If you’re vegan, conscious of your food’s carbon footprint, or, like me, finally accepting that you’re lactose intolerant after vehemently denying it your entire life, you might be curious about non-dairy ice cream. Out of all the plant-based substitutes, ice cream is one of the hardest foods to reimagine, because the best ice creams are defined by their hit of milk fat flavor and the creamy texture that dairy (but not only dairy!) can provide. In my search for the best plant-based ice cream, I’ve tried those made from soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and oat milk bases. Overwhelmingly, the oat milk ice cream wins out.
If you’ve never had oat milk, you’re missing out on the creamiest, fattiest-tasting milk substitute. It clocks in at 120 calories per cup, fewer than dairy milk but more than, say, almond or soy. And it’s naturally nut- and gluten-free. When I drink oat milk straight, or in a cup of tea, I immediately feel calm and pacified. This is how I imagine breast milk tastes to babies. Whereas other plant-based milks feel like they’re trying too hard to mask what they truly are, oat milk just tastes like creamy oats, yet somehow doesn’t come across like a breakfast cereal.
But anyway, back to freezer aisle. The bad news is that any of these alt-ice creams, including my favorite, will run you a dollar or more than your standard Breyers fare, so you’ll want to select one that makes you happiest. I’ll start with the bad news: almond milk is the clear loser of the bunch. In ice cream form, it’s too thin and watery to be enjoyable—less like an indulgent treat and more like frozen sugar water, though not in a fun Sno-Cone kind of way. It fails to fill you up either physically or emotionally, which are equally important reasons that we turn to ice cream in the first place.
Soy milk ice creams simply taste too much like soy to convince you otherwise. It’s a phenomenon you see often in products like soy chorizo or “fakin’ bacon”: the soy is trying to achieve the same texture as whatever it’s replacing, but it can’t sufficiently mask its own flavors. Even if I was blindfolded, or my nose was plugged, or I hadn’t tasted real ice cream in years, this product would fail to pass as dairy.
Coconut milk ice cream, which at least feels thicker than almond milk ice cream alternatives, tends to have an unfortunate artificial-tinged coconut taste, like licking a bottle of Coppertone sunscreen. It’s not versatile enough to pull off a flavor that doesn’t already pair well with coconut. (Though if you’re a fan of coconut LaCroix, this might be the non-dairy option for you.)
After so much disappointment, you can imagine my surprise when I tried Oatly’s vanilla ice cream. I was shocked by how much it tasted like the real thing—it’s the uncanny valley of ice creams. It’s thick and creamy enough to feel like dairy, the vanilla flavor mixes well with the complementary oat milk base, and it doesn’t upset my stomach. It’s good enough to quit real ice cream for, and if the last 10 years of dairy-free innovation has taught us anything, it’s that the imitators will only keep getting better.