A Joyful Weaning: Embracing a Dairy-Free Life

Vegan cheesecake

Last week, the latest in a series of undercover cruelty videos highlighted some of the animal abuse intrinsic to dairy production. Dairy consumption can also cause or aggravate many health problems, and creates enormous environmental pollution. If you’ve been thinking of exploring a dairy-free lifestyle, there’s never been a better time to try it out! Shifting towards a more compassionate, healthy, sustainable dairy-free kitchen doesn’t have to be daunting. Armed with a little knowledge, an adventurous spirit, and some vegan cheesecake recipes, going dairy-free can be surprisingly easy and delicious!

Need a Little Inspiration?

When I first started talking about getting off the (cheese) sauce, some of my friends and coworkers looked at me as though I’d sprouted an extra head. But the more I learned about the dairy industry, the more I wanted to eat something else.

Read a bit: inspire yourself!

Vegan chef and author Colleen Patrick-Goudreau offers two excellent podcast episodes exploring the whys and wherefores of joyful dairy-free living:

Make up a bowl of butter-free popcorn (nooch makes a yummy topping!), sit down with Dr. John McDougal, and consider the impact of dairy consumption on human physiology.

Got Calcium?

Calcium is often the subject of concern and grim warnings, from well-meaning but misinformed omni friends to vegans and other dairy-free diners. There are many reasons to avoid or minimize dairy consumption — and not only isn’t dairy NECESSARY for calcium (unless of course you happen to be a baby cow), it’s actually not that great a source of calcium for humans.

The highest rates of osteoporosis occur in the nations that consume the most dairy. Calcium comes from plants; that’s where the cows — and all other herbivorous animals on the planet — get it in the first place. Kale, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, almonds, sesame seeds, tahini, tofu (set in calcium citrate) and fortified orange juice, soy milk, or cereals are all good plant-based calcium sources.

Bone density for most people is actually determined more by activity level and weight-bearing or resistive exercise than by calcium intake. Bone is metabolically active, just like muscle. Popping protein pills won’t give you big muscles; consuming calcium without resistive exercise won’t give you strong bones. There is a powerful myth within our Western culture about needing cow’s milk to meet calcium needs; it’s very well-funded, but inaccurate.

Cream of the Crop

Ready to leave the cow teats to the calves? Wonderful! Let’s get down to business.

Dairy milk is incredibly easy to cook without. Organic soy milk is available at most large grocery stores, sometimes along with rice and almond milk. Hemp milk, flax milk, and coconut-based milk (in a refrigerated carton) are also available at health food stores and some large supermarkets.

oat milk
home-made oat milk

Generally the nondairy milks from the refrigerated section work better in coffee, but the vacuum-sealed non-refrigerated boxes work just as well for everything else. Vanilla soy milk or almond milk is great on cereal. Chocolate almond milk is delicious. If you like cream in your coffee, Silk makes a very tasty soy creamer– rich and creamy and yum! All these options have distinctive flavors, and sometimes work a little differently in recipes.

I like almond milk for cooking and coffee, vanilla soy or almond milk for cereal, and homemade oat milk when the grocery budget’s low. Oat milk works great for everything except coffee; for some reason it doesn’t blend well there, but works just like soy or almond milk for recipes or cereal.

If you try one kind of nondairy milk and don’t like it, try another: they aren’t the same!

In Asian or Indian recipes, canned coconut milk makes a wonderful base for creamy sauces or soups. Puree cooked sweet potatoes or winter squash with some melted Earth Balance and a little bit of water; this makes a delicious creamy starter for soups, stews, or sauces. For creamy pasta sauce, try a base of ground raw cashews thinned slightly with water and blended with pureed roasted veggies (this is especially good with roasted red bell peppers).

Next>> Easy Breezy Vegan Cheezy!

Vegan pizza

Easy Breezy Vegan Cheezy!

The only commercial nondairy cheese I’ve tried that I would personally recommend (so far — innovation continually occurs!) is Daiya brand vegan cheese. Daiya makes mozzarella, cheddar, and pepper-jack style vegan shreds that melt well and taste great in casseroles, wraps, sandwiches, and pizzas. The texture is different than dairy cheese, and it’s much better as an ingredient than when just eaten by itself. But I think it’s delicious melted on pizzas, grilled cheez sandwiches, and quesadillas.

The new wedge-style Daiya cheeses are sliceable, chunkable, and appropriate to eat with wine, fruit, and crackers or toasted French bread — preferably all in one happy gluttonous sitting!

Sheese also makes some tasty nondairy cheesiness, if you can get it — their blue-style cheese especially knocks my vegan socks off.

But generally, the best cheese solution is just to make your own. Some of the best recipes I’ve tried are bulk dry cashew cheez (used as parmesan, or blended to make dips/ sauces), melty cheese (for pasta, nachos, and potatoes) and tofu-cashew ricotta — tofu plus raw ground cashews equal eat-it-with-a-spoon delicious ricotta or cream cheese! Vegan cookbooks and cooking sites have tons of great recipes for nondairy cheez and sauces, and these will generally be much tastier than anything you can buy pre-made.

shells with nooch sauce
pasta with home-made nooch sauce

Instead of butter, try dairy-free margarine (such as ‘Earth Balance’) or refined coconut oil, which (like butter and margarine) is solid at room temperature. There are some good reasons to minimize palm oil consumption, so if you want palm-free as well as dairy-free recipes try Bryanna Clark Grogan’s recipe for vegan Buttah. Mattie at veganbaking.net also offers some great recipes for dairy-free butter. My favorite recipe for vegan butter, for ease of preparation plus indulgent buttery nom, is from Dawn at Progressive Kitch — kindly shared with us right here on EDB.

Unless you’re baking, and need something firmer for texture as well as flavor, olive oil whisked with a bit of nutritional yeast and salt can replace butter in many recipes.

Non-dairy cream cheez, sour cream, and mayonnaise are very easy substitutions, available in the ‘dairy’ or ‘health food’ section of larger supermarkets or at health food stores.

You can also find vegan recipes online to make your own mayo, sour cream, or whipped topping from raw cashews, soymilk, or other plant-based ingredients.

Tofutti brand soy-based cream cheez makes a delicious ‘cheesecake,’ that even confirmed carnivores will love. Like packaged vegan cheez, it’s much better as an ingredient than when sampled separately. Vegenaise makes a scrumptious vegan mayo; Nayonaise is passable in salads or recipes, but in my opinion doesn’t have as good a flavor in the absence of other ingredients.

When recipes call for buttermilk, stir 1 tablespoon of white or cider vinegar into 1 cup of soy milk and let it stand for a few minutes. Use as a 1:1 substitution for buttermilk to make delicious quickbreads, biscuits, or pancakes.

For creamy frozen desserts, look for So Delicious brand coconut-milk ice cream, or fruit ices such as mango or raspberry sorbet.

Food Labels

Read them!

To avoid eating hidden dairy, don’t buy food containing casein, any kind of caseinate, any type of whey, lactalbumin, lactoferrin, lactoglobulin, lactose, lactulose, nougat, recaldent, or (in Indian foods) ghee and paneer. All of these are definitely dairy in origin; read more here to learn about other substances that may or may not be dairy derivatives.

Dairy products turn up in some very odd places, including potato chips, soy cheese, and ‘non-dairy’ creamer (?!)… so do your homework, read those labels, and avoid accidentally supporting industrial dairy farming. If you’re in the process of leaning towards vegan eating, read more here about reading food labels to avoid other hidden animal ingredients also.


Buy them!

Every new vegan or dairy-free chef should have two or three good vegan cookbooks. There are some great dairy free recipes online, and definitely explore those too – especially the ones that provide other cooks’ reviews of each recipe – but when you’re first exploring dairy free cooking, books by well-known vegan authors are likely to be a better source of ‘tried and true’ dishes. Thanks to the editorial process and extensive recipe testing, books by good vegan authors are also likely to explain things more clearly, and leave less room for confusion or unsatisfying results. When you’re just getting started with veg cooking, that’s especially important: so splurge on a cookbook or three!

Artisan Vegan Cheese is a ‘must-have’ for newly dairy-free cooks. The Make-Your-Own-Mayo from Vegan on the Cheap is the best vegan mayonnaise I’ve tasted, and The Joy of Vegan Baking guarantees you’ll never, ever, ever miss dairy products during any of your future baking exploits!

Explore, Enjoy, Evolve!

In his Ultimate Vegan Guide, Erik Marcus offers this excellent advice: “Don’t cut out non-veggie foods, crowd them out.”

Marcus goes on to say,

The most important piece of advice I can give you is to constantly try new foods. Every time you discover something new that you like, you’ll be helping to crowd the animal-based foods you grew up on out of your diet. Until you’re ready to take off your vegan training wheels, make a commitment to sampling ten new vegan foods a week. I promise that you’ll be astonished at how quickly this will enable you to become comfortable on a vegan diet. Before long, the next time you find yourself hungry, the very first food that pops into your head will automatically be vegan.

This advice is spot-on, when it comes to freeing yourself from dairy! Don’t just cut dairy foods from your diet — explore new foods you’ve never tried before, to fill the space on your plate (or in your glass) that dairy once occupied.

For most people, it works best to quit dairy ‘cold tofurkey.’ Dairy products can be extremely high in sugar, salt, and fat — all the most ‘addictive’ things our palates are hardwired to crave, because for most of human history they’ve been scarce. If you’re still giving your taste buds regular exposure to dairy products, you give them no opportunity to reset — and you’ll keep craving dairy cheese and ice cream.

If it helps, view it as a ‘trial period’ — give yourself 30 days of all-out dairy freedom, before evaluating whether you like it or not! And spend that time exploring new nondairy foods to love. Chocolate almond milk, nooch sauce, cashew cheese, and coconut-milk or rice-milk ice cream are good starting points!

I recommend saving packaged vegan cheese to try after your first 30 days dairy-free — when your brain sees ‘cheese,’ your taste buds will still expect the old kind, and will find anything else ‘not quite right.’ I’m very fond of the Daiya brand shreds and wedges; but give your taste buds time to forget the dairy cheese, so you can judge them on their own merits rather than as ‘fake-other-food’ substitutions.

The exception to this might be the Daiya garlic-jalapeno havarti-style cheese wedge; but these are seriously addictive, so proceed with caution!

Ready, Set, Go (Dairy-Free)!

First of all, take a deep breath! It’s not as hard as you may fear. With diet change, like any other habit change, making that initial effort can be challenging at first. But as time passes, you’ll set new habits and find new favorite foods — you’ll be surprised how quickly your tastes recalibrate!

With a little knowledge, a bit of initial effort, and an adventurous kitchen spirit, weaning yourself of cow’s milk doesn’t have to be anything but empowering and tasty.

There has never been a better time to embrace a joyful dairy-free life!

Image credit: Creative Commons photos by wrestlingentropySweetOnVeg, indigotimbre, and the author.

Image credit: Creative Commons photos by wrestlingentropySweetOnVeg, indigotimbre, and the author.

Written by tanyas


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  1. I love this article! After being vegetarian for years and finally realizing the intimate connections between meat and dairy (“intimate connections between” meaning “sameness of”), the thought of never eating cheese again was somewhat daunting. But only at first. I like the author’s suggestion of viewing weaning as a trial period, which is both helpful, because maybe you’ll do it under those circumstances when you otherwise wouldn’t, and effective, because you really won’t go back. There are no reasons to go back and so many for pushing forward. I’ve been quite happily dairy-free for years, now, I eat and drink what I love, I’ve got oat milk in my refrigerator right now and everyone in my family is crazy about my chocolate uncheesecake. I raise my glass of cruelty-free creamy beverage in a toast to awareness and the better habits it engenders in those who value it appropriately. Thanks for this, Tanya! Viva la revolución!

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