It’s not always the most popular subject to broach within public and/or permaculture circles, but the fact of the matter is that in many, many recent studies dairy is being linked to several chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular issues, cancer, and digestive woes. It’s no wonder, really, as we are the only animal to regularly consume the milk of another, and the only that ingests milk (or milk products) into adulthood.
Of course, dairy has long been a part of the Western diet, and many of us cling desperately to things like cheese and yogurt or a splash of cream in our coffee. Truth be told, the majority of people who are devoted to dairy, especially those with animals specifically raised for milk, won’t soon be giving it up, but perhaps it’s time to start recognizing some of the healthy alternatives out there.
Even if a 100% dairy-free diet isn’t in the cards, knowing how to make all-natural dairy-free milk, cheese, and yogurt can’t hurt, and it provides a new multitude of flavors and dishes to bring to the self-sustainable table. The following recipes are healthy, homemade alternatives that use a variety of sources to create dairy-free “dairy” products. They are not an indictment of anything but simply a new way of looking at something familiar.
What we are after can really aid in deciding what kind of milk will work best. Is it cream for coffee? A smoothie? Baking? Each base, everything from nuts to grains to legumes to coconuts, performs a little differently, just as the varying types of milk (skim, 2%, full fat, cream) operate differently. Essentially, though, whatever the foundation is, the same techniques apply: The base is ground into a powder and mixed with water, often with something to add a tinge of sweetness.
For coffee, coconut milk/cream works fantastically. It’s got a high fat content, a pleasant flavor, and thick texture that feels right. For those of us in the tropics, with coconut palms, the fruit is usually in easy abundance. Here’s how to make your own: Take one coconut, save the water and remove the flesh. Combine the flesh and coconut water with another cup or two (depending on the thickness your after) of filtered water in a blender and work it over for a couple minutes, maybe even five. After that, use cheesecloth to filter away the coconut bits and squeeze all the liquid out of the coconut. It’ll keep for a couple of days in the fridge or it can be frozen.
For cereal, rice and oat milk are usually a popular choice. Unlike coconut milk, they tend to be thinner and less fatty, but they have a sweeter flavor that blends well with porridge or cold cereals. To make rice milk, toast a cup of grains in a dry skillet for about five minutes, soak them in two cups of water overnight, and blend it for a couple of minutes in the morning. Strain it through a cloth. To milk an oat, simply soak a cup of oats in three cups of water overnight, blend the mixture up and squeeze it through cheesecloth a couple of times. For a bit more flavor, add a little natural sweetener and a touch of vanilla to either one of these.
There are many other twists and turns at our disposal. Almonds, cashews, macadamia and hazelnuts are all popular nuts that get the job done. Basically, for nut milks, we soak the nuts (one cup) in filtered water (2 cups) and blend them up with more water (4 cups) when they are ready. Strain as usual. Flavors can be added, but water and nuts get the job done simply. Soy milk (obviously GMO-free), probably the most commercially popular choice, is done much the same but is usually boiled for couple of minutes as well.
In my personal experience with homemade dairy-free cheeses, typically nut-based cheese, it’s the creamy types that work the best. They have a truly comparable, or at least equally delicious flavor, and don’t require an odd array of ingredients in search of the right texture. Nuts, as we know from nut butters, go creamy and spreadable without issue, and to make them “cheesy” only requires a few readily available ingredients.
Cashew cream cheese is aces, no way around it, and it is super simple to make. Soak a cup of cashew nuts in three cups of water overnight. Drain away the excess water and blend the nuts with a couple of teaspoons of lemon or lime juice, a bit of salt and pepper to taste (roughly half a teaspoon of each), and a quarter cup of fresh water. This makes a beautiful, creamy “cheese” to which fresh herbs and spices can be added to make specialty spreads, a la dill and garlic or roasted red pepper. Macadamia, if that’s more likely on the farm, will do this much the same.
To go the sweet route, something along the lines of cottage cheese or a nice mascarpone or ricotta, I prefer to use almonds. In this case, the almonds (one cup) need to be very quickly blanched, brought to a boil for about a minute, and then peeled (the papery brown skin). After that, soak the almonds in water (3 cups) for around a day. Drain the water and blend them with lemon or lime juice (3 TBSP), olive oil (3 TBSP), salt (1 tsp), and half a cup of water. Wrap it suspended in cheesecloth and refrigerate that overnight. In the morning, it’ll be crumbly cheese that works well atop fruit and jammy toast.
Otherwise, there are many decent dairy-free cheese recipes out there, but more or less, in my humble opinion, these tend to stretch the capacity of what nuts can do. They also require lots more ingredients, such as arrowroot or pectin or agar powder to thicken it. There are plenty of techniques for recreating this or that type of cheese, but for me, I’ve simply learned to appreciate nut cheeses for what they are rather than trying to make them be something else, with specific expectations. Using this approach, I’ve not yet been disappointed.
Yogurt and its probiotic cache typically plays a vital role in the modern, first-world diet, which up until recently largely lacked in fermented foods. However, fermentation is quickly becoming a retro pastime for modern-day foodies and farmers. Things like kombucha, kimchi and ginger beer are really becoming often seen treats. Even so, yogurt just works too well at breakfast to wave the whole thing goodbye, and luckily, milk isn’t the only way to get it.
Coconut, for this tropically loving grower, is the ultimate means to plant-based yogurt. Making yogurt, as it is with dairy, is a bit more complicated in that it needs to have probiotics (or coconut water kefir) and possibly another thickener (guar gum or pectin, etc.) to make it the desired consistency. Keep the coconut milk thick and fatty then combine it (approximately 2 cups) with the probiotics and let that sit in a warm place in kitchen for a day. Play with whatever thickening agent you prefer (chia and flax seeds also work) to get it right. To be more sustainable and self-sufficient, try using the previous batch of yogurt as the next probiotic starter.
Oatmeal is another base for making plant-based yogurt, and the following recipe is lifted from Graham Burnett’s The Vegan Book of Permaculture. Soak one cup of oat flour in about three cups of filtered water. Let it ferment in a warm place for about twelve hours (or overnight), after which the mixture will start to become more acidic. Taste it periodically for flavor and refrigerate the yogurt when it reaches the desired flavor. Add a little lemon or lime to taste. If this one smells too unsavory, it’s best to just start over and get your particular recipe right.
Of course, with most plant-based milks, therein lies the opportunity to add probiotics and thickeners to make some sort of yogurt-y substance, either drinkable or nice and dense. Soy milk with soy starter is one of the more commercially popular plant-based yogurts, and this is completely doable at home. This is more or less the same process as making dairy yogurt, so for those of us who have gone that route, it won’t be much of a stretch to try the plant-based versions.
And, fret not, drinking plant-based milk or nut cheese doesn’t instantly make you a vegan. In fact, it just makes you a more open-minded eater, one willing to take full advantage of the healthy options that are growing in abundance in the garden. What’s more is that whipping up the occasional coconut yogurt or rice milk might be just the thing for those dairy-lovers who are resting a cow or in between animals. It’ll fill the bill and make use of different resources, which can’t be a bad thing.