I am lactose intolerant, and I’ve come to love almond milk in my coffee. Will it work as a milk replacement in desserts?
Almond milk is made by first soaking raw almonds in water to soften the nuts (anywhere from 4 hours to overnight). The nuts are then drained and pulverized with fresh water to make a paste. The mixture is strained to remove any unground almond bits. Some commercial almond milks add sweeteners like evaporated cane juice to balance flavor, plus stabilizers and thickeners like carrageenan and lecithin to adjust the texture and help keep the particles and proteins in suspension for a smoother and more homogenized liquid.
Since not all dairy substitutes work equally well in cooked applications, we decided to try almond milk in three different desserts: white layer cake, crème anglaise (a light custard), and rice pudding. We did our testing with unflavored almond milk so as not to introduce additional sweetness or unexpected flavors to the recipes.
Both milks performed well in the white cake, which called for a full cup. Tasters couldn’t detect any difference in flavor, although the cake made with almond milk was slightly drier and more crumbly than the dairy milk version (according to our science editor, this is likely due to almond milk’s lower fat content: 2.5 grams per cup versus 8 grams per cup of whole milk). In both cases, the textures of the cakes were still deemed acceptable.
We noticed a greater difference between the milks in tests with rice pudding and crème anglaise, where the flavors and textures of the milks were more apparent. In the rice pudding, which uses 6 cups of milk, it was easy to tell which sample used almond milk; its beige color was a clear giveaway, and some tasters noticed a “savory flavor” that was off-putting (other tasters liked the faint, sweet almond flavor). The thickeners in the almond milk also caused the pudding to take on a thick, dense texture that one taster deemed “gloppy.”
The crème anglaise was a closer contest: The flavors were similar, although the vanilla flavor came through more in the cow’s-milk version and some tasters detected a “chalky” texture in the almond milk custard. Once again, the almond milk version was thicker (if not richer-tasting) than the cow’s-milk custard.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Reach for unflavored almond milk for a decent milk substitute in baked goods, but think twice before using it in custard sauces and puddings—almond milk lovers may be satisfied with the results, but you won’t be fooling anyone.