As consumers not only increasingly accept, but increasingly demand, non-dairy milk and milk derived products, alternative milks have staked their claim on grocery store shelves, as well as in the culinary spotlight. Dina Cheney knows a thing or two (or 10 thousand) about plant-based—i.e. "alt"—milks. In fact, nut, seed, legume, and grain milks provide the foundation for her new dairy-free cookbook, The New Milks. With this treasure trove of knowledge hitting shelves on May 3rd, we wanted to pick Cheney's brain about her experiences with milking everything from coconuts to quinoa.
CL: What initially got you interested in producing your own milks at home? DC: A few years ago, I realized that I was lactose-intolerant (like 65% of the human population over age 2 or 3, according to the NIH!!), and began purchasing plant-based milks. When I saw a few articles about making your own, I decided to try myself, and was amazed by how easy it was and how delicious the resulting milks were. Since I’m a recipe developer and love to experiment in the kitchen, I decided to try making different types, and soon realized that the sky was the limit in terms of varieties. I could make pistachio milk, millet milk, tiger nut milk, pumpkin seed milk, and more! So cool and exciting! I felt like a pioneer.
CL: Do you drink or cook with dairy milk at all? DC: Not anymore. I wish more restaurants would offer dairy-free milk (especially with coffee and tea service). Ditto school lunch programs.
CL: What's your favorite kind of milk to make? DC: I really can’t answer because I love so many of them, and different types are best for different purposes. That said, I probably make cashew milk the most frequently since it’s incredibly delicious and versatile, with a lovely creamy texture and nutty, neutral, slightly smoky flavor. Although it takes the most elbow grease, I love making coconut milk since it’s so incredibly delicious. Read the write-up of some of my favorites.
CL: One concern with making certain milks (typically nut milks) on a regular basis is that it can be expensive--what sorts of things do you do with the leftover strained solids to reduce waste and get your money's worth? DC: A good point, though if you buy solid ingredients in bulk, homemade milks are not necessarily more expensive than store-bought. Sometimes, they’re cheaper. Since I always keep and use the leftover strained solids, I think I end up saving money. I either add the strained still-wet solids to oatmeal, pancake batter, or smoothies. Or, I dry out the solids in a low temperature oven, then process in the food processor until a fine flour forms. If I yield nut milk and flour, that gives me a huge cost savings over purchasing nut milk and flour, especially since nut flours tend to be super-pricy. I actually use the solids to make flour from coconut, seeds, nuts, tubers, and legumes. Everything but grains, since the cooked grains break down in the milk.
CL: Do you typically fortify your milks or primarily look to other sources for protein, calcium, etc. DC: I typically look for other sources of protein and calcium (though I do drink naturally protein-rich soy milk often and sometimes purchase almond milk with added protein). My diet is especially rich in nuts, seeds, and tofu.
CL: For someone who's never made their own milk, what do you typically suggest is the best to start with? DC: Nut milks, since they’re the easiest to make. Just soak raw, unsalted nuts overnight in water to cover at room temperature. The next morning, rinse and drain. Then, puree with fresh water in the blender (start with a ratio of 2 cups nuts to 5 cups water). Strain using a nut milk bag, fine strainer, or overlapping layers of cheesecloth, and voila! You’ve got homemade nut milk.
CL: What differences can consumers expect between the milks they make at home the alternative milks they'll find at the grocery store? DC: I advise readers to use a higher ratio of solid ingredients to water, and to keep their milks unflavored initially for versatility. If readers go that route, their homemade milks will be thicker and will separate, plus will be more flavorful, fresh, and higher in the nutritional content of the base ingredient. However, since packaged milks tend to be fortified with vitamins, minerals, calcium, and sometimes protein, those supplements will be absent from homemade milk (unless added by the reader).
CL: What do you look for when shopping for milks in the grocery store? DC: In general, I prefer brands that use the shortest ingredient lists and a higher ratio of solids to water for the creamiest, most flavorful, and most nutrient-dense milk.
CL: I know you developed the recipes in your book, The New Milks, using purchased milk, but can homemade be substituted? DC: Yes, absolutely! I’ve tried many of the recipes both ways. The only difference is that the homemade milks tend to be thicker and more flavorful. They’re also free of salt. It was a difficult decision—whether to call for homemade or store-bought milks for the recipes. Ultimately, I went with store-bought milks since they’re more standardized and don’t separate. Plus, they’re convenient, due to their long shelf life.
CL: We're seeing a lot of buzz around pea milk lately, is there really anything that sets it apart from other alt milks? DC: Only the fact that it’s higher in protein than nut, seed, tuber, grain, and coconut milks. That said, it has the same amount of protein as soy, peanut, and other legume milks. The manufacturer neutralizes the naturally stronger flavor of the peas. My feeling is that soy milk is a legume milk that is super-high in protein and tastes good naturally. Ditto for peanut milk (though it’s not as flavor-neutral as soy milk). Still, for people who are allergic to soy or peanuts, pea milk is very promising.
CL: Can you essentially make milk from any legume--like chickpeas or kidney beans? DC: Yes! As long as you soak the legumes for hours, and then cook them. That’s why the sky is the limit when it comes to sources for plant-based milks.
CL: What's the typical shelf life for homemade milks? DC: Three to four days in the fridge. I usually keep them for four days.
CL: There is a growing concern around hormones present in soybeans, how would you advise consumers who are a little wary of soy milk? DC: Multiple studies have shown that soy milk—which does not contain estrogen (as many believe), but rather phytoestrogen compounds—is healthy. It’s been drunk in Asia since the second century BC. Plus, cow’s milk, if not organic, often contains hormones.
All that said, I love to mix it up. Sometimes I drink soy milk. Other times, I drink coconut, nut, seed, tuber, or grain milks. Moderation is a smart principle for all foods. After recently reading an article in The New York Times, I learned that even kale can be unhealthy in excess!
CL: Any favorite flavor combinations? DC: For the base milks, I love coconut-macadamia or hazelnut-almond. Often, I flavor the finished milks. I have recipes in my book for Matcha Milk, Raspberry-Rose Milk, Saffron Mango Milk, Blueberry Cardamom Milk, and Spiced Chocolate Milk, sophisticated twists on the chocolate or strawberry milk we drank as kids.
CL: What's your preferred blender for making milks? DC: The best blenders are high-speed, such as those from Breville (I own The Boss) or Vitamix. That said, any blender will work. Blenders that are not high-speed should just be run for longer.
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