How to Cook with Nondairy Milk and Cheese

You need to know about some of the quirks associated with nondairy ingredients and how they behave in recipes as well as tips for modifying your approach to preparing recipes when you replace dairy products with nondairy alternatives.

For the most part, nondairy ingredients work the same way that dairy products do. They can be swapped — cup for cup — for the milk, cheese, and other common dairy ingredients in your favorite recipes.

In some cases, nondairy ingredients need special handling for optimal results. Not to worry, though. You don’t need high-level cooking skills or special fancy doodads to get it right. All you need to know are a few of the idiosyncrasies so you aren’t disappointed (and don’t waste money) when something doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped.

Working with nondairy milks

Cooking with soymilk, rice milk, almond milk, and other milk substitutes (coconut milk, nut milk, oat milk, hemp milk, potato milk, and so on) is a breeze. Making the substitution is simple: Use any nondairy milk cup for cup in place of cow’s milk. The flavor, appearance, and texture of the foods you make will be the same.

Don’t hesitate to use any of the nondairy substitutes in place of cow’s milk for any baking and cooking needs, including in puddings, soups, and white sauces. They work very well. In most cases, you won’t be able to tell the difference between foods made with nondairy milk instead of cow’s milk.

If a recipe calls for buttermilk, you can handle that in a nondairy fashion, too. Make your own by adding 2 teaspoons of lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup of any milk substitute. Mix it well and let it stand for a few minutes before using.

Nondairy milk is versatile, but don’t try to store it in the freezer. Freezing doesn’t hurt the nutritional value or safety of the product, but it causes a substantial — and negative — change in the consistency of the product.

Cooking with dairy-free cheese

Nondairy cheese products on the market today are far better than those that were available 10 or 20 years ago. Still, you’ll find considerable variability among products. Flavor, texture, and melt quality vary by brand and variety. So to find the brands that work best for you, you need to experiment with several before settling on your favorites.

The high fat content of most varieties of dairy cheese contributes significantly to their flavor and texture as well as to how easily they melt. Nondairy cheeses don’t replicate those qualities. They do a good job, but you need to figure out how to choose the right nondairy cheese for your particular recipe.

Some general rules apply to using nondairy cheeses. For best results, keep this advice in mind:

  • Mix it up. Nondairy cheese works best when it’s used as one of several ingredients in a dish rather than as a stand-alone topper on a cracker. It works better when mixed with other ingredients because those other ingredients help compensate for the texture and lack of richness of most nondairy cheeses (as compared to full-fat dairy cheese).

  • Help it melt. When mixing nondairy cheese in with other ingredients in casseroles, soups, and pasta dishes, be sure to grate it. The other hot, moist ingredients in these foods help melt the cheese. Grated cheese has more surface area than it does in chunks or strips, so it melts more quickly and evenly than larger chunks of cheese.

  • Experiment. Test soy-, rice- and nut-based varieties of nondairy cheese to see which you like best in various recipes. You may like the unique flavor, texture, or melting qualities of one variety over another.

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