Plant milks aren’t just for drinking, they’re also good alternatives for cooking and baking. However, since they are inherently different from cow’s milk in taste, texture, and chemical composition, using them for cooking and baking also requires some adjustment. It’s also wise to remember that unlike cow’s milk that can be used for almost any kind of dish, different plant-based milk products are suited to different recipes, since they each have unique flavor profiles.
Here are some things to keep in mind when using plant milks for preparing your favorite dishes and desserts.
You May Have to Use Thickening Agents
Depending on the plant milk you’re going to use, you may have to add thickening agents like cornstarch or xanthan gum to achieve a creamier consistency. Cold-milled plant milks like Elmhurst milked almonds have a richer, creamier texture because of the process by which the milk is derived but, in general, plant-based milks (especially rice milk) generally have a lighter texture compared to cow’s milk. Creamy desserts like puddings and custards, as well as recipes that call for thick sauces, need thickening agents to achieve the best culinary results.
Don’t Freeze Plant Milks
While you certainly CAN freeze plant milks, you shouldn’t really do it because the texture, consistency, and taste will definitely be affected by both the freezing and thawing. Visually, the milk will also look different since the components will separate. Simply keep the milk refrigerated and consume it or use it for cooking or baking by the date indicated in the packaging.
If you do have to freeze plant milks for whatever reason, be sure to place them in airtight containers to prevent odors from seeping in and combining with the milk. To thaw, it’s best to place the milk in the refrigerator and slowly let it defrost rather than take it outside and let it melt in room temperature. Before using, make sure to reconstitute first — just run the milk through a blender for about a minute or so.
Try Unsweetened Plant Milks First
Since they are derived from nuts or grains, plant-based milks will naturally have a hint of flavor of their main ingredients, whether they be almonds or oats. Hazelnut milk is known to maintain the most of the nut’s original flavor although this is of little consequence especially to pastry chefs, since hazelnuts are popular ingredients in desserts and sweet confections, anyway. On the other hand, for other kinds of plant milks, it may be best to try unsweetened variants first to see if the natural flavors are already suited to your tastes and/or the recipe requirements. Using the unsweetened variants may also work better for savory dishes.
If you feel that the recipe could use a bit more sweetness, you can either opt for the sweetened variants or add sweeteners to the milk. If you choose to add sweeteners, there are many options apart from granulated or refined sugar that you can try. Honey, brown sugar, muscovado (also called khandsari, khand, or Barbados sugar), and caster sugar are all good choices.
The Milk Depends on the Recipe
Soy milk is the best option for savory recipes and dishes with creamy, heavy sauces since its components stay stable even in high temperatures. Its high protein content also makes it ideal for curdling, making it the best option for baking crumbly cakes and muffins or for whipping up vegan buttermilk.
Almond and cashew milks are best for sweet dishes, since they already possess a slightly sweet flavor. Think of desserts, smoothies, or cream-based pasta sauces like alfredo or carbonara. For light soups and sauces, the delicate texture of rice milk may be your best bet; if needed, you can add a few teaspoons of cornstarch, flour, or xanthan gum to achieve a slightly thicker texture.
Drinking and using plant milks for cooking and baking may take some getting used to, especially if you’ve already come to love the taste and texture of dairy. However, you’ll find that plant milks can give justice to your favorite recipes as long as you know how to properly incorporate them. Keep these tips in mind should you want to try using plant milks for your next cooking adventure.