Rethinking dairy from a vegan point of view

Here we go! My dairy manifesto!

This essay was written in 2007 for inclusion in this cookbook put out by the restaurant where I worked for many years, Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian restaurant, in Bridgeport. CT.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

Part One: Rethinking Dairy

Westerners have been using the milk of other animals for many years in our cuisine, but I see this as an accident of geography, not desirability – cows were here, so we used them. Now that other choices are available to us, I see no reason why we should continue to use the milk of other animals, especially when it has been widely documented that producing milk causes considerable strain on animals. Yes, high-quality dairy products – minimally pasteurized (sometimes even raw or fermented), humanely produced – are becoming more available, and many will see this as a step in the right direction. But for those of us who believe that (to paraphrase Alice Walker) animals were put here for their own reasons[1], dairy is not an option.

Throughout my nearly two decades years on the vegan path, my thinking about dairy has evolved. Like many vegans, I found dairy the hardest food to give up. I have come to believe, however, that this is mostly because we’re used to it and excellent vegan alternatives to popular dairy dishes do not widely exist. If they did, undoubtedly many more people would be amenable to eating non-dairy meals. Out of habit, we use cow’s milk, but this does not mean that it is the best choice (ample evidence shows that it is, in fact, a terrible choice[2]).

What if, for example, coconut palm trees were as plentiful in North America as cows in factory farms are? It seems to me that in that case, our cakes and cookies and all manner of foods would use coconut milk, and that would be thought of as the natural choice. Since my ethics preclude me from using cow’s milk, the versatile coconut has worked its way into my cooking more and more, and I now believe it is the ideal candidate to replace cow’s (and goat’s and sheep’s) milk altogether. This essay is the result of my studies on the topic, and before discussing the merits of the coconut, I will counter three possible negative assumptions about its use as a primary “dairy.”

The coconut is not perfect. Obviously, eating what is indigenous to a particular area is preferable not only for environmental reasons, but because it is better for the body. For most of us in the United States, coconuts are not indigenous, and cows, while not native, are at least more local. Moreover, coconut milk comes in cans, and canned food cannot be said to have the same vitality as fresh food, not to mention the waste issue.

However, even acknowledging these issues, coconut milk is a better choice than cow’s milk. Olives don’t grow in Connecticut, but we at Bloodroot rely on olive oil on a daily basis. Cow’s milk does not come from the soil and is not a truly seasonal product, thus using coconut milk in place of it does not make a negative impact in either our planetary or personal health. Yes, coconut milk comes in cans, but it is widely available organic and without any additives except a small amount of guar gum (a vegetarian emulsifier). It is heated to high temperatures as part of the canning process, but so is the vast quantity of milk on our shelves. Perhaps as the popularity of coconut milk grows, it will be available fresh in health food stores for cooking purposes.

It might seem that nominating the coconut for the title of Best Dairy Replacement is futile, as that crown has already been awarded: most vegans use soy milk in all ways that dairy milk is usually used. However, at Bloodroot we have found soymilk to have a beany and rather overly plastic flavor that we do not enjoy, and the comparatively long list of ingredients in soymilk does not compare favorably with coconut milk’s three ingredients (two if you do not count water). As well, it seems that, in a desire for oversimplification that the (increasingly corporatized) natural foods industry has fallen prey to, the fact that soy has health benefits has been overused as a marketing tool and most health-conscious people eat far too much soy, especially processed, lifeless soy products.

Finally, one more potential flaw of the coconut should be discussed: it tastes like coconut. While most of the time this is a positive aspect, as the flavor of coconut is divine, when it is used in all the same ways cow’s milk is used there is a danger of “over-coconutization.” Again, perspective is essential: most milk drinkers might not be able to pick out the flavor of milk in a dish, but this is because of its ubiquity and not because milk itself lacks flavor.  To some, cow’s milk vanilla ice cream tastes like vanilla; to most long-time vegans it would taste like cow’s milk. That said, I do not make vegan vanilla ice cream using coconut milk, because I have to acknowledge that it would be coconut-vanilla ice cream.

However, the flavor of coconut does back down when paired with strong flavors. My chocolate truffles use coconut milk instead of cream, and the chocolate is so intense that the coconut is not noticeable. At Bloodroot we make chocolate, coffee, and many other ice cream flavors using coconut milk as a base, and the coconut is not the primary flavor. To our palates, coconut has a cleaner flavor than soy or rice milk, and a more rich texture than nut milks.

The fat content of the coconut is a primary reason it is an ideal vegan product. I have found that most less-than-delicious vegan desserts are so because of a lack of fat, which contributes a mouth feel that cannot be replicated. Balanced vegan diets do not usually need to be concerned with fat, and the fats found in coconut are not unhealthy (this aspect is discussed below). Compared with soy, rice, or nut milks, coconut milk has more fat and is therefore much more tasty and makes desserts (as well as savories – see the recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff, for example) more satisfying. In ice creams as well as many other dishes, it also contributes a vastly improved texture. Fat (along with sugar and alcohol) prevents ice cream from freezing too hard, so coconut milk-based ice creams have a texture much more like that of similar dishes made with dairy cream.

It is at this point that a rather parenthetical discussion of “real” vs. “vegan” foods becomes relevant.

Sometimes well-meaning tasters of my vegan chocolate truffles proclaim them “just as good as ‘real’ truffles.” I always want to ask them: are they invisible? Cow’s milk is popular, but it has not staked a claim on reality to such an extent that any other milk must be deemed an impostor. Soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and all manner of nut and seed milks have been used in many cultures for hundreds of years, and it reveals a Western bias to reduce them to the category of imitations. Let’s stop comparing vegan dishes with “real” versions, and start comparing them to “cow’s milk” versions (and then let’s stop the comparisons all together).

Another coconut product is perhaps even more exciting for vegans is coconut oil (also called coconut butter).

Many people have a negative impression of coconut oil because it is a saturated fat (it is solid at room temperature).   However, it does not pose a problem for those who do not consume an excess of fat and/or cholesterol since more than half of it is composed of medium-chain fatty acids, which are used as energy and not stored as fat.  Coconut oil does not contain toxic trans-fatty acids found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been found to contribute to heart disease.  Therefore, remarkably, this most luscious and luxuriously fatty food is not used as fat in the body but works as instantly available energy.

In addition, unlike most vegetable fats which are unsaturated and prone to  destabilizing reactions with oxygen, coconut oil is highly stable and has a high smoke point. This is important because in order to get the nice caramelized brown color that makes vegetarian food so much more satisfying, oil must be heated very hot. When oil is heated, it can burn and become carcinogenic. Because coconut oil has a high smoke point, it is less likely to burn and thus much healthier than less saturated fats for searing, sautéing, and pan- and deep-frying. That this saturated fat is our best choice for frying seems to run counter to the general wisdom that unsaturated oils such as olive oil are always best for our health.  It is important to keep in mind that the health benefits of unsaturated fats are only valid when those oils are stable, and for high heat frying, coconut oil provides a healthy alternative.

In addition to not being harmful, coconut oil has an important positive effect on the vegetarian body: it is one of the only vegetarian sources of lauric acid, which enhances brain function and the immune system and has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties and is therefore beneficial for those with compromised immune systems.[3]

If you have the resources and want to use the very best coconut oil available, buy organic Omega Nutrition brand. It is, to my knowledge available via mail order and is sold in some health food stores. It is packaged in dark plastic containers (like flax seed oil), which helps prevent it from becoming rancid, and is available at and 1-800-661-FLAX (3529). Do not buy the raw “virgin” type, as it is undeodorized and tastes too coconutty and raw for cooking.

Now that you’ve bought your oil, a primer on the best way to use it is in order. For vegans looking for a butter substitute, coconut oil is perfect in all applications (except possibly for spreading on toast and the like), and its fatty richness excels in baked goods. When replacing coconut oil for butter, shortening, or lard in recipes, the amount can be reduced by 25 percent (which is good news considering how expensive coconut oil is) because it is almost pure fat, in comparison butter and others, which contain significant percentages of moisture and/or milk solids.

Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, in cooler climates it can be melted prior to measuring, which makes it a little easier to work with. Otherwise, it can be measured, packed down, in dry (flat-topped) measuring cups. If there are a lot of air pockets in the cup the measurement could be off by a significant amount, so either pack it well or add grapeseed or another neutral oil to fill up the cracks (even better, use recipes that call for weights!). Store coconut oil at room temperature.

Part Two: Resistance is Fertile

The “coconut dairy” is an idea borne from the need for a new way of thinking about vegan food. Once we move beyond worrying about replicating animal products and using any means possible (chemical-laced margarines, etc) to get there, we can begin to explore the creative possibilities of vegan cuisine. This process – the creativity that results from immersion in an “alternative” culture like this – is typified by the phrase “resistance is fertile.”

A recent novel we have been enjoying at Bloodroot is Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation. Some of the characters in the book use “resistance is fertile” as a slogan. This sums up my own explorations in cooking from a political standpoint. I became vegan because I felt that if I could live without causing others to suffer, I had the moral duty to do so. For several years I was proud to be living my political beliefs on a daily basis in this way, but I was deeply unhappy with the food I was eating. I believed that making the choice to stop eating animals was enough – eating French fries at every meal and iceberg lettuce salads and “healthy candy bars” didn’t matter, as long as they were vegan.

Slowly (thanks in large part to the women of Bloodroot) I came to have a more nuanced view of the politics of food. I saw that most food, even most food in health food stores, travels many hundreds of miles and is distributed by large agri-business corporations who often have political views I do not share (discrimination against lesbians and gay men, pro-globalization politics, exploitative marketing practices in “developing countries,” etc). I came to develop what Mary Daly calls a “biophilic” point of view, from “biophilia,” meaning “love of life.” Whereas I originally became vegan out of opposition to one practice (keeping and killing animals), I began to cultivate a philosophy of food with a wider progressive agenda. I saw that we could have a huge positive environmental impact by supporting local farmers, eating seasonally, and gardening. And of course, local, seasonal food tastes much better. Today I feel that the quality of my food – the way it is grown, the way the workers who pick and process it are treated, the distance it travels, even down to the packaging it is shipped in – is just as important as whether or not it is vegan. When vegetarians and vegans limit our politics to the realm of animal rights, we are doing ourselves a disservice. If Bloodroot has taught us anything in its almost three decades of existence, it is that feminism, progressive politics, animal rights, and environmentalism work best when they work together.

This is what “resistance is fertile” means to me. The Bloodroot atmosphere is fertile – women are teaching other women how to spin and knit, the air is laced with onions and garlic frying, books are being bought and discussed, the garden is teeming with gorgeous green little treasures. It is a site of resistance to the culture of violence and mediocrity that is the mainstream world. The more deeply I incorporate this culture of resistance into my life and work, the more fertile my life becomes – opportunities open up, creativity flourishes, hope is rekindled. In order to create the world we want to live in, we have to be able to imagine it.  Resistance is fertile.

[1] “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

[2] See, for example, The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, or Diet for a New America, by John Robbins. When one also notes that 70 percent of African-Americans, 95 percent of Native Americans, 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 90 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant (source: John Robbins), the USDA recommendation that all children drink milk every day seems not only unhealthy, but also culturally insensitive.

[3] Coconut oil is a good choice for frying, but expensive. The other oil we tend to use for frying and browning foods is grapeseed oil. It is not unrefined, but has a very high smoke point (485°F), is not genetically modified and is high in vitamin E. Make sure the grapeseed oil you are using is a by-product of the wine industry, otherwise it could be heavily sprayed with pesticides. Chemically treated grapeseed oil is dangerous because chemical toxins are concentrated in a plant’s fatty acids and a plant’s fatty acids are concentrated in its seeds.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking dairy from a vegan point of view

  1. Coconut oil and milk are the best vegan alternatives out there, no doubt, but I think it holds limited appeal for mainstream acceptance of any kind. I think the 2 major barriers are that, up to this point, you cannot make most cheeses, as we know it, without the milk from a cow or a few of it’s relatives due to it’s unique properties (for example, goat’s milk cheese can’t do the same things as cow’s milk cheese). Dr Cow cheeses are great, but have limited applications, and I don’t see the appeal of products like Daiya that are made from oil and starch. Also, I think the flavor that dairy butter contributes is, unfortunately, synonymous with good desserts for most people, and many savory dishes as well. I know that many delicious things can be made with vegan alternatives, but, sadly, it seems that most people don’t want to sacrifice anything at all before they even begin to think about the welfare of animals.

    • You’re probably right, but I think much better vegan cheeses could be made with vegetable rennets than are on the market today. I don’t know if it’s that the marketplace won’t support them because they are more pricey, or because so few people know how to make them, or just that making things with chemicals is just much easier.

      Yeah, I am over Daiya though. It’s the “best” cheese out there (yeah, except for my BFF Dr. Cow, but you’re right, it’s not one to make mac and cheese with) but I still think it sort of sucks.

      But I do think people’s palates can be retrained, and pretty easily too–just a few years after giving up dairy I accidentally had some cow’s milk ice cream and was shocked at how sickening the milk flavor was.

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