Like millions of us, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the creamy deliciousness that is cow’s milk. (Whole milk, please, none of your pointless low-fat nonsense.) It’s Saturday cartoons with cereal. It’s the perfect partner in crime for sinfully sweet late-night snacks. And, when frothed and combined with two or more shots of espresso, it is pure work fuel. So much so that I measure my mornings by the size of the latte I order or make at home.
But the downside of milk is getting harder to ignore, even for those of us who tolerate lactose like crazy. Dairy and meat industry cattle use 83 percent of the world’s farmland; they are the main reason forests are being cut down. The less we use their products, the more that land goes wild again, sucking in billions of tons of carbon. Reform agriculture enough, and climate change is pretty much solved. I’m excited about the rise of fake meat for exactly that reason.
And fake milk? Well, of all those boxes sidling up next to the real thing in the supermarket refrigerator, none seem as appealing as the Impossible Burger when it comes to replicating the real thing. Yet I just got another impetus to try. For a story about the new science of fasting, I learned that milk triggers a genetic switch that puts our bodies into unrelenting growth mode, without the necessary breaks for cleaning out the crap in our cells that leads to disease. Unrestricted cow juice may be hurting us more than we know.
Hence this ultimate test. It’s easy for the fake stuff to mingle with cereal, which plays well with anything cold, creamy, and wet. Same goes for smoothies. Lattes are far more demanding. Does it do well when hot and steamed? Will it foam? Will it taste good right down to the tepid end of the cup? A new range of “barista blend” alternative milks, which add small doses of gums, salts, or oils to make them froth properly, claim to be up to the challenge.
To put them through their paces, I used the trusty Breville Barista Express my wife gave me a few Decembers ago. (I became obsessed and made so many lattes that it soon paid for itself; my wife likes to joke that she bought herself a barista for Christmas.) I bought a bunch of coffee beans and fake milks, invited a panel of latte-loving friends for a blind taste test, and proceeded to make more alternative caffeinated beverages than any human can comfortably handle. There were many jitters.
What didn’t make the cut
Barista blends are, for now, just a tiny fraction of the $1.6 billion (and growing fast) U.S. plant-based milk market. There are so many I’ve tried steaming over the years that I’ve grown used to disappointment. Soy never works, no matter how much sugar you add (and most soy milks add a lot). Coconut milk is great in smoothies; heat and froth it, though, and it becomes thin and bitter. The less said about rice milk, the better. Hemp milk tastes foul in most things; maybe they should add THC?
Buying milks for this experiment, I threw in a random couple of nut flavors I’d never tried. One was walnut, which turned out to be the only one our blind taste-testers couldn’t finish. The best they had to say was that it “doesn’t really taste of anything.” Another non-barista blend nut made the cut, however, alongside those mostly oat-y beverages.
It’s no spoiler to say that an oat milk won — oat milk has been a phenomenon for some time now — but the brand name and the blend really seem to matter. Below in reverse order are the six varieties we would happily drink again as milk substitutes. For each one I’ve noted the calorie count (whole milk is around 140 per cup), the amount of sugar (whole milk has around 12 grams), plus ingredients other than water and the obvious grain or nut.
Let’s get ready to latte!
Yes, we know: Growing almonds takes a lot of water, which is a problem in California’s drought-stricken central valley especially. But you know what uses more? The crops that cows eat and the pasture they live in, not counting all the water they consume. If we could replace all dairy farms with almond groves, the result would still be better for the climate.
With its Barista Blend (available in sweetened and unsweetened varieties; I chose the latter), California’s own Califia Farms has managed to create almond milk that doesn’t taste like almonds. “I don’t know what that is, but it’s definitely not nutty,” my friend Holly said in her blind taste test. We found the foam fine and creamy. The consistency was a little on the thin side, however, with a very slight metallic aftertaste.
This blend does seem to be a fertile milk when it comes to making foam art, however, and was ranked at the top in this pro barista test. (Personally I’ve never had the patience for foam art, and my leaves look more like fish bones; I should probably not give up the day job.)
Calories per cup: 35
Sugar grams: 0
Added ingredients: calcium carbonate, sunflower lecithin, sea salt, locust bean gum, gellan gum, potassium citrate.
Might cashew be the one nut milk to rule them all? It seemed possible, given that cashew ice cream is a thing that vegans seem to love. Cashews are extremely fatty, which translates to more satisfying. So I bought a box made by Elmhurst, New York City’s last dairy farm, which reinvented itself as a plant milk company in 2016.
Despite having none of the added ingredients in the barista blend, the cashew latte was surprisingly frothy and very creamy, almost as much as oat milk. My panel of friends noted that it held its taste and a rich layer of foam down to the end of the cup, although some still detected that same faint metallic tang that seems to be common to nut milk lattes.
Calories per cup: 130
Sugar grams: 1
Added ingredients: none.
Ripple is probably the closest thing the alt-milk world has to Impossible Foods. It’s a Silicon Valley darling, founded in 2014, that boasts at least $100 million in venture funding. And just as Impossible rarely notes that its burgers are mostly soy, you have to get pretty deep into the marketing to find that Ripple is made from yellow peas.
My hopes were high for Ripple Barista Style regardless, though it ended up dividing the taste testers more than any other alternative milk. My friend Carla found it “pleasant and inoffensive” with a good, creamy foam and a “floral, almost vanilla” taste. My friend Leslie declared it “thin” and “nowhere near creamy…kind of like the vanilla version of powdered coco.” Oddly, vanilla isn’t one of the extra ingredients.
I too had this dichotomy about Ripple, which seems to be extremely good at confusing the taste buds. I enjoyed the first and third cup I made, not so much the second, and I can’t figure out the difference. It may have something to do with temperature. The tasters noted it doesn’t really go the distance, tasting a lot thinner as the cup cools.
What does seem to work very well is adding a little Ripple Barista Style to the oat milk Barista versions. Don’t ask me why; it just seems to round out the flavor and make it more milk-like.
Calories per cup: 120
Sugar grams: 5
Added ingredients: Sunflower oil, cane sugar, dipotassium phosphate, disodium phospate, gellan gum.
The top of the rankings is dominated by oat milk. All three Barista-friendly oat brands I tried do an amazing job of replicating the creaminess of milk when steamed. Some of them, however, do that job with more ingredients than others.
Case in point: Oatly, the original Swedish version of oat milk that has taken the U.S. market by storm over the last few years, to the point that there was a shortage for most of 2018 and 2019. The barista blend, sold only to coffee shops at first, was particularly sought after. Does it live up to the hype?
Answer: somewhat. In our blind taste test, Leslie and Carla’s tastebuds were divided on this one too. Carla rated it her top pick, finding it “less acidic” than other oat varieties with a “cleaner flavor than milk.” Leslie felt it didn’t have a rich enough mouthfeel and “goes down the middle of your tongue.”
As the non-blind taste tester, I liked Oatly Barista just fine — but also couldn’t help but notice that it was the only one in our test to have more calories than regular milk. It also had the most sugar (albeit from oats) and the most added ingredients.
Calories per cup: 145
Sugar grams: 7
Added ingredients: Rapeseed oil, dipotassium phosphate, calcium carbonate, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, dicalcium phosphate, riboflavin, vitamins A, D2, and B12.
Califia Farms’ take on oat milk for baristas is now the one I reach for first, largely because it is easy to find and our winner is rare in my local supermarkets. It’s supremely versatile, and the one that seems to work best with a little added Ripple.
The blind taste-testers praised Califia for its creamy mouthfeel, which was “second only to milk.” Some detected a nutty flavor, and it was misidentified as almond milk more than once. I concur more with the classic description of oat milk: It’s like the milk left over at the end of a bowl of cereal, with a kind of toasted flavor added by its encounter with cornflakes.
Calories per cup: 130
Sugar grams: 3
Added ingredients: sunflower oil, dipotassium phosphate, calcium carbonate, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt.
It wasn’t until the end of my testing period that I discovered Elmhurst made an Oat Barista milk too. It seemed almost too good to be true: the lowest calories of any milk in the test save the unsweetened almond, with half the ingredients and almost half the sugar of the Oatly. And yet it was the creamiest of them all.
I don’t know exactly what is involved in Elmhurst’s proprietary “HydroRelease” process, developed by a food technologist. It claims to preserve more of the elements of the original grain in the final product, providing a richer taste. But that last part I can confirm. So can the blind taste testers. “There’s a fullness, a fattiness, almost a chocolate-y richness,” said Holly.
The only downside to the Elmhurst blend is that it adds actual cane sugar, albeit in in small quantities (three grams per cup, plus one gram of sugar from the oats themselves). Other than that, it’s a pinch of salt, and the generally-recognized-as-safe mineral supplement known as dipotassium phosphate, keeping things foamy.
One important caveat for this blend: You absolutely must do what it says on the carton and “shake well,” more so than for other oat milks. It seems to separate in transit. My first pour into the steaming jug was thin and watery. But if you shake it like a Polaroid picture, this is a top-notch oat milk that has the potential to replace regular cow juice.
Calories per cup: 80
Sugar grams: 4
Added ingredients: Cane sugar, dipotassium phosphate, salt.
Will they blend?
I have continued to drink fake milk lattes, usually oat-based and have only had one regular milk version in the few days since the test. It tasted fine, and there’s something in its all-encompassing warmth that can’t be replicated even by the finest oats. But I was also done after one. The fake milks have this going for them: You can keep drinking, downing two or three in a morning with no adverse effects.
The other reason I’m sticking with the fake milks is the mixologist angle. With so many half-finished packages left in the fridge, I’ve started blending different kinds to see what they taste like. It’s endlessly fascinating. As I mentioned, Ripple with oat milk seems particularly effective. “I would drink that all day long,” said one tester of the blend. “It’s particularly good at being tepid.”
But that’s just the start of what is likely to be quite a journey. As the plant-based milk market continues to grow, I expect we’ll see a lot more of these blends, just as many supermarkets will now sell you a coconut-almond milk concoction. Maybe the perfect fake milk is two parts oat, one part pea, one part cashew. But whatever it is, someday some enterprising food lab will hit upon it, and how to make it cheaply with minimal ingredients. Billions of dollars will be made. And the planet will be much, much better off.