is high in protein, giving it a smooth and silky texture that makes it an up and coming star.
How it works with coffee: pea milk is downright awesome in coffee. The silkiness of it blends beautifully, and its high protein content builds up some impressive foam that holds its own—perhaps the ideal plant based milk for baristas specialising in latte art. Plus, the flavour of pea milk mixes in beautifully with coffee, adding a neutral sweetness.
Technically, MYLK belongs under the category of coconut milk, but when you taste how similar to regular dairy milk it is, you’ll understand why we gave it a separate mention. MYLK is made from coconut cream, water and cashew, with a bunch of other natural stuff that gives it the flavour and consistency of actual milk. Sweet and creamy and, well, milky. To further the illusion, it comes in whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed varieties.
How it works with coffee: like coconut milk, MYLK boasts outstanding performance in the foaming department, especially the whole formulation. It does tend to curdle and separate if you mix it cold into hot coffee, which doesn’t affect the flavour, but if you heat it up first that usually solves the problem.
There, we’ve spilled all we know about dairy-free milk alternatives. Whether shopping for a milk alternative based on taste, foam-ability or nutrition, we say be daring and experiment. It’s time you got more from your morning coffee.