Our Complete Guide to Dairy-Free Products and Substitutions
Consider this your essential cheat sheet to dairy-free ingredients — from sipping to baking and everything in-between.
by Leah Brickley for Food Network Kitchen
Whatever brought you to the dairy-free section(s) of your grocery store — whether you’re curious or maybe a cheese lover who can’t handle the lactose — there has been an explosion of products in this category. Though the offerings will differ based on location and the store, dairy-free (often called vegan or plant-based) food has gotten so good that the real thing should maybe be nervous. Dairy-free products have more nuanced flavors with textures that are creamier and more satisfying than what health food stores stocked in decades past. There’s a plant-based version for most popular cheeses, butter for slathering on bread or for baking and so many plant-based milks that it’s hard to keep track. Follow this primer to find the best dairy-free products and substitutions for whatever you are making.
First, a Note on Nuts
Many dairy-free products — from ricotta to butter — have a nut base, in particular cashews for their meatiness. If nut allergies are something you are concerned about, then always be sure to check the ingredient list first.
Dairy-free butter can be found in sticks and in tubs whipped and ready for spreading. It’s often made from either a single plant-based oil (like avocado oil) or a blend of two more oils and can be more expensive than regular butter. Some products are close to tasting like the real thing, although none have truly nailed it.
Look for European-style cultured vegan butter or a whipped and salted buttery spread for really good bread.
Dairy-free butter can be used for sauteing and making sauces. Make sure to taste before adding salt — many products may be saltier than regular unsalted (and salted) butter.
Try: Country Crock Plant Butter. You don’t have to go the plant-based product route when looking for butter alternatives: use your favorite oil or oil blend for stovetop cooking.
Baking with non-dairy butter can be a little tricky — often baked goods come out oily or less flakey. You may need to experiment and find a product you really like — start with a 1:1 even swap of non-dairy butter for regular butter, if you’re adjusting a recipe.
Try: Earth Balance Buttery Sticks. For baking try a 1:1 swap of smooth applesauce for butter or a neutral-tasting oil like grapeseed or canola (if you like the flavor, then unrefined coconut oil works too).
Much like butter, there has been an explosion of dairy-free cheese products; there's most likely a doppelganger animal-free version you can easily swap in. Expectations should be adjusted when it comes to taste, appearance and texture — brown and bubbly is hard to achieve, although you won’t miss out on melty and stretchy ‘cheesiness’ in dishes like pizza and grilled cheese.
Whole Chunks of Cheese
Depending on your location and the store, you may be able to find whole pieces of non-dairy cheese — like mozzarella and Parmesan — for slicing and grating. A common complaint is that these cheeses often crumble upon contact with a grater, so try freezing your hunk of non-dairy cheese for about 10 minutes — that should make shredding easier.
Non-dairy shredded cheese like Cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan do have some melting issues. Most just do not spread as they heat — keep that in mind when making dishes like lasagna, pizza and baked mac n’ cheese. You may need to use more than regular cheese to make sure all your surface areas are covered.
This subcategory of non-dairy cheese is exploding: think ricotta and cream cheese. Along with better tasting products in the store, they are also very easy to make at home (like this Vegan Cashew Cheese.) Many use nuts, so take care if you need to avoid them.
So far, Miyoko's Vegan Pizza Mozzarella is the only liquid dairy-free cheese on the market. Look for it in the freezer section (it needs to be fully thawed before using). It has the consistency of drinkable yogurt and can be drizzled over your uncooked pizza. It doesn’t spread or brown but is gooey, melty and pleasantly salty.
For Cheese Boards
Some dairy-free cheese makers are using old world techniques to coax the most flavor out of these new cheeses — like aging and smoking.
Making a stunning vegan cheese board with: Treeline Dairy-Free Scallion Soft French-Style Cheese, Daiya Dairy-Free Smoked Gouda Flavour Cheese, Yvonne's Vegan Kitchen Vegan Goatless Goat Cheese and Miyoko's Aged Sharp English Farmhouse Cashew Milk Cheese.
Once upon a time non-dairy whipped cream was just a dream, now it’s a reality. But, like with plant-based cheeses, expectations should be adjusted: products like Reddi Wip Non-Dairy Whipped Cream — which comes in almond and coconut — don’t quite hit the mark, but are a creamy and fluffy alternative to the real thing. For baking, there is Silk Dairy-Free Heavy Whipping Cream Alternative, which can be used for whipping or any of your heavy cream needs. And coconut milk (from the can; not coconut milk beverage) is another non-dairy sub for cream in baking recipes.
Make Your Own Non-Dairy Heavy Cream (not for whipped cream): Simply whisk together 3/4 cup plant-based milk and 4 tablespoons melted plant-based butter to make 1 cup of non-dairy cream.
There is an important distinction between non-dairy cream and creamer: here, we are talking about plant-based products that can be added to coffee, tea and smoothies. They are often flavored (vanilla, caramel, hazelnut) and should not be used for baking because they all contain stabilizers that thicken them (like guar gum and carrageenan), which can throw off your recipe and change the final texture. The options are endless and seasonal flavors are introduced year-round.
What can’t be turned into milk? From tiny grains of rice to virtually any nut, plant-based milk grocery shelves are crowded. When it comes to baking, reading the ingredient label is important (stabilizers are tricky; see Creamer section above). If you’re relying on plant-based milk for protein and calcium, then be sure to check the nutrition label.
For Cold Drinks
Soy milk has the closest amount of protein per serving to cow’s milk (both have approximately 8 grams per 1 cup) followed by hemp milk (4.7 grams per 1 cup) — making both ideal for drinking an unadulterated glass or adding to a smoothie. For those with soy allergies and intolerances, rice milk is a great option.
For Hot Drinks
A glug of oat milk won’t separate in coffee or tea, making it ideal.
Use a plant-based milk that is neutral in flavor and has minimal stabilizers; refrigerated milks often have less than their shelf stable cousins. Silk Unsweet Almondmilk, soy and rice milks are all great options.
Choose plant-based milks that taste rather neutral — they’re the perfect blank canvas for soups and sauces.
Try: Silk Unsweet Almondmilk (plain soy and rice milk work great too). If you’re up for some complimentary flavors, a coconut milk beverage would be nice and Forager Project Unsweetened Cashewmilk or Milkadamia Unsweetened Macadamia Milk can add creaminess and a slight toasty flavor.
Other plant-based choices for condensed, evaporated and powdered milk are fewer than the liquid stuff, so try online if you have no luck at grocery stores.
Sour Cream & Yogurt Substitutes
The fermented non-dairy section of your grocery store has been busy too — there are endless options and flavor combinations. When it comes to yogurt, check the nutrition label for added sugars: 10 or less grams of sugar per serving is ideal.
For Eating On Its Own
If it exists as a plant-based milk, then, most likely, it’s a cultured dairy-free yogurt alternative too.
Try: Silk Almondmilk Dairy-Free Yogurt Alternative, Forager Project Cashewmilk Dairy-Free Yogurt, Siggi's Plant-Based Coconut Blend Yogurt, Kite Hill Almond Milk Greek-Style Yogurt and So Delicious Dairy-Free Yogurt Alternatives.
You can sip your plant-based delivered probiotics too.
Any of the above mentioned plain and unsweetened plant-based yogurts can be used in a recipe.
Make Your Own Non-Dairy Buttermilk: Making your own dairy-free buttermilk is easy: Thin out your favorite plain and unsweetened plant-based yogurt with some equally plain and unsweetened plant-based milk until pourable.