How to properly substitute dairy in baking

Dairy. It’s a loaded word. When talking to the right people, you could get into various socio-economic, political, environmental, and nutritional discussions over the role of dairy in our lives. I’m here to throw my hat into the ring and talk about the role dairy plays in the livelihood of our cakes, breads, and pies. In this post, I’ll break down the major dairy players and show how each one affects baked goods. I’ll then share the best dairy-free substitute to get similar results, because, hey, baking is universal, no matter your relationship with dairy!

Milk: regular ol’ cow’s milk has four major components that baked goods benefit from: protein, lactose, fat, and lactic acid. The protein in milk helps strengthen gluten formation in flour, resulting in a tighter crumb in cakes and breads. The fat content yields a softer crust than an all-water bread, and the lactose (milk sugar) will brown more quickly in the oven, creating a darker crust. The lactic acid in milk reacts with baking soda to create lift in breads and cakes. Finally, the milk fat and proteins extend shelf life of baked goods and delay staling. So, what are the major benefits of adding milk to cakes and breads? Increased lift, tighter crumb (easier to cut and hold shape), soft texture, deeper color, and longer shelf life.

Milk substitutes: Here are a list of ingredients that will help you achieve the benefits of milk without the milk!

  • Soy milk: soy has a higher protein content than other milk alternatives. Use a cup-for-cup substitution with milk.
  • Coconut milk: full-fat coconut milk is a great substitute for heavy cream or whole milk; the fat content will achieve that soft texture!
  • Baking powder: if you use a non-dairy milk, be sure to swap any baking soda in the recipe with baking powder. Non-dairy milks do not have the acidic pH required to react with baking soda to get proper lift out of baked goods. Baking powder is a combination of baking soda and an acid, so it can activate lift all on its own!
  • Additional fat & sugar: if you swap out cow’s milk for a non-dairy option, you’ll need to add 1 Tablespoon of additional sugar and fat than what the recipe calls for, especially for breads and cakes. You need the sugar and fat to create a soft texture and deep color. Refined coconut oil (not virgin) and vegetable oil are great fat options! Any sugar works, but if you want to ensure your product is moist, go for brown sugar.

Butter: right up there with eggs and flour, butter is a cornerstone ingredient in baking. Why? For one, it’s incredibly versatile. Cold, solid butter creates flaky layers in pastries, softened butter creamed with sugar provides airy structure in cookies, and melted butter adds soft chewiness to quick breads. Butter tenderizes, leavens, and binds ingredients together. Let’s not forget about butter’s unbelievable flavor. Personally, I’m with Julia Child when she said, “with enough butter, anything is good”. That being said, if you’re omitting butter from a recipe, all hope is not lost. We have options!

Butter substitutes: When replacing butter with a non-dairy item, try to emulate the same consistency of butter the recipe calls for, whether that’s solid, softened, or liquid.

  • Any liquid oil: if your recipe calls for melted butter, swap it out for your favorite oil. Use 7/8 cups of oil for every 1 cup of butter the recipe calls for. If it calls for a small amount of butter, under 1/2 cup, you can sub equal amounts.
  • Coconut oil: if your recipe needs cold butter, like in pie crust or biscuits, use cold coconut oil. A 1:1 substitution works great. Since coconut oil has a little less water content than butter, up the liquid content in the recipe by a 1-3 Tablespoons.
  • Mashed avocado: plain avocado has the closest consistency to softened butter. Use a 1:1 ratio here, but you’ll need to up the liquid by 1-3 tablespoons. Also, reduce your oven temp by 25 degrees. The baked goods might have a slight green tint, but if you use brown sugar, it’s less noticeable.
  • Vegan butter: if you are completely dairy-free, vegan butter may be a permanent resident in your fridge. There are so many varieties of vegan butter sticks and spreads, and they all perform a bit differently in baking. So it’s worth paying attention to the water and fat levels in your preferred vegan butter when baking. I found a comprehensive guide to vegan butter here.

Sour cream: once I discovered the benefits of sour cream in baking, I started buying it in bulk! Sour cream provides incredible moisture and flavor to baked goods from its fat content and smooth texture. The acidity in the sour cream helps leaven cakes and contributes to the flavor profile. Buttermilk offers these same benefits, but sour cream adds moisture and flavor without adding liquid. Too much liquid can weigh down baked goods, especially cake, so sour cream is the perfect moisture and flavor booster while keeping cakes light and fluffy.

Sour cream substitutes: there are many sour cream and buttermilk substitutes that you can doctor up with lemon juice to get very close to the real deal. Most of the best substitutes contain dairy, but there are a couple dairy free options worth exploring!

  • Coconut milk: full fat, canned coconut milk, is the best dairy-free alternative for sour cream. For best results, do not shake the can beforehand and use the fat that has separated to the top. Skim it off, and mix it with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice per cup. Placing the coconut milk in the fridge overnight before using will maximize the fat separation and make it easier to scoop out.
  • Vegan sour cream: there are many store-bought vegan sour creams and several that you can make your own. The main ingredients can be soy, sunflower seeds, or cashews. There are a variety of recipes out there to whip these up at home!

Butter & Shortening Pie Crust

As the saying goes, “there are 1,000 ways to skin a cat”. Well, bakers know that there are just as many ways to make pie crust dough. You can use a rolling pin, pastry cutter, stand mixer, food processor; even two forks will do the trick! All of these methods have one thing in common: hands off! The most important part of creating pie crust is to keep the fat cold so it stays solid. Solid fat = flaky pie crust. Human body temperature averages around 98°F. The melting point of butter is between 82°-97°F. So, your hands can quickly melt butter, thus creating flat, crumbly pie dough. Vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, has a higher melting point at 117°F., making it more forgiving to work with. With all this in mind, it has been proven that the most versatile pie crust contains both butter and shortening. Butter produces excellent flavor and puffy flakes, while shortening makes the dough easy to work with and keeps its shape while baking so you can have sharp, Insta-worthy crust designs.

A quick prep is the key to a good pie crust. Cube the butter, portion out the shortening, and stick the fats in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. If you plan to use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut the fat, cube the butter on the smaller side. If using a food processor, cut larger cubes. Combine 1/4 cup of vodka with 1/2 cup of water and put that in the freezer, too.

Pie crust ingredients: flour, salt, butter, shortening, and ice water mixed with vodka

Whisk the salt and flour together in a large mixing bowl. Add the cold butter and shortening. Cut the fats into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter, two forks, or food processor until it resembles course crumbs.

Only do a couple pulses at a time and check regularly. Do not over-pulse.

Next, take 1 Tablespoon of the water and vodka mixture and pour it into the food processor. Pulse once or twice. Keep adding 1 Tablespoon of the vodka/water until the dough forms large clumps. The total amount of moisture could be anywhere from 1/8 of a cup to 1/2 of a cup, which is why it’s important to check after each Tablespoon.

When in doubt, stay on the crumbly side. Pictured here is maximum effective moisture level.

*A note on vodka in pie crust: the vodka will cook out when you bake the crust. I use vodka in my pie crust because it guarantees flaky pie crust better than water alone. You need liquid in pie crust to bind the fat and flour together. However, most liquids form gluten when added to flour, which makes dough tough. Liquor is the exception! Gluten will not form in alcohol, so I added vodka to my pie crust recipe as a fail-safe to keep the final product flaky and light, even if the dough gets overworked.

Transfer pie dough to a floured surface. Gently bring the dough together with your hands. Form into a ball, then cut the ball in half. You can weigh each half to make sure your top and bottom pie crusts will be even.

What you want to see: chunks of butter, swirls of shortening, and the dough loosely formed in a ball.

Gently shape the dough halves into flattened discs. Do this quickly and with light pressure. Cover both discs in plastic wrap and put in the fridge to chill for at least 2 hours before rolling out and using in a pie.

Refrigerate pie dough for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

When ready to use, roll the pie dough out on a floured surface, fill your pie, and bake!

Butter & Shortening Pie Crust

  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
  • 3/4 cup (148g) vegetable shortening, cold
  • 2 1/2 cups (315g) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 vodka, cold
  • 1/4 water, cold

Prep ingredients: cube butter, place on a plate and in the freezer. Measure the shortening and place in the freezer. Combine vodka and water in a sealed container and place in the freezer. Let these chill in freezer for at least 15 minutes. Whisk flour and salt together in a large bowl.

Cut the fat: In a large bowl using a pastry cutter, or in a food processor, add the butter and shortening to the flour mixture. Pulse the processor or use the pastry cutter to cut the fat into the flour mixture. Stop when the mixture resembles course crumbs.

Add moisture: 1 Tablespoon at a time, add the vodka/water to the flour mixture. Stir with a rubber spatula or pulse a couple times after each addition. Stop when dough comes together in large clumps.

Assemble: Pour dough onto a floured surface. Gently bring dough together in a ball with your hands. Cut the ball in half, weighing each if desired. Quickly and with light pressure, mold the dough into flattened discs. Cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before rolling and baking. Can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months. Thaw frozen pie dough in the fridge overnight before rolling and baking.

Recipe adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction

Frozen Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls. There are so many variations of cinnamon-sugar sweet rolls out there. You can find them on gas station shelves next to snack cakes. They are the stars of hometown cafes where one serving takes up the whole plate. But the best cinnamon rolls; the ones that families gush over, the ones that friends tell their friends about, are these homemade frozen ones right here. They are soft, sweet, and the ultimate comfort food. The best part is that they freeze and bake beautifully, so you can assemble them ahead of time and pull them out on a rainy, snowy, or sunshine-y day! These homemade frozen cinnamon rolls are much tastier and more satisfying than the store-bought kind, and the cost of ingredients is cheaper, too. Let’s begin.

The dough: this sweet yeast dough is very simple. Only 7 ingredients; all of them are kitchen staples!

Ingredients: flour, whole milk, yeast, sugar, salt, eggs, and softened butter

Combine dough ingredients and knead until the dough is soft and slightly tacky. Form into a ball and let rise until double in size.

Dough is ready for the 1st rise when it’s soft, tacky, and barely bounces back when poked.

Once doubled in size, punch dough to release air and roll into a 12×18 inch rectangle. Spread butter and cinnamon sugar on top.

For optimally soft and cinnamon-y rolls, do not skimp on the butter!

Roll the rectangle length-wise into a 16-18 inch log. The tighter you roll, the more swirls you create! Cut the log into 12 even slices.

Make sure the rolls are tightly covered in the fridge for their second rise overnight. Exposure to any air will dry them out!

After rising in the fridge for 8-16 hours, let them proof at room temperature until puffy. Then partially bake the rolls at 375° for 10 minutes.

Once rolls are partially baked, let them cool. These are now ready to cover tightly and freeze for up to 3 months.

When ready to serve, let frozen rolls thaw in fridge overnight, or room temp for a few hours. Then bake at 375° for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Whip up the cream cheese frosting while the rolls cool slightly. Pour the frosting directly over the rolls and serve warm!

Homemade Frozen Cinnamon Rolls


  • 1 cup warm whole milk (100°F -109°F)
  • 2/3 cup (135g) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons (14g) of instant yeast
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temp
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 1/2 cups (558g) all-purpose flour, plus more for hands and work surface


  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar or brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons ground cinnamon

Cream cheese frosting:

  • 2 ounces (56g) block cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups (150g) powdered sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons heavy cream or milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare the dough: whisk warm milk, sugar, and yeast in large bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes until foamy. Using a rubber spatula or stand mixer with dough hook attachment, beat in butter until slightly broken up. Add eggs and salt and mix on medium speed until combined. Butter will still be in pieces. Slowly add flour 1 cup at a time on low speed. Beat on low until all flour is combined and dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. At this point, dough will be sticky and very soft. Knead dough in mixer for 3 minutes or by hand until dough barely bounces back when poked. You want the dough tacky, but not sticking to your hands. You may need to flour the dough ball and your hands a couple times. Grease a large bowl with cooking spray and place the dough ball inside, turning the dough to coat all sides with spray. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until dough has doubled in size. This takes about 2 hours at room temperature.

Roll and fill the dough: Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down to release the air. Roll the dough into a 12×18 inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface, keeping it smooth and even. Using a pastry brush, offset spatula, or balled up paper towel, spread the softened butter over the entire rectangle of dough. Next, combine the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl, then use a spoon to sprinkle the mixture over the buttered dough. Tightly roll the long side of the rectangle until you have an 18 inch log. Some loose sugar may fall out. Cut the log into 12 even slices, about 1 1/2 inches each. Place the cut rolls into a greased 13×9 baking dish. You can sprinkle any loose sugar that fell out on top of the cut rolls. Cover rolls tightly with the lid to your baking dish or plastic wrap and store in the fridge overnight, between 8-16 hours.

Par-bake and freeze the rolls: In the morning, remove the rolls from the fridge. Cover the rolls with a clean kitchen towel and let them proof at room temperature until quite puffy. This takes 1-2 hours. Once puffy, preheat the oven to 375°F. Partially bake the rolls for 10 minutes at 375°F. If you’re using a disposable aluminum pan for the rolls, place it on a cookie sheet to bake. Remove the rolls from the oven and let cool completely before covering tightly and putting in the freezer. Rolls can stay frozen for up to 3 months.

Bake and frost the rolls: When ready to eat, remove rolls from the freezer and let thaw completely. Do this overnight in the fridge or for a couple hours at room temperature. Preheat oven to 375°F and bake rolls for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on cooling rack. While the rolls cool slightly, mix up the frosting. Beat the room temperature cream cheese until it’s smooth and creamy. Add the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Pour frosting over rolls and serve warm.

Recipe adapted by Sally’s Baking Addiction.