Here’s one thing that’s a lot harder to find in stores these days: alternative milks. Sales of oat milk, for example, recently jumped more than 350 percent as coffee shop regulars, cut off from their baristas, started making their brews at home.
Here’s the good news: You don’t need the grocery store milks. I’ve been experimenting around the pantry during quarantine, and one happy discovery I’ve made is that plant-based milks like soy, almond or oat milk are easy to make. And, they can help you cut down your personal carbon footprint.
The production of dairy products — including milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt — accounts for almost 4 percent of planet-warming emissions, worldwide each year. Soy, almond and oat milks have a far lower carbon footprint overall than cow’s milk, and use less water. (Yes, even almond milk, which has gotten a lot of bad press during California’s droughts.)
“As consumers, we should be able to tell which milks are more and less sustainable so we can make informed choices,” said Joseph Poore, a researcher at the School of Geography and Environment at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
If you do want to dabble in alternative milk-making at home, follow this guide. They’re all pretty much made the same way, and don’t require any fancy equipment.
First, soak a cup of soy, almonds or oats in plenty of water overnight. Soy, especially, will grow two or three times in volume, so make sure you do this in a big bowl.
In the morning, use a colander to drain the water, and rinse the soy, almonds or oats. This is especially important if you’re using oats, to prevent the milk from getting slimy and glutinous.
Then put your soy, almond or oats in a blender, together with three cups of water, and blend for about two minutes. Thorough blending will maximize how much milk you can squeeze out. (You can experiment with the amount of water: I’ve made oat milk with both 1.5 cups and 3 cups of water. The cup-and-a-half version is far richer and tastier and probably better if you’re adding it to coffee — but it’s gone very quickly.)
Next, pour out the mixture into a clean cheesecloth — a dedicated “nut milk bag” makes this part really easy, and prevents any spills — and squeeze out the milk. And I mean squeeze and squeeze, until you get the last drops out.
Then, if you’re using soy or almonds, gently heat the milk, but stop before it reaches a boil. That’s common practice in Japan, because people there tend not to eat raw nuts. But I wouldn’t heat the oat milk, which can easily get slimy.
You can add a little sugar or maple syrup to any of the milks, to taste. It should keep in the fridge, covered, for about five days.
You’ll have some pulp left over when you’re done. I use it for baking. I’ve been making these vegan soy doughnuts (though in muffin form, because I don’t have a doughnut pan) and they’ve been wonderful. When I was growing up in Japan, my mother also used to fry up soy pulp, which we call okara, with vegetables. It was delicious.
A couple of notes on the environmental footprint of alternative milks: Soy cultivation, especially, is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest, and a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. But the bulk of that Amazon soy is exported to Asia and Europe as livestock feed, adding to the footprint of animal products.
And, yes, you will use water to make the milk, shifting the water and emissions associated with producing it from a factory to your home, possibly with some economies-of-scale losses.
The last thing to remember: Dairy contains nutrients, like calcium and protein, that are important for bone and muscle health. So take a look at your overall diet if you are going to limit or avoid dairy, to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients from other foods.