Indian dairy-free swaps: dairy-free alternatives for commonly used dairy ingredients in Indian cookery
There are two types of reactions your body can have to food groups: allergies and intolerance’s. They are both very different reactions all together. An allergy is an immune response, and an intolerance is when a person’s body doesn’t produce the enzyme require to break down a food group.
Whether you’re avoiding dairy because of an allergy, an intolerance or because of a lifestyle choice, some dairy ingredients may seem a little harder to substitute (especially when it comes to exotic style of cooking). So, as a half-Indian, lactose intolerant cook, I thought I’d share my favourite dairy-free substitutes for commonly used dairy ingredients…
Indian dairy-free swaps
1. Dairy ingredient: Ghee
Ghee is clarified butter, which is butter that is very gently simmered over 20-30 minutes, which causes the butter to separate into 3 layers. You discard the top layer and the bottom layer and keep the golden liquid section in the middle. This section does not contain all the impurities which create smoke during the cooking process. In India, ghee is used for sauteing onions, as well as deep fat frying (in the same way one would use vegetable or sunflower oil). It is also used when making parathas (pronounced ‘prota’ in Punjab), these are crispy flatbreads (essentially a shallow fried roti).
Swap: Sunflower oil OR Crisp’n’dry (depending on the dish)
Deep fat frying: sunflower oil
Sauteing onions: sunlower oil
Making parathas: Crisp’n’dry (this is a vegetable lard)
Use all of the ingredient swaps above in the same way and quantity that you would use the ghee.
2. Dairy ingredient: Milk
My family are from Punjab, which is a predominantly a farmland region (known as the bread basket of India). As a consequence, dairy is used heavily, especially in sweet foods. The milk consumed is actually buffalo milk, which contains 50% more protein and 50% more fat than cow’s milk, therefore the taste is a little more creamy. If you eat food from South India, coconut milk and coconut cream are used, so from a dairy-free stand point, this is less of a worry. The only thing to note is that the spices used in North Indian and South Indian food often vary greatly (resulting in very different tastes). Typical items that contain milk are naan dough (some doughs contain milk and others contain yogurt), kulfi (a slow-melting Indian ice-cream), kheer (Indian rice pudding) and seviyan (a milk and vermicelli pudding).
Swap: Almond milk, coconut milk or water (depending on the dish)
Making naan dough: water
Making kulfi: coconut or almond milk (depending on your flavour preference or the other flavours you may be adding to your mixture ie. almond & pistachio kulfi or coconut and orange blossom kulfi)
Making kheer: Almond milk
Making seviyan: I like to use coconut milk if I am making plain seviyan. I also fry the vermicelli in a little coconut oil. If I decide that I want to sprinkle to seviyan with flaked almonds and some crushed pistachios, then I use almond milk and fry the vermicelli in a little sunflower oil.
Butter is used in so many ways in Indian cookery. Now, butter does add flavour, which is very hard to replace with a dairy-free alternative if you are specifically looking for the same buttery flavour. Some dishes in India, such as saag (mustard leaves) are topped with butter before serving, and it melts into the dish, adding lots of flavour. My personal opinion, is that nothing I have used so far matches the flavour in this particular context, and so I prefer to skip the butter alternative and go without (what’s the point in adding the calories without the flavour?!). However, if you are using the butter for sauteing onions or in desserts, there is an alternative.
Swap: Sunflower oil
Sauteing onions (or any vegetables): sunflower oil
Making Indian desserts: sunflower oil
Yes, sunflower oil comes to the rescue again. The only thing to note, it that butter is solid at room temperature and oil is liquid at room temperature. Meaning that if you are using sunflower oil to make a dessert, it may turn out softer than usual, meaning that you may need to chill it slightly or chill it for a longer time if the dessert requires chilling. I would not recommend using coconut oil for sauteing or desserts unless you are cooking South Indian dishes where coconut is used in another part of the recipe, as the flavour is instantly recognisable and coconut would not be used in dishes from other parts of India (especially the North) as they don’t grow in those regions.
Paneer is a curd cheese, made by boiling whole milk (full fat milk) and adding an acid (either lemon juice or yogurt). This causes the milk to curdle (the curds and whey to separate) and the curdled mixture is passed through muslin cloth. The remaining curds are paneer. It often left in the muslin cloth and with a weight left on top to make the curd firmer. It is often served as a dish on it’s own (cooked with spices of course!). It is also served with palak (Indian spinach dish) and also with colouful red, yellow and green peppers.
Swap: Tofu (use the tofu in the exact same way and quantity as the paneer)
Use the tofu in exactly the same way and quantity that you would use the paneer.
Yogurt is used in marinades to tenderize meat, as well as being served with main meals to cool any heat from spicy dishes. I am yet to find a good alternative for yogurt served with meals, as every dairy-free yogurt that I have eaten is too sweet for me (and I have a sweet tooth!) and it just doesn’t taste right with chicken or lentils! However, there are some other great swaps that you can make for other occasions where yogurt is used in Indian dishes.
Swap: Almond or coconut yogurt (for sweet items only)
In marinades to flavour and tenderize meat: lemon juice
Making lassi: coconut or almond yogurt
Making naan: water (if using a recipe that calls for yogurt)
If using lemon juice to flavour and tenderize meat on it’s own (with virtually no other ingredients or spices with it), make sure that you don’t leave it on the meat for longer than 20 minutes. After this point, the acid in the lemon juice starts to cook the meat and this will then make it tough. If the lemon juice is one of many ingredients, then you don’t need to worry about this.
I personally find that dairy free yogurts are always quite sweet and so are not really the best option for savoury dishes, although they are great for sweet items. When making a lassi (a buttermilk or yogurt based drink), use the almond or coconut yogurt in the same way and quantity that you would use dairy yogurt.
When making naan dough that requires yogurt, substitute with water. The quantity of water may differ slightly. Add the water a little at a time until the desired consistency is reached (as described in your recipe instructions).
Learn how to make delicious dairy-free Indian dishes you, your family and friends can enjoy time and time again: See our online cookery school course for making dairy free Indian food
The information provided in this article is intended for your general knowledge only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.