D.I.Y. alternatives to conventional dairy
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN
In our ever-evolving culinary landscape, where veganism and other specialized diets seem to be spreading like mold on cheese, there is inevitably a dinner guest or family member who is not “doing dairy.” For the allergic, intolerant or averse, the options have long been largely limited to the perverse (rubbery faux cheese), the serviceable (ersatz milks in vacuum-sealed boxes) and the not-halfbad (Tofutti Cuties). But new experimentation and creativity have cracked open an exciting world of alternative pleasures. Fresh nut cheeses, long popular with raw foodists (though not so much with anyone else), are being revolutionized by Tal Ronnen, a vegan chef and author of The Conscious Cook who has created vegan meals for the likes of Oprah Winfrey and, most notably, set the table for the first vegan dinner for the U.S. Senate. Along with a few partners, including a Stanford University biochemist and a former cheese-making instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, his artisanal operation in California, Kite Hill, is turning fresh almond and macadamia milks into aged cheeses with the flavor, texture and complexity of the grand classics. Word is, they’re arriving on the East Coast pretty soon.
Omilk, a Brooklyn-based company, is doing a booming business in small-batch fresh almond and cashew milks, sold at retail and also delivered right to people’s doorsteps, like the glass-bottled milk of yore. And until the recent shuttering of its casual juice bar, New York City’s ABC Kitchen offered a divine dairy-free smoothie made with fresh walnut milk, banana and raw cacao syrup that rivaled any milkshake out there.
Got an Alternative?
All fine and good if you can’t have the real thing, you say, but why would anyone able to drink cow’s milk look elsewhere? The answers are myriad, with flavor, diversity and nutrition at the top of the list.
The sweet taste and beneficial nutrients of raw or low-heat-pasteurized milk from pastured cows have been virtually eradicated from highly processed industrial dairy due to compliance with industry standards and desire to extend product shelf life. And, while copious sweeteners, gums and emulsifiers are required to make packaged almond, coconut and rice milks palatable and store-shelf stable, such additives are simply not necessary in the fresh, homemade versions. The benefits of making your own nondairy milks extend from your palate to your health to your wallet. You gain control over the quantity, sweetness and thickness of the milk and can adjust the flavor with spices and aromatics tailored to its final use, creating something far more vibrant and vital than anything available in a store.
Consider these alternative milks on their own merits rather than as mere substitutes for traditional dairy. Constant comparison of these products to their more conventional dairy analogs may be a source of frustration, as they often behave differently depending on how you use them. A willingness to experiment will be rewarded. I have discovered that rice milk makes a very acceptable béchamel, that hemp milk curdles when you try to use it for chai, and that sunflower seed ice cream is a revelation. Open your mind and your mouth will follow.
NUTS TO YOU—Nut milks are fantastic in smoothies, soups and curries, adding a richness that still manages to be light. They’re also excellent with oatmeal or granola and can be substituted for dairy in some baked goods recipes and used to make ice cream. Although a high-powered Vitamix blender makes short work of nuts (and seeds and grains), a regular blender also does the job, albeit with a bit more effort and time spent. The only other equipment you need is a nut milk bag, a fine-mesh bag to strain out small particles for a silkier texture; several thicknesses of cheesecloth or a fine cotton or linen dishcloth lining a colander works just as well. A general recipe for nut milks is included below, but don’t be afraid to adjust the ratio of nuts to water, the soaking times and the amount of sweetener in order to make the milk that suits you.
SEEDS OF CHANGE—For those who can’t eat nuts or who prefer something with a little less fat, seeds offer amazingly creamy options. Nothing will astound you more than the frothy white elixir that emerges from ground sunflower, pumpkin and hemp seeds. The taste, as with all these milks, subtly alludes to the source, and the pumpkinseed milk retains the faintest tinge of green.
Despite all of Woody Harrelson’s heroic efforts, it’s still essentially illegal to grow hemp in this country. Although a number of states have licensed the cultivation of industrial hemp, and despite the fact that it contains no THC (the psychoactive constituent of cannabis), the DEA is still throwing up a lot of roadblocks, keeping the raw material with limited accessibility. But seeds imported from Canada and Europe are readily available here (yes, legally), and hemp milk is a delicious nutritional powerhouse. It contains every known amino acid and is high in essential fatty acids, vitamins and protein.
In general, when making milk from seeds, always look for shelled varieties—the hemp version is often called “hemp hearts,” and pumpkinseeds are “pepitas”—because the outer casings are quite fibrous and tough to work with. The process for making these into milks is almost the same as with nuts, though the soaking times tend to be shorter.
The aforementioned pumpkinseed-milk ice cream, ribboned with maple syrup and studded with cacao nibs, has a frothy iciness and subtle creaminess reminiscent of an ice milk. It is not gelato, by any means, but it has its own intriguing allure.
GOT RICE?—Commercial rice milk is processed from brown rice and is mainly a source of carbohydrates without much protein or fat, which is why the boxed variety is often fortified with calcium or vitamin D. It’s a bit more chalky than the other milks but it tends to work well in cooking and baking, and you can make it at home with any rice you choose, bearing in mind that each variety holds its particular charms and inherent flavors.
A delicately floral jasmine rice is a delicious base for horchata, a drink that was brought to Mexico by colonists from Spain, where it is made with edible tubers known as chufa, or tiger nuts, that have been soaked and blended with water and sweetened with sugar. Mexicans have invented versions of horchata made with rice, with almonds, with melon seeds, with grains and fresh fruit, and some are even mixed with condensed milk. They are wonderfully refreshing and, like all the aguas frescas (a Latin American favorite meaning “fresh waters”), ideal for balancing out spicy and full-flavored meals. The recipe for horchata included below calls for a lush combination of toasted rice, almond and coconut milks, as well as canela, a nutrient-rich variety of cinnamon that has origins in Sri Lanka, whose complex flavor adds hints of vanilla, heat and honeyed fruit. A light-textured coconut milk can quickly be made from dried coconut blended with hot water—no need to find a can, a carton or even a coconut!
This kind of painless D.I.Y. that liberates you from constantly having to open (and dispose of) packages, that broadens your repertoire and your self-sufficiency, hearkens back to the future. It’s old-fashioned but also forward thinking, in terms of sustainability and nutrition. But if these reasons don’t compel you, try making your own milks simply for the pleasure of consuming something delicious. The rest, as they say, is gravy.