A new dairy tale

How to choose and use nondairy alternatives
CHRISTINE WEBER HALE

Got milk? Even before the pervasive campaign by the California Milk Processor Board, most households would have answered "yes." But now, if the board pressed for details, it might be surprised at the kind of milk many of us are drinking.

Milk alternatives ― nondairy milks made from soybeans, rice, oats, or almonds ― are proliferating, particularly soybean and rice varieties. Many kinds are available for those who are allergic to milk, lactose intolerant, or on a strict vegetarian diet. Some brands even include many choices: enriched and unenriched, nonfat, and low-fat. In some well-stocked health food stores, entire aisles are devoted to nondairy milks. And at supermarkets, they are well represented in sections with canned and dried milk products or health foods.

How do they taste?

Nondairy milks have a wide range of flavors, so you may have to sample several to find a product you like. The milk's basic ingredient is often readily identifiable ― more in some, less in others ― depending on the manufacturer's process and what the milk is made from: Soy milks range from bland and mild to distinctly soylike and grassy. Rice and oat milks usually have a faint, natural sweetness with subtle overtones of the source grain. Almond milks have a delicate nutty character. Compare your own reactions with those of our panel in Tasting notes, below.

How can I use them?

We tested the milks to learn if they curdle when boiled (they don't) or thicken when cooked with cornstarch (they do, but rice milks thicken a bit less than the others). We tried nondairy milks as beverages, in coffee, on cereal, in soups, in puddings, and for baking. Here's what we found.

For drinking. Although milk drinkers might spurn a tall, cold glass of a nondairy alternative ― even with warm chocolate chip cookies ― most of our tasters found one or more of the nondairy milks acceptable in fruit smoothies, especially those in the almond-, oat-, and rice-based group. We give recipes for two smoothies we particularly liked (see below).

In coffee. Nondairy milks with a fat content equal to that of whole milk or reduced-fat milk are creamy enough to look appetizing in coffee. For flavor, mild soy, almond, and rice milks are the most acceptable, especially if the coffee is strong. Stronger-tasting soy milks emphasize coffee's inherent bitterness and add an unpleasant chalky, grassy flavor.

On cereal. Some nondairy milks are acceptable on cold and hot cereals ― rice-, oat-, and almond-based milks in particular. Rice and oat milks pair especially well with cereals made from the same grain; likewise, almond milks set off cereals that contain almonds. Although a few of the mild-tasting soy milks are okay on cereal, most have a grassy flavor that is too strong for them to pair well.

In soups. Nondairy milks, including strong-tasting soy milks, make very acceptable soups. Try the cream of mushroom soup below.

In puddings. Because chocolate masks any strong flavors in these milks, all make an excellent homemade chocolate pudding (see recipe below). Unfortunately, results are inconsistent with instant chocolate pudding mixes. Most do not thicken when made with a nondairy alternative. Quick-cooking tapioca pudding isn't a good option, either; if there are strong flavors in the milk, they predominate, and the pudding doesn't always set.

For baking. In pancakes and in the hot milk cake below, there were no significant differences in flavor or texture between those made with cow's milk and those that used a nondairy alternative.

How long do they last?

Most nondairy milks are sold in vacuum-sealed cartons and are shelf-stable for as long as a year. Once opened, they must be refrigerated, and stay fresh-tasting only as long as cow's milk does, about five days. Although most nondairy milks are sold in quarts, you'll find an occasional pint, as well as packs of three or more individual-size cartons, including chocolate-flavor milk.

A few brands of soy milk require refrigeration from the start. You'll find them in the dairy section. The shelf life of these products ranges from four to eight weeks, and once opened, they stay fresh for at least five days.

Are nondairy milks better for me than real milk?

No ― unless you have a medical reason for avoiding milk. If you have philosophical objections to dairy products, nondairy milks can help fill the void. But if you drink milk alternatives simply because you think they're more nutritious, look at these hard facts.

Cup for cup, most nondairy milks have less protein than cow's milk. Because they are vegetable-based, they are deficient in one or more of the amino acids that the body needs. Adults who eat a widely varied diet can get these amino acids from a combination of nondairy milks and other foods. But none of these milks should ever be used as a substitute for either a cow's-milk or a soy-based infant formula.

Some nutrition labels note whether a nondairy milk's calcium supplement is equal to the calcium in cow's milk. But most researchers agree that the supplements are not readily utilized by the body. Soy milks naturally contain phytates, which can inhibit the body's ability to use calcium. When you consume nondairy milks, eating foods high in vitamin C and phosphorus will improve calcium absorption.

Tasting notes

With so many nondairy choices, selecting a product that suits your taste can be as confusing as picking a long-distance phone service. That's why we conducted taste and cooking tests with 15 varieties of unflavored soy, rice, oat, and almond nondairy products. Here are the results.

Shelf-stable soy milks

Edensoy original. Light tan color and velvety texture. Sweet, almost malted flavor. Okay for drinking, good for cooking.

Pacific Original. Off-white color, somewhat watery texture. Fairly clean flavor with a faint chalky aftertaste. Most tasters found it unsuitable for drinking but good for cooking.

Vitasoy Creamy original. Tan color, whipping-cream texture. Slightly sweet, cooked-vegetable taste. Most found it unsuitable for drinking but fine for cooking.

Vitasoy Light original (1% fat). Pleasant, smooth texture. Slightly sweet flavor; tastes cleaner and less cooked than the creamy original version. Okay for drinking and good for cooking.

Westsoy Lite plain (1% fat). Odd tan color, watery texture. Bland flavor with faint bitter aftertaste. Okay on cereal, fine for cooking.

Westsoy nonfat plain. Not bad if you can get past the watery texture and slightly curdled appearance. Mild, sweet flavor with no noticeable aftertaste. Some found it okay for drinking; good for cooking.

Westsoy original (2% fat). Off-white color; thick, rich texture. Mild, sweet flavor, but strong soy aftertaste. A few thought it fine for drinking; very good for cooking.

Westsoy unsweetened (2% fat). Thick, creamy texture. Mildly grassy soy flavor and aroma, although not as strong as in ¡Yo Soy! (at right). Most tasters did not find it suitable for drinking; excellent for cooking.

Shelf-stable almond, oat, and rice milks

Amazake original (nonfat rice drink). Watery tan color, thin texture. Strong rice flavor with bitter aftertaste. Okay on cereal, fine for cooking.

Naturally Almond. Creamy white color; mild, nutty flavor. Good for drinking and cooking.

Naturally Oat. Creamy white color with a slight chalkiness. Pleasant, slightly sweet, mild oat flavor. Okay for drinking, good for cooking.

Rice Dream original. White color, somewhat watery texture. Sweet, pleasant, ricelike taste. Okay for drinking, fine for cooking.

Rice Dream original enriched. Similar to plain Rice Dream Original in color, flavor, and texture, but slightly chalky. Good on cereal and for cooking.

Refrigerated nondairy milks

White Wave Silk (1% fat). Soy-based. Similar to commercial eggnog in color and texture. Sweet flavor with faint aftertaste of soy and rice. Okay on cereal, good for cooking.

¡Yo Soy! plain. Definite soy aroma, somewhat watery texture. Flavor reminiscent of plain tofu's. Most tasters found it unsuitable for drinking but fine for cooking.

Recipes:

Hot Milk Cake

Chocolate Pudding

Cream of Mushroom Soup

Berry Rice Smoothie

Oat Breakfast Smoothie