What plant milk should you use?

11 Mar 2021

Food + Drink

Oat, soy, coconut… Find your favourite with our handy guide

New to the world of plant milk? We’ve got you covered. From oat and rice to soy and cashew, there are lots of milks to choose from — we’ve even created our own Nutmilk for our dairy-free chocolate! Wondering which milk makes the best cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate? Here’s our guide to the different plant milks out there and the best uses for each.

Milk has been a staple in Western diets for years. Let’s face it, you can’t avoid milk for long before you start craving a cup of tea, a bowl of cereal, or a creamy pasta sauce. Whether you want to bake a cake, whip up some pancakes, or make a bechamel sauce, you’ll need milk.

This being said, non-dairy milks have become increasingly popular over the last few years. Now, almost 25% of Brits use plant milk, which increases to 30% among women and those between 16-24. The diversification and availability of new types of plant milk have been driven by an increase in more eco-conscious diets. This has been a saving-grace for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant, as they no longer have to settle for disappointingly milkless beverages and meals.

Though plants are kingdoms apart from our cow friends, some plant milks have very similar properties to dairy milk. They can often be used in the same way, in the same dishes, and have a not too dissimilar taste to dairy (though there are some mixed opinions on this).

This being said, there’s a world of dairy-free milk options to consider, and not all are created equal. As you might have guessed, different plants lead to different milks — which will affect their taste, consistency, and the uses that they are suitable for.

Glass of soy milk and soy beans from above

What is plant milk

First thing’s first, what exactly is plant milk? As it says on the tin, it’s a dairy milk substitute derived from a plant.

Essentially, it’s a liquid that’s been squeezed from a plant — or a ‘plant juice that resembles the colour of milk’, as Wikipedia puts it. You’ll probably agree that just calling it ‘plant milk’ sounds much more appealing.

Though you might associate plant milk with the modern vegan movement, it has been around for centuries. Cultures all around the world have used plants to create liquids very similar to what we know as plant milk — and it’s clear why. Plant milks generally offer great nutritional benefits and have excellent properties for use in cooking. You can even make them at home with minimal equipment.

What plant milks are available?

There are loads of plant milks out there — soy, oat, almond, coconut, rice, hazelnut, and even hemp, to name just a few.

Still, some of these are more common than others. While soy, oat, and almond are relatively ‘trendy’ — meaning you’ll find them at coffee shops and (even smaller local) supermarkets, others aren’t. You’ll probably have to take a trip to a large supermarket or health food shop to get your hands on coconut, rice, or hazelnut milk. And if you’re set on hemp (the new kid on the plant milk block), you’re best purchasing it online.

You’ll also find that numerous brands are all producing their own versions of the same plant milk. Unless the milk is a premium brand or specially made for a certain use – barista milk, for example – there isn’t usually a whole lot of difference between these brands in terms of the taste and texture of the milks they produce.

Why? Plant milks are mostly water. Generally, you’ll find they’re only approximately 5% oat, soy, or rice etc. Before you think it — no. This isn’t because companies are tricking you into buying a carton of water. It’s because this is all you need to make water sufficiently ‘milky’.

If you’re new to alternative milks, you might just want to start with a mid-range option.

Which is the best plant milk for tea

Most people like their tea a particular way. Give them a different tea, a different milk, or brew it slightly differently and they’ll know. If you relate, you’ll need to be careful here. When it comes to choosing the best plant milk for your cup of tea, there are a few things to think about.

First, let’s talk about taste. If you’ve always had dairy milk, then this will be a point of comparison for you. All other milks might taste a little strange at first, just by virtue of not being cow’s milk.

This being said, some plant milks taste more similar to dairy milk than others or are considered to be more ‘tasteless’ (in a good way). If you’re not ready to completely change the taste of your tea, we recommend the following…

Soy milk

Soy has a relatively neutral taste and creamy consistency that mimics dairy milk quite nicely. Though it does have a reputation for tasting a little ‘beany’ to some people, as you’ll only be adding a drop to your tea, you won’t be able to taste it much anyway. You might also find that going for sweetened soy (rather than unsweetened) helps to take the edge of the taste a little.

Oat milk

If soy isn’t for you, then try oat milk. With a naturally sweeter taste and thicker texture, oat is often described as the milk that’s closest to cow’s milk. The most noticeable difference is that it has a slightly oaty aftertaste — but considering it literally is oat milk, that’s sort of to be expected. If you like a milky cup of tea and you don’t have a gluten intolerance, oat milk is definitely worth a shot.

Which is the best plant milk for coffee

Plant milk and coffee can be a winning combination, but it can also end in disaster. When you add some non-dairy milks to coffee, something strange happens — and if you’ve ever tried it yourself, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about!

One word — curds. That’s right. Because of the acidity of coffee, it causes the milks to coagulate into (rather unappealing) curds. It’s hard to prevent this from happening, other than by buying less acidic coffee beans or gently warming the milk before adding it to the coffee. Not all milks are created equal however – we’ve found that soy milk is the worst culprit for curdling.

Which one to choose then? The most popular plant milks for coffee are usually almond, oat and coconut milk.

Coconut milk

This gives your coffee a silky-smooth texture, but you will notice a coconutty taste. Also it’s possible it will – like soy – curdle unless you gently warm the milk first.

Almond milk

Almond milk has been a staple of coffee shops for a while now. It does add a distinctively nutty flavour, but for many this is a positive. It isn’t too creamy either, but you’ll find it doesn’t foam as smoothly as other milks. Again, you’ve got the potential of curdling here, so be careful!

Oat milk

With a range of barista grade oat milks available, this is probably the best choice when it comes to coffee. It froths beautifully, adds a creamy taste without overpowering the coffee, and doesn’t leave a distinctive aftertaste. Most importantly – it’s unlikely to curdle!

How to stop plant milk separating in coffee

There are ways to avoid your plant milk separating in your coffee, though they’re not always foolproof.

As we mentioned, it’s the acidity of coffee that causes plant milk to curdle. Try a less acidic coffee and see if it makes a difference. As a general rule, Arabic beans are less acidic than Robusta, and a darker roast will also have a lower acidity level.

Another good tip is to pour the plant milk into your mug first. Let your coffee cool down a little, then pour it into the milk. This helps temper the milk and the coffee so it’s less likely to curdle.

You can also gently heat your plant milk to around 40-50 degrees (no higher than 60 degrees). This doesn’t guarantee a curdle-free milk, but it does help!

hand pouring milk into a flat white coffee

Which is the best plant milk for hot chocolate

If you’re a big hot chocolate fan, you’ll know that milk choice is pretty make or break. And when it comes to plant milks, there are a fair few options to choose from.

If you’re using a high-cocoa hot chocolate, oat and rice milk will add a little natural sweetness. This will provide a bit of balance to the bitter edge of the cocoa, but won’t make it nearly as sweet as adding sugar, honey, or agave syrup will. If you prefer the richness of 80%, 90%, or 100% cocoa to hot chocolates, these are great options. Bear in mind that oat has a creamier consistency, whereas rice is much lighter.

If you’re making white or milk hot chocolate, there will already be enough sweetness in the mix. With this in mind, you can focus on a decadent, creamy texture – which you can get with hazelnut or cashew milk. While cashew milk is perhaps the creamier of the two (which is always nice for hot chocolate), hazelnut milk has a similarly rich texture and it complements the cocoa flavour perfectly. Why not go all out and try it with our hazelnut hot chocolate?

If you’re making your hot chocolate completely dairy-free, be sure to use high-quality vegan chocolate in your cocoa brewing!

hands holding a hot chocolate made with plant milk

Which plant milk is best for the environment

We know that the production of plant-based milks is more eco-friendly than that of dairy milk. This is because raising cattle requires large amounts of land and water, and the emissions factored into the entire process are also extremely high. But which plant milk is the most eco-friendly? To find out, you have to balance the water use, land use and emissions of growing and manufacturing each milk.

With this in mind, soy and oat milk are the most environmentally friendly. Almond and rice milk require a lot of water to grow in comparison, but use a similar amount of land and emissions.

This being said, all of these plant milks still require less water per glass than dairy milk, so any trade is a good one. Remember that you don’t have to go 100% dairy-free to make a difference, so just using plant milk for tea, coffee and cereal will help reduce the impact of dairy farming on the planet. 

So there you have it — our guide to different plant milks. Now you’re all set to make the best hot chocolate or cup of tea or coffee — whip up a mug and cosy on up!