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!