Why Vegan Milkshakes Taste So Much Better Than You'd Expect

Dairy-free milkshakes contain a surprising amount of richness and full flavor.

I know there's a general growing concern about the way we consume animal products, whether we're worrying about stuff like climate change or simply hoping to decrease the amount of burgers in our diet. I know I struggle with it daily, because I generally eat some sort of animal-based product with every meal. To cut down on my meat intake, I'll do things like swap out ground beef for Impossible Burger, opt for the vegan meatballs from Aldi (big fan!), and use plant-based meat crumbles for tacos. But I always have to remind myself that animal products aren't always just about meat. And finding replacements for those other animal products can be a challenge.

Let's start with milk. Milk is easy; it's one of those things that you can easily replace with a plant-based alternative in your daily life if all you're looking for is the flavor and feel of milk. Plant milk is great in coffee, and the full-fat versions like Silk's Next Milk make a bowl of granola feel just as hearty as one with whole milk in it.

There is one big thing that I don't think I'll be able to replace anytime soon, however, and it's one of my favorite foods: cheese. Cheese is a difficult subject to master, because casein, a dairy protein, isn't something that's easily replicated by modern technology quite yet. So it's going to be a while before we get the ideal dairy-free topping for pizza.

Surprisingly, one of my favorite vegan dishes has turned out to be vegan milkshakes. There are a few long-running vegan institutions here in Chicago that serve stellar versions, like the Chicago Diner, whose vegan milkshakes you have to taste to believe. They are as rich and as creamy as their dairy-based counterparts, and just as exciting and fun to drink. If you're nitpicky you might barely notice that their milkshakes aren't dairy, but when something is that delicious, who cares about 100% fidelity?

I asked my friend Natalie Slater, who's got a really great vegan cooking blog, Bake and Destroy, about what makes vegan milkshakes special. She's also the director of marketing at Upton's Naturals, a company that makes some pretty delicious plant-based meat substitutes that you can get at many major grocery store chains.

Upton's Naturals just so happens to house a tiny little vegan restaurant called Upton's Breakroom, which serves some of my favorite nachos in Chicago, as well as some pretty mean vegan milkshakes too, which I never skip.

The Takeout: How is it that vegan milkshakes, specifically, are so good? I've noticed that I'm not as big of a fan of some vegan ice cream, but in a milkshake format, half the time I'm too happy to notice the difference.

Natalie Slater: I think tricking your mouth by blending the ice cream has a lot to do with it. In its hard-pack form, dairy-free ice cream's faults are easier to spot: sometimes it's icy, or watery, or it feels greasy in your mouth.

Of course, there have been a lot of advancements here, and the popularization of higher-fat milk alternatives like cashew and oat have helped a lot. But even if you scoop the wateriest, most soy-based, old-fashioned vegan ice cream into a blender with some non-dairy milk and chocolate sauce, it's going to taste good because your mouth isn't anticipating a super specific texture the way it does with ice cream. And it spends less time lingering in your mouth because you're drinking it down with a straw as opposed to savoring spoonfuls or licking a cone.

For me the best vegan milkshakes have thoughtful add-ins. Some nut butter for fat and flavor, a ribbon of chocolate or strawberry sauce, and if you're going to add cookies, make them finely ground so I can drink them. I don't want to chew a milkshake. I always gravitate towards a shop that also offers non-dairy whipped cream for their shakes.

TO: Got any secrets to making vegan milkshakes at home?

NS: Most people don't have soft serve in their homes, but hard-pack, store-bought vegan ice cream can still make a great shake at home. Don't skimp on your mix-ins and have them ready to go so your shake isn't melting while you smash cookies or open a jar of peanut butter. And keep everything frosty; chill your glass ahead of time, and if you're adding fruit, use frozen so your shake doesn't get too watery.

The only thing that shouldn't be super cold is the ice cream, which you should let soften up a bit before you start. A blender is going to get the job done, but if you have the patience, hand-whisking your ice cream and milk together will incorporate air, making a fluffier, and less melted shake.

My only other piece of advice is that "shakeifying" is also a great way to make use of stale birthday cake or other baked goods. Just throw your stale cake, cinnamon roll, or whatever other pastry in while you're mixing, and it will soften up and add flavor and texture to the shake. If it kills you to throw out that last piece of cake even though it's been sitting around for a week, cake-shake it.

Vegan milkshakes are a good reminder that vegan food can be indulgent and luxurious, and not just a thin and watery counterpart to a dairy product. They also remind me that vegan food isn't just lifestyle-based—it can and should genuinely make you happy. And isn't that the whole point of a milkshake?