I tried to go all-in on oat milk last month and this is what happened
After tasting, baking and even making the buzziest of all 'mylks,' I have thoughts
Walk down any grocery aisle and you'll see shelves stocked with dairy milk substitutes, or mylks, ranging from soy and almond varieties to newer options like pea, cashew and macadamia.
Be it for health, dietary intolerances or restrictions, ethical or environmental reasons, or simply due to flavour preference, more and more people are choosing plant-based milk alternatives over cow's milk. And it seems they've even made a dent in the dairy industry. According to a report from Statistics Canada, there has been an overall decline in Canadian dairy milk consumption since 2009, and this is likely due, at least in part, to the availability of more non-dairy alternatives and the growing consumer perception that these products are a "healthier" option than dairy milk.
The latest mylk in the mix is causing a stir with its popularity, showing up almost at once in the refrigerated section, in Tetra Paks on shelves, and scrawled big and bold in chalk as an option on café blackboards: oat milk.
What is oat milk?
Nut-, lactose-, soy- and gluten-free (though note that some brands of oats are produced in facilities where cross-contamination with grain can happen, so be sure to check the packaging), homemade oat milk is made from oats and water; commercial varieties might also contain ingredients like canola or rapeseed oil and a range of food additives, and come in flavours like vanilla or chocolate.
Commercial oat milk was first developed in Sweden in the 1990s by Rickard Öste, a food science professor at Lund University who went on to create oat drink company Oatly. Unlike traditional oat milk, which is made by soaking oats in water before blending the mixture and straining it for the liquid milk, Oatly developed an industrial process that breaks oat starches down with enzymes and then separates the bran from the oats, retaining their macronutrients and improving the milk's texture.
Commercial oat milk became popular quickly in Europe, before reaching America a few years ago. The demand has been so great that there's even an ongoing oat milk shortage.
Why is it so hot?
Of course, oat-based beverages don't only appeal to vegans or those who are lactose-intolerant; their milk-like consistency gives anyone a new way to enjoy their usual milk rituals. Some enjoy oat milk for the fact that it tends to contain fewer ingredients than other commercially available mylks or for environmental reasons, given that it's arguably more sustainable than other non-dairy beverages (oats requiring more than six times less water to grow, on average, than almonds or cashews, according to the Water Footprint Network).
In terms of nutrition, a cup of store-bought oat milk typically boasts little saturated fat, two grams of cholesterol-lowering dietary fibre including beta-glucan (more than any other mylks or milk), two to five grams of protein, and 25 per cent of the daily recommended vitamin D intake for adults. That said, it's the highest in carbohydrates (usually ranging between 16 and 25 grams per cup) and calories of all the dairy alternatives, and contains less protein than cow's or soy milk. Like other alt-milks, oat milk contains fewer natural vitamins and minerals than dairy milk, too, though most commercial versions are fortified to bring them nutritionally closer in that regard.
As for its flavour, many appreciate oat milk's nutty taste. Naturally occurring sugars also mean it's uniquely sweet; some even equate the taste to the dregs at the bottom of a cereal bowl. Used in smoothies or splashed on cereal, oat milk is a favourite dairy-free drink to add to coffee or tea as well, because it doesn't curdle like most other nut milks. Some oat milk fans say it's even nice (albeit a little thick) consumed straight.
Worth the hype?
Full-bodied oat milk takes to frothing due to mucilage, water-soluble fibre found in many plants, although thick, airy cappuccino foams are best accomplished with barista-specific milks, which contain more fat. A cappuccino is how I have my first oat milk experience, a cup topped with a tight foam cap of it.
While the texture was rich and familiar, there was a slightly viscous oily residue I felt cling to the back of my throat. It was more pleasant than the lacklustre almond milks I'd tried or the thin and runny milks made of rice (which always felt like cast away rice-washing water to me). It wasn't clumpy like hazelnut milk, which I had flirted with a month earlier, but it also didn't taste exactly like milk, and I even found the texture a bit overwhelming — like drinking heavy cream in my cappuccino.
Barista James Thompson of b espresso bar told me that the oat milk the café uses, Pacific Foods' Barista Series Oat drink, has to be ordered in often and is hard to keep in stock. And I believe him. Searching grocery stores around downtown Toronto, I managed to procure only a handful of brands on my first attempt to gather oat milks for research and came across more than a few stockless shelves.
Putting oat milk to the test
Once I gathered my samples, I set out to see just how well oat milk would stand up in my usual milk substitutes.
Of the four varieties I was able to find, only Canadian-made Earth's Own So Fresh Oat was in the refrigerated section. Both the unsweetened and in a vanilla versions were light taupe liquids that I found to be creamy but smooth, like low-fat milk. The vanilla version reminded me of mildly sweet melted ice cream.
U.K.-based Minor Figures' Oat M*lk was the only version I found on store shelves that specifies that it's formulated specifically for baristas (I'd seen it used at a couple of Toronto-area cafés, too). Also light taupe in colour, the consistency was like soy milk, and as expected, it foamed when heated and frothed. Clocking in at twice the fat and nearly double the sugar of Earth's Own, it left a cream-like film in my mouth. It had a neutral flavour when I tried it on its own, and incorporated well in my strong-brewed morning cuppa. The packaging also suggests using this oat milk in cereal, but using such a rich-bodied milk for that seemed like overkill.
In contrast, there's the oat milk I tried from Isola Bio, an Italian producer that uses organic Italian oats. I could only find the brand's Oat Light version in store, promising 30 per cent less fat than the brand's original oat drink. I found the pale grey, skim milk–thin beverage to be surprisingly sweet and reminiscent of horchata or melted iced milk.
While I might not choose to down a glass of it, it's the only oat milk I think would be suitable for cereal, mainly due to the drink's looser texture. It contains the fewest ingredients of all of the commercial milks I've tried so far: just water, oats and sea salt — the same ingredients you'd use if you were to make oat milk at home ... which I set out to try next.
Do oat yourself
My friend Michelle Kano is a fitness instructor, trainer and nutritional specialist with a sensitivity to the proteins in cow's milk. She documents her plant-based food journey online and recently shared her homemade oat milk recipe (a habit born out thriftiness, though she does stock up on the commercial brands when they go on sale).
With that to start, I scoured the internet for recipes. I found straightforward instructions to blitz water and oats in a high-powered blender, and other recommendations to soak oats overnight and strain the liquid through cheesecloth. Almost all of the recipes start with uncooked oats (quick-cook rolled oats or steel-cut oats, pre-soaked for 30 minutes), require refrigerated storage of the final product, and suggest consuming it within three to five days. There's also talk of the options to sweeten or flavour the beverage with maple syrup, agave nectar, vanilla extract, date syrup or ground cinnamon.
Equipped with my research, I settled on my own stripped-down recipe, using steel-cut oats, water and salt, and blitzed a cup of overnight-soaked oats with filtered water and a pinch of Himalayan salt (I'm fancy like that) on high power for 30 seconds. I strained the slurry and passed the liquid through a coffee filter to remove any further residue.
As expected, my homemade version had a runny texture, similar to Isola Bio's Oat Light drink, but it wasn't anywhere in the same league of sweetness — mine tasted exactly like you'd imagine boiled oat water would taste. I could see why Kano noted that she only cooks with her homemade version or uses it in smoothies.
The bottom line…
I had mixed results in my experiments to take oat milk beyond the realm of coffee and tea. I tried using my homemade milk in overnight-soaked muesli, figuring the reconstituted dried fruit and nuts would lend a bit of sweetness to my bland liquid. The final result was edible but not memorable.
Oat milk's toasty and sweet flavour is said to work in batter-based goods like pancakes and waffles; quick breads, including loaf cakes and muffins; or in small amounts in cookie doughs or crusts. I decided to try using commercial oat milk in a pancake recipe free from any other forms of dairy besides the milk I intended to replace, my reasoning being that anyone who would be substituting alt-milk in a recipe was likely doing so due to an aversion or objection to dairy.
The final product was fluffy, moist and thick, and resembled English muffins. The taste was, oddly, like unsweetened soy milk: toasty but beany, with a bit of an oily aftertaste. It wasn't my ideal flavour, but with enough maple syrup or toppings (and pats of butter or whipped cream, I'd imagine), it was serviceable. If I were to repeat this again, I'd probably add some warm spices, like cinnamon, into the batter to try to salvage the flavour … "if" being the operative word.
I went on to test and bake using other commercial milks, but I avoided trying the recipes with my homemade product. If using the more palatable Earth's Own So Fresh Oat left me with five out of six unloved English muffin dough lumps, I reckoned that the thinner substitute would yield six, minus one bite, and food waste is such a terrible thing.
While not all mylks can substitute dairy milk in cooking or baking, internet research tells me that commercial oat milk can be used in some sweet and savoury dishes with little measurable difference. Having properties like low-fat cow's milk, it can replace dairy in light cream soups, curries or mashed potato recipes. Though homemade versions are purported to thicken when heated, they may still be OK when used in simmered sauces like béchamel or desserts like rice pudding. "I made asparagus soup with [my] oat milk," Kano told me. "It turned out really well."
I thought about my favourite dairy-based foods and the properties they each possess as I wrapped up my short-lived home experiments. While I had no issues replacing the dairy I'd normally drink in my teas and coffees with commercial oat milk, I also noticed I didn't drink them as fast, nor did I reach for a second cup. As much as I appreciated having the alternative option, I noticed I easily went back to my regular volume of tea when I returned to my dairy milk-based routine.
For this food lover, the novelty of having an alternative milk to add to my cuppa was fine and dandy, but oat milk isn't something I'd guzzle or substitute in baking unless I was in a bind. But that would all hinge on having oat milk in my home in the first place. Ah, that vicious cycle.
Renée Suen is a Toronto-based freelance restaurant and travel writer/photographer who searches the world for memorable tastes and the stories behind the plate. You can find her work and culinary adventures at reneesuen.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/rssuen