Two summers ago, a friend and I met for coffee and ice cream. She got a scoop of vegan chocolate mint chip — and a whole-milk cappuccino.
I just like the vegan version better, she explained, offering me a bite.
Whether or not the vegan chocolate mint chip was better than its dairy iteration is debatable. But what was clear was that it was absolutely delicious: silky, creamy and very smooth. And totally superior to the chalky, soy-based Tofutti Cuties my lactose-avoiding friends got stuck with at the end of every summer barbecue, for lack of a better option.
Happily, this is no longer the case. The past few years have been a glorious time for vegans and others who stay forgo dairy.
And as the demand for nondairy explodes, so does the number of products on the market, including a slew of brand-new nondairy ice creams, yogurts and cheeses, along with the various nut and plant milks used to make them. And even better, many of these new products actually taste great, which is a boon whether you strictly avoid dairy at all costs, or just want to expand your creamy horizons.
Mark Van Buskirk, group vice president for grocery merchandising at Albertsons Companies, which operates the Safeway supermarket chain, among others, said that sales of all nondairy products had been steadily increasing over the past two years, with packaged nondairy ice cream leading the way (up by 50 percent over the last 12 months).
Mr. Van Buskirk sees this trend continuing, keeping in step with the decline in sales of traditional dairy products.
“The growth in nut milks in particular has been exponential compared to regular dairy,” he said, adding that soy milk sales are decreasing as those of nut and other plant milks rise.
For home cooks, this is promising territory, a rich if head-spinning new world of ingredients to experiment with.
Supermarket shelves are now filled with quarts of plant-based milks. Cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, oat, flax, rice, quinoa and hemp varieties have joined the ranks of coconut, soy and almond milks. On a trip to France this summer, I even sampled chestnut milk, and I am still kicking myself for not buying an extra suitcase to haul home containers of the sweet, gentle elixir.
But with so many options, which plant-based milk, or combination of milks, makes the best homemade nondairy ice cream?
A few years ago, I experimented with ratios of cream, milk and eggs to create a master recipe for a custard ice cream base. So it seemed only natural that I give nondairy ice cream the same thorough treatment, creating an adaptable base, along with a grid of different ways to flavor it. (You can read more about in this guide to making ice cream.)
But even before I began my testing, I had some experience making nondairy ice creams, most of them relying on readily available, relatively inexpensive coconut milk. With its high fat content and creamy texture, coconut milk (or, better still, coconut cream) is a great substitute for dairy. The downside is that the coconut milk has a pronounced coconut flavor, even when it is blended with intense ingredients like chocolate, peanut butter or raspberry.
If you don’t mind the flavor, coconut cream is a great way to go. GoodPop, a company in Austin, Tex., producing both dairy and nondairy ice cream pops, uses coconut milk and cream in all its bases.
Daniel Goetz, the company’s founder, turned to coconut after rejecting soy milk because of problems finding a reliable organic, fair-trade supply, and concerns about genetically modified soy beans. Finding what he called a “clean and honest” supply of organic, fair-trade coconut milk was easier than doing the same for soy or many nut milks.
He makes sure all his creamy nondairy creations work well with coconut, looking to flavors like lime and orange. His hugely popular frozen orange coconut cream pop is as beloved by “people who have never even heard of veganism as it is by vegans,” he said.
Mr. Goetz advises home cooks looking to make nondairy ice cream out of coconut milk to add vanilla and sea salt.
“They help tame the coconut flavor,” he said.
But another technique to mellow the flavor of coconut milk or cream is to combine it with a different nondairy milk. I ended up doing just that in my master recipe for a nondairy base. After testing all the available milk options, I concluded that hemp and cashew milk make the best partners for the coconut. Mildly flavored and very creamy, hemp and cashew milks are relatively easy to find at health food stores and supermarkets. Use either in combination with the coconut milk.
I slightly preferred the hemp milk to the cashew milk because it is just a bit richer, and ended up dismissing almond, rice, quinoa, flax and oat milks, which I did not find rich enough, and macadamia, because its flavor was too intense. But play around with the base, and customize it to your taste.
“I’ve been chasing vegan ice cream for years,” he said, “and they are really hard to do well.”
For a while, he was making his own Brazil nut milk to use as the base. But when that became prohibitively expensive, he switched to a combination of coconut, hemp and almond milks.
“The hemp milk gets the coconut flavor to relax,” he said. “It’s rich enough to feel really creamy, but neutral enough not to interfere with any ingredients you want to add.”
He’s used the coconut-hemp-almond mixture as a base for mint chip, coffee and various chocolate nondairy ice creams, and he is constantly coming up with new flavors to meet increasing demand.
Using high-fat, plant-based milks is one way to achieve creaminess in a nondairy ice cream. But stirring in a liquid sugar (often in addition to regular cane sugar) improves the texture and helps keep ice crystals at bay.
Mr. Morgenstern suggests that home cooks substitute agave syrup or honey for some of the regular sugar in their nondairy ice cream bases. But, he advises, these bold-tasting sweeteners should match the flavors they’re churning. (For example, he makes a banana-agave.)
His tip: Simmer honey until it caramelizes, then add that to the base. “Caramelizing the honey condenses its richness, and makes the ice cream even silkier,” he said.
One thing he’s noticed in terms of his nondairy offerings is that they are just as popular with those who love dairy as they are with those who avoid it at all costs. This is a complete turnaround from a few years ago, when dairy eaters routinely eschewed vegan offerings, assuming they couldn’t possibly taste as good as regular, butterfat-rich ice cream.
“These days, people don’t care whether it’s vegan or not,” Mr. Morgenstern said. “They are attracted to the flavor profile. Then when they taste it, they see that it can be just as good, or maybe even better than regular ice cream.”