Please read this, I had to do a lot of math to get here
I love non-dairy milk, please don’t @ me. I truly enjoy an almond milk latte here and a coconut milk matcha there. I used cashew milk in vegan eggnog last winter and it ruled. Much as I wish I spent my free time making my own non-dairy milks, I just don’t (I prefer to use that time to rewatch old episodes of Gilmore Girls for the eighth time.) However, as a regular buyer of packaged non-dairy milk, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was spending more money on the store-bought stuff than if I just sucked it up and made my own. After all, I can still hear the TV from my kitchen.
I thought about it and tried to do some math in my head. I think that bag of almonds I bought last week was $9, and that was maybe ¾ pound? I don’t have the bulk bin sticker anymore, but I think that’s how much I got. It also could’ve been 1¾ pound though. And then this bottle of almond milk in the fridge was $3.49, but it was definitely more expensive than some of the other brands, I was just feeling extravagant at the store. OK, so if I need 1 cup of almonds to make the milk, then that makes—
You get the idea. To do this right, I clearly needed to get to the “gather data” step of the scientific process. So, off I went to the store.
At my local Whole Foods, whole raw almonds from the bulk bin are $12.99 per pound. Using a 1 cup almond to 2 cups water ratio, it costs about $4.05 to make 2 cups, or 16 ounces of almond milk. Alternatively, 365 Organic Unsweetened Almond Milk is $1.99 for 32 fluid ounces. Admittedly, this was the cheapest almond milk I could find. The other brands I saw ranged from $2.29 to $4.00.
Whole raw cashews from the bulk bin are also $12.99 per pound. Using a 1 cup cashew to 2 cups water ratio, it costs about $3.25 to make 2 cups, or 16 ounces of cashew milk. I then found that Pacific Foods Unsweetened Cashew Non Dairy Beverage is $4.39 for 32 fluid ounces. This brand was on the more expensive side, and others ranged from $2.99 to $5.00.
Coconut milk is a bit tricky, because there are a lot of different coconut milks on the market. Some coconut milks come in a can, which are great for curries and vegan whipped cream, but don’t really do that well in coffee. If you’re in the non-dairy milk section, you’ll find coconut milks that have been either blended with another non-dairy milk, made with dry or fresh coconut meat and water, or made from a base of coconut manna (also known as coconut butter) and water, typically with some added stabilizers. I was looking for one that could be poured from the bottle into coffee, so I went to unsweetened shredded coconut, which is $4.99 per pound. Using a 1 cup coconut to 2 cups water ratio, it costs about $1.25 to make 2 cups, or 16 ounces of coconut milk. So Delicious Unsweetened Coconut Milk is $2.99 for 32 fluid ounces, but other bands were slightly cheaper.
If you’re purely looking at numbers, the answer is clear: It’s mostly cheaper to buy packaged milk than to DIY. This is likely because non-dairy milk producers buy massive quantities of nuts in bulk, which reduces cost significantly. Additionally, many producers stretch the product they make by adding more water and mixing thickeners and emulsifiers like carrageenan, xanthan gum, or guar gum into the milk. These additives aren’t necessarily bad, they just screw up the curve.
But you can also think of it this way: If you DIY, you control pretty much everything about what you’re putting into your body. Not only can you avoid additives, you can decide where to buy the nuts. It means you can consider the farming practices and sustainability behind each nut, and whether organic nuts are important to you.
If you still want to make your own but can’t afford to spend all your money on on a cup of milk, we can’t forget my favorite trick for DIY nut milk, which I learned about from blogger Laura Wright in her book The First Mess Cookbook. When she’s in a pinch, Wright makes almond milk by blending a few tablespoons of almond butter with a 1½ cups of water (she also adds salt, maple syrup, and vanilla, but these flavorings are optional.) I’ve tried this method with almond, sunflower seed, coconut, and cashew butter, and it totally holds up to the packaged or soaked nut versions of non-dairy milk. Not only is this is certainly easier than soaking, blending, and straining, it’s way cheaper than the whole nut method. For example, if you use 3 tablespoons of nut butter (1.5 ounces) from a $7, 16-ounce jar of 365 Creamy Almond Butter to make 12 ounces of almond milk, that milk costs about $.86, or about $.07 per ounce. 32 ounces of this milk would cost $2.24, which is in fact cheaper than many packaged almond milk options. Not by much of course, but I’ll take it.