#48 Plant-based milk alternatives: overview and tips


(leer en Español)

It is hard to surprize us anymore with the order like “soy milk latte”.

For many different reasons people nowadays are switching from the “cow juice” to the lactose-free, plant-based alternatives. We will not discuss the reasons why here – they could be various, from the ideological to the simply physiological – but they all lead us to the same outcome – people are seeking non-dairy milks, and are seeking to drink coffee with them. And what could we offer?

I will list three normal milk alternatives here that I would opt for.

But first I need to point out something.

Coffee and milk is the food pairing made in heaven. None of the non-dairy milks, doesn’t matter how healthy and good they are, will taste with coffee as good as full fat milk. And I say fat milk, not semi-skimmed milk, not reduced fat, not lactose-free, not low fat. Good old fat milk, 3.2% – 5%. I am coming from the culture where this type of milk IS NORMAL, and living in the culture now, where 3% is TOO MUCH.

But the only thing is true, doesn’t matter where you are living and what is normal there – the best tasting cappuccino will be the cappuccino made with the whole milk with the fat content 3,2 and higher.

All the other options are a compromise.

And, one more detail. This is mostly for the food bloggers. Couple of days ago I had a food blogger in the coffee shop, and she got pretty disappointed with the visuals of the almond milk cappuccino. It was an attempt of a heart.

So… Due to the different fat-protein content of the plant-based milks, you will never have the same latte art with them as you have with the normal milk. It is just impossible. The requirement for the good latte art – is the good full fat milk. It is getting foamed perfectly, the foam is stable and has the best texture that allows the barista to make those patterns. So if you opt for the non-dairy milks – get ready to not to get those perfect instagram shots. It is really a compromise – either perfect shots, or non-dairy.

Skilled barista can make something decent with soy milk, can make an attempt with almond – but in comparison with what he is capable of, using the full fat milk, these patterns will look pale. Because of the physical characteristics and chemical content of the non-dairy milks.

It is really a choice that you have to make when you are looking for the perfect shots for instagram. Just don’t ask for the non-dairy if your goal is to post latte art. 

So let’s switch to the non-dairy alternatives I prefer, and talk a bit about them.

  1. Soy milk


Yes. Obvious but true, so I cannot miss it. Soy milk is challenging to foam when you are a beginner, but when you get the game, you start to feel it, and it becomes much easier. I would go as far as saying that soy milk is the easiest non-dairy milk to foam (or, in other words, after that things just get more difficult XD). Soy milk asks for lower temperatures, so stop a bit earlier than you used to, I would say when you reach 55-60 C.

The taste of soy milk-coffee combination is pretty pleasant, especially when you are not overheating the milk. It is close to the normal milk, sometimes has a bit of powdery feel, the foam is pretty sweet. Soy milk tends to accentuate, in my opinion, the bitter components of coffee, even when it is roasted light.

2. Almond milk


The second most wanted and therefore most popular non-dairy alternative. In my opinion, almond milk tastes nice with coffee when it is cold. In case it is being textured, the taste changes, and a combination with coffee starts to be pretty…special. Almond milk accentuates sour and acidic components of the coffee, which with specialty coffee makes it a difficult milk to work with. The coffee itself is acidic, and when you mix it with potentially acidic when hot almond milk – the result can disappoint you.

Almond milk is also more difficult to foam than soy milk, the texture of the steamed milk appears to be more foamy, with slightly bigger bubbles. It is more difficult to achieve shiny texture.

You should aim for even lower temperatures than with the soy milk. Latte art is tricky. Looks like milk is floating, breaking the crema, and like soy milk the shapes become blurry. Almond milk is separating fast after foaming, so you should dedicate additional attention to incorporating it well before pouring.

3. Hazelnut milk


Simply a treat by itself, hazelnut milk was supposed to work well with coffee, but… The taste of this milk is so strong that it makes the taste of coffee basically to disappear. Challenging to foam, but easier than almond, the bubbles are small and soft. The foam is less stable and tends to disappear after 7-10 minutes.

4. Coconut milk


Coconut has fat, you think. So if not that what is needed to make the foam stable? Hell yeah! But wait… Try to foam the coconut milk, and you’ll understand the problem. First of all, it is pretty liquid. Not as liquid as rice, but still. The visuals are great, you can achieve glassy surface, microfoam. But the taste… All the sweetness of the coconut milk when heated turns into the rancid oil taste. Unpleasant surprise.


5. Rice milk


The vegetable milk with the most watery texture among presented in this review. Literally, watery – it looks and behaves like water, and you even start to be afraid that you will not be able to foam it, at all. Luckily, it foams pretty decently, and even will allow you some latte art. Everything looks promising…except for the taste. What looks like water in the beginning – yes, you are right, in the end also tastes like water.

The thing that I noticed with all non-dairy milks when foaming – is to have them as cold as possible, and do all the foaming in the early stage, as fast as you can. You don’t have as much time as with the normal milk, so all the foaming should be done in the beginning. In the very beginning. First 3-5 seconds.

P.S. The milk alternatives that are not working well with coffee are oat milk.

Published by liza maksimova

Q Grader. Roast Master. SCAE certified.

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