From aquafaba to za’atar, this handy guide offers tips on ingredients and recipe ideas for a plant-based diet
It’s been called a miracle ingredient, a secret weapon, and the one thing vegans have been waiting for since the term “vegan” was coined in 1944. Aquafaba, or bean water (the liquor from cooking pulses), perfectly mimics egg’s ability to trap air (cue vegan meringue), emulsify (vegan mayonnaise), thicken (vegan ice-cream) and bind (vegan meatballs). Beyond that, Lacey Siomos, who blogs at Avocados and Ales, makes an aquafaba mozzarella that can be sliced, grated and melted – properties that had eluded previous vegan cheeses. For something that until four years ago was only ever drained down the sink, it’s revolutionary.
While a dyed-in-the-wool eggs-and-butter baker might blink at the idea of whipping up something edible without using either, there are endless possibilities for plant-based treats, as the entries for flax, aquafaba and yoghurt show. And vegan baking runs the full gamut, from Dana Schultz – AKA the Minimalist Baker – and her no-fuss no-bakes to Food52’s genius chocolate birthday cake with the super-fluffy frosting.
With a neutral flavour profile and rich, built-in creaminess, cashews are key to myriad plant-based takes on non-vegan dishes. When soaked and blended in water, they can be turned into milk, sauces, batters, cheese, creams, icing, caramel …
Ready-made snacks, flavour bombs in savoury settings, and natural sweeteners for bakes, puddings and porridge. Many a chef’s secret ingredient, and a must-have in the vegan pantry.
Vegan cookbook authors Bosh! best exemplify the DIY creativity that makes vegan cooking so exciting. “You name it, we can do it. It’s just knowing how,” they say. Their takes on pigs in blankets and fried chicken are as good a place as any to start.
Ground flax or chia seeds – one tablespoon mixed with three tablespoons of hot water – make an excellent egg substitute in baking, particularly if you’re aiming for “crisp, crunchy biscuits that hold their shape”, says baker Bee Berrie. Add more liquid – nut milk or fruit juice – and you get a pudding, a smoothie or a porridge.
To avoid the unhealthy carb trap of timid vegan cooking, Elizabeth Turner of Forks Over Kniveshighlights whole grains. From millet and buckwheat to wheat berries and wild rice, they provide both a vehicle for flavour and wholesome heft.
Fresh and bunched, or dried to crumble into dishes, it’s all about ramping up flavour (see also za’atar below).
You’ll need a decent blender and/or food processor to make your own (potentially cheaper, pleasingly fresher) milk alternatives, nut and seed butters, and tahini; to blend cashews, blitz beans and whip up hidden-veg smoothies (a great way to diversify your vegetal intake). Some gadgets are definitely worth forking out for.
The oversized, fleshy south-east Asian fruit that has pulled-meat aficionados turning vegan. Supermarkets now stock tins of brined pieces, to be turned into the likes of Meera Sodha’s tacos with fried corn and hot cashew sauce.
While kombu (or edible kelp) is an unparalleled vegan source of umami (try it slow-braised in water with sweet soy: a revelation), plus the vegan-friendly way to make Japanese soup stock (AKA dashi), the other sea plants out there – from hijiki and nori to dulse and samphire – are as flavourful as they are nutritious.
Lentils (and other pulses)
The Birkenstocks of the food world, and for good reason: pulses in general are cheap, easy to prepare, a source of goodness and very adaptable (black beans make fab brownies, cannellini a good lemon drizzle cake, and lentils great crisps).
It’s possible to follow a soy-free vegan diet, but it’s not easy. Be it umami-rich miso paste, soy sauce and tofu – with its varieties variously substituting meat, eggs and cream, in contexts both savoury and sweet – or nutty, freshly blanched edamame as a crunchy snack, the range of soy-based possibilities is superb.
The Bosh! guys call this magic dust. Heat-treated, it won’t ferment your food, unlike the active yeast in beer and bread, but it will boost its flavour with an addictive, nutty, cheesy tang. Buy it in flake form to add to sauces or scatter on traybakes; or blitz with oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and ground cashews, then coat kale leaves to create mind-blowingly good crisps.
On the go
Always, always pack emergency snacks in case you can’t find vegan food wherever you land up.
The one nutritional prerequisite of the vegan diet about which non-vegans are often the most sceptical, and yet, from pulses and seitan to yeast, grains and seeds, there are good sources of vegetal protein.
Quality (and variety)
Even a seasoned chef such as J Kenji López-Alt will attest to the new-found culinary pleasure in going vegan, because it forces you to explore the produce aisle like never before. He has blogged about how his consumption of good extra-virgin olive oil has gone up fourfold, and a nascent appreciation for the enormous variety of hot sauces, vinegars, dressings and DIY condiments out there. As with all cooking, your vegan dishes will only ever taste as good as the things you put into them.
Meat (and fish, dairy and eggs) is, as López-Alt puts it, the easy answer to: What’s for dinner? So it’s helpful to be clear about why you want to avoid it – whether for animal welfare, environmental or health reasons.
This east Asian wheat-gluten product is a go-to meat substitute. Some vegans take issue with the idea of wanting to emulate meat-eating in any way. Others embrace how seitan (much like tempeh and hard tofu) can be sliced, marinated, braised, barbecued, stewed and otherwise meatishly handled.
Where tofu is coagulated soy milk curds, tempeh is whole cooked soy beans fermented into a savoury “cake”. The flavour is nutty but neutral (like tofu, it can go anywhere you want it to) and the texture pleasingly dense. It’s easy to make, too. You need good-quality soy beans, a starter culture (try a healthfood shop), an airy container (Kitchn says perforated zip-top bags do the trick nicely) and a warm spot in which to leave it. Try tempeh charred or finely sliced and fried until crisp. It makes a mean savoury crumble, too.
Derek Sarno, the US chef behind Tesco’s new plant-based range, says he hasn’t met a mushroom he’s not fond of. And his takes on steak (made with char siu cluster brown mushrooms) and pulled carnitas (smoky and spiked with cumin) prove why: funghi allow you to achieve that savouriness more widely associated with a roast.
NHS guidelines single out calcium, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12 as the nutrients you have to make sure you get enough of. Find them in pulses, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, dark leafy greens and fortified foodstuffs (though quite what breads, drinks and cereals are fortified with might be problematic – see xanthan gum below). It may also be worth looking into supplements.
López-Alt’s first monthly foray into vegan eating saw him lose 4.5kg (10lbs) and 80 points of cholesterol. Within a year of eating only plants – and a whole lot of exercise – Decca Aitkenhead had lost 18kg (40lb). Converts to plant-based eating variously speak of clear skin, increased energy levels, eased digestion, and better odds against heart disease and diabetes.
An additive commonly used as a thickener, xanthan gum is sometimes made with egg whites, so pay attention to everything that goes into your food. The potential for animal byproducts lies in the most unsuspecting places: fish bladders in beer, anchovy in orange juice, human hair in bread. Cereals don’t always cut it, either, fortified as they often are with lanolin-derived vitamin D. Consult an online guide: the Vegan Society does a good one.
Super-rich and silken coconut yoghurt makes a superlative substitute for Greek yoghurt. And it’s perfectly possible to make your own: all you need is coconut milk and a probiotic starter. Try it with other milk alternatives, too: see the Minimalist Baker’s nifty how-to.
The herb-and-spice blend most keenly associated with Yotam Ottolenghi’s brand of culinary adventure. The name refers to a Middle Eastern herb, but many blends feature dried thyme, oregano or marjoram, or all three, as well as cumin and sumac. Either way, it’ll make your cooking sing.