Milkadamia and Oatly were two of the plant milks tested
In the past year, you’ve probably adjusted your coffee-drinking routine. Instead of picking up a cup of coffee on your way to work, you’ve become a wizard of your home machine. Maybe you’ve even invested in new equipment or learned a few tricks about pour overs and making cold brew at home.
But how do you replicate the delicious milk-based drinks that most coffee shops are known for? And to throw in one more wrench—how do you do it with plant-based milks?
In this article, we’re going to walk you through the science of frothing plant-based milk at home and offer some tips and techniques to get silky and delicious milk for your cappuccinos and lattes. We frothed and slurped a few dozen different plant milks, talked to experts, and developed a methodology to evaluate which milk is right for you. So let’s get to it!
Espresso-based milk beverages, like lattes and cappuccinos, when prepared properly, get their distinct texture and sweetness from milk frothing, which introduces heat and air to create a pillowy and silky texture. You can simply heat milk on a stovetop or put it in the microwave—but it wont look, feel or taste the same as steamed and frothed milk; heat must be introduced in a precise manner and air must be incorporated as you heat the milk.
To understand how to froth milks – plant or dairy – you first have to understand how milk works.
Besides water—which constitutes about 85-90% of a given milk—both cow and plant milks consist of four main things: proteins, fats, sugars, and minerals. It’s the proteins and fats that have the greatest impact on steaming and frothing, so we’re gonna focus on those here (we’ll talk about minerals a little bit when we cover cleaning).
Protein is the single-most important part of steaming milk. When milk is cold, protein molecules are coiled up tightly, and as you steam and heat up the milk, those proteins begin to uncoil. Protein chains have one hydrophobic end (meaning that it does not want to interact with water) and one hydrophilic end (meaning that it wants to interact with water).
As you heat milk, the hydrophobic ends grab onto air molecules, while the hydrophilic ends grab onto water (remember that milk is mostly water). This is how foam is created.
Full fat cow milk has about 8 grams of protein per eight ounce serving, but plant milks’ protein content can range widely, which affects their ability to steam.
Fat is another important factor to consider when steaming milk. Think of foam as an emulsification, or a mixture of things whose chemical properties usually keep them separated (you’ve likely seen an emulsification when making salad dressing for example—you have to shake it to bring all the ingredients together, and over time, they pull apart). Fat is what gives texture to your drink, but too much fat can destabilize the foam. Not enough fat, however, will produce foam that feels dry and textured - not velvety and smooth.
Most baristas would consider full fat cow milk as the “default” texture for ideal steamed milk. On average, full fat cow milk is about 4% milk fat (or eight grams of fat per serving) with eight grams of protein (per serving), so use this as a baseline to determine how a given plant milk might perform when steamed (in coffee competitions, some baristas achieve even higher fat content through freeze distilling, a technique popularized and explained here by Ben Put of Monogram Coffee in Canada).
However, it’s important to note that not all fats are created equally. Many plant milks will add fat to give their milks a creamier texture, so look to the label to see what kind of fat is added to your plant milk of choice. “The type of oil in the product is important and will affect steaming performance,” says Kai Custodio, a barista at Joe Coffee Company in New York. “Plant based milk contains a lot of water compared to dairy milk … so the texture will be different. Added oils in plant based milks help to texturize plant milks. Additives and stabilizers like gellan gum also help to texturize plant milks.”
Custodio recommends giving a close look at the label. Even though the phrase “plant milk” might indicate a milk that is natural and free of additives, some plant milks might contain things you’re unsure of or uncomfortable with. “In looking for barista blend/plant based milk, looking at what are the additives/preservatives—[I] prefer working with organic ingredients,” Custodio says.
Some plant milks make a “barista” friendly edition of their beverages, which generally means the milk will foam better — and pour latte art easier. “Barista series is specifically formulated for coffee, while other oat milks work for a broader set of applications. Both are made to work in coffee without separating like other nut milks do, but barista series provides a more robust foaming experience in both commercial and personal use,” says Lindsay Selker, Channel Marketing Manager for Chobani.
She makes this distinction about their Barista Series Oat Milk versus their regular oat milk: “Compared to regular oat milk, barista series is often made with extra oats that have the same semi-sweet flavor but introduces an eloquent and velvety micro-foam to your lattes.”
There are hundreds of tools you can use at home to steam milk. Most fall under two categories: handheld frothing devices and automatic frothers. We tried one of each - an Aerolatte Milk Frother and the Bodum 1 Bistro Electric Milk Frother – so you don’t have to!.
The biggest difference between the two tools was temperature. The Bodum frother warmed milk up to an ideal drinking temperature, while the Aerolatte didn't—no matter how long we frothed and frothed and frothed. So while the Aerolatte and other handheld frothers are ideal for travel and situations where you might not have access to electricity, you can’t achieve a ton of uniformity with steaming.
For the cost of a few lattes more, go with an auto frother such as the Bodum, which can deliver consistently steamed milk at an ideal temperature, and is extraordinarily easy to use. Or if you made money betting on—I mean investing in GameStop—you can always buy one of these.
To develop a robust testing protocol that would be useful to at-home coffee drinkers, I focused on the following factors:
● Availability. Could I buy it from a local grocery store or do I need to track it down?
● Texture. What is the texture of the milk compared to full fat cow milk?
● Taste. What does the milk taste like, cold, on its own? What about when it’s steamed? How does the milk taste when steamed and combined with coffee?
For all testing, I used a Colombian coffee Ruby Coffee Roasters (full disclosure: my partner works for Ruby and was able to provide a bag specifically for testing). I picked this coffee because I thought it’d be an ideal coffee that would allow the plant milk to shine.
I added four ounces of milk to our frothing champ—the Bodum—and then added two ounces of steamed milk to four ounces of coffee.
I used a numeric scoring system (a score of 1 is undrinkable, a score of 10 is perfect) so I could keep track of each milk as I tested through all the contenders. I wanted to be able to compare the contenders and didn’t want to misremember how I felt about milk #1 when I got to milk #8. I’ve also worked with all these milks in the past so I tried to use a numeric system so I could, to the best of my ability, quell any preconceived ideas I had about each milk.
I tested eight different plant-based milks. Almond, oat, and soy milk are, in that order, the top three best selling plant milks in the United States, so I started with some of the most popular brands in each category: Silk for soy milk, Califa for almond, and Oatly and Pacific Foods for oat.
Although oat is the second-most popular plant milk, it could easily become the most popular milk in the next few years, due to its mild flavor and low environmental impact. I decided to use oat milk as the basis for our “barista series” testing, and brought in Oatly and Pacific oat milks because they produce both a regular line and a barista series line.
Lastly, I wanted a few outliers—plant milks that aren’t as common. I used Milkadamia’s macadamia nut milk, which has been on the market for years, and a newcomer to the plant milk game: Tache’s pistachio milk. Both unsweetened and non-flavored versions of each milk was used, when possible. The Results
If you go back ten years, most coffee shops only carried one plant milk: soy. And many only carried one brand: Silk.
Soy milk has been around for centuries, and is still a popular plant option, prized for its versatility and nutritional content. Out of all our contenders, it performs the most like cow milk. Like cow milk, it contains eight grams of both fat and protein.
AVAILABILITY: I’d bet that if a grocery store had any plant milk, it’d have soy (ask me again in five years—the answer might change to oat). I grabbed this from a shelf at Whole Foods, but you can order it online, along with the entire catalog of Silk products. This version is shelf-stable, and Silk makes a number of products that are refrigerated or can be stored safely at room temperature. 8/10
FIRST TASTE: Soy milk tastes like…well, soy milk. What does that mean? It’s hard to describe. “Beany” can have a negative connotation, but soy milk certainly tastes distinct. This version of soy milk was especially distinct since there’s no added sugar. However, the fat in this soy milk made it creamy and silky—I immediately thought this would be an excellent replacement in recipes that call for cow milk. 7/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: They call it the original for a reason. The soy milk foamed a lot, but it wasn’t as uniform as I’d have liked. The foam was clearly on top, with the steamed milk sitting below). The foam held up well. 8/10
TASTE, STEAMED: The flavor of soy milk mellowed out once it was steamed. It left a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it wasn’t off-putting. 7/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: The milk added no sweetness, so the bitterness of the milk and the bitterness of coffee was a bit much. That being said, this is a great option for those who don’t want any hint of sweetness in their drink. 7.5/10
OVERALL SCORE: 37.5/50. Soy milk is a classic for a reason. It’s versatile while still retaining its character, and Silk soy packs the most protein out of anything else on this list. It foams well—though imperfectly – and I might want a milk that pairs slightly better with traditional ‘coffee’ flavors, but overall I was pleased with my coffee-drinking experience.
As of this writing, almond milk is the most popular plant milk in the United States. Califia Farms is arguably one of the biggest producers of almond milk for cafe settings and they’ve recently branched out into oat and hemp milk.
On its own, almond milk can be very bitter, so most milks will have some added sugar. Califia adds five grams of sugar per serving, and also has a lower fat and protein content than cow milk (4.5 grams of fat and two grams of protein per serving).
AVAILABILITY: Califia Farms is the first brand that I could order directly online versus going to Amazon or another aggregate website. Many of the refrigerated options are available in stores nationwide and they have a store locator, but I was pleasantly surprised to find their barista series almond milk on the shelf at Whole Foods. This is the version of their milk that I’m most familiar with, so I grabbed it. 9/10
FIRST TASTE: As I mentioned above, Califia Farms sweetens their milk, so of course it tasted delicious cold, on its own. The sweetness wasn’t overpowering, and it retained some of the earthiness from the almonds. The texture was very thin—much thinner than the soy—but this would be my first pick to drink on its own, without any coffee. 7.5/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: Although this was a barista series version of this milk, it didn’t steam as well as I would have liked; it only had two grams of protein so that should have been expected. I once worked in a cafe that only used this milk in iced drinks (we used a totally separate brand for steamed drinks) and I was quickly reminded why. Although not unpleasant, I needed more foam!. 5/10
TASTE, STEAMED: Yeah, this still tasted great. What was lost in silky texture was made up for in flavor. 8/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: While I loved the flavor of this on its own, I was conflicted about its relationship to coffee. The sweetness was distinct, so this might not be the drink for you if you want your coffee to stand out. In my experience, coffee also tends to bring out the bitterness in almonds, but I’m not sure why. Overall, this tasted ok, but somewhat out of balance in my cappuccino. 6/10
OVERALL SCORE: 35.5/50. I love almond milk, but it wasn’t the greatest for steaming and had a prominent sweetness that was not present in the other milks. I’d prefer this milk for my cereal or to throw in a protein shake.
I dream of pistachio milk. For years I hoped my favorite plant milk brands would make a pistachio milk for baristas. There are other brands who have made milk with pistachios, but Táche might be the first to boast a “barista friendly” version.
When you visit the Táche website, you can tell this milk is being served and sold differently than its past plant milk predecessors. The website is beautiful and the packaging evokes an elegant tea time service rather than the utilitarian boxy feeling of other brands. Táche pistachio milk has 3.5 grams of fat, two grams of protein, and six grams of added sugar (they also make a sugar-free version).
AVAILABILITY: You can order Táche on their website. They have limited distribution across the United States. They’re primarily in independent grocery stores and small coffee shops, so you should check their store locator if you want to nab a box, but if you don’t live in a big city your best bet is to order online.
One quick note is that Táche was significantly more expensive than its competitors. This makes sense—it’s a smaller brand—but a six-pack of Califia online will set you back $24.99 while a six-pack of Táche costs almost double. 4/10
FIRST TASTE: It tasted like baklava, a Turkish dessert made with phyllo dough, honey, and sometimes pistachios. One thing that I really liked about the flavor was that it’s not trying to mimic whole milk—the flavor was incredibly strong and powerful and delicious. 9/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: I expected this milk to let me down. After disappointing results from almond milk, I expected Táche’s low protein content to affect its ability to steam. Nope—not at all. This steamed just as well as any high-protein milk and felt like drinking a cloud. 9/10
TASTE, STEAMED: Baked desserts. The sweetness was mellow and the pistachio flavor really benefits from being frothed—it took on a baked, almost caramelized flavor. I scooped a bunch of this foam and put it into a cup and ate it. That's how good it was. The only reason I didn’t give this a perfect score was because I’m not sure I could drink this every day. 9/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: Is the future of coffee shops pistachio lattes? I’m not sure yet. The flavor was really pronounced and while I loved it in the coffee I was drinking, I wasn’t sure if this could work in a more delicate coffee. The flavor was very present so maybe this would be great for someone who adores the flavor of pistachios, but perhaps this wouldn’t be an everyday option. 7/10
OVERALL SCORE: 38/50. I loved this milk, and I can’t wait for pistachio milk to show up in more coffee shops. Currently, it’s a little difficult to find and may be cost-prohibitive, but the flavor and its ability to steam made this a stand-out option.
Milkadamia has been making macadamia-based products for years—their website has a handful of macadamia-based products, like oils and “butter” spreads.
This macadamia milk has no sugar, which is in stark contrast to the other milks on this list (many have either added sugar or natural sugars from their ingredients, like oats and other grains). Macadamia milk has about the same amount of fat as dairy milk (3.5% versus 4%) but only has one gram of protein, which could make steaming difficult.
AVAILABILITY: This milk is shelf-stable and does not require refrigeration until you open. You can order this milk online, but it’s kind of a roll of the dice if you could find this at your local grocery store. Milkadamia is a national brand, and they have a location tracker so you can see what grocery stores carry their products, so I typed in my zip code in Chicago and got a good handful of results—mostly Whole Foods and Jewel-Osco, which is our main local grocery store.
I then typed in my childhood zip code in Miami, Florida, and got similar results—Whole Foods and Publix. So you probably couldn’t pick it up from a small retailer on a quick trip but if you go to a recognizable grocery chain you’re likely to find Milkadamia milk. 8/10
FIRST TASTE: For the fact that this milk has no sugar, it tasted pleasantly—and surprisingly— sweet. Macadamia nuts on their own have some inherent sweetness, so this could be a good option for someone considering a plant milk with no sugar to add to their coffee. 7/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: This milk does not have a lot of protein, and it showed—there was virtually no foam in the milk frother after heating. Milkadamia does make a barista series version of their milk, which I have to imagine foams better, but it also has a very low protein content, so I’m not sure how they’d change the formula to make it steam better. This milk was naturally thicker than some of the other milks, so that helped carry through some of the texture. 3/10
TASTE, STEAMED: Because the milk didn’t foam, the steamed milk tasted similarly to when it was cold. 7/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: Milkadamia was distinct enough to feel like I was drinking something special, yet mild enough to not overpower the coffee. I definitely missed the foam, but the slight sweetness and natural texture of the milk complements the milk beautifully. 7/10
OVERALL SCORE: 31/50. I think this would be a better option if you wanted to add a cold plant milk directly to coffee. I wouldn’t want to steam this again, but I wouldn’t mind throwing a splash into my cup.
THE BARISTA SERIES OAT MILK SHOWDOWN
It’s impossible to deny the ubiquity of oat milk. Almost every coffee shop carries the popular plant milk—Onyx Coffee’s Momentary shop exclusively carries oat milk. Oat milk has crossed into mainstream culture and is a favorite both of baristas and consumers alike. Because oat milk is so popular right now, we decided to pick two of the most sought-after brands and see which one is the best, once and for all.
We also used this testing as a way to compare the difference between barista and non-barista series milks. Both Oatly and Pacific add fat to their barista series milks, but Pacific also adds protein, which will make for some interesting steaming and comparison!
When you think of oat milk, you likely think of Oatly. The Swedish company has been around for decades, but in the last five years, Oatly has experienced a surge in demand in the United States, and is now served at Starbucks stores nationwide.
One of the reasons oat milk is so popular is that it has a low allergen content—there are no nuts – and some oat milks are gluten free (including Oatly). Oatly makes a few versions of its signature oat milk, but the original has five grams of fat, three of protein, and seven of sugar.
AVAILABILITY: I’m only mildly kidding when I say this is available everywhere. Oatly has become so dominant in this field that you can ask for Oatly by name. You can order Oatly online or find it in most grocery and big box stores. Original Oatly is found in the refrigerated section of the store. 9/10
FIRST TASTE: I think what makes oat milk so popular is how mild the flavor is. More than any of the milks tasted, oat milk was the closest in flavor to cow’s milk. The flavor was mildly sweet and felt viscous like cow milk. It was still unique with a “cereal,” grain-like quality to it. 8/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: I wasn’t sure how this would steam but it ended up frothing beautifully. I think I might wanted a little more texture, but since this wasn’t the barista version of their milk – which is also easy to find - I wasn’t too upset. 7/10
TASTE, STEAMED: Mild, sweet, and silky! There’s something really exciting about a milk that can take on the “roasty” flavors of an ingredient when it’s steamed, and this felt like it had a bit of that roasted oat flavor—almost like what happens to oats when they’re baked in oatmeal cookies. 8/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: This was slightly thinner than I’d like, but definitely one of the best performing milks I tried. The flavor of the coffee shone through and the sweetness from the milk complimented the beverage. 7/10
OVERALL SCORE: 39/50. What’s not to like? Oatly has really found the balance between crafting a plant milk that is both mild and unique. You know you’re tasting oats, but if you close your eyes for a minute you might imagine drinking cow’s milk. A great option for those looking for a replacement for cow milk.
Pacific makes a number of things you’ve likely enjoyed, like soups and broths. Pacific is also one of the leaders in plant milk, making everything from soy to hemp to coconut milk.
Pacific’s oat milk is shelf stable, and I initially didn’t consider its “organic” designation until I read a review of another oat milk admonishing it for not offering an organic option. Pacific’s oat milk did have more sugar than anything else we tested—37 grams—along with two grams of fat and four grams of protein.
AVAILABILITY: You can’t order this on the Pacific website, but Pacific is such a huge company that most of its products are available in all major grocery and big box stores. 7/10
FIRST TASTE: This was definitely sweeter than anything else tested. It was creamy and lovely, but it might be too sweet for some. I’d grab this if I was replacing milk in a sweet dessert, but it might be too much in a savory application. Pacific does make a reduced-sugar version of their oat milk (three grams) for those looking to cut back. 6/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: As expected, the foam was pleasant and luscious, but a touch thinner than I’d like. The low-fat content meant it didn’t have the same creaminess as a higher-fat milk. 6/10
TASTE, STEAMED: I have to say I’m a big fan of steamed oat milk, especially this one. The sugars tasted like they had been slightly caramelized—sort of like milk that had been sitting in a bowl of cereal. 8/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: Coffee and sweetness will never go out of style. While this oat milk complimented the coffee beautifully, I found myself wanting to hold back on how much milk I added to my coffee. 7/10
OVERALL SCORE: 34/50. I might have liked the reduced-sugar option slightly more, and the lower fat content meant that the milk didn’t quite steam as much as I wanted. But there’s a big difference between the Pacific regular oat milk and its barista series counterpart, so I was excited to see how that performs.
The biggest differences in Oatly’s barista edition milk is the amount of fat in the drink. Oatly’s barista edition has seven grams of fat versus the original’s five grams—the sugar and protein content are exactly the same. Besides the fact that it is also shelf-stable, there’s not a ton of perceptible differences.
AVAILABILITY: I was not expecting barista edition versions of drinks to be as easy to find as they are. However, Oatly is so popular that it’s not uncommon for it to be sold out in stores—the barista edition is currently sold out on its website. I was able to find Oatly at my local grocery store pretty easily, but I’m not sure if that was luck. When it is in stock, you can find Oatly barista edition at most national chains and big box stores. 8.5/10
FIRST TASTE: This milk was slightly more textured than its regular counterpart, but they tasted remarkably similar. There was a grainy, cereal-like quality that I liked, that still felt mild—this won’t overwhelm your palate. 8/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: This milk steamed like a dream. Although I didn’t find it to be wholly different than its regular counterpart, Oatly’s barista edition did a fantastic job mimicking what I’d expect to get in a coffee shop. 8/10
TASTE, STEAMED: Again, I didn’t necessarily taste a huge difference between Oatly’s regular oat milk and the barista edition, but that was a good thing. This milk would also be great in an iced coffee beverage. 8/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: Say what you want about oat milk and hype, but oat milk pairs beautifully with coffee. The foam held up well and contributed a nice, subtle sweetness that didn’t mask the flavor of the coffee. 8.5/10
OVERALL SCORE: 41/50. I favored Oatly’s barista edition because the foam was more substantial. This tasted pretty similar to Oatly’s regular oat milk, but add in the benefit of textured milk and you truly have something worth staying home for.
Was the barista series line of milks even a thing until Pacific? I’m not sure, but Pacific was certainly one of the earliest pioneers of designing milks meant to be steamed in coffee shops.
Pacific’s Barista Series Oat Milk is very different from its traditional line. There’s more fat (eight grams) and there’s much less sugar (three grams). Although the protein content is the same, additional fat is sure to make this milk creamier and the reduced sugar will help it pair well with coffee.
AVAILABILITY: I fully expected to have to track this milk down, and I almost limited my testing of barista series milks to just Oatly before I spied this at the grocery store. I’m not 100% sure if barista series versions of Pacific milks are as easily available as their conventional counterparts—their search function would only let me look for the latter. That being said, this was right next to its conventional counterpart on the shelf. 7/10
FIRST TASTE: It’s funny how a few grams of sugar can make a huge difference. This milk was not as sweet as Oatly’s barista edition, but still felt balanced and silky. 8.5/10
TEXTURE, STEAMED: A dream to steam. The milk was pillowy and fluffy and came out of the frother uniform in texture. The added fat made this foam silky and drinking it in coffee felt like a treat. 8/10
TASTE, STEAMED: The flavor of this milk was subtle. I got a bit of sweetness at the end, but it didn’t knock me over the head. 8.5/10
TASTE WITH COFFEE: When I think of a milk that’ll pair well with espresso, this is the milk I want. The touch of sweetness balanced out any lingering bitterness in the coffee and married together in harmony. 9/10
OVERALL SCORE: 41/50. I wasn’t surprised that Oatly and Pacific’s barista series milks performed similarly (I’ve drank a lot of both). I think I prefer the taste of Oatly more, but preferred the Pacific milk when steamed. If I could live in a perfect world ruled by plant milks, I’d use Oatly for cold drinks and splashes of milk added to drip coffee and Pacific for lattes and cappuccinos.
Any piece of equipment that touches milk must be cleaned so that leftover residue doesn’t build up. It’s good to have a cleaning regimen in place after you use anything that interacts with milk.
For the most part, cleaning items that interact with plant milk is the same as cleaning an item that touches dairy milk. The biggest difference is the presence of inorganic compounds. Dairy milk is a mixture of organic (once alive) and inorganic material (never alive). For example, dairy milk has both animal fat and calcium—the former is organic and the latter is inorganic.
Organic material can only be removed with an alkaline-based cleaner (pH above 7), while inorganic material can only be removed with an acid-based cleaner (pH below 7). Dairy milk needs both, and Urnex makes both alkaline- and acid-based cleaners . We recommend for every four alkaline cleaning cycles to do one cleaning with an acid-based cleaner.
Plant milk, on the other hand, is made up of and can be simply cleaned off a steam wand or piece of equipment with an alkaline-based cleaner. Urnex makes a number of alkaline-based cleaners that are specifically designed for milk—both dairy and plant-based.
Tips for selecting a plant milk
I strongly encourage you to test out a few milks and see what milk you enjoy steaming. I was surprised by much of what I experienced during my testing - truly, as much as I’ve pined for pistachio milk I never thought it could steam so perfectly). If you’re at the grocery store and unsure what milk you should pick, here are a few tips:
Check out the nutritional content and pay special attention to the protein and fat contents—they’ll tell you a lot about how a milk will steam
If you can, pick the barista series version of a milk because they’re designed to steam well
Decide what you want from a milk: do you want it to replicate cow milk or do you want to taste the unique flavor of the plant milk?
Everyone’s palate is different, so the best plant milk for frothing is the milk you love best! Let us know what your favorite milk is to steam!
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