Though they’ve been around for thousands of years, plant-based milks are an ever-increasing presence in grocery stores and home kitchens. The wide range is a boon to cooks, though it can be intimidating, too.
When it comes to using plant-based milks for traditional dairy, “You can pretty much do it 1-to-1,” says recipe developer and blogger Jessica Hylton Leckie of Jessica in the Kitchen.
In a piece about oat milk on Serious Eats, Elazar Sontag shares insight from pastry expert and cookbook author Stella Parks. Parks says that often dairy is used primarily for hydration, while it also helps with browning (from its natural sugars) and body (it’s thicker than water). Plant-based milks can serve many of the same purposes. Parks only cautions against plant milks in recipes where the main flavor is that of dairy, such as vanilla custards.
“People assume they will taste bad,” Hylton Leckie says of nondairy milks. With so many more options and improvements, that’s increasingly unlikely.
Gan Chin Lin, a vegan recipe developer and writer, says soy and oat milks are among the most neutral in flavor. Certain people may be sensitive to some of the bitter compounds in almonds. Keep in mind that flavors may dissipate once baked, though you should use a milk whose flavor you like.
Rice is neutral, while you’re more likely to get stronger flavors with nut or hemp milks. If you’re leaning into a nut-based dessert, Gan says, an almond or cashew milk might be perfect. See Hylton Leckie’s Vegan Eggnog Cookies from our 2021 holiday cookie collection.
Doron Petersan, cookbook author and owner of Washington’s vegan Sticky Fingers Bakery, says store-bought milks tend to be more neutral in flavor than fresh or homemade versions.
There’s a spectrum of textures when it comes to nondairy milk. “Soy is magical in that it holds onto 100 times its weight in water,” Petersan says of her favorite option. It is full of starches that gelatinize and lend a thick, creamy texture. Oat is similar in that way. Coconut milk (the canned version, not the refrigerated beverage) is thick due to its high fat content.
You’ll find rice, flax, hemp and almond milks on the thinner side.
Consistency and flavor can vary across brands even among a single type of milk, so you may need to try a few to see what you like.
Plant-based milks may be fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D or vitamin B12 to help those on a vegan diet.
Other additives “are there to keep the milk from separating and to give it a better mouthfeel,” Petersan says. Examples include gellan gum, locust bean gum, soy lecithin and, in the case of oat milk, vegetable oil. Even with the additives, it’s important to shake plant-based milk well before you use it, Gan says.
Avoid baking or cooking with flavored milks (i.e. vanilla). Milks labeled “original” may include added sugar. Hylton Leckie says these have a better texture and color, “more akin to the creaminess and texture of dairy milk,” ideal for cereal and recipes. “It is not necessarily ‘sweet’ but matches that milk you could drink by the glass kind of vibe.” If you want lower calories or reduced sugar, use unsweetened milks, though they will be thinner with a different flavor.
If a recipe calls for a particular type of plant-based milk, use it if possible. The consensus, however, of everyone I talked to was that plant-based options are largely interchangeable. While you may have some variations in results based on fat content or thickness, generally “it will work,” Petersan says. Muffins, pancakes, waffles and cookies are examples of forgiving recipes where the type of milk is not too consequential. Similarly, with an oil-based chocolate cake, where cocoa is the predominant flavor and oil the predominant fat, don’t fret too much about the type of milk.
Let’s take a quick side-by-side look at cow’s milk and some plant-based options. I’ll touch on flavor, consistency, where they’re good substitutes (King Arthur Baking provides helpful guidance, though these are not hard-and-fast rules) and nutritional information per cup, unless otherwise noted, in some common store brands. Some offer blends with multiple types.
Cow’s milk (whole generic). Calories: 150; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 4.5 g; Sodium: 95 mg; Carbohydrates: 12 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 12 g; Protein: 8 g
Almond. Stronger flavor. Thin. Substitute for skim, reduced- or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Almond Breeze original): Calories: 60; Total Fat: 2.5 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Sodium: 150 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 1 g
Coconut. Stronger flavor. Substitute canned for whole milk (may curdle if cooked too long at high temperature); coconut milk beverage is fine for drinking or as a substitute for skim, reduced- or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Thai Kitchen unsweetened canned, per 1/3 cup): Calories: 120; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Sodium: 30 mg; Carbohydrates: 2 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 1 g
Nutrition (SO Delicious organic original beverage): Calories: 70; Total Fat: 4.5 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Sodium: 30 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 0 g
Hemp. Stronger flavor. Thin. Substitute for skim, reduced- or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Pacific Foods original): Calories: 140; Total Fat: 6 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Sodium: 130 mg; Carbohydrates: 19 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 12 g; Protein: 4 g
Oat. Neutral. Thick. Substitute for whole milk.
Nutrition (Oatly original): Calories: 120; Total Fat: 5 g; Saturated Fat: 0.5 g; Sodium: 100 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 3 g
Rice. Neutral. Thin. Substitute for skim, reduced- or low-fat milk.
Nutrition (Rice Dream original): Calories: 130; Total Fat: 2.5 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Sodium: 95 mg; Carbohydrates: 27 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 12 g; Protein: 0 g
Soy. Neutral. Thick. Substitute for whole milk (cashew also works well here).
Nutrition (Silk original): Calories: 80; Total Fat: 4 g; Saturated Fat: 0.5 g; Sodium: 75 mg; Carbohydrates: 3 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 7 g