Finding the best milk alternatives for coffee

by Mama Loves A Drink

Still love your milky espresso but trying to cut out dairy from your diet?

Relax, it’s not time yet to pull the pin on caffeine just because you’re eliminating dairy.

Be it for your own health or the health of the environment, there are plenty of great reasons the trend towards non-dairy alternatives or plant milks continues to grow.

The non-dairy alternatives do also come at a financial cost. Whether you are making them at home or ordering them at a café, it really takes the RIGHT plant-based milk and a knowledgeable barista to make it work and worth the extra money.

Let’s get a better understanding how your alternative milks work with your favourite espresso drinks.

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A selection of different plant based melts and core ingredients almouns, oats, walnut, coconut, soya bean

What does this mean for your milk espresso drinks?

Understandably, there’s a big flavour and texture difference between swapping out dairy for plant-based milk on your cereal vs your coffee, which requires either frothed or steamed milk to complement your coffee beans.

Are all plant-based alternative going to work the same with coffee?

The answer is no! There is going to be a big difference between how your alternative milks behave when heated due to the differing sweetness, fats, proteins and pH levels.

We’re no scientists ourselves so we’re going to keep this at half asleep just-pass-me-the-coffee mama level of explanation! Ready?

What plant-based milk alternatives can you try with coffee?

Remember, these are all just suggestions and opinions. If you’ve found a flavour and brand that you love, read on to the next step on how to perfectly prepare your milk in the steamer.

The important thing to note is that whilst cow’s milk is pretty consistent worldwide (except for varying fat content), plant-based milk can vary vastly by brand and the exact product – e.g. if it’s sweetened or unsweetened. Too much fat and sugar can mask the flavour of the coffee.

Take this as general advice, and do go and buy a few brands from your local supermarket and experiment. We give you a few pointers below on the exact wording to look for on the carton for best results with coffee.

Almond Milk

One of the most popular plant-based alternatives to dairy milk is almond milk. It can be a tricky milk to work with in a coffee steamer, though, due to its propensity to split at high temperatures

Heat almond milk right though, and it can most definitely still be used as a latte art milk, albeit it has a thinner consistency than full cream milk, more like what you’d expect from low-fat milk.

The recommendations we have are that almond milk can pair well with lighter roasts. There’s also a general consensus that those first few mouthfuls can be quite bitter. A sweetened version may perform better.

Soy Milk

Soy has been used as a non-diary alternative for generations. Not just by vegans but those with nut allergies too seeking an alternative milk.

The jury is out, though on how well it combines with coffee. Some say its the most neutral tasting of the non-diary milks with similar protein levels making it blend easily; others will blatantly claim it tastes like sucking on soggy cardboard, eew!

It can still texture well when steamed but your barista needs really good control of the pitcher to master soy milk lattes and cappuccinos. Soy can also curdle as a reaction to the coffee’s acidity so use with caution.

Oat Milk

Oat milk has hugely grown in popularity in the last few years as it’s vegan friendly as well as nut-free. It has a relatively neutral taste with malty notes meaning it can pair well with many coffee blends.

Texturing depends on the water to oil ratio of your oat milk. In trying to mimic the qualities of traditional dairy milk from a nutritional standpoint, it can make the oat milk too oily to work with for steaming.

A good barista blend of oat milk though can put it on a par with dairy milk in terms of texture. It can stretch well and create a lovely foam, but do watch your temperature so it doesn’t split.

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk tastes great on its own but doesn’t always make the best pairing with coffee. Cashew is a milder flavour than most alternative milks and naturally sweeter, which can overwhelm in a coffee.

The texture when steamed can be too “bubbly” rather than foamy and leave you with something pretty thin and watery. Most baristas will agree it’s a pass when it comes to cashew milk in your latte, this is a solo hero.

Macadamia Milk

Macadamia milk has a distinctive sweet, buttery taste but is nutritionally low in sugar making this an intriguing choice. It steams up with a thicker consistency than cashew milk, but still isn’t brilliant in terms of great milky texture and foam.

It’s a little harder to get ahold of than some of the other milks here, though many mention that it can add strong hints of vanilla if that’s your flavour preference, it could be a goer.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is creamy and rich, which can help it mimic dairy-based milks, but it is also high in saturated fats, which mask the coffee flavour and has a distinct taste of its own.

Coconut milk is low in protein, so it generally does not work well in the steamer in terms of texture.

a selection of plant based milks in bottles and the plant they came from

What to look for when buying a plant-based milk off the shelf

When choosing plant-based milk from the supermarket, read the fine print! For the best foaming, you want milks that are marked “barista” or “barista edition”. These milks have additional stabilizers that make it easier to steam and prevent it from separating when heated.

You may also want to avoid alternative milks for coffee that have too much fat or sugar as they can mask the flavour of the coffee.

Note that your plant-based milks are usually kept in the health food section of your supermarket on the shelf in long-life cartons rather than in the refrigerator cabinet. You will want to refrigerate your milk at home before and after opening for the best results.

How to properly use plant-based milks in your coffee

Using plant-based milk, your optimal steaming temperature can vary significantly from dairy-based milks. For this reason, plant-based milks may not work as well in automated milk steamer machines where you don’t have as much control over the temperature.

You may have a preference to find an espresso machine with a steaming wand for best results.

The generally agreed best temperature for steaming your alternative milks are:

  • Oat milk and soy milk – around 140°F/60°C
  • Almond milk needs a lower heat – around 130°F/54°C
  • Coconut milk – a higher heat for best results – around 160°F/71°C

Make sure you check out our guide to the differences between steaming and frothing to understand the science behind the milk process

We also have a great buying guide here on what to look for when purchasing a latte coffee machine for home – this handy guide breaks down the jargon around automatic, semi-automatic and fully automated espresso machines with steamers.

Our favourite choice of latte machine for plant based milks is the De’Longhi Dinamica. It’s on the pricier side but gives you the best control over the exact type of coffee you are making and milk you are using with it’s LatteCrema system.

Refrigeration

It is best to steam your alternative milks straight from the fridge. If these milks are room-temperature, straight from the supermarket shelf or have been left out for too long, they can warm up too quickly in the steamer – especially when using powerful steaming wands.

Shake before pouring

Never just tip your plant-based milks straight from the carton into your steamer or steamer jug! They tend to separate in their container even whilst refrigerated so always give your carton a good shake before pouring, or you’ll find your milk has inconsistencies even before you steam of froth.

Keep your eye on the aeration

Plant-based milks will steam up quicker than whole milk, so a slightly different technique is needed to get the right consistency. Don’t over-aerate early in the process; take your time and remember your plant-based milks don’t need to reach as high a temperature as dairy milk.


We hope this guide has given you the confidence to give some alternative milks a try in your coffee. A change in diet or lifestyle doesn’t have to mean giving up everything you love, just experiment a little more and be prepared for some trial and error along the way while you find the perfect one for you.


Learn more about all our favourite brews and get help with deciphering coffee jargon over on the Coffee Connoisseurs section of our website – happy brewing mamas!

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