As the vegan diet becomes more popular, more people are looking for milk substitutes. In fact, many of the people I know who drink almond milk or enjoy substituting coconut milk into baking aren't even vegans. They're people with lactose intolerance or people who enjoy eating healthy real foods.
I always warn people when they try a milk replacement to keep in mind that they have different flavors than cow's milk. It can be disconcerting to try something and assume its flavor and texture is going to mimic the milk you've been drinking for 20 years, but if you think of it as an entirely different drink, the first sip should be very enjoyable.
Because there are now so many options for nondairy milks, it can actually get pretty confusing. If you became a vegan in the 1980s or 1990s, your only option was really soy milk, with the occasional rice milk indulgence. Now there are many different brands for dozens of nut milks, bean milks, and even grain milks.
My favorite brand: EdenSoy Organic Soymilk
My favorite brand: Pacific Naturals Organic Almond Milk
My favorite brand: Rice Dream Organic Unsweetened
My favorite brand: Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk
My favorite brand: Living Harvest Tempt Hemp Milk
My favorite brand: Pacific Naturals Oat Milk
My favorite brand: Pacific Naturals Hazelnut Milk
My favorite brand: Pacific Naturals 7-Grain Milk
You can use whichever milk substitutes you have on hand, I just advise keeping in mind the flavor and texture of what you're baking. For instance, in a vanilla cake, a hazelnut milk will give off a slight hazelnut smell once baked. Soy, almond, hazelnut, and oat milks are thicker, though they do come in low-fat varieties that are thinner. Rice milk is always thinner, so it's not always the best choice for your baked goods, but can be excellent for smoothies or lighter dishes.
If you have a recipe that calls for buttermilk, it's really easy to duplicate that in the vegan world. "Real" buttermilk is made by adding a souring ingredient to milk. You can add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to your nondairy milk, and allow it to curdle for about 10 minutes. Instant vegan buttermilk!
Maybe you have a recipe that calls for condensed milk. "Real" condensed milk is made by condensing cow's milk and adding sugar. You can do the same by using 2 parts silken tofu to 1 part soymilk and 1 part granulated sugar or maple syrup. Just blend it and you have your own vegan condensed milk.
Now how about evaporated milk? "Real" evaporated milk is made by condensing milk and then leaving it unsweetened. You can make your own by adding a thickener to unsweetened nondairy milk. Good thickeners are arrowroot, cornstarch, or kudzu root powder. This will give you vegan evaporated milk.
I have a recipe I love for whipped coconut cream in Vegan Cooking for Beginners that I think is amazing for adding a healthier, but still indulgent, whipped topping on your desserts.
See how versatile nondairy milk can be? We have become so accustomed to using cow's milk that we forget that it's not absolutely necessary for cooking.
I will never forget how amazed I was when I first went vegan and realized that I could actually cook without milk, eggs, and butter. It's so ingrained in our minds that eggs and dairy products are necessary for cooking and baking.
Many milk substitutes are fortified with calcium so they can become exact replacements for cow's milk. You can find many of these nondairy milks in yogurt and ice cream forms as well!
Dairy isn't really doing you any favors; it gets a high percentage of its calories from fat, it's full of cholesterol, and it lacks good, solid nutrients. I know, you think I'm forgetting about calcium, but I'm not. The animal protein in milk, called casein, actually draws calcium out of your bones, making them more brittle. The China Study was one of the first scientific studies to draw attention to how those people who drank the most milk also had the highest bone fracture rates. So, while milk does have a high amount of calcium, the amount your body synthesizes into usable calcium isn't very high.
I still see nutritionists who espouse the health benefits of low fat milk or full fat raw unpasteurized milks. What they aren't effectively communicating is that even if you believe it's okay to consume animal byproducts (I don't), most cows are not producing healthy milk anymore.
Humans first started drinking milk from animals hundreds of years ago, and back then the cows ate exclusively from fresh, chemical-free grass on actual pastures full of many varieties of grasses. That diet fed their bodies and bodily fluids with healthy nutrients from those plants. Those female dairy cows had milk only when they were nursing their young, and they were fairly healthy cows that lived for 20-25 years.
Today's milk production is absolutely nothing like that. You can read extensively about factory farming and the dairy industry all over the internet, but the short of it is that the industrial boom after WWII in the 1950s increased the demand and drastically altered the treatment of animals. They are now commodities and products that are abused for their milk. While you may "not really care about animals," this mistreatment spells disgusting, unhealthy milk for you.
In order to churn out gallons of $2 milk for the average consumer, dairy cows now eat grass loaded with pesticides, fungicides, and other insecticides, are pumped with hormones designed to increase milk production, are artificially inseminated to remain lactating permanently, develop udder infections that pus and bleed into the machines that are hooked up to their udders, are given antibiotics to control infection on those cuts, and are slaughtered as soon as their milk production slows down around 3-5 years of age.
When an animal eats a chemical, it assimilates into their blood, muscles, and bodily fluids just like it does with us. Think of how many restrictions pregnant women are given on the things they can consume-- that's because everything we eat goes to all the organs in our bodies. Some of it stays there for a long time. When you cut open an animal that has been fed chemicals and then you eat that animal, you also eat those chemicals. If you drink its milk or eat cheese made from that milk, you eat those chemicals.
An excellent resource for learning more about the dairy industry and the health hazards of dairy products is the book Whitewash. It's fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
A high percentage of humans can't even process the main sugar in dairy products, the lactose. Once humans wean, we lose the enzyme called lactase that helps us digest lactose. Animals were designed to drink their mother's milk until weaning and then move to solid foods, not to continue drinking breast milk throughout their adult lives, and certainly not to drink milk from another animal.
It amazes me that they still try to eat dairy products, even though it sends them to the bathroom in agony. I suppose that's because they truly believe milk is good for them and it's way easier to go with the flow and drink what the majority drinks rather than change your diet.
There's even an industry devoted to helping lactose intolerants be able to continue drinking dairy products-- they just add lactase into their milks and cheeses. But why? Why not just use healthy, tasty milk substitutes?