On Cooking Without Dairy (+ The Best Substitutes for Dairy!)

Need to ditch the dairy? Let’s talk about the best whole food substitutes (including options for cheese, milk & butter), plus my favorite store-bought products & tips for going dairy free. Also included is my personal experience with developing a dairy allergy at age 30.

Ingredients on a surface with On Cooking Without Dairy text overlay.

All right my friends. Pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and let’s have a little chat today about cooking without dairy.

If you are a longtime reader, then you may have already noticed the almost complete disappearance of recipes containing this delicious food group over the last year.

And while it may have been helpful for me to talk about it a bit sooner, it was a slow road with figuring out exactly what was causing me problems and then, finding my way again in the kitchen.

I know, sounds so dramatic right? But seriously. It really threw me for a loop when I could no longer dump cheese on things. <— Because holy moly does this girl love cheese.

BUT. I feel like I am finally on the other side and can actually contribute a little something or possible assist if you might be in the same boat and have to give up eating dairy.

So, we’ll cover a bit of backstory and then get to the good stuff – i.e. my favorite whole food substitutes for traditional dairy products + my go-to store-bought dairy free products. Let’s do this!

A woman on a couch writing in a grey notebook.

My Story with Dairy

{Disclaimer – this is my personal story when it comes to issues with dairy. I am not a medical professional and you should absolutely speak to one about any symptoms you may be having.}

Okay, so let’s back it up a bit. About two years ago I started to get stomach aches after eating certain rich foods – it took a bit of tracking but I finally figured out that it seemed to coincide with anytime I ate heavy dairy products – i.e. ice cream, anything with heavy cream or something loaded up with butter. I stopped eating all those things and the stomach aches mostly disappeared.

I kept eating yogurt as a snack, using small amounts of butter here and there and of course, continued to enjoy cheese. Because, cheese! Ha! And since those items didn’t seem to trigger stomach aches, I figured I was okay.

But then my skin started to go a bit crazy. We’re talking ridiculous hormonal acne (so fun!), a few ugly rashes and random patches of eczema. One of which triggered a panicked trip to my dermatologist because I thought it was something much much worse (thankfully no, just eczema).

In an offhand comment during one of my appointments, my doctor mentioned how dairy allergies (which can cause rashes and eczema, in addition to digestive troubles) are fairly common in babies and kids, but that she doesn’t see them too often in adults.

Which was a TOTAL LIGHTBULB MOMENT for me, as it seemed to finally connect all the dots (the stomach issues + the skin stuff). I’m pretty sure she thought I was a bit nuts when I was like wait, wait!! Anyway, some testing and experimenting later, and yes, I definitely have quite the sensitivity to dairy.

I stopped eating it completely and the skin issues went away. Gone. I’ve experimented a few times by eating just a few bites and bam. I wind up with a terrible breakout, rash, a patch of eczema or stomach ache. More recently, I’ve accidentally gotten dairy-ed at restaurants and now also get a lovely all-over achy feeling when I consume even a small amount.

So yeah, no dairy for this girl.

A jar of tahini, canned coconut milk and a jar with nutritional yeast on white parchment paper.

Cooking Without Dairy

So, let’s move along and talk about cooking without butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.

When I first stopped eating dairy I was totally fine with it since it made all my skin and stomach issues go away.

But then the reality sank in. Wait a minute … what about pizza night? Or my daily yogurt snack!? Or all the cheesy pasta dishes I grew up with? I’ll also admit that I started to have a really hard time planning our weekly meals. There was something about it that just threw me out of my normal groove.

So if you find yourself in the same position, here’s my advice: start by focusing on meals that don’t normally have dairy and THEN work your way into dishes that do (and figure out how to substitute).

Asian dishes are a great place to start (think stir-fries or curries), as they don’t typically contain dairy. I also found it easy to make different kinds of soups (but not chili, as that usually has cheese + yogurt / sour cream as a topping).

Seems totally obvious but it really helped me to get unstuck in the kitchen!

Two glass jars filled with cashew sour cream on white parchment paper.

The Best Whole Food Substitutes for Dairy

All right, now let’s get into the real meat of this post and talk about my go-to whole food subs for dairy.

Raw Cashews – Oh the wonder that is the magical cashew nut! Especially for a dairy free life. Blend them into cashew cream (this is my go-to recipe), which makes a fantastic sub for sour cream or even yogurt (in savory dishes). You can play with how thick or thin you make your cashew cream depending on what you’re adding it to. Like in this pumpkin fettuccine, where it’s thinned out to have the consistency of heavy cream. And dreamy cashews certainly don’t have to be limited to savory dishes! I made this vegan cream cheese frosting (which uses cashews as the base) for Easter and it is soooo goooooood.

Tahini – This delicious condiment (made of ground sesame seeds) is now a staple in my pantry. It’s the perfect addition to homemade dressings to make them creamy (like in this kale and quinoa rainbow salad), or you can just whisk together with some water and other flavorings to make a simple sauce for drizzling (like in these roasted sweet potato bowls)!

Canned Coconut Milk – Rich and creamy, canned coconut milk makes a great sub for regular dairy milk or heavy cream. It’s my go-to for making dairy free buttermilk. Also, you can stick a can of full fat coconut milk in the fridge, let it chill out and then whip the hardened coconut cream into a dreamy dessert that is reminiscent of regular whipped cream (like in this chocolate olive oil cake).

Nutritional Yeast – Is fannnntastic for adding a bit of “cheesy” flavor to dishes. I love to use it in place of parmesan in pesto, for sprinkling on popcorn, mixing into scrambled eggs or stirring into pasta. It’s also delicious in homemade nut-based “parmesan” cheese – this recipe is my favorite! I’d also highly recommend this vegan mac and cheese (which uses nutritional yeast) – it’s SO GOOD and tastes like the real deal!

Sun-Dried Tomatoes or Olives – Both are perfect for adding a salty punch to dishes in place of feta.

Coconut Oil – This is my go-to substitute for butter in baking recipes. It behaves remarkably similar to butter in its solid state (i.e. you can cut it into flour just like you would butter for scones and the like, or beat it with sugar for cookies! Like in these chewy gingerbread cookies). Or melt it down and use in place of melted butter. Nice and simple.

Unsweetened Almond Milk – Another staple at our house – mostly for use in smoothies, pancakes and just as a general “all-purpose” milk. These days I like to keep the plain kind on hand (instead of vanilla) so I can also use it in savory recipes.

Avocados – Three cheers for avocados!! These delicious suckers are great for so many things. My favorites? Making guac (or even just slicing up) for a topping on tacos. You can also blend it into a sauce and use as a drizzle over enchiladas. I promise, it adds so much flavor that you really won’t miss the cheese. I also love to use the combo of sliced avocado, fresh herbs and cashew sour cream on chili. SO TASTY.

Hummus – It’s no secret that I love me some hummus, but I love it even more since going dairy free. It makes for a great spread on sandwiches, or even in quesadillas! <— Just smear some hummus on a tortilla, layer on some toppings and cook up like you would a normal quesadilla. Still totally delicious without the dairy.

Pesto – But make your own without the traditional parmesan involved (my go-to dairy free pesto coming your way soon!). It makes for an incredibly flavorful base for dairy free pizza (recipe also coming at you soon!), smeared on a sandwich or stirred into pasta. Think of this more as a way to add extra flavor to dishes where you feel like you might miss the added oomph and saltiness of cheese.

Olive Oil – While I’ve always used plenty of olive oil in my cooking, there is one thing I love it for even more since ditching the dairy – dunking crusty bread! Pour some in a shallow dish, season with dried herbs (or add in some balsamic!) and dunk away. You know, like how they roll at certain restaurants. You won’t miss the butter!

Dairy free creamer, dairy free yogurt and dairy free milk on white parchment paper.

My Favorite Store-Bought Dairy Free Products

So, now that we have my favorite whole food subs covered, let’s talk about a few products. While there are tons of dairy free substitutes out there these days, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of most. They either taste weird or have lots of funky ingredients, which is just not my bag. But! Here are a few that I do enjoy.

{Disclaimer – nothing here is sponsored – all are products I buy with my own money and use on the regular.}

Coffee Creamer – This. This was one of the most difficult substitutions for me. I have long been a splash of half and half in my coffee kind of girl and it took a lot of trial and error to find something that I liked. Here are my favorites:

  • Oatly Oatmilk and Chobani Oatmilk – I love both of these brands. They’re rich and creamy and have a mouthfeel similar to real milk. And they stir into my coffee beautifully. Both are staples at our house.
  • Califia Farms Oat Barista Blend – Another go-to of mine. It swirls into my coffee like a champ and adds just the right amount of creaminess. 

Yogurt – Oh yogurt. This has also been a tough one. Lemme just say that some of the dairy free ones out there are just plain ol’ gross (seriously, so gross). But! I do have two favorites, depending on what I’m using the yogurt for.

  • Kite Hill’s Plain Unsweetened Greek-Style Yogurt – In terms of texture, I find it pretty darn spot on to regular greek yogurt. Which I love. I tend to use this more in actual recipes and not to eat on its own. For example, it’s fantastic as a dairy free sub in this homemade tzatziki sauce.
  • Cocojune Yogurt – This is hands down my favorite for enjoying as a snack. I like the unsweetened vanilla and pure coconut flavors the best. They’re coconut-y but not over the top. 

Cheese – And finally, let’s talk cheese. Kinda like with the yogurt, I’m not a huge fan of most dairy free cheese products out there – whether due to taste or ingredients. And trust me, I’ve tried A LOT. But! Here are a few that I actually use:

  • Miyokos’s – Their liquid mozzarella is probably the only dairy free cheese that really impresses me. It sounds a bit bizarre but it bakes up SO well on pizza (I’ve yet to try it in other dishes). I also like a few of their cheese wheels –  I’ve actually used them as part of a “cheese” board for several holidays and no one has ever had a clue that they weren’t real cheese. And during one event where I also included real cheese on the board, the Miyoko’s one ended up being the favorite. So go figure.
  • Kite Hill – I’ve tried and enjoyed their ricotta cheese and flavored cream cheese spreads (the chive flavor is my favorite – I’m not a huge fan of the plain one though.)


Whew. I think that does it! Or at least for now.

If you made it through this post, I truly hope that you found it helpful. And if you are facing a life without dairy, I hope that you’ve realized that dairy free cooking isn’t all that bad, and can actually be delightfully delicious!

Questions? Comments? Let’s chat! I’d love to hear from you.

Additional Dairy Free Resources: