Plant-based beverages, such as soymilk and almondmilk, aren’t just for drinking or use with cereal—and they’re not just for vegans or health-conscious consumers.
In fact, a growing number of consumers enjoy non-dairy milks for their own flavor and nutritional characteristics. “A lot of students actually prefer chocolate soymilk to regular chocolate milk,” says Ken Cardone, associate director and executive chef at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, which consistently ranks among the top five colleges in the country for food quality in The Princeton Review.
“Nondairy milks have really caught on here at Bowdoin,” adds Cardone, “especially with the increase in special diets and food allergies in recent years.” With two dining halls, plus The Café, Jack McGee’s Pub & Grill, and the Bowdoin Express convenience store, the dining service department stocks from eight to 10 different plant-based beverages, including soy, rice, almond and oat milks in both plain and flavored varieties. These products are housed in special refrigerated units, where students can also grab other “free-from” products, including nut- and gluten-free items.
“We try to make it as easy and convenient as possible for students to find what they need,” Cardone explains. “Some of these special diets are very difficult to follow, especially when you’re 18 years old and possibly away from home for the first time in your life.” Fortunately, the variety of options available is keeping pace with growing demand and consumption.
These plant-based beverages are also ideal for specialty coffee drinks and smoothies—in many cases, says Cardone, almondmilk is preferred for smoothies because it’s lower in fat.
“We use a lot of soymilk in baking,” he adds, “including vegan cakes and cupcakes, as well as French toast, pancakes and even waffles. And with a good egg replacement, the results are just as delicious as traditional recipes. We also use soymilk for a vegan cornbread that’s very popular.”
Cardone and his staff have found that with a little research and a bit of judicious tweaking, almost any recipe using dairy milk can be made with soymilk instead. He likes to start with an existing recipe, then adapt it as necessary. “Because soy and other non-dairy milks are low-fat, they can be treated just like any low-fat milk in cooking, and they’ll act the same way.”
A five-ingredient Lemon Chia Pudding is a consistent favorite at Bowdoin, made with lemon, chia seeds, soymilk, maple syrup and just a bit of oil. “It’s vegan, but it appeals to non-vegans as well,” says Cardone. “In fact, when we test these items, many of our tasters can’t even tell the difference.”
In savory applications, plant-based beverages are used in items such as the popular vegan shepherd’s pie, made with lentils instead of ground meat and soymilk in the mashed potato topping. And Cardone has found that pureeing soft tofu can provide the same rich creamy texture and luxurious mouthfeel that cream would in a butternut squash soup.
“It’s all a matter of tinkering to get the right results,” he explains. In fact, like all new menu items, vegan adaptations must pass a strict gateway: If less than 25 percent of the item sells in a given dining period, back to the drawing board it goes. “It has to be palatable enough for the general population, not just vegans and the dairy averse.”
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