How to Make Dairy-Free Versions of Your Family's Favorite Holiday Recipes

Chef and Food Network judge Carla Hall shares her best tips for making plant-based pie crust, creamy gravy, baked goods, and more.

Frosted Cake - Carla Hall
Photo: Jennifer Chong for Califia Farms

For chef and author Carla Hall, it's not the holidays without huge quantities of cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, her grandmother's five-flavor pound cake, and lots of pillowy dinner rolls—which only Hall is allowed to make. As the culinary matriarch of her family, she helps guide the menus at all of their seasonal celebrations. And though she doesn't follow a strict dairy-free diet, Hall describes herself as a flexitarian who has always been interested in learning how to cook for everyone, including vegetarians and vegans.

"I want to teach people that [cooking without dairy] is accessible and not hard. It teaches you how to flavor foods and get depth of flavor," she says. Luckily, making dairy-free versions of our favorite holiday dishes is easier than it's ever been, thanks to a wide variety of options now available in supermarkets. These substitutes go beyond alternative milks; they include plant-based cream, sour cream, cheeses, yogurts, and more.

Hall, who recently teamed up with Califia Farms (a brand she has turned to for years) to share dairy-free recipes through her free digital cookbook, Comfort Kitchen, shared some of her expert tips and tricks for making delectable dairy-free crowd-pleasers for your holiday table.

Get Creative With Plant-Based Milk

We're well-versed in using dairy alternatives, like almond, coconut, and oat milks, in our coffee, but these liquids have versatility far beyond your morning cup of joe, Hall says.

Make a Dairy-Free Gravy

She likes to use an extra-creamy oat milk (like a barista blend) in her recipe for pepper gravy. The milk's texture is similar to that of regular dairy milk—but it extracts extra flavor, too. "You can actually taste the black pepper in the gravy because it's not masked by dairy, so you get a depth of flavor and umami," says Hall.

Pro tip: Remember that some milk alternatives (like almond) contain a lot of water. If you're using a dairy-free milk in a recipe, choose one with a similar consistency to milk; this will maintain the recipe's balance.

Make a Dairy-Free Pie or Shortcake

You might be surprised to know that there are recipes for dairy-free flaky pie crust and shortcake in Hall's digital cookbook. It's entirely possible to achieve that melt-in-your-mouth, layer-upon-layer texture with dairy-free milk and butter, says Hall. Keep in mind that, in addition to heeding the below tips, you may need to experiment when making your favorite recipes dairy free.

  • Look for extra-creamy non-dairy milks. The extra-creamy texture helps your pie crust and shortcakes retain richness and flavor.
  • Different varieties of flour take on moisture differently, so add the plant-based milk to a batter slowly and see how it reacts.
  • Be aware that you may need to tweak baking time: Since plant-based milks often contain more water than dairy milk, they bake a little faster. You may get slightly more rise as the water evaporates, says Hall.

Freeze and Grate Plant-Based Butter

Plant-based butter melts faster than its dairy-filled cousin. To prevent a too-soft result, freeze the dairy-free butter for 30 minutes before using it, suggests Hall.

Pro tip: For biscuits or pie crust, grate the dairy-free butter stick along its long edge, which will speed up the process, says Hall.

Don't Disregard Overripe Bananas

Sick of banana bread? No problem: You can put those spotted fruits to good use in other ways when making dairy-free holiday goodies, since bananas lend sweetness and creaminess to baked goods, says Hall. One of her go-to recipes, baked oatmeal cups (which are perfect grab-and-go bites for this busy season!) calls for a couple of these ripe fruits.

You can also swap in ripe banana as a binder in many baking recipes, replacing dairy milk or even some of the oil. Give it a try and tweak as necessary if the substitution isn't quite right first time, notes Hall.

Consider a New Take on Whipped Cream

If you or someone in your family is dairy free, you can still enjoy whipped cream, a staple topper around the holidays for everything from warm drinks to pies. At the grocery store, read labels to find a dairy-free cream that can substituted one-for-one for regular heavy cream. It should whip up just like regular, albeit with a little bit softer texture, says Hall. Best of all? "You can't overwhip it. It won't turn into butter," she says.

Embrace the Opportunities

The wide variety of swaps now in stores makes dairy-free cooking and baking so much easier and more flavorful than it was 10 years ago. As you're experimenting with dairy-free items in your go-to holiday dishes, be kind to yourself and don't think you have to totally reinvent the wheel. "Think about flavors, what you like, and try new things," Hall says.

One easy place to start? Appetizers. Hall has a go-to trick: Take a favorite creamy soup recipe and change out the liquid for a plant-based milk. Serve as soup shooters. "It's a short little taste for your guests and gets them excited about what's next," she says.

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