It's a question that you guys often ask: Will your coffee machine work with anything other than cow's milk? And by extension, which alternatives can be frothed at all? Is there anything you need to watch out for when almond, soy, oat or nut drinks go into the milk frothing system?
It’s a question that you guys often ask: Will your coffee machine work with anything other than cow’s milk? And by extension, which alternatives can be frothed at all? Is there anything you need to watch out for when almond, soy, oat or nut drinks go into the milk frothing system?
Then there’s the nagging suspicion that plant milks might even froth better than moo juice. And if so, how do their flavors work with coffee?
So many questions. The solution? A guide, of course. Although, I must say that when it comes to milk substitutes and super automatic espresso machines, we tend to overthink things.
With a few exceptions, most plant milks froth up beautifully. Getting nice head of foam is just as straightforward with oat milk as it is with almond and rice milk. Your super-automatic machine doesn’t care what you throw in the milk jug.
Which is why this guide not only covers making non-dairy froth with a super automatic espresso machine (or any other frothing system) but also offers a few environmental factoids you should know about much-hyped plant drinks.
While I think milk froth is great and all, I prefer my coffee black. Which hasn’t stopped me taking a keen interest in various dairy alternatives – even going so far as to create my own. Check out the recipe further down in this article.
Yes, I know. If it doesn’t come from a cow, the EU won’t let you officially call it “milk.” Except everyone does. And so do I.
Table of Contents
Milk 101: What's the Secret to Milk Froth?
Whether you’re using a super-automatic coffee machine or an espresso machine, three things have to come together to create froth: fat, protein and steam.
Water vapour blows apart the molecular structure of the proteins and fats and reconstructs them again with the help of air. A better ratio between the three components gives you creamier, more stable and fluffier milk froth.
Proteins are the main deciding factor in foam. The more, the better. Fat, on the other hand, contributes mainly to the mouthfeel and creaminess.
Despite that, skim milk is more difficult to foam than whole milk, which has roughly 3 percent fat. That’s because the high water content in “throws out” the ratios in skim milk.
In my article on black coffee (in German only), I provide a detailed nutritional breakdown for cow’s milk. The average protein content is 3.5 percent. Since that’s obviously ideal for milk froth, it’s also the yardstick for plant-based alternatives.
Bottom line: Oat milk from a carton produces a better head of foam than the homemade stuff. We’ll see why in a moment.
Non-Dairy Milks in Super-Automatic Coffee Machines: What Should I Watch Out For?
For starters, the choice of super automatic espresso machine for frothing your milk alternative is neither here nor there. Which isn’t to say that some machines don’t do a better job than others. They do – and the differences are often glaring. But in broader animal vs. plant showdown, the type of milk has zero effect on the machine.
For my video review, I used the cute-as-a-button Jura Z8. Because it not only whips up fab milk froth but also truly delectable coffee.
The Jura has a cappucinatore – a tube that you can stick into any container of milk. This is a convenience you don’t get with built-in milk frothing systems.
Nevertheless, both systems work with very thin hoses and fine nozzles that infuse the milk with steam. Which is the sticking point (literally) with plant milks:
Any solids or sediment in the plant milk will clog the tubes pretty quick – possibly permanently, if you’re unlucky.
While this isn’t a disaster on super automatic espresso machines with a steam wand, those solids result in highly unstable froth. Those nut or seed fragments go bursting your bubbles – in every sense of the word.
Which Non-Dairy Milk Creates the Most Stable Foam?
Soy milk doesn’t even feature in my video. Why? Because the result is a foregone conclusion. Soy milk froths like crazy and produces a very stable foam. And it’s no wonder, considering it has a protein content that almost matches cow’s milk.
Frothed soy milk is, however, often consists of “macro” rather than microbubbles and almost always has a very distinctive flavor. What’s more, soy comes with problems of its own.
Those who suffer from hay fever or neurodermatitis know that soy can trigger cross-reactivity. And then there’s the medical question of how soy affects the body’s hormonal balance, which comes up time and again.
None of which changes that putting soy milk in your super-automatic machine is a surefire route to froth. That’s why it tops the list of milk substitutes.
Oat Milk Froth and Oatly Barista: What's All the Fuss About?
To tell you the truth, I’m kinda tired of hearing about Oatly Barista Edition. Every supermarket, coffee expo and wallscape (or so it seems) is blaring the plant milk’s promises of barista results at me.
I love the brand’s message (“Milk, but made for humans”) and also think oats deserve their place in the spotlight as an inexpensive crop with a comparatively small environmental footprint.
So no, I’m not an Oatly Barista Edition hater. It solves the fundamental problem with creating oat milk foam – the molecules are not very stable and collapse quite quickly after frothing. You can see this clearly in the video.
What it lacks in protein, it makes up for in carbohydrates (around 6.5 percent) and consequently a comparatively high calorie count. By way of comparison: Unsweetened and unroasted almond milk has no significant carbohydrate content and contains around 22 kilocalories per 3.5 fluid ounces. The same quantity of oat milk accounts for 40 kilocalories.
Despite its fairly typical carb count and unchanged protein content, Oatly Barista packs 59 kilocalories. How did that happen? And why does this milk alternative foam so well?
Cue the additives.
For Oatly Barista to work its magic, each carton has its share of various regulators and stabilizers. Canola oil is thrown into the mix (hello, calories!) along with vitamins. Just as a reminder, “unadulterated,” homemade oat milk is made with just water, oats and sea salt. That’s it.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Why would I want to buy a product that compensates for a milk substitute’s natural downsides by any means possible?
On the upside, oats – as the key ingredient – are an environmentally sound choice and the results are spectacular.
Apart from that, I don’t like the decidedly unsubtle smack of oat milk – barista edition or not. The oatiness distorts and overpowers coffee’s more floral and lively accents, while further thrusting dark notes into the foreground. In my experience, oat milk makes a lot of good coffee beans seem harsh and abrasive.
The key takeaway here? Great oat milk froth and Oatly Barista’s success has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with the milk’s makeup.
Almond Milk: The Best Non-Dairy Alternative for Coffee Lovers?
Almond milk froth is not only stable and creamy but also adds a real exclamation mark to coffee aromas.
Above all, coffee roasts with notable acidity really shine with almond milk froth because it makes them even brighter, sweeter and delicate. No prizes for guessing that almond milk is my favorite.
Plus, almonds are not currently known to cause any health problems. As an added bonus, unsweetened milk products are definitely a “skinny” option with a mere 22 kilocalories or so.
But the sad truth is that beautiful stable froth you get with almond milks from cartons is also largely thanks to stabilizers. And different brands can vary wildly.
Alpro Almond Drink has list of ingredients as long as my arm, while a major German supermarket’s store brand unsweetend, organic almond has just one single stabilizer. Provamel skips the stabilizers but instead adds some agave syrup to the mixture.
In other words, you’ll have to try out a few almond milk brands for frothing to find the best option. I think that the organic supermarket brand I mentioned works well.
I suspect this is largely because in forcing the almond milk through the entire automatic system, it’s frothed “from all sides.” In contrast, a slight misalignment of the wrist or wand can come back to bite you badly.
But before we get any further into almond milk’s finer technicalities we have to confront the question of whether it’s really such a good idea to plug the nut drink in this way. All the hype over almonds has highlighted a major problem:
There’s no sugarcoating it, it’s pretty terrible. Almond milk does the environment no favours. What you do with that information, is up to you.
Rice, Spelt and Coconut Milk: How do the Other Alternatives Perform?
A shiny new milk alternative hits supermarket shelves almost every day. In addition to store stalwarts coconut drink and rice milk, I’m spotting more and more cashew and pea milk at the moment. A while back, I even tried hazelnut milk.
All these variants have at least one of two problems: They are unsuitable for frothing and/or have a strong flavor of their own. When I paired my coffee with hazelnut milk, for example, let’s just say the coffee came off second best. Coconut always tastes like coconut, even the low-cal milk varieties. Both are yummy in their own right but don’t play well with coffee. Unless, of course, you don’t actually like the taste of coffee.
Rice drinks are the least suited to pumping through a super-automatic machine or steam wand. Whatever brand you choose will contain significantly less than one percent protein with a very large proportion of carbohydrates and not enough fat.
Not even stabilizers can save the day. Rice milk is simply too different in composition to moo juice.
Although they froth better, spelt drinks have a similar problem. The foam quickly collapses. And the grains at the heart of the product lend your coffee an unpleasantly bready flavor, in my opinion.
I plan to take a closer look at regionally produced pea and lupin milks in the near future. Not just because it sounds like a wild ride. But above all, because peas are high in protein and the nutrient profile is fairly similar to dairy milk.
Will there be a happy ending? I promise to report back in full.
Can I Make my Own Vegan Milk for Frothing?
Depending on the main ingredient, brand and marketing, plant milks can be an expensive habit. So you might be tempted to do better yourself. The simplest DIY recipe goes like this:
Take almonds or oats, dump them in the blender with some water. Blitz and you’re done.
That easy?! Why are we still schlepping cartons from the store?
OK, so it’s not quite so simple as all that – or it isn’t if you hope to keep using your super-automatic espresso for years to come and want decent milk froth.
That’s because the rather primitive blender method produces a plant milk swimming with solid particles. Remember my warnings about those? They not only interfere with the formation of microfoam but also clog your machines hoses and wand. It’s the milk that will land your machine in the shop.
Another thing we’ve learned is that every plant-based milk inevitably needs some kind of additive to help it froth. Additive sounds like something has to come from a lab. But a squirt of oil will do just fine.
Since homemade milk substitutes aren’t heat treated or industrially blended, you shouldn’t keep a batch for more than three days. And remember, that it will never froth as well as its cousin from the carton.
Nevertheless, frothable DIY milk is a pretty neat. If you want to do it right, consider using a juicer as well as a blender and follow these instructions:
- For roughly every half a cup of oat flakes, spelt or almonds that go into the blender, add about 4 and a quarter cups of cold water. You may have to fiddle with the ratios a bit.
- Add a pinch of salt and some vegetable oil. Safflower oil is a great emulsifier.
- Depending on mixer capacity, blend for one minute on maximum.
- Now, decant the concoction into the juicer to make the filtration process a whole lot easier.
No equipment? No problem. Just soak the grains and seeds in water for at least 24 hours. Afterwards, you “wring” the milk out of the oats, for instance, or strain them with a sieve to separate the solids (more or less) from the liquid.
There are special “nut milk makers,” comprising a container, strainer basket and an appropriate mortar, to do this job. I gave them a whirl, but wasn’t sold on the idea. Admittedly, I failed to add any oil and didn’t bother to refilter the resulting milk.
If you take a bit more care over the process and can make peace with the fact that your milk will never work up a head of foam in your super-automatic machine the way the store-bought stuff does, you can definitely save money. At least with oat milk because oats are incredibly cheap. Almonds not so much. What with the whole California story, homemade is even more expensive.
Why Pooh-Pooh Moo?
Since we’ve already ripped off the band-aid on some uncomfortable truths about milk alternatives for frothing in super-automatic machines, we might as well face the ugly facts about cow’s milk:
Visit a conventional dairy farm and you won’t touch dairy again. Ever. Honestly.
Although organic farms operate on the same basic principles, the calves usually remain with their mothers and the whole thing is less industrial sausage factory and a bit more as Mother Nature intended.
But if you think that the friendly organic farmer sits on his milking stool every morning and gently massages Clarabelle’s udders while whispering sweet nothings to get a little of her milk for your coffee, forget it! Of course, I’d be delighted if you can prove me wrong.
The fact of the matter is that measured in resource consumption of just about any kind, almost all plant alternatives are far superior to cow’s milk. And oat milk stands head and shoulders above other non-dairy alternatives on all fronts except its carbon emissions. This ProVeg International report on the subject, for example, has infographics illustrating the fact.
Yes, I know frothed cow’s milk is in a class of its own. And that as I write this guide, I’m shooting myself in the foot. After all, I buy cow’s milk and use it freely in reviewing super automatic espresso machines.
Believe me, I’m painfully aware of this catch-22. Which is why I make every effort to ensure that I buy grass-fed milk from reasonably happy cows. Organic is my line in the sand. Even with plant alternatives – whether homemade or not – it has to be organic.
But enough with the lecture. The verdict for this guide is: Non-dairy alternatives work perfectly in a super automatic espresso machine. As long as you pick the right plant variety and accept a few compromises on or peculiarities in taste and consistency.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with different milk alternatives or any tips on creating even better plant milk froth in the comments.