To be a successful vegan, it helps to be a pretty versatile cook. If you're used to cooking with cheese, butter, milk and eggs - or if you're not used to cooking at all - then you'll need to learn new ways to make foods that taste good and supply you with all the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
Vegan Recipes indexes Everything2's large collection of vegan meals, while Vegans Beware lists ingredients which committed vegans will want to avoid. Here is a guide to the ingredients which I think anyone wanting to cook satisfying vegan food should at least think about experimenting with. I hope this will be of use to all who are interested in trying out different kinds of foods...
Soya products fall into two main categories: Firstly, almost-flavourless concoctions like tofu, tempeh and TVP, which are extremely high in protein and minerals such as iron and calcium, and versatile because they are so good at soaking up the flavours around them, and have so little character of their own. Secondly, the salty, fermented soybean products like soy sauce and miso; these have strong tastes of their own and are great for adding a bit of the savoury flavour umami to a dish.
- Tofu has almost no flavour of its own, and what traces of flavour it does have are chalky and mildly unpleasant. However, they are easy to overwhelm; in small chunks it is totally unobtrusive and has a great ability to absorb the flavours of what it's cooked in. Alternatively, if you cut it in slices and deep-fry it, it mostly just tastes fried, and is great for dipping in Thai sweet chilli sauce or other tasty sauces. The extraordinary nutritionality and versatility of tofu make it well worth considering as an addition to sauces and stir fries.
- Tempeh is another highly-proteinous soya product, originating from Indonesia. Tempeh has a little more flavour of its own than tofu, but shares the latter's ability to soak up the flavours around it. Without a certain amount of work, the taste of tempeh is quite weird - but dipped in a marinade, even something as simple as soy sauce and lemon juice, then fried, it is delicious. Tempeh has a lot more texture than tofu; it consists of whole soy beans in a mat of mycelia.
- Textured Vegetable Protein consists of flavourless little chunks of soya, which unlike tofu have a bit of bite to them; the texture is designed to somewhat resemble meat. Again, they are good at soaking up flavours from other sauces.
- Soy milk is the much-maligned staple vegan replacement for milk. It is much maligned for two reasons - which incidentally are the same reasons why so many people hate carob: 1) It really doesn't bear much resemblance to the thing it's touted as a replacement for; and 2) It just doesn't taste that great. Once you get over the first of these, you may come to realise that while it really just isn't milk and never will be, it doesn't actually taste bad - maybe a little chalky - and in fact it is quite refreshing. It can do most of the things milk does in cooking, but it has much less fat than full-cream milk which means that it is lousy on some cereals, such as Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. However, it is excellent for making rich hot chocolate. In most ways I prefer oat milk, which is thicker and has a lovely texture but not as much protein; others prefer rice milk, which I find tends to be a little on the sweet side and rather thin.
- Soya yoghurt is very much closer to real yoghurt in taste than soya milk is to cow's milk - close enough to have my carnivorous father commenting on what good yoghurt we had one time, without noticing that it hadn't come from a cow. Brands vary, however; I have heard tales of really lousy soya yoghurt, but have never come across it myself. There is evidence that a strong population of benevolent gut bacteria is beneficial to health; live soya yoghurt is likely to be almost the only way of replenishing these in a vegan diet.
- Soy cheese is something many vegans seem to enjoy, but my experience has been that hard soya cheese tends to have an unpleasant squeaky texture and unconvincingly cheesy flavour. I have had better experiences with imitation cream cheese.
- Soya flour is an extremely high-protein flour, and for this reason it shares many of the same properties as egg white in cooking - although it doesn't make things rise quite the same way. It's good for making batter, and for helping things hold together.
- Miso is a Japanese paste made from fermented soya. It has a distinctive, salty, savoury flavour which can enhance a wide range of dishes. It is also, of course, the principal ingredient of miso soup, which is traditionally made with fish stock but which needn't be; it is easy to make a simple miso soup from nothing more than miso, silken tofu, nori seaweed and green onions - perhaps also a little kombu. Try not to boil anything made with miso; add it right at the end, or risk spoiling the flavour.
- Soy sauce is the single most ubiquitous East Asian condiment, lending an easy savoury flavour to anything with rice (and many things without) thanks to its high salt content and natural monosodium glutamate. It is a flavour designed to complement other flavours, and shouldn't be allowed to dominate a dish - I suspect that most people who say they don't like soy sauce think that because they've only ever had too much of it at a time.
- Black bean sauce is another salty condiment made from fermented soy beans. Can also be quite spicy. Good in stir fries.
Beans and Pulses
Beans and pulses in general are excellent sources of vegan protein, and most are also rich in iron and soluble fibre. I wouldn't like to try living on a vegan diet which didn't include any pulses. All of these are good for making dal, by which I mean pulse-based curry - spicy, satisfying and as simple as you care to make it. Many can also be sprouted and added to salads. See Bean and Pulse Recipes for specific suggestions on how to cook them.
- Chickpea - perhaps the single most important source of ingredients for a vegan cook to master; soya is the only other serious contender for the title. From chickpeas we get gram flour, with which it is remarkably easy to make wonderful batter for pakoras and onion bhajis, among other things; houmous, rightly a staple of so many vegan and Middle-Eastern diets; and falafel, one of the great fried foods. They can also be used as-is in salads, or roasted and salted.
- Chana dal (or yellow split pea) - tastes like a chickpea (its close cousin), looks like a big lentil. In parts of India they fry chana dhal and use it as a spice.
- Lentils - fiercely nutritious, otherwise maybe a little bit dull, not widely loved but widely quite liked. Good for making food out of. Flavour should generally come from elsewhere, although the puy lentil is less bland.
- Peas - the common or garden pea is tasty, easy to cook with, survives the freezing process well, and provides many nutrients.
- Peanut - not everyone realises the peanut is a kind of pulse, but it is; boiled, it makes a mild, chewy and highly nutritious addition to a dish.
- Soybean - another bland but nutritious pulse, used as-is as well as in the many soya products listed above. Like the chickpea, soybeans can also be roasted, salted and served like that as a snack.
- Azuki bean - used in Chinese and Japanese confectionery and sometimes in soups. Although they are not sweet themselves, they are most often added to sweet dishes.
- Baked beans (haricots) - nice enough just heated up and eaten with potatoes or on toast, much more interesting spiced up and made into a curry.
- Black bean - also known as a turtle bean, apparently; used in Mexican cooking.
- Kidney bean - the basis of so many great chilli dishes, good in salad too, the kidney bean has a slightly sweet flavour and a strangely pleasing colour.
- Mung bean - comedy name, good for putting in straws and shooting at people. Also the beans behind common or garden bean sprouts. No need to soak, unless you are wanting to sprout them. Relatively quick to cook and easy to digest.
Nuts and Seeds
You need a certain amount of protein in your diet - albeit not as much as many people think - and you're probably going to get bored if you try to get it all from soya products. Take the time to get acquainted with different nuts and seeds; besides being valuable sources of protein and flavour, these are typically rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium. They all share a basic nuttiness, and can be used for many of the same things, but their flavours are quite diverse. They can be thrown in with any fry-up or stir-fry, tossed over salad or pasta
- Cashew nuts - sweet and versatile, like the peanut the cashew can be boiled, roasted or fried. Whole cashews are great in stir-fries, while little bits of cashew (which are cheaper to buy) are good in curries and chilli.
- Hazelnut - you can throw whole hazelnuts into things, or use roasted hazelnuts - chopped or ground - to add flavour and protein to sweet dishes and porridge.
- Almond - ground almonds can do the same sorts of things as ground hazelnuts, while slivered almonds are excellent lightly fried and added to sauces for pasta or rice, or as topping for baked goods. See also almond milk.
- Sesame seeds - good on many, many, foods, lightly toasted or fried; or mix them with salt and flakes of seaweed to make gomasio, or grind them to a pulp to make tahini.
- Sunflower seeds - at least as versatile as sesame, with a more unobtrusive flavour. Add to almost anything.
- Pumpkin seeds - together with the two seeds above, provides a complete protein; dry-fry the three together and add soy sauce for a general-purpose topping, or add pumpkin seeds alone to fry-ups and salads.
- Flaxseed - a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, but weirdly mucilaginous and slightly scary.
- Hemp seed - another good omega-3 source (balancing it with goodly quantities of omega-6), and generally very healthsome. They take some picking out of the teeth if you're not careful, though - it helps if they're well-toasted.
A rich aromatic oil can make a huge difference to a dish, whether as a cooking oil or as a later addition; I would have missed butter and cream a whole lot more if I hadn't discovered some of these. There is usually no point in worrying about getting too much fat on a vegan diet - in fact, if anything you should be a little bit concerned about getting enough. A certain amount of fat is necessary for the body to absorb nutrients like the fat-soluble vitamins A and E, among other things. More to the point, though, it is a great way to make things taste better.
- Olive oil is a staple in the mediterranean and a valuable addition to any pantry. Although not in the same league as toasted sesame oil and hazelnut oil as far as intensity goes, it does have a pretty strong flavour of its own which makes it great for salad and pasta sauce, but less good for most rice dishes and completely inappropriate for anything sweet.
Toasted sesame oil is perhaps the most intensely aromatic of all cooking oils. A few drops will lend a wonderful sesame nuttiness to any number of dishes, transforming a stir fry or livening up vegetable dishes to which some would add butter .
- Hazelnut oil is less powerful, but it still has the power to impart hazel nuttiness with only a few drops. Fantastic on porridge, and an interesting addition to salad dressing and baked goods.
- Almond oil is less powerful again and has quite a different character, but it can be used for many of the same things as hazelnut oil.
- Walnut oil has a certain sweetness and carries the aroma of walnut without any of the bitterness. Although it is not as strong as hazelnut oil it doesn't take much to bring a nuttiness to salad and baked goods.
- Coconut oil (copha) is higher in saturated fat than almost any other vegetable oil. For this reason it is solid at room temperature (unless it's a particularly warm room), and it often provides the best vegan substitute for butter in baking and so on. It also gives porridge a wonderful creamy texture if added at the start of cooking. Well worth keeping in stock; lasts a very long time, because saturated fats are so stable. We are often told to avoid saturated fats, but the evidence for their unhealthiness is based more or less entirely on animal fats and hydrogenated vegetable oil, and it is not clear that there is anything wrong with the oil of the coconut (or, for that matter, the avocado).
- Palm oil has similar properties to coconut oil, but it tends to be slightly softer, and bright orange thanks to all the vitamin A it has in it. Unfortunately, demand for palm oil is wiping out orang utan habitat on a massive scale, which probably makes it less suitable for vegans.
Of course, not all the important ingredients fall under the above headings. Here are some more...
- Vegetables - obviously a vitally important part of any diet, vegan or not. They have their own excellent entry on Everything2, so I won't say any more on the subject than that, except to note that green vegetables are likely to be one of the main sources of calcium in any vegan diet which doesn't include a large amount of tahini.
- Fruit - likewise, so well-covered elsewhere that they are only worth mentioning in passing; follow the link for more.
- Grain - worth checking out some different ones; once more, please see the node. Also, note that whole grains generally contain a good dose of iron, more protein and many other nutrients which are lost in the refining process; and be aware of the value of different grains besides wheat.
- Herbs and spices - some of the simplest routes to a tasty meal. Buy fresh herbs and whole spices, learn how to use them, and you need never eat a dull meal. If you can't get through your herbs quick enough, freeze them - or buy them in pots and keep a sort of miniature kitchen garden.
- Vinegar is worth exploring, in its many variations, along with other souring agents like lemon, amchur, sumac, tamarind and pomegranate molasses. Besides the inherent interest of tanginess and the different aromas of each of these, a hint of sourness has a way of harmonising flavours that otherwise wouldn't go together so well, and the chemical properties of acids are important in some recipes, too. Many of these are also sweet to some degree.
- Yeast - probably the single best source of vegan B vitamins, the single-celled fungus is also a good source of minerals including potassium and phosphorus. Yeast extract - Marmite, Vegemite, and so on - is good for spreading on bread, or spooning out and using like vegetable stock. Nutritional yeast flakes make a surprisingly innocuous addition to a whole range of dishes, imparting just a bit of umami to the flavour and a hint of cheesiness.
- Seitan - made from wheat gluten, seitan often stands in for meat in vegetarian Chinese food; it has a chewy texture, and soaks up sauce well.
- Seaweed - extremely nutritious, used in many Japanese recipes. Generally an excellent source of calcium and other minerals, as well as various vitamins, although the nutritional details will depend on the variety of seaweed in question. From seaweed we also get agar, which does much the same thing as gelatine.
- Treacle - worth mentioning for its iron and calcium content, both very high. Usually known as molasses in the US, and sometimes elsewhere (I understand that technically there is a subtle difference between treacle and molasses, but they are much more similar than different).
With thanks to anthropod for various helpful suggestions.