(This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
“It’s reliable, sustainable, gluten free, and it tastes good,” says dairy-free pastry chef Fran Costigan, a renowned authority on vegan desserts, explaining why oat milk, and especially the Oatly brand, has been her plant milk of choice for over a year. “I was struggling to find a milk substitute that would work in recipes,” she continues. “Some people have an allergy to coconut or the taste comes though; some are soy adverse, and I’ve been hearing about the sustainability issue with growing almonds – oat milk checks all the boxes.”
Costigan, Director of Vegan Pastry at the Rouxbe Culinary School, still uses some of the myriad bean, seed, nut, grain, and rice based products available in the proliferating plant-based universe (hazelnut and pistachio are favorites), but she relies on oat as a basic choice, as do a growing cadre of enthusiastic pastry chefs, chocolatiers and, most noticeably, frozen dessert makers.
Since the 27-year old Swedish-based Oatly entered the U.S market in 2016, sales have increased dramatically, and generated headlines with investments by Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z, a Superbowl commercial and soft serve on the menu at Yankee Stadium. Other plant milk producers are profiting from the publicity, ranging from major players like Pacific Foods, who have sold oat milk since the 1990’s, Califia Farms, Silk, and Elmhurst 1925, a dairy that flipped to plant milk in 2017, to boutique businesses such as New York City’s urban FarmOne. Their oat and cashew “mylk pack” is delivered weekly by bicycle in recyclable bottles – perhaps the ultimate in sustainability.
From a splash in coffee, oat milk has morphed into a welcome culinary component available as plain (original), full fat, vanilla, chocolate, or barista versions, for pastry chefs to try out in cakes, puddings, and cookies. Neomiee Eliezer, pastry chef at prestigious Feast Your Eyes catering in Philadelphia, substitutes oat for kosher and vegan events: “The great thing about oat milk is that its consistency is a bit thicker than your typical nut or soy milk,” she points out. “I use it as I would milk in all my baked goods, including a deliciously moist orange olive oil cake with a great crumb that I totally veganized, also subbing flax seed for egg. If I need a dairy-free buttermilk, I just pour some vinegar in my oat milk, and voila,…you really can’t tell the difference.”
Recipes for oat milk chocolate pudding abound. For The New York Times Cooking, Ali Slagle adapted a version by Alice Medrich, swapping the non-dairy for milk and cream, “for a pudding with the plushiest texture.” Costigan uses oat milk for the brownie base of her Baked Alaska, featured in this year’s Pastry Arts Summit, and Maya Madden of Maya’s Cookies a popular vegan enterprise in San Diego, glazes cookies with Oatly. “I like to use the unflavored classic version,” she notes, “for example, in a lemon glaze for a little creaminess and tartness, and it’s fabulous for mocha.” In addition to cookies with classic flavors, Madden pays tribute to iconic figures she admires; lemon/raspberry honored Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who was a sensation at President Biden’s inauguration. Madden saw a huge spike in business during the pandemic after her name appeared on a list asking for support for black entrepreneurs; orders soared from 20 to 3000 a day, sold at her shop, online, and at farmers’ markets.
Chocolate makers like ESC (Endangered Species Chocolate), Raaka, and Mast are rolling out oat milk bars. ESC, dedicated to supporting wildlife conservation, introduced three flavors with 55% cocoa last year, and has just added four more with 75% cocoa, including dark chocolate chips for bakers. Diane Garvey, an esteemed pastry chef who served as baker and lead cake decorator at vegan restaurants in Chicago before transitioning to food content creator and recipe developer, uses ESC’s sea salt bar for a Salted Chocolate Tart, and their chips for a Chocolate Chip Donut. Next up? Chocolate-covered strawberries also made with ESC chips.
When it comes to alt-dairy frozen desserts, attempts to produce a successful simulation of rich, creamy ice cream dates back 40 years to the introduction of soy-based Tofutti, still available, but now just one of an astonishing array of innovative options. While plant milks – from almond to rice – all have boosters, oat currently has the cache.
This spring Baskin -Robbins became the first mass marketer to add an oat milk-based ice cream – Strawberry Streusel was the flavor for May. Target introduced oat-based frozen dessert bars, Trader Joe’s launched Chocolate Fudge Oat Bars, and Chloe’s Oatmilk Pops expanded to six selections. Van Leeuwen’s nine oat flavors include Churros and Fudge and Passion Fruit Layer Cake, and Oatly has a similarly diverse selection.
Oatley’s soft serve is on the menu at acclaimed vegan restaurant Dirt Candy in New York and in California at places like Maya’s cookies. But two sisters, Courtney Blaggrove and Zan B.R, crystal-balled the trend, co-founding Whipped Urban Dessert Lab on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2019, where soft serve or hard-scooped “oat ice crème” is customized with toppings and sauces, and also shipped nationwide by Goldbelly. Along with flavors like Strawberry Shortcake and Coffee Waffle Crunch, the Whipped team celebrates special occasions; this summer’s “Taste of Freedom”, a cinnamon spice and ginger cookie “creme”, commemorates Juneteenth. In Chicago, Mariana Marinho and Dylan Sutcliff have just opened Vaca’s, a vegan creamery serving vanilla and chocolate oat milk soft serve with a dozen toppings, along with shakes, and sundaes. The couple met while working at Sweet Ritual, a highly successful vegan ice cream shop in Austin, Texas, whose owners, Amelia Raley and Valerie Ward, also operate Cool School, offering courses for dairy-free entrepreneurs.
While oat is currency grabbing attention, ice cream artisans like Raley and Ward are always experimenting with new combinations, declaring “After making ice cream out of peas, oats, nuts, coconut milk, sunflower seeds, and avocado we feel we could make ice cream out of just about anything.”
The same is true at uber vegan chef Matthew Kenney’s 42 restaurant universe, but Kenney is also looking ahead. He is collaborating with start up Eclipse Foods, a Berkeley company that describes its “cowlessly creamy” ice cream as a dairy replacement rather than a dairy alternative. With a base of oats, corn, potatoes, cassava, and other vegan ingredients, Eclipse co-founder chef/scientist Thomas Bowman has figured out a way to recreate the molecular composition of animal products using plants. At Kenney’s Italian-themed Baia in San Francisco, Chef Jameson Poll debuted two flavors: Cannoli, a pistachio base layered with vegan ricotta cheese and cherries, and Budino, an espresso ice cream with chocolate and turron (a European nougat).
Eclipse has also partnered with a coterie of prominent chefs across the country on a series of designer flavors starting at Sam Mason’s OddFellows with Cherry Miso and Olive-Oil Roasted Plum. Corey Lee’s Palmier Cookie with Calvados Caramel, and Cocoa Black Sesame Tahini at Botanica are among the imaginative Eclipse-based creations. Another startup, Perfect Day, uses a different technology, a fermented strain of yeast, to mimic milk proteins in dairy ice cream, and other experimental products are on the horizon. With plant-based cuisine evolving from niche to mainstream, oat milk and its next-gen offspring are promising a sustainable, starry future for dessert artisans.