My husband and I often go out for morning coffee. When I order, I specify “with room for coconut milk.” Most coffee shops offer a non-dairy option these days, and almost any grocery store will carry at least a few plant milks. On a recent visit to Whole Foods Co-op, we counted more than a dozen distinct types of plant-based milk for sale.

If you’re a little confused by all these choices, here’s a Q&A to get you oriented. And if you’re already a plant milk fan and have been wondering, “Could I make my own?” — read on!

Q: What is plant milk?

A: It’s the healthful oils and endosperm from nuts, seeds, legumes or grains mixed with water. Common commercial varieties include almond, coconut, flax, oat, pea, rice and soy. They may be sweetened or unsweetened, flavored or plain. The nutritional profile varies somewhat from one variety to another, but most are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals. Each type has its own flavor and texture, so experiment to find out what you like.

Q: Is this something new?

A: The rise of plant milks in the market may be new, but the history of making milk from nuts, soy beans and grains is ancient and multicultural. In "1491," Charles C. Mann writes about the indigenous use of hickory milk: “Rambling through the Southeast in the 1770s, the naturalist William Bartram observed Creek families storing a hundred bushels of hickory nuts at a time. They pound them into pieces and then cast them into boiling water, which, after passing through fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid’ to make a thick milk, as sweet and rich as fresh cream, an ingredient in most of their cookery. Years ago a friend and I were served hickory milk in rural Georgia by an eccentric backwoods artist. … The milk was ambrosial — fragrantly nutty, delightfully heavy on the tongue, unlike anything I had encountered before.”

Q: Why are so many people switching to plant milk?

A: Until recently, most Americans who used plant milks did so because they were lactose-intolerant. Now, however, there are often other factors in play.

Many people, including me, just feel better without cow’s milk. Dairy may have an inflammatory effect on the body, and some people with joint pain or skin problems find relief by going dairy-free. I used to drink a lot of milk, and I had frequent, painful sinus infections and uncomfortable seasonal allergies. Since I stopped using dairy several years ago, I haven’t had a single sinus infection, and my allergies have virtually disappeared.

Another concern is the connection between dairy and weight gain. This is no surprise — growth is the mission for which nature created milk! Human milk grows human babies into healthy human toddlers, and cow’s milk is perfectly suited to grow a calf from 80 pounds to 300 pounds in just 90 days.

For me, there is also an emotional aspect to cow’s milk that touched my heart when I was a nursing mother. Mammal milk is literally made for babies. Cows produce milk only as a result of having calved, but those calves don’t stick around for long, at least not in large-scale dairies.

Q: Can I make my own plant milk?

A: Yes! According to Vegetarian Times, “Almonds, cashews, macadamias, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, coconuts, soybeans, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, sacha inchi seeds, flaxseeds, quinoa, millet, rice and oats can all be liquefied into delicious milks.”

The basic procedure is: 1) Soak, drain and rinse the nuts, grains or seeds. 2) Blend with water and a pinch of salt in a high-speed mixer — a ratio of 2 or 3 cups water to one cup soaked nuts etc. 3) Strain the blended mixture through a nutmilk bag, although if you’re using the milk for baking or in a smoothie, you can leave it unstrained. 4) Add vanilla and/or sweetener if desired. 5) Refrigerate and use within three days. The milk will separate as it sits in the fridge; just stir it up when you use it.

A nutmilk bag, by the way, is a useful and inexpensive item. I bought one for less than $3 at Whole Foods Co-op. If you strain your milk, you may wonder whether you can do anything useful with the leftovers besides adding them to your compost. Yes, the pulp contains fiber and protein but very little fat and can be added to oatmeal or baked goods. I read that it can even be used as a face and body scrub, so I tried using my leftover coconut pulp as a facial. It was a little messy, but it left my skin feeling very soft.

An advantage to making your own plant milk, besides the freshness and complete control of the ingredients, is that you can make just a small amount at a time, so you don’t end up wasting half a gallon of milk if you need only a cup.

I asked members of The Vegan Cookbook Club if they make their own plant milk and, not surprisingly, several do and were happy to share their recipes. I have kitchen-tested every one of these, and they are all delicious!

Freshly made cashew milk is thick and creamy — delicious over granola. (Emma Ambrosi / For the News Tribune)
Freshly made cashew milk is thick and creamy — delicious over granola. (Emma Ambrosi / For the News Tribune)

Cindy Watson’s Oat Milk

Cindy notes that this milk is very economical and you can cook and eat the oats after squeezing out the milk.

1 cup steel cut oats

3 cups fresh water

Pinch of sea salt

Soak the oats in water overnight, then drain. Puree with 3 cups water and a pinch of salt until smooth. Strain through a nutmilk bag. Add sweetener if desired.

Sue Baker’s Quick Almond Milk

You can make your own almond butter, or use store bought.

1-2 tablespoons almond butter

1 cup water

Sue makes her own almond butter by blending soaked, drained almonds with a little water and a dash of almond extract. To make almond milk, Sue says “put 1-2 tablespoons of almond butter in a Mason jar with a cup of water, screw on the lid, and shake like crazy! You could do it in a blender, but I’m a shaker girl — a little arm exercise never hurt!”

Lorna Voit’s Almond Milk

“The flavor is superior, but will only last about four days in the refrigerator.” — Lorna

1 cup organic almonds

4 cups water

Soak in saltwater 4 hours or overnight (“The salt water removes phytic acid and enhances the flavor of the milk," Lorna said.) Drain and rinse almonds and process the almonds in a high-speed blender with four cups of purified water until white. Squeeze through a nutmilk bag.

Jim Naus’ Sprouted Almond Milk

“Quite a process, but so fresh and delicious.” — Jim

½ cup organic almonds

Soak almonds in warm water 1-2 hours, then rinse until water is clear. Soak 6-8 hours more, rinse again, add fresh water and let the almonds rest at room temperature for another 8 hours to one day. Some will sprout. Do not discard the sprouted almonds! Jim writes, “We are learning more about the enzyme inhibitors that are naturally on the seeds. By sprouting before eating, you go from eating a seed to eating a plant. The nutrient-dense seed begins its natural growth process by releasing its life force.” Rinse the almonds and slip off the skins. (Bonnie’s note: slipping the skins off a bowlful of soaked almonds is a meditative task, not to be undertaken when you are in a hurry.) Blend the almonds without water first, then add small amounts of water up to 1½ cups. Use as is or strain through a nutmilk bag and sweeten with maple syrup and vanilla.

Cashew Milk

My personal favorite. Cashews are naturally soft and blend easily into a neutral-flavored milk.

1 cup raw cashews

2 cups fresh water

⅛ teaspoon salt

Soak cashews in water overnight, then drain and rinse. Blend with fresh water and salt until smooth. Straining is optional.

Coconut Milk

This milk requires no soaking, and the coconut oils make it very creamy.

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

2 cups water

⅛ tsp salt

Combine coconut, water and salt in a high-speed blender and process until smooth. Strain through a nutmilk bag and add optional flavors or sweeteners.

Banana Milk

From Sam Turnbull, ItDoesn’tTasteLikeChicken.com

This is amazing over cereal!

1 banana (the riper it is, the sweeter the milk will be)

1 cup water

Optional add-ins:

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

Process all ingredients in a blender. No need to strain.

Did you know?

According to PlanetVision.com, it takes 10 gallons of water to produce one cup of almond milk versus 64 gallons of water for a cup of cow’s milk. Although data vary for the many different types of plant milk available, PlanetVision says, “The big picture is plant-based milks will almost always have less environmental impact than cow’s milk.”

Bonnie Ambrosi lives in Duluth and is an organizer of The Vegan Cookbook Club, which meets at 11:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Mount Royal Branch Library. Contact Ambrosi at bonnieambrosi@gmail.com.

This article has been updated to clarify the recipe's directions for Lorna Voit's Almond Milk.