Chef’s Guide for Plant-Based Dairy-Free Cooking


A huge hurdle when beginning a plant-based whole foods diet is eliminating dairy.  Dairy products are in many of the foods we’re used to eating on the Standard American Diet.  Dairy is in cheese, milk, ice cream, and yogurt…just to name a few.  It garnishes salads, it tops pizzas, and it’s hard to find a dessert that doesn’t use dairy.  However, there are many healthy vegan options for ditching dairy. 

Here is my Chef’s Guide for Plant-Based Dairy-Free Cooking.

1) Identify the Dairy Foods you Enjoy

The first step towards making change is to know where you’re starting.  If you’re trying to lose weight, you step on the scale.  If you want to save money, you track your money.  Identifying the key dairy foods you enjoy will help you discover new, plant-based, dairy-free options.  You may prefer cheese and sour cream.  Or perhaps you enjoy sweet treats like ice cream and Greek yogurt.  Keep a food log of your top dairy foods.  Then, as you find healthy alternatives, add these notes to your log. 

This food dairy will help you in two ways.  First, it becomes a quick-reference guide for dairy-free substitutions.  Second, you can check your progress as you wean yourself off your old foods.  This will be encouraging as you document the changes you’ve made.

2) Replace Texture and Richness…not just Foods

When dairy is used in traditional cooking, it is often used to enhance texture and richness.  Dairy has a rather neutral flavor, especially when it comes to milk, cream, and butter.  Rather than focusing on how to find a “vegan cream” to replace traditional heavy cream, focus on how that cream is used in a recipe.  Some common ways dairy is used in traditional recipes include:


Cream, butter, and cheese are added to savory dishes to enhance the creamy texture.  They appear in mashed potatoes, pureed cream soups, and creamy cheese sauces.  To replicate that savory, creamy texture, you can use soaked cashews, pureed beans, or pureed tofu.  You can also use aquafaba (the liquid that comes from canned chickpeas) or mashed starchy vegetables like potatoes and yams.

Recipe: Ultimate Vegan Smashed Potatoes

Richness and Fattiness

Let’s get real.  Fat tastes good.  Dairy products are used to garnish dishes and add rich, fatty flavor.  You see this when Parmesan cheese is sprinkled over pasta, sour cream is added to a baked potato, and melty mozzarella is added to pizzas and grilled sandwiches.  In fine dining, chefs will often finish pasta with a pad of butter. 

Yet, fat also exists in the plant-based diet.  You can easily replace dairy ingredients with rich, plant-based alternatives.  Chopped cashews, nutritional yeast flakes, hemp hearts, and toasted pine nuts can replace Parmesan.  Avocado can be used instead of sour cream.  A roasted garlic hummus can be spread on a pizza or sandwich instead of cheese.

Recipe: 5-Minute Vegan Cashew “Parm”

Umami Flavor

Umami is a deep “fifth flavor” that you find in dairy, especially in aged cheeses.  Umami comes from glutamates.  These glutamates can also be found in plant-based foods like nutritional yeast, soy sauce (or tamari), fermented foods, and mushrooms.  Cooking with these ingredients will help add umami flavor, without the dairy.  Add nutritional yeast to your mashed potatoes and brine tofu to make a vegan feta.

Recipe: Vegan Tofu Feta “Cheese”

Sweet Creamy Treats

Besides savory foods, traditional dairy shows up in the sweet desserts many Americans love.  Ice cream, milkshakes, fudge sauce, frosting, and yogurt parfait are all examples of sweet treats using dairy.  Again, chefs like the rich, fatty flavor of dairy.  Fat tastes good.

However, there are plenty of vegan alternatives to these foods.  Frozen bananas can be pureed for “I-Scream”.  Frozen fruit and almond milk can be blended for a smoothie.  Dates, nuts, chia seeds, and plant-based milks can be combined to make creamy sauce, pecan frosting, and chia pudding parfait.

Recipe: Plant-Based Vegan Pecan Vanilla Frosting

Chef Katie’s Quick Dairy-Free Plant-Based Substitute Guide:

Traditional Dairy Plant-Based Alternatives
Savory Creaminess Cream, Butter, Cheese Soaked Cashews Pureed Beans Tofu Aquafaba Mashed Potatoes or Yams
Richness Parmesan Cheese, Sour Cream, Sliced Cheese (on Sandwiches) Nutritional Yeast Flakes, Hemp Hearts, Toasted Pine Nuts Avocado Hummus
Umami Aged cheese Cheese Sauces Nutritional Yeast Flakes, Soy Sauce (or Tamari), Fermented Foods, Mushrooms
Sweet Creamy Treats Ice Cream, Milkshakes, Fudge Sauce, Frosting, Yogurt Frozen Banana “Nice” Cream, Smoothies, Date Chocolate Sauce, Cashew Frosting, Chia Pudding Parfait

3) Be Careful with Substitutes

When starting a plant-based diet, it may be easy to simply replace your traditional dairy foods with processed vegan alternatives.  We live in a time when there are a plethora of options for dairy-free eating.  You can visit almost any grocery store and find plenty of vegan cheeses, dressings, and sauces.  However, it’s worth taking a moment to double-check the ingredients label. 

Many of these quick-replacement substitutes are full of refined oils, processed thickeners, and artificial flavors.  From a chef’s perspective, these added ingredients can often leave an unpleasant aftertaste.  Tapioca starch tends to stick to the roof of your mouth.  Refined oil can taste greasy.  Look at the ingredient label and try to avoid these ingredients.  Remember, it’s not just about finding replacements.  Rather, it’s about replacing the texture and richness you crave.

Avoiding artificial, refined ingredients will help you two ways.  First, this will help you have more delicious food.  Second, choosing more whole foods products will help you stay healthy and satisfied.

 5) Stock Up Your Pantry and Freezer

One of the best attributes of plant-based cooking, is that it is much more freezer-friendly and shelf-stable than traditional dairy.  While cow’s milk dairy can spoil in the fridge, plant-based almond milk can last for months in your pantry.  Parmesan cheese may get moldy after a few weeks.  However, Cashew “Parm” can last for months in your freezer.

When you’re shopping, stock up on the dairy-free staples that you’ll need often.  Keep a good supply of plant-based milk, nutritional yeast, nuts, seeds, and canned beans on-hand.  When you’re making a recipe for a vegan cheese or creamy sauce, make extra.  Keep some in the freezer for back-up and emergency meals.

I hope these chef’s tips help you ditch the dairy for healthy, plant-based eating.  Remember that any progress is just that…progress.  My own journey towards a plant-based lifestyle took years of practice.  Experiment with the recipes and ingredients that work best for you.  Keep your mind open and your taste buds ready.  Enjoy the new flavors.  Continue to make time for your health.

More Help Transitioning to a Dairy-Free, Plant-Based Lifestyle:

Plants-Rule Dairy-Free Essential Recipes

Plant-Based 101 and the Essential, Oil-Free Vegan Recipes

Why You Should Give up Dairy:

There is a lot of science linked to the negative health effects of dairy. It has been connected to asthma, heart disease, cancer, and even osteoporosis. For more about the science behind dairy-free living, check out these handy resources:


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