There have never been more different types of vegan milk to choose from, which is great news for people who don’t (or can’t) drink cow’s milk, and it’s a double-edged sword for vegan cooks and bakers. Variety is great, but it means every new alt milk is a gamble; I’ve had oat milk with the texture of half and half, almond milk that was basically off-white water, and everything in between.
If you mainly consume vegan milks in coffee, with cereal, or on their own, an unexpected texture (or flavor) situation might be annoying, but not a complete dealbreaker. When you’re baking and cooking, however, the wrong milk substitute can and will ruin your recipe. This is why I keep soy milk in my fridge or pantry at all times: It’s a known quantity. Unless you’re allergic to soy, it won’t let you down. Here’s why.
Soy milk is easy to find, consistent across brands, and chemically quite similar to cow’s milk, all of which make it a reliable ingredient for cooking and baking. Although different companies have different recipes, they all tend to have roughly the same texture and nutritional content; if your usual brand is sold out or unavailable on the road, swapping to a new one is no big deal. Plus, of all the widely available vegan milks, soy milk is the closest to cow’s milk because it actually has protein. In fact, according to the USDA’s FoodData Central nutritional database, soy milk has roughly the same nutritional profile as 2% milk. The specific types of proteins, fats, and carbs may not be the same, but the overall amounts are—and that’s what matters.
All of these qualities add up to make soy milk as close to a perfect one-to-one substitute for the real thing as it gets. In my experience, you can trust soy milk to behave almost exactly like cow’s milk across a wide range of temperatures and pH values—in other words, when cooking and baking. I’ve used it in waffles, pancakes, sheet cakes, cornbread, instant pudding, rice pudding, and German buttercream; I’ve acidulated it with lemon juice to make vegan “buttermilk”; I’ve cooked it down with a sofrito for vegan bolognese; I’ve used it to make tangzhong for milk bread and béchamel for vegan mac and cheese. Last Thanksgiving, I even used it as a base for homemade vegan butter. (It worked surprisingly well; also, I’m never doing that again.)
Soy milk may not be as cool as the newer kids on the alt milk block, but if you need a reliable vegan substitute for milk, you simply can’t beat it. Don’t get me wrong: When I want a delicious, refreshing beverage, I’ll still reach for the oat milk—but when I need an ingredient I can trust, it’s soy all the way. Keep a shelf-stable carton or two in your pantry for emergencies; I promise you won’t regret it.