healthy and versatile dairy alternatives made in your home kitchen
by Sarah Waldman
These days, when you stroll the aisles of our local markets and see dozens of varieties of plant “milks”, you may feel like you’re living in a trendy commune. But the truth is that plant milks have been made and enjoyed for over 700 years. Historians traced the first mention of a plant-based milk to a c.1226 cookbook, Kitabh al-tabikh, or A Baghdad Cookery Book, containing recipes that called for milked “sweet almonds.” The first recorded English-language mention of plant-based milk dates back to 1390, in The Forme of Cury, which refers to Almand Mylke.
Soy milk, almond milk, and rice milk – along with a variety of fancy new options, like hazelnut, coconut, and hemp – are now considered by many to be common pantry staples, and, though you’ll find “milk” right there on the labels, some argue that plant milks should not be called milk at all. Milk is defined by the FDA as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” But absent a better term – liquid? juice? fluid? – I’ll call them all “milks,” here.
Many plant milks are affordable, which means that making non-dairy milk at home, from scratch, is sometimes more expensive and always a little more time-consuming than buying a carton. The homemade varieties will spoil faster (4-5 days versus 7-10 days after opening store-bought cartons) but I still think it’s worth it to make plant milk at home.
- It’s Easy. Most plant milks only call for two ingredients (one being water) and simple equipment like a blender and cheesecloth.
- Taste. Store-bought plant milk tastes perfectly fine but there’s just no comparison between the rich, sweet taste of homemade nut milks and store-bought versions. Making plant milks at home allows you to tweak and control flavor to match your personal preferences. You can add pure vanilla extract, spices, or unsweetened cocoa powder to craft fun flavor blends.
- Quality. Although store-bought plant milks present themselves as healthy foods, many contain additives like oil, sulfates, calcium chloride, and thickeners (guar gum, xantham, lecithin, and carrageenan). These products can also be highly processed, contain added sugar, and are watered down, thus being a weaker source of nutrients than their homemade counterparts. At home, you have complete control of the quality of your ingredients.
- Cost. In general, grain milks (like oat and rice) are much less expensive than nut and seed milks. Seed milks are generally cheaper than nut milks, but nut milks can make a lot of budgetary sense if you shop from the bulk bins or purchase nuts in bulk online. Stock up on nuts when they are on sale.
- Health Benefits. Plant milks are a great alternative for people with allergies or a sensitivity to dairy. Compared to dairy, plant milks are lower in fat and cholesterol.
- Consistency. Homemade plant milk is creamier and richer than store-bought versions, which means it does a better job of imitating the familiarity of dairy.
- Variation. You can make “milk” from almost any kind of nut or seed (macadamias, pecans, pumpkin seeds) and even some grains (oats, rice, hemp, quinoa) will work. Dig through your pantry and see what inspires you.
- Wide Range of Uses. Plant milks can be used in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, coffee, and baking projects.