Switching from cow’s milk to a non-dairy option can often leave you wanting. Milk is a complex network of proteins, nutrients, sugars, and fats. Everything needed to sustain life packed into this potent punch. But dietary restrictions often take milk out of the equation all together. The market is littered with soy and nut based milks. Don’t get me wrong there are actually some great non-dairy milk options out there. But much of the time when trying to make your own soy or nut based milks, the result is a mildly flavored opaque water. Mostly they don’t resemble the rich creamy texture you are looking for in a milk replacer. You may look to the back of the non-dairy milk. As you scan the ingredients you will most likely get to a point where you don’t understand what the ingredients are. So how are you going to improve your homemade non-dairy milk. Well thankfully this article will breakdown the most common ingredients found in non-dairy milks. An help you answer the question
“How do I thicken my non-dairy milk?”
Locust bean gum, carrageenan lambda, gellan gum, soy lecithin, guar gum, and xanthan gum. These are all the common ingredients you will find in non-dairy milks but what is the purpose? What benefit do you get from these ingredients? Let’s break it down into two different groups of ingredients and what their purposes are. The first being cold soluble thickeners and emulsifiers such as guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan lambda, and soy lecithin. The second being heat activated thickeners and gelling agents like gellan gum and locust bean gum.
Thickeners are obvious in what they do, they thicken. Ingredients like guar and xanthan gum in very low ratios can thicken a liquid to have a similar viscosity as milk does. Mimicking the viscosity does not mean they will have the same mouth feel. We all know when we have been fed something that isn’t quite the same as we are used to. It’s like an oral uncanny valley, our defenses are raised immediately. Our bodies know when something isn’t quite what it seems, but a deep dive on rheology and tribology is a discussion for another week. So these thickeners work well for achieving the initial viscosity. Xanthan gum works well due to its ability to thicken with a very low ratio. Xanthan gum provides a slick mouthfeel with poor to moderate flavor release. Guar gum is a better choice for thickening as its mouthfeel has a slightly creamier texture than xanthan gum. “Carrageenan” may be listed in the ingredients but there are numerous types of carrageenan. It is hard to know what the exact type of carageenan being used is since companies don’t have to list it. The most common for thickening non dairy milk is carrageenan lambda. Carrageenan lambda is a thickener whereas the other two types of carrageenan most commonly used in food service are kappa and iota. Kappa and Iota are gelling agents, so once heated they will create a gel. Carrageenan lambda is used because it helps give that creamy mouthfeel that is best associated with a milk like product. I find that carrageenan lambda has a lingering effect similar to how milk does. I prefer using guar gum and/or carrageenan lambda over xanthan gum whenever making non-dairy milk. Emulsification is an important factor of non dairy milks. Some thickeners can help with emulsification. But at such low quantities it can be a difficult task. If there is a noticeable fat content it will try to separate out from the liquid. Separation is natural and adding an emulsifier like soy lecithin will help prevent the separation that occurs. It’s good to have that as a backup plan just in case.
Gelling agents can also be used in making non-dairy milk. Locust bean gum and gellan gum both have gelling properties. These ingredients I placed together because they need to be heated to activate. Let’s address locust bean gum first. Locust bean gum is first and foremost a thickener. Rarely is locust bean gum used on its own, I like to think locust bean gum is every other gum’s best friend. Locust bean gum is synergistic and when used with other ingredients it can create a gel. So if you get to the point where your homemade soy or nut milk begins to gel after the heating process. It may be time to lower the ratios. Locust bean gum also works amazingly well in preventing syneresis, which is the separation of water from the solids, otherwise commonly known as ‘weeping’. Locust bean gum has a rich texture that aids in the mouthfeel needed for non-dairy milk. Thankfully it works well with guar gum and carrageenan lambda in low ratios to provide a milk like texture. Gellan gum comes in two different types F and LT100, for non dairy milks we suggest LT100. Gellan gum LT100 has a rich creamy mouth feel that best mimics dairy. But much like locust bean gum the ratios need to be extremely low as this is a gelling agent and if used at even 0.2% by weight will create a gel. Either of these ingredients work great for non-dairy milks but be aware that they can create a gel if too much is used.
In this article I chose to forgo adding ratios to each ingredient on purpose. All recipes will be slightly different and it is difficult to know exactly where to start without having tested and tasted the recipe myself. But I will give a base starting ratio for the thickeners and gelling agents. For cold soluble thickeners I would start at a ratio between 0.1-0.5% and soy lecithin I suggest 0.6-1% of the total weight of the liquid. As for a heat activated ingredients start testing at a ratio between 0.05-0.1% of the total weight of the liquid. Finally properly heat ingredients so they activate, locust bean gum needs to be heated to 160°F and gellan gum LT100 needs to be heated to 185F.
Give our Rich and Dreaming Dairy Free Hot Chocolate recipe a try! It’s always the perfect time to savor the creamiest hot chocolate with zero milk or cream. And no, it doesn’t rely on a “milk” that’s going to separate out before you’re done. Sip joyously and enjoy the hint of spice that keeps this hot chocolate far from ordinary.