Jenni Uusilehto

Barista Edition: A Guide to Dairy-Free Milks

So Barista, how do you choose the perfect dairy-free alternative for coffee? This is your guide to the multitude of milks.

Did you try to prepare a cappuccino using a plant milk but the drink did not quite turn out as you expected? Replacing cow's milk with a plant drink may seem challenging at first, but you will find the perfect combination by practising and trying out the various alterna-milks.

There has been a huge increase in the selection of dairy-free milks available in recent years. The best-known of the alternatives, soy milk, is now accompanied by varieties such as almond, nut, oat, rice and coconut drink products on supermarket shelves. The most recent to appear is hemp milk made from hemp seeds.

How does the structure of the coffee drink change with plant milks?

The structure of the coffee drink is usually the biggest problem when using dairy-free milks. Big temperature changes, the acidity of coffee and the mechanical impact of frothing easily result in a plant milk curdling. This is due to a change in the natural structure of proteins in the plant milk called denaturation.

"The characteristics of the various plant proteins differ naturally from each other, so they also react in different ways. According to our experience, there are major differences between the products of one manufacturer and another," says Paulig Product Development Manager Mari Outinen-Lahti.

"Often the challenge with plant-based milks is to produce a long-lasting microfoam with small bubbles like you can with cow's milk. The structure of some plant milks won't hold the form intact, making it challenging for the barista."

Which plant milk is the best?

With cow's milk as well as dairy-free milk alternatives, it is a good idea to favour products intended for professional use that are designed to cope better with the strains of coffee preparation. Good examples of these are Alpro's Soya For Professionals and Oatly's oat drink Barista Edition (iKaffe in the Nordics).

"Oatly's oat drink is developed by top baristas. It tastes silky and smooth, froths up better than ordinary milk products and also keeps long," says Bill Stjernberg, Oatly's country manager in Finland.

"Soya for Professionals is excellent for coffee as it tastes very neutral. Instead of white sugar, it's sweetened with apple extract, which goes well with the flavour profile and aroma of coffee," says Alpro Marketing Manager Nina Dahlberg.

"Of course, which milk works the best depends a lot on things like the barista's personal preferences, style and customers' wishes," Outinen-Lahti points out.

How do dairy-free milk alternatives for professionals differ from other plant milks?

In dairy-free milks designed specifically for coffee drinks, the stability of proteins has been increased by buffers - carbonates, phosphates and citrates. These prevent a rapid change in pH when the plant drink comes in contact with acidic coffee. In addition to buffers, plant milks also often contain added fat for nice flavour but also to protect proteins.

"Dairy milk fat naturally contains compounds with buffering properties. That's why it doesn't curdle as easily as plant-based products."

Stabilisers are also used commonly in plant milks for improved heat tolerance and structural homogeneity. Not all milks go with all types of coffee, however. Light roasts are often more challenging to pair with plant milks than dark roasts.

What to take into account when using plant milks instead of dairy milk?

"The rough distinction is that light roasts are more acidic than dark roasts, but this isn't the whole truth. In addition to the roast level, the acidity of coffee is affected by factors such as species and cultivar, region of origin and harvesting season," says Outinen-Lahti. 

The heat tolerance of dairy-free milks can be improved by heating them to a slightly lower temperature than cow's milk to prevent curdling.

"Some people add a bit of cold plant milk to the coffee before combining it with the hot plant milk. This cools the coffee a little before it comes in contact with the hot milk."

At times the taste of plant milks may be a bit of a headache. Just like cow's milk, dairy-free milks also affect the flavour of the coffee drink.

"If some coffee is perfect paired with cow's milk in a cappuccino, it may not be the same with an oat drink as dairy and dairy-free milks are worlds apart in terms of flavour. The only way to find the best plant drink and coffee pairing is to try them out," says Outinen-Lahti.