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Working out how to make vegan versions of your favorite recipes can be a lot of fun. If you use any prepared store-bought ingredients, always first check the label to make sure they are vegan, and also that they work for you or your guests if you are catering for allergies, so you know they don’t contain the ingredients that you would like to avoid. Many seemingly innocuous items (including bouillon cubes, flat breads, burger buns, and condiments containing wine) sometimes contain meat or dairy products, so make sure you always read the label carefully. Here are our top discoveries for some great vegan switches.
Aquafaba: The fancy name for the liquid, or water, from a can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) — aquafaba means “bean water”). You can use other cooked beans (experiment with beans such as navy beans), but chickpeas are the most reliable (you can also use the liquid from a jar of chickpeas). It’s a miraculous ingredient — and we usually throw it away. It behaves just like egg white — in many ways it is even better because you can’t overbeat it — and it can be used almost anywhere you might use egg whites, from cloudlike white meringues and chewy cookies, to pancakes and even cocktails and mayo. Save it whenever you cook with chickpeas; one 15-oz can will yield 2/3–3/4 cup aquafaba and it keeps for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Some brands work better than others; choose chickpeas in unsalted water, shake the can well before opening, and when you’ve drained it into a bowl, look for a thick, gloopy liquid. If it seems thin, reduce it in a saucepan to thicken, then cool before using.
Flaxseeds & chia seeds: As well as bananas, and occasionally applesauce, we use ground (also known as milled) flaxseeds or chia seeds to make “eggs” to help bind baked goods. Both keep well if kept in a sealed container in a cool dark place. To replace 1 egg, mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds (whole seeds won’t work) or 1 tablespoon chia seeds, with 3 tablespoons water, then set aside for 5–10 minutes, at which point the mixture will turn into a gel. (Don’t use the seeds without first soaking them.) Don’t try the gel in an omelet. If you want an omelet, go for chickpea (besan) flour. And if you want scramble, use soft tofu, or ackee, with a pinch of sulfuric black salt.
Nutritional yeast: Also known as “nooch,” it sounds weird and looks like flaky fish food, but is a wonderful (and cheap) replacement for Parmesan. The yeast is deactivated, and it adds savory, nutty, umami-ness to foods. We use it to make “chees” and cheesy sauces and to sprinkle over pasta dishes. It is rich in hard-to-find B vitamins.
Miso: White or yellow miso paste, used sparingly, replicates the tang and funk of mature cheeses, and can be delicious in broths, sauces, and even vegan “butter”. If you need to avoid soy, soy-free miso is available online. Similarly, we love using an occasional splash of old-fashioned pickle liquid from a jar, because proper cultured pickles contain lactic acid, just like cheese and butter.
Seaweed powder: Seaweed is a wonderful addition to a vegan diet because it is rich in iodine, otherwise found in dairy and seafood. Kelp powder is sold as a health food, but its seaside tang makes it good at replacing Thai fish sauce, anchovies, and even Worcestershire sauce. (You can also use dried and rehydrated leafy seaweeds, such as hijiki or wakame, in salads, as well as nori sheets to wrap up sushi rolls.)
Smoke: Liquid smoke can be found online and in large grocery stores; made from concentrated smoked water, it is absolutely worth getting hold of if you want to make carrot smoked “salmon” or vegan bacon. Sweet smoked paprika is a good second choice, however, especially in sauces. Both keep almost forever.
Soy sauce: Soy sauce is a fantastic source of savory umami. Use it to replace the roasty flavors you get from dark stocks and browned meats. If you need to avoid wheat, choose tamari soy sauce (but check the label). Rebecca can’t eat soy, so she often replaces soy sauce with a little Maggi liquid seasoning. However, Maggi is made from wheat, and Chantal can’t eat gluten, so when we eat together, we use a dash of coconut aminos instead.
Coconut oil: Because of its relatively high saturated fat content, coconut oil is good at replacing butter when baking, and anywhere you need extra help to bind things, such as “meatballs” or burgers. We much prefer using it to processed vegan margarine, where possible, which is often made with palm oil. Refined coconut oil is flavorless, so is best used when you don’t want the strong flavor of extra virgin coconut oil to come through. Find it with the cooking oils in the grocery store; in general, it is excellent for cooking with and we use it all over the place instead of dairy butter. If you are making a straight swap with butter, use 80 percent coconut oil and 20 percent water, which is the makeup of butter, plus a pinch of salt and 1/4–1/2 teaspoon vegan apple cider vinegar. Coconut oil is not suitable to use in dressings and mayonnaise — for these, you need to choose an oil that is liquid at room temperature.
Margarine: If you have found a vegan margarine (sometimes called vegan butter) that you like, check the package to see if it is suitable for frying or baking as well as spreading.
Sugar: In some countries, including the United States, sugars are often refined using bone char, which makes them unsuitable for vegans, including brown sugars made by adding molasses to refined white sugar. You can buy sugar made from sugar beets or coconut, or look for sugar brands that don’t use bone char, such as In the Raw, Bob’s Red Mill, Redpath, Trader Joe’s, and Zulka, to name just a few (you can find a number of other brands listed online). Be cautious when it comes to swapping a sugar or sweetener in a recipe, because different sugars do different jobs. Confectioners’ sugar and superfine sugar are dry fine sugars that add to the structure of a dish or cake without adding liquid. Less refined brown sugars, including muscovado and palm sugars, contain more moisture, while dark and toffee-flavored sugars, such as molasses, are wet and can change how something like a cake behaves as well as tastes. Be sure that the sugars you are swapping have the same texture — chunky palm sugar nuggets often can’t replace fine superfine. You can switch between liquid sugars more easily; maple syrup, agave nectar, and light corn syrup all work the same way and can be used to replace honey, which isn’t vegan. There is no such thing as a healthy sugar — it doesn’t matter which you choose, in the end, they all do the same thing inside the body.
Acids: We use a lot of vegan cider vinegar for several reasons. One is that it helps activate some leavening agents, which is especially useful in recipes that need to rise but don’t contain eggs. Another is because it helps to replicate the tangy flavor you get from dairy products. Used sparingly, you won’t taste the vinegar at all (we like Natural Umber organic vinegar, which has a really delicate flavor). There are dozens of folk remedy and health claims about apple cider vinegar — whether any are true or not is still up for debate. Cream of tartar is an acidic powder, found in the baking aisle at the grocery stores, that is helpful when whipping aquafaba into meringues or for making any kind of plant-based whipped cream.
More from LEON Fast Vegan:
- Celeriac Hash Browns with Wild Mushrooms Recipe
- Falafel & Hummus with Parsley Salad Recipe
- Lime & Cilantro Corn Recipe
Photo courtesy of Octopus Books
Excerpted with permission from LEON Fast Vegan by Rebecca Seal, Chantal Symons, & John Vincent. Published by Octopus Books.