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The product base of alternative milks seems to be ever expanding due to changes in dietary choices, taste preference and lifestyle alterations perhaps resulting from veganism or serious lactose intolerance. However, it can still be a difficult task to find a dairy milk substitute that truly makes the cut for both quality and flavour. It’s a growing area of specialty coffee, but one which is often ignored.

Regardless of anyone’s reasons for seeking a milk alternative, it’s something that at North Star we feel interested in exploring.

Different types of milk substitutes can provide all sorts of textures and tastes so it’s important to find one that suits you. A guide to the flavour qualities of commonly found milk alternatives can be found below to get you started, along with some useful tips on each.

Soy milk for coffee

Soy milk is generally considered to be less tasty than other milk alternatives, though it is usually the most widely available due to it being both nut and dairy free. It also has a good nutrient content for steaming and foaming which creates a creamy and rich mouthfeel not too dissimilar to that created by using dairy milk. Having said that, soy milk does have a strong flavour that can limit some of the subtler coffee flavours from coming through in the overall taste of your beverage, and it is often for this reason that specialty coffee lovers will opt for a less overwhelming milk alternative.

We also can’t ignore the way that Barista’s view soy milk due to it’s inability to take to latte art – it does tend to curdle with espresso if not prepared correctly. Its fat content (often around 3g per 100ml) and its protein content (often around 3-3.5g per 100ml) do make it a great alternative to dairy milk when seeking the same rich texture and creaminess found with a dairy-based coffee beverage, however unless curdling can be curbed, you are likely to find mottled or lumpy latte artwork on your latte or cappuccino. Tips to avoid poor texture with milk alternatives are found later in this post. For now, take note that most soy milks tends to ‘behave’ best when steamed to around 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), and together with the espresso shot from our experience.

Almond milk for coffee

Almonds are often considered a superfood, and rightly so. Packed full of nutrients with no cholesterol or saturated fats, almond milk is on the rise with the health conscious. Almond milk is often drank on its own and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. It is often widely preferred over soy milk for its less overpowering flavour than soy, but it does have a distinctly ‘nutty’ flavour which can be overwhelming in some specialty drinks.

Almond milk has a fat content similar to many skimmed dairy milks (1g or lower per 100ml), but a low protein content too (sometimes as low as 0.3g per 100ml). It can therefore be difficult to produce long-lasting and dense milk foam for pouring latte art or achieving a creamy texture – though some people do experiment by adding more almonds to the milk and blending to build up the fat and protein content. More importantly, it tends to split similarly to soy milk at around 60 degrees Celsius where it will then lose its inherent nuttiness, while degrading any texture it had to begin with.

Due to a high water content being found in most commercially available almond milks, many have opted to make their own almond milk which can maintain a texture following steaming and heating. Our recipe guidance is found below, and recommendations extend to blending and diluting the mixture to suit your preference for the intensity of the nut flavour, taking into account the underlying flavours of your coffee blend.

Rice milk for coffee

Rice milk is derived from rice and thus is safe to drink for those who are lactose intolerant. It is low in fat and is considered a reasonably healthy option for those looking for alternatives to dairy milk. That said, rice milk naturally has very low amounts of protein. This means that it doesn’t act anywhere near the same as dairy milk when heated or steamed. It is difficult to create a foam suitable for a cappuccino or other textured coffee beverage without finding a rice milk that has protein enrichment, similarly to the issue faced with some almond milks. So, if you do enjoy foamy coffee, look for rice milk that has added protein, and if possible, higher fat. Typically it is found with a little fat, but only equivalent to what might be found in skimmed dairy milk (1% fat, or 1g per 100ml).

Our best advice with rice milk is to use one of the blended milks available on the market, usually combined with almond or coconut. Provamel make a good range of blended nut milks that meet the nutritional demands to allow for successful steaming.

Cashew milk for coffee

Cashew milk is not often found alone, it is more often than not blended with other nut milks. That being said, it is generally less ‘nutty’ in character and has a creamier texture when compared to almond milks. It is also considered to be sweeter than most milk alternatives which can be a plus for flavour, but generally speaking, it has the same issues with splitting if heated to higher than 60 degrees Celsius. In terms of its nutrition, typical content for readily available nut milks (those most easily available to us in the UK) seem to be sitting at around 1g fat per 100ml, with a protein content ranging from 0.5g per 100ml (Alpro) to 0.8g per 100ml (Provamel).

Coconut milk for coffee

Based on the feedback we have received through training in the North Star Coffee Academy, it could be said that I have purposefully left the best until last. Coconut milk has also received huge publicity in the past for it’s inclusion in the ‘health’ drink known to most as bulletproof coffee, which is essentially blended coffee and coconut milk to create a high-fat, high-energy meal replacement drink of an incredibly frothy texture.

This leads me to explain one of coconut milk’s virtues. Despite popular use in savoury dishes such as curries and stews, coconut milk, when sweetened a little, can provide a tremendous amount of fat for use in creating excellently textured coffee. In terms of its comparison to dairy milk, it has the richness and creamy texture to match it easily as a replacement. Its flavour is sweet but subtle which often leads coffee drinkers to enjoy the texture it offers while still allowing a palatable balance with the underlying coffee flavours.

Its nutrition is a little more tricky however. It varies greatly, depending on whether the milk is store-bought as a nut drink or whether it is only the pressed coconut milk itself. Coconut milk itself can be around 15g fat per 100ml with a protein content of around 1.5-2g per 100ml though most are available as a blended water and nut drink. Nut drinks tend to have lower values of both fat and protein in order to dilute them for their use as an immediately consumable drink, whereas nut milks in their more ‘raw’ state will allow you to tailor that for use in coffee. If possible, we recommend buying the coconut milk itself in it’s raw state and sweetening or blending it with other products to tailor its flavour and texture to suit the use with coffee. With a little dilution and a little natural sweetening, coconut milk is usually an excellent alternative to dairy milk in terms of texture and flavour, without being overly nutty and distracting the palate from the all-important coffee flavours.

Tips for using milk alternatives for great texture

  • Add to them, or simply make them yourself. It’s not as hard as you may think, and making them from scratch can require as little as water, nuts, bowls and blending equipment.
  • Try & make your coffee less acidic. If possible, brew a slightly more ‘diluted’ espresso shot of lower concentration. Specialty coffee is highly acidic, which can spur on curdling effects with soy milk, and potentially other milks too. Brewing a longer shot of espresso (by brewed weight) or by diluting it ever so slightly can reduce the tendency for curdling to occur.
  • Add a little of your cold milk alternative into your espresso before adding the steamed milk. Mixing a little of the cold, more ‘stucturally integral’ milk alternative into your recently brewed, hot espresso shot can help the mixture along its way to smooth and even texture in the end. This does not work perfectly across all milk alternatives, but for most, it can help ease any issues with curdling or milk that quickly produces fine bubbles in the final drink’s appearance. Of course, heat your cup first to avoid your drink cooling too quickly.
  • Do not add as much heat. Most alternatives to dairy milk have a lower ‘splitting point’, which can be as low as 60 degrees Celsius. Play it safe for your overall drink quality by simply pre-heating your drink’s cup to a higher temperature, then only steaming your milk to around 60 degrees Celsius. As long as your timing is ok between espresso and milk processes, your drink should then maintain higher temperature by the time it is finished, although you have decreased the milk temperature a little.
  • Be prepared to agitate and mix milk excessively before pouring. This is a good tip with any milk regardless of its make-up, as milk foam will stick to the outside of your milk jug easily, and continuously swirling it in the jug can not only minimise the extent to which that happens, but also homogenise the entirety of your mixture to make it smoother for pouring, while stopping excessive drainage of foam.

Making your own nut milks

  • Measure how much you’re diluting things. Be careful not to leave yourself with a milk that is too thin, which ultimately will not work in your favour when steaming or attempting to otherwise create texture in the milk. Too much water is a common mistake that comes back to bite you with poor texture and weak flavour.
  • Find good quality raw nuts and use filtered water.
    • Good quality raw nuts will normally contribute to good quality nut milks. Aim to find those that are organic if possible, to avoid problems with chemical taints that can crop up through the use of different farming practices involving pesticides, fertilisers etc that may impart flavour in the nuts, certainly when unroasted.
    • Your nut milks will only taste as good as the water you use in them, and if possible match the water to that of your coffee machine’s water filter so to not disrupt what (hopefully) is a balanced mineral content for coffee beverages. If this is something you need to look into, we recommend first trying simple Brita filter jugs at home, or carbon (often activated charcoal) filters, which can be found inexpensively online). If your water is hard (in terms of limescale) then look into a filter that can suitably reduce the level of your water hardness. Adequate water filtration will benefit your equipment, your brewed coffee, your tap water’s taste and your nut milks too.
  • Tweak recipes to suit your market’s preferences. If your customers, family or friends like a rich whole milk drink usually but don’t want the dairy any longer, then substitute dairy whole milk for an equally rich nut milk. Taste them side by side (if you’re not intolerant of course) and do so with the milks when added to coffee in all kinds of ways. You should try using the milks side by side when they are added to coffee when cold or hot, and of course when used for popular drinks like cappuccinos, lattes, americanos etc. The more trials you run the more confident you will become in your nut milk recipes, or at the very least you will be better informed when making any changes.

As always, if you have any questions relating to this blog don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on ollie@northstarroast.com 🙂

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