Many products made from milk are very easy to identify. Cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream are obvious examples. Most of these dairy products are even more or less milk-colored, unless they're flavored with ingredients that change their hue, such as chocolate in ice cream or annatto in cheese. If you're avoiding dairy, it's also important to watch out for foods that you wouldn't expect to contain milk, such as mashed potatoes and donuts. You can find dairy-free recipes for many foods that typically contain milk, but if you're buying a product that someone else prepared, be sure to ask questions and read ingredients labels.
Vetting Prepared Foods
Any dish topped with cheese is made from milk, which is the main ingredient in cheese, of course. Lasagna has ricotta in its filling and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses on top. Similarly, eggplant Parmesan has layers of cheese, some obvious and some hidden. Macaroni and cheese usually contains milk in addition to its signature sauce ingredient, and any dish made with a traditional roux contains butter and milk, as well. These include creamed and scalloped foods such as scalloped potatoes, creamed corn and even gumbo. Mashed potatoes are usually made with butter, and even some processed meats contain covert dairy products. If you can find foods labeled "vegan" or "dairy free," you can save yourself the hassle of having to pore over ingredients lists.
Sorting Through Desserts
Toffee contains butter, chocolate often contains milk and pudding is usually made with a milky base. It's also common for baked goods to contain milk and butter. Unlike cheesy entrees, where you can easily see the dairy products, many baked goods contain milk-based ingredients hidden in plain sight. Ice cream is easy to identify as a food containing milk, but gelato is less obvious and traditionally includes milk, as well. Any dessert topped with whipped cream contains milk, which is part of the cream that is whipped cream's main ingredient.
Substituting for Milk
There are plenty of ways to create milk-free meals and desserts, even if you're preparing dishes that traditionally use dairy products. The milk substitutes on the market have steadily improved since they were first introduced, and you can choose between soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk and others. The flavor and behavior of these products isn't precisely the same as milk, and they also differ from one another. It's worth experimenting to determine which is most fitting for your palate and your culinary needs. You can also find perfectly respectable cheese substitutes at natural foods stores and even at many mainstream groceries, as well as ice cream alternatives in many flavors. Alternatively, you can steer away from dairy substitutes altogether if you're avoiding milk. Sorbet is a naturally dairy-free, frozen dessert, and ripe fresh fruit in season is perfectly satisfying, and certainly healthier, than just about any type of baked good.
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Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.