There was a time when ditching cow's milk meant one thing – soy. Today, the non-dairy milk counter is saturated with options – almond milk, oat milk and rice milk, to name a few – and they are no longer the preserve of vegans and the lactose intolerant.
Raymond Blanc can't get enough of them. At his Michelin-starred restaurant and cookery school, Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, he uses rice milk in chocolate ganache ("it's much lighter on the palate with a more intense chocolate flavour"), he often calls on almond milk for panna cotta paired with cherries, or for crème brulée ("the sweetness of the milk works perfectly in many deserts") and oat milk is always an option when smoothies are being made ("it's light in texture and mild in flavour").
"We look for variety in most ingredients – why should milk be any different?" he says, incredulous that supermarkets have taken so long to catch on.
"And because milk is such a staple in cooking, it stands to reason that these varieties have a significant culinary influence."
But although Blanc whips up an exotic fruit gratin with guava sabayon to prove his point (and it's true that the sweetness of the coconut milk tastes fantastic against the lime syrup), it is his pumpkin soup made with oat milk, which he recently showed me how to make in his cookery school, that really hit the spot for me, not least because the combination is less predictable.
Anyone perusing the supermarket shelves should not be put off by the term "drink" instead of "milk" (only dairy milk manufacturers are legally allowed to claim the term "milk") but they should be put off by the high sugar content in some of these cartons. "People can perceive these milk alternatives to be healthier than they really are, so always check the labels," warns Blanc. The difference between Blanc's almond milk and the bought version is astonishing.
His home-made version has a smooth, creamy texture (think whole cow's milk) and a distinct but mild almond flavour, while the bought one is thinner and much more sugary, albeit still nicely nutty.
Rice milk, which is created from partially milled rice and water, can be particularly disappointing when bought in carton form – watery yet sickly, not a winning combination. That said, carton forms can also be refreshingly sweet and a great alternative for those who find almond milk too creamy.
Fortunately, it's easier than you think to make your own – Google will point you in the direction of two- or three-step processes for most types of milk. For almond milk, for example, you simply soak raw almonds overnight then combine them with water in a blender. Meanwhile, for something a little more adventurous – say, pecan milk, which is great over cereal – you mix half a cup of nuts, a cup of water, a pitted date and a pinch of salt – then pass it through a nut milk bag once or twice.
For Nick Bernard, founder of natural foods company Rude Health, it's raw milk that deserves the most attention. Until recently, it was only available in farmers' markets, then Selfridges Food Hall started selling it, though they have had to remove it temporarily while the Food Standards agency investigates whether it's legal to have it on sale there.
"Yes, it's traditional in that it's dairy, but this milk is a world away from what you'll pick up at the supermarket, even organic versions," Bernard says. "I regularly do blind tastings and it's the raw milk – that is, milk that hasn't been blended, homogenised, pasteurised, standardised and basically demonised – that wins hands down every time. People can't get over what a wonderful, richly differentiated product it is. In my opinion, it's like the difference between blended whisky and single malt. And milk varies throughout the seasons. You miss that if you process it."
Anyone with ambitions around cooking with milk will need to experiment, but prepare for some bad flavour mismatches along the way – this aspect of the culinary world is not as instinctive as you might think. If mashed potatoes made with virgin olive oil and soy milk sounds like it could work, think again – my version was sweet and slightly metallic, while my potato and leek soup made with almond milk tasted like I'd scraped my tongue along the bottom of a dirt track. Probably the best advice, says Blanc, is to get used to the milks in their neat form – cow's, goat's, soy, rice, almond and oat and so on – before attempting to be brave.
There is also – as I have since learned – a basic set of cooking pros and cons for each milk. Rice milk, for instance, is heat stable, but its overtones of sweetness make it unsuitable for savoury sauces and soups. Stick to cakes, pancakes and sweet deserts and you can't go too far wrong. Meanwhile, almond milk's sweetness also lends itself to sweet dishes and some soups, although, as I discovered, it can taste "off" or dusty in some savoury foods. The more neutral, slightly bitter flavour of oat milk opens up endless possibilities, however – cereals, pancakes, soups, curries and baking. "It's like potatoes or apples," says Blanc. "Certain types lend themselves to certain dishes."
For those that find themselves geeking out on milk and its possibilities, the good news is there's a world of them out there – sunflower milk, hemp milk and flaxseed milk among them.
But – and this is crucial – never, ever let them anywhere near a cup of tea or coffee.