Oat milk sales are skyrocketing. With so many products on the market, which one is the best?
Published June 28, 2021. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 23: Scandinavian Brunch
Twenty years ago, dairy-free milks were relegated to natural foods stores, but today they’re mainstream. Oat milk is one of the fastest growing nondairy milks, according to data from SPINS, a wellness-focused market research company. Its popularity is due to several factors. First, it has a naturally sweet and nutty flavor. Second, it’s a welcome alternative to other dairy-free milks for people with tree nut or soy allergies. Finally, it makes less of an environmental impact to produce than many other milks, and it requires significantly less water to produce than cow’s milk and almond milk do, according to BBC News.
Oat milks come in different styles: original, extra-creamy, low-fat, unsweetened, and "barista" blends intended for whipping into foam for lattes or cappuccinos. We chose six nationally available brands of oat milk, narrowing down the lineup to original styles that don't list sugar as an ingredient (but that doesn't mean they're sugar-free—more on that later). We tasted the mix of refrigerated and shelf-stable products plain and then in coffee.
Oat milk is simple to make at home—just process a mixture of oats, water, and salt in a blender and strain it. However, homemade oat milk lasts for only several days in the refrigerator, and consumers appreciate the convenience of buying commercially made oat milks. The process of making oat milk on an industrial scale is more complicated, and most of the company representatives we spoke with declined to reveal the specifics of their processes. But by examining the labels of the products we tasted, we were able to draw some conclusions about general similarities across brands. Enzymes are typically added to the oat-water mixture to break down some of the oats' starch into sugar, and the mixture is usually strained to remove oat bran and other oat solids. Many manufacturers also add nutrients such as calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12 to mimic the vitamins found in or added to cow’s milk; salt is also added. Some manufacturers add gums, oils, and emulsifiers to give the milks body, make them smooth, and prevent separation. All the manufacturers use ultra-high temperature (UHT) processing to pasteurize their oat milks; this process heats the milks to 280 degrees for just a few seconds to kill off potentially harmful bacteria.
Some of the oat milks we tasted were thin (think skim milk), while others were more viscous (think whole milk). We had a slight preference for the thicker oat milks; additives such as oil and phosphates and thickening agents such as gellan gum gave them both body and richne...
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Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.