Coffee is delicious, there are no two ways about that. Whilst I love a large mug of black coffee first thing in the morning to wake me up; I am also partial to a specialty coffee from time to time as well, Lattes being my favorite.
I have recently purchased an espresso machine and have been working on constructing the perfect Latte. What I discovered in the process of learning how to do this is two things. One, steaming milk is not as simple as it seems; and two, latte art takes a LOT of practice (or maybe I’m just not artistic).
Having several friends who choose to avoid dairy in their diet for various reasons I figured it would be a sin if they had to miss out on all these lovely coffee options just because they can’t take cow milk.
I’ve had a thorough look into non-dairy options for making lattes and tried them out to bring you my conclusions.
Hopefully, this article helps clear up why some options work and some don’t and also gives you some inspiration to give non-dairy kinds of milk a go in your next Latte!
Why choose Non-Dairy?
There are a number of good reasons you may want to avoid dairy in your latte. Here are some common causes for people to boycott the dairy aisle.
Some poor souls just can’t digest dairy. Lactose is a sugar found in milk that needs a special enzyme in order to break it down in the body. If you lack this enzyme then lactose in milk can set off a whole host of symptoms from nausea to bloating and various other nasty problems.
Lacto-free milk or lactase tablets can be good options for people who suffer from this as well as dairy-free, nut, and plant-based kinds of milk.
Allergies to milk are not as common as lactose intolerance but do occur in some people. They can be quite mild such as skin rash or very severe hives, vomiting, and shortness of breath. People who have a milk allergy generally cannot use Lacto-free products so non-dairy milk is the best substitute.
If you’re trying to follow a vegan diet then all animal milk is off the table. A vegan diet isn’t always the easiest to manage and this is where plant and nut-based milks can really help add in essential nutrients. Also, just because you’re vegan this does not mean coffee is off-limits. Vegans deserve delicious lattes as well!
I am no expert on religion but I have heard that some religious groups have specific reasons for not consuming cow milk. This is another reason non-dairy milk may be preferred.
There are some environmental reasons for avoiding dairy. Large scale, intensive dairy farms can be anything but environmentally friendly. Overcrowding is commonplace and waste management can be an issue to the surrounding landscape. The cows used for milk production are worked very hard and kept in unnatural conditions.
This causes all sorts of production diseases to set in and life for them often becomes pretty miserable. Some people prefer to avoid dairy to take a stand against these issues.
This is a completely valid view to hold but it’s worth mentioning that other, non-dairy milk options are not always so rosy when it comes to the environment. If you’re keen to be as eco-friendly as possible you may want to research almond and soy production before switching to those to ensure they fit in with your values.
Just Don’t Like It
Another, very valid reason that people may prefer non-dairy in their coffee is just that. They don’t like the taste of milk or don’t like how they feel after drinking it.
Milk can be a contributor to skin issues and other digestive upsets unrelated to lactose intolerance. The taste of plant-based milks may be just an option some people prefer and that’s a good enough reason in my opinion for switching away from dairy.
Let’s get down to basics – What actually is a Latte?
Before we get into milk substitutes for our Lattes it’s important to understand what actually constitutes a latte so we can ensure we get the best results when we replace dairy with a different type of milk.
To make the perfect latte you only need two ingredients. Coffee and milk. Sounds simple enough.
The reality is that a latte (alongside other specialty coffees) does need a bit more equipment than your basic French press or filtered coffee.
To start with, the coffee needs to be in espresso form. Normally a double shot of espresso is used to make the typical latte. I used to believe that an espresso was a simple strong shot of coffee, oh how wrong I was!
An espresso is a unique full-bodied brew of coffee that you can only achieve using a high-pressure brewing method alongside hot water. The result is a small volume of coffee but it is very concentrated so contains a lot more flavor and caffeine per measure of liquid.
So now we have our coffee, what about the milk?
Lattes are known for the soft, silky texture of the milk. This can’t be achieved by simply heating the milk up in the microwave (I know, I’ve made this mistake). The milk needs to be heated by steam so again, it needs the correct equipment.
A latte is made by adding ⅓ espresso to ⅔ steamed milk. The espresso is brewed first and the milk is poured gently and at an angle to allow milk and coffee to combine but holds the frothed portion of the milk back in the jug. Once the coffee cup is almost full the froth is layered on the surface and with practice, can be poured in a special way that makes beautiful latte art (if you, unlike me, have the skills).
This drink is not an easy brew to whip up at home unless you have the necessary equipment. A Moka pot and separate steam wand will do nicely or, if you’re a real coffee enthusiast then an espresso machine with steamer function may already be in your kitchen! To find out more about brewing espresso check out this article here.
What about other specialty drinks?
This article focuses on creating that perfect, iconic latte but what about similar specialty drinks? Well, the other standard, milk plus espresso pours are actually very similar when you get back to basics.
Originating in Italy the cappuccino is a frothier drink that tastes a bit stronger. Start with your shot of espresso and add equal parts of the steamed milk then milk froth to top it off. Professional baristas will often pour the milk first, then layer the espresso and finish with the froth for a stunning presentation.
Similar to a latte but without the stiff foam top a flat white starts with the espresso. ⅓ espresso to ⅔ steamed milk and finally a small volume of microfoam tops it off. The taste is generally considered stronger than a latte but with a similar smooth texture.
A latte macchiato is made in the same manner to a regular latte but with one difference. It’s upside down… Not literally! The milk is added to the glass first, exactly as you would do with a latte and then the espresso is added. The layering is different but the balance of ingredients is the same.
The key ingredient for the perfect latte is that silky smooth steamed milk. But how do you steam milk and what causes the change in texture and, most importantly, how does this translate to dairy alternatives?
How To Steam Milk
There’s a lot of articles out there discussing shaking up heated milk to aerate it or using a French press to foam it. This may give a frothy surface but the only way to really get that lovely smooth texture is to use a steam wand.
The steam wand is a metal device that forces a thin stream of steam out the tip and into your jug of milk. The steam moves through the liquid heating it and forcing air through it to form tiny bubbles in the form of microfoam. This is what gives the milk that lovely texture.
What’s In The Milk That Causes It To Texture?
The proteins in the milk are important for the texturing. The higher protein content of full fat cow milk causes smaller bubbles to remain so the milk is thicker and creamier.
The proteins actually surround the air bubbles and stop them combining whereas skim milk has fewer proteins so air bubbles coalesce and get larger.
This brings about a thinner texture to the milk after steaming. When choosing a dairy milk substitute it’s important to consider the protein content of the milk to ensure a rich and satisfying latte.
Issues with Non-dairy?
What stops us from pouring any old milk in the steamer jug? Well, there are several reasons why a non-dairy milk may not be ideal for the perfect latte. Here are a few to consider.
As mentioned above, microfoam is the key element to give that creamy, textured latte. The milk needs a good amount of protein for this to happen so this needs to be considered when choosing a dairy alternative. Some plant or nut-based kinds of milk have fairly low protein content so just don’t do well when it comes to steaming,
It’s important to consider taste when choosing your milk options. Coffee has a rich and complex flavor but even espresso can be overpowered if the milk has too strong a taste.
Some artificial preservatives and sweeteners will drown out that lovely coffee flavor or even just water it down. Of course, taste is very subjective so ultimately, it’s always down to the individual which one wins out here.
Temperature is very important when it comes to steaming milk for a latte. Once you push the milk above a certain temperature the proteins start to fall apart (de-nature) from the heat.
This not only stops your microfoam from holding but also adds a burnt taste to the milk. Around 65C (150F) is optimum for cows milk but this varies for other types of milk.
So what are the options?
Soy milk is a really good option when it comes to dairy-free lattes. Made from the soybean it is naturally high in protein so gives a good microfoam consistency.
It is fairly heat stable so steams well at up to 65C. It froths faster than cow’s milk so is very easy to work with. One thing to consider is that soy milk is often prepared with artificial stabilizers and regulators and this is what gives it the heat tolerance.
The taste of soy milk is quite strong and may overpower a more delicate espresso. It has a bean-like, fibrous taste which isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea (or coffee!).
The jury was out on whether soy milk is good or bad for you. This study discusses the evidence surrounding soy and health. It would seem that soy is fine to include in your diet unless you have a specific allergy to it.
Watch out for sweeteners and other added ingredients in soy milk which can push it out of the healthy territory. If possible, buy unsweetened organic soy milk.
Soy milk is easy to use, froths well like cow’s milk, and should be a safe alternative. The only issue is whether the taste is to your liking.
Oatylicious! Oats are heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering, little packets of energy. Perfect in granola or oatmeal to set you up for the day. But what about oat milk?
Oat milk is a healthy alternative to cow’s milk but it does contain about half the protein. This means you will struggle to get a good microfoam whilst steaming. Because it has half the protein they take twice as long to steam as cows milk so can be tricky to get it right.
That being said, the heat tolerance of oat milk is similar to soy and you can get it up to 65C quite safely without disrupting the flavor.
The flavor of oat milk is much milder than soy so it is a good option if you like a delicate roast of coffee in your espresso. The only taste concern with it is the thinner texture can end up watering down the latte a bit.
Oat milk is gentler in flavor and heat resistant like soy milk. It’s a bit thinner and difficult to get a good microfoam so not the best texture. Is healthy for you and a good alternative to dairy.
What can’t you make out of coconuts? From oil, butter, water, cream, and now coconut milk! Coconuts have thoroughly worked their way into every aisle in the grocery store. Just one taste of these delicious products and it’s easy to see why. Coconuts are so versatile and delicious and make a brilliant plant-based alternative to many dairy products.
But can you steam coconut milk? It turns out it is possible to steam coconut milk it just doesn’t foam very well. Coconut milk has a very low protein content when compared to cow’s milk so microfoam is unlikely.
Coconut milk is also very heat sensitive and 65C seems to be a bit too hot and the milk starts to denature. If you stick to 55C max the result is a much more silky smooth latte.
If you’re very careful you can get the milk to froth and latte art isn’t impossible (except when I attempt it!).
The next thing to consider is the taste. Coconut milk is SWEET. I found most varieties seem to have added sugar as well so this isn’t so great for the health-conscious amongst us. The sweet coconut flavor, although delicious in a smoothie or pina colada, is a bit overpowering for even the darkest espresso shots.
That being said, if you do have a sweet tooth and coconut is your thing then this option will be right up your street!
Coconut milk is sweet (perhaps too sweet!) and often has added sugar. It doesn’t froth easily and it can’t handle the heat very well. It is possible to use it in your latte, it’s just a bit more tricky to use compared to cows’ milk or soy.
Nuts and coffee sounds like a match made in heaven! Some coffees already boast a rich dark nutty flavor and surely this goes perfectly with all manner of nut derived, milky products?
Let’s start with the most popular, Almond Milk.
Almonds are so good for you. They are packed with essential nutrients and vitamins and help suppress your appetite to reduce cravings. Almonds have soared in popularity in recent years but this has brought about an issue.
The way almonds are farmed can be very bad for the environment. From causing imbalances to the natural ecosystems and using up vast quantities of water, almonds are a controversial topic.
If you love almonds but want to minimize your impact on the environment try to find an organic, bee-friendly variety and ideally use these to make your own almond milk.
Commercially produced almond milk is often laced with sugar or sweeteners so make sure you check the label if you plan to drink it regularly.
Similar to coconut milk, almond milk is quite low in protein so doesn’t tend to foam well. Some companies will add stabilizers to the milk which can help it hold the foam. As with coconut, almonds can’t handle the higher temperatures so stick to below 60C for best results.
Almond milk tends to have a strong, sweet flavor that can overpower the coffee. Again, it’s down to the individual, but I find it a bit too sweet for my latte.
Almonds are controversial and may harm the environment. They are good for you but the almond milk often has added sugar or sweeteners. The milk is similar to coconut, does not foam well, it doesn’t like it hot but is possible to steam if you’re careful.
Hazelnut, Cashew, Macadamia…
The list goes on. The truth about nut milk is that they are all quite thin and watery in texture. The low protein content makes them similar to almond milk. The flavors vary a lot and one thing they do seem to have in common is added sugar.
Watch those labels, keep the temperature low and they should be fine to create latte art.
It’s down to the individual’s taste and if a particular nut milk really hits the spot for you then go ahead and give it a try!
Just when you thought the options were running dry, here we have hemp milk. This stuff is dope!
Similar in consistency to almond milk, hemp milk is made from the hemp seeds. It has a good amount of healthy fats and more protein than nut milk. It has a nutty flavor, quite mild, but somewhat similar to almond milk.
Despite having a good amount of protein, hemp milk is watery in texture and does not foam well at all. It separates very easily when heated and is a bit of a disappointment where lattes are concerned.
Hemp milk is best saved for your cereal munchies, it doesn’t mix well with a steamer wand.
Barista Speciality Milks
Several strains of plant and nut-based milk have been specially adapted to allow for easier milk frothing. They contain stabilizers like calcium carbonate which helps form and hold microfoam, giving you that unique latte texture without having to resort back to dairy.
The barista blends are balanced for sweetness and aren’t too light or heavy so that it’s much easier to work with. They are less inclined to overpower your espresso and make for a delicious, silky beverage whilst remaining dairy-free.
These are a great option if you’re serious about specialty coffee and want that perfect pour every time!
Lattes are a tricky little devil to perfect. They are totally worth it though even though they do require specialist equipment.
Cow’s milk is by no means the only option when it comes to steaming milk and there’s a whole host of non-dairy nut and plant-based alternatives to get stuck into!
The best option?
This has to be decided by the individual, we all prefer different flavors so it’s impossible to label one milk type as superior. Give non-dairy a go and you may be surprised with how good the results can be!