Plant-based diets are on the rise—and so are plant-based milks. Gone are the days when soy and almond milk were the only alternative milks in sight. As more and more people search for hearty substitutions for dairy, the markets have become saturated with creamy and satisfying replacements for cows’ milk. From hemp to macadamia to flax, it can be tough to figure out just the right one for your coffee—especially when it comes to steaming them for espresso-based beverages. Whether you’re getting tired of your almond latte and want to try something different, or you just recently decided to cut dairy out of your diet, here are some of our favorite alternative milks that we think you should be testing out.
Oat milk is having its moment. While it’s been around for quite some time, the first brand to really popularize oat milk among the wider public is without a doubt, the Sweden-based company Oatly, which entered American markets in 2016. A lot of baristas swear by Oatly—so many swear by it, in fact, that there was a major shortage of the brand’s milk back in 2018. Oat milk is pretty well-renowned for its subtle sweetness and rich, creamy texture. It’s got a relatively neutral flavor profile that lends itself perfectly for espresso-based drinks—it’s not quite the same as dairy milk, but it’s a nice blank slate to give lattes a smooth, velvety quality.
Because it’s got quite a low protein content compared to dairy (or even other plant-based milks like hemp or soy), creating a microfoam will take a little bit of elbow grease, but it gets the job done—just note that it may take a little bit longer than other milks. On top of that, you may find that the microfoam is a bit less stable and falls flat a bit faster, also as a result of the milk’s lower protein content. But we think it’s worth it for that deliciously luscious flavor profile.
It’s the classic non-dairy milk substitute, and for good reason too. Soy milk has been around for centuries—from ancient China to your local supermarket, this alternative milk has been a staple for centuries.
Unlike oat, soy’s got nearly as much protein in it as dairy does, so it creates a pretty stable microfoam if steamed properly. Since it’s been on the market for so long, most soy milks have a number of additives and stabilizers that enable the milk to behave quite similarly to cow’s milk. That said, it still presents a whole slew of other differences from traditional milk that you’ll want to bear in mind when steaming it. For starters, you may notice that it foams up much faster than cow’s milk—it’s also a bit more sensitive to heat and can denature rather easily, so you’ll want to keep the temperature a bit lower than for traditional milks, around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
The main complaint about soy milk is that its flavor profile can often be a bit overpowering. Oftentimes there’s a bit of an artificial aftertaste to store-bought milks, and homemade soy milk is often described as having a “bean-y” flavor to it.
If you like things a little bit on the sweeter side, coconut milk may be more up your alley. Coconut milk has by far the richest and creamiest taste, though some brands may have an overpoweringly sugary quality.
Still, it’s a popular alternative milk that can go well in espresso drinks—especially flavored beverages like mochas or pumpkin spice lattes, since it can add another dimension of sweetness to the beverage. Texture-wise, coconut milk can be much thicker and fattier (meaning much richer) than other dairy alternatives, since coconuts are so high in fat. Like oat milk, coconut milk is pretty low in protein, which can make steaming your milk to that perfect frothy consistency a bit tougher than it would be for soy milk or cow’s milk. Steaming your coconut milk will likely require a little bit more aeration—i.e., the incorporating of air into the milk before emulsifying it into that perfect foam—than usual.
A lot of brands produce blends of coconut milk and another type of plant-based milk, oftentimes soy or almond. If you can get your hands on one of them, those are ideal, since they up the protein content a little bit and mellow out the cloying sweetness.
Practically raised in his family’s kitchen, Andrew Warner's love of food and cooking goes all the way back to his early childhood in Sacramento, California. When he headed off to Los Angeles for college, he began writing about his experiences crafting simple, cheap meals using a three-cup rice cooker, for his award-winning column Dorm Dining at UCLA’s school newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Since then, he’s fallen in love with reporting and blogging about food, serving as a managing editor for the fashionfruit blog. You can usually find him catching up on work at one of his favorite local coffee shops – Temple Coffee in Sacramento or Espresso Profeta in Los Angeles.