Monday 14 March 2016

Substitution spotlight: Traditional non-dairy milks in European baking and cooking

A traditional-style homemade seed milk.
Ah, good old-fashioned plant milks. No, that's not an oxymoron! It's often assumed that the idea of a milk substitute is a modern concept; sure, other things may fill the same culinary niche in cultures without a major tradition of dairy production, but it's not like people in previous centuries needed something to use for vegan cupcakes...right? Historically, if you couldn't have milk for whatever reason, you'd just leave it out...right?? Not necessarily! Milk is highly perishable, and it's easy to forget that until relatively recently, it was also a seasonal food. Add this to the many days with dietary restrictions imposed by the Catholic church interspersed throughout the calendar, and the existence of non-dairy milk becomes quite logical. Their use was by no means restricted to times when dairy was unavailable. From this we can see that people found them useful and enjoyable, and even practical. In some cases, they were indeed used as a milk substitute in the modern definition (though not necessarily for the same reasons) and treated as interchangeable with dairy; in other dishes, they were simply part of the recipe.

Almond milk, in particular, has a long and rich history, having originated during the middle ages in the Arabic-speaking world and becoming popular as a dairy substitute in Europe a couple of centuries later. The first English-language mention of almond milk I’m aware of was in 1390, though because it's called for as an ingredient in a larger recipe, I'm guessing it was already well-established by that time. Other nut and seed milks can also be traced back to this era; where almonds were prohibitively expensive or unavailable, milks made from regional ingredients like poppyseeds, hazelnuts, and hempseeds are also well-documented!

Milk was not even the only way people found to use nuts and seeds like dairy - recipes also detail the preparation of almonds in ways which resembled cream, butter, and even a sort of acid-curdled cheese! This is where I should point out: all these preparations bear little resemblance to modern processed, emulsified, stabilized milk substitutes, and the cheese certainly would not melt like some of the new products do (it is more like a crumbly or spreadable fresh cheese). Rest assured, though - from a food science perspective, these traditional nut and seed milks are actually much cooler! Thanks to the unique properties of their proteins, fats, etc., you can do things with them that simply can’t be done with the commercial stuff (the packaged kind is very watered-down, and on top of that, the stabilizers and other additives get in the way). (By the way, this applies to soy milk, too, which is about as old as almond milk and just as traditional, but I have not included it in this discussion as it was not considered as a deliberate dairy substitute until just a few decades ago. The same goes for coconut milk.) The real, homemade varieties of all these plant milks not only make for much better milk substitutes than the store-bought kinds, they also can do some things that dairy milk can’t! Coming up, I will show you some neat ways to use these qualities in baking and cooking.

Speaking of substitutions, I will be giving a presentation at the upcoming Charlotte, NC GFAF Event entitled "Recipe Remodeling: The Art and Science of Ingredient Substitution," in which I will explain how to keep the spirit of your traditional recipes even when you need to change key ingredients! The event is on Saturday, April 2nd - location and directions can be found here. I also have some tickets to give away!! If you’d like to win a ticket to the Charlotte GFAF Event, leave a comment telling me what kind of traditional dairy substitutes you want to see featured in a future recipe!

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