Some avoid animal products for health reasons, others for ethical ones, but all vegans eat a diet consisting of only plant-based foods. Unlike vegetarians, who might eat dairy, honey or eggs, many vegans will drink milk made from soy or other plants, drizzle agave nectar into their tea and eat scrambled tofu at breakfast.
Veganism as a way of life began to take hold in the 1940s, and over the last few decades it (along with vegetarianism) has attracted millions of people worldwide. According to one survey, roughly 4 percent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarian. With high-profile adherents like former President Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres and Alicia Silverstone proclaiming their enthusiasm for vegan diets, the ranks are growing. Curious, but not ready to commit? Food writer Mark Bittman’s flexitarian approach (he eats vegan before 6 p.m. each day, with moderate amounts of animal products after) has made it simple to dip a toe into the vegan waters.
But merely giving up animal products doesn’t automatically create a healthy diet. Certain nutrients, including calcium, vitamins B12 and D, iron and omega-3 fatty acids, are less abundant in plant-based products. Highly processed vegan convenience foods can be just as full of fat, sugar and sodium as their non-vegan counterparts. So do your research and stay on top of what you need to stay healthy.
Essential ingredientsIf you’re going to eat vegan you’ll need to familiarize yourself with certain key foods and cooking techniques. These delicious, satisfying ingredients will help you get the nutrients you need.
Beans, peas and lentils are vegan staples — they provide protein, fibre and a host of vitamins and minerals. Some are also a good source of iron, which can be challenging for vegans to come by. Use them in soups, salads, mixed with grains or as the base for homemade veggie burgers.
Soybeans are a type of legume, but they also transform into quite a few vegan fundamentals: Soy milk is made from water cooked with ground soybeans, then filtered. Mild, spongy tofu, derived from soymilk in a process similar to cheese-making, comes in silken or firm varieties — the former used for purées and desserts, the latter for cubes, strips and chunks in savory dishes. Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake with an earthy, meaty flavour. Made from soy flour, TVP (texturized vegetable protein) comes in nuggets, flakes, crumbles or chunks, and when cooked, has a texture similar to ground meat. Soy cheese melts, so it works well for pizza or quesadillas. Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans, adds a salty, deep flavour to dishes.
Often used to make mock-meat products, seitan is a block of wheat gluten, formed by rinsing all the starch and bran from a basic flour dough. You can make your own, but it’s such a time-consuming process that many vegans buy it ready-made, sometimes pre-seasoned. Read nutrition facts carefully, since as with any processed food, seasoned seitan can be high in sodium.
Nuts and seeds|
More than just a filling nibble, these versatile foods play several roles in the vegan kitchen. Ground flaxseeds, an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and give smoothies, oatmeal and baked goods a nutritional boost. Chia seeds make an excellent natural thickener for soups, sauces and puddings. Cashews, soaked overnight, purée into a spreadable “cheese” or faux cream. Finely chopped walnuts substitute for ground meat. Almonds easily transform into almond milk and nut butters add healthful heft to savoury or sweet recipes.
While any type of grain can be part of a vegan diet, whole grains can provide B vitamins, and their fibre and protein will help you feel full longer. Quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice, barley, bulgur, corn and spelt are just a few options. Almost any whole grain can be cooked like pasta, boiled in a large pot of salted water, then drained; leftovers freeze well.
Umami, the complex, funky “fifth taste” (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter) that seduces you back for one more forkful, is easy to find in animal products like Parmesan cheese, fish sauce and cured meats. Vegans turn to nutritional yeast, mushrooms, Bragg Liquid Aminos, Maggi Seasoning, sauerkraut and MSG, among other substitutes, for that satisfying flavour.
You already know vegetables are crucial to success as a vegan, but certain ones are downright essential: Leafy greens provide both iron and calcium. Rich, creamy avocados replace butter or mayonnaise in baking and salad dressings, or simply spread on toast. Meaty mushrooms lend umami flavor to cooking. Puréed winter squash or sweet potatoes supply creaminess to macaroni and “cheese.” Generally speaking, vegetables add colour, crunch and variety, so you’ll want to keep a wide range in your crisper.
In addition to being the perfect portable snack, nature’s candy helps vegans adapt countless recipes. Puréed banana, dates or prunes, as well as applesauce, can all replace a portion of the fat in baked goods. Ripe bananas, frozen and puréed, make a decent stand-in for ice cream. Frozen fruit-juice concentrates replace liquid sweeteners measure-for-measure in recipes.
Taking butter off the table might seem like a challenge, especially for baking, but vegans have some fantastic substitutions: In addition to avocados or fruit purées, bakers use coconut oil, a creamy solid when cold, or non-hydrogenated vegan vegetable shortening and margarine. Vegetable oils — the same kind you already use — are perfect for muffins and quick breads. For your favorite macaroni salad, you’ll find vegan mayo in the natural-foods section of larger supermarkets.
Depending on how the eggs will be used, you have several options. For thickening or binding dishes such as veggie burgers or casseroles, a moistened, starchy element like corn starch or bread crumbs, or a creamy one like avocado or tahini, can work. A tablespoon of ground flaxseeds or chia seeds mixed with 3 tablespoons of water replaces one egg in baking. Other possibilities include puréed banana, applesauce or silken tofu — or a ready-made vegan egg-replacer, which you’ll find in natural-foods stores. To thicken fillings and custards, try agar-agar (a seaweed derivative), arrowroot or even all-purpose flour. Crumbled tofu makes an astonishingly convincing stand-in for scrambled eggs.
Herbs and spices|
Because they’re all plant-based, herbs and spices are used liberally in vegan cooking. Spice mixes from around the globe — think curry powder, Chinese five-spice powder, adobo seasoning, chili powder, etc. — liven tofu and bean dishes, while fresh herbs add a burst of flavour to salads, soups and stews.
You may already know that honey is a no-no for most vegans — it goes against the vegan ethos to exploit bees — but did you know that white, powdered and brown sugar can also cause problems? The varieties using cane sugar may be processed using bone char, a charcoal derived from animal bones. To be sure your sugar is vegan, look for any of these terms on the label: evaporated cane juice, organic unbleached sugar, raw sugar or beet sugar. Maple-, date- or coconut-palm sugars are all vegan too, as is stevia. To replace honey, try maple syrup, molasses, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, sorghum or concentrated fruit juice
Sautéing and stir-frying|
Because vegans don’t need to soften tough cuts of meat, many recipes cook quickly, in a skillet or wok. Toss a jumble of vegetables, chunks of tofu or tempeh and your choice of seasoning — soy sauce, Bragg Liquid Aminos or your favourite spice mixture — over medium-high heat, and 10 minutes later, dinner is ready.
Another quick-cooking technique, steaming has the advantage of using no added fat. Beyond garden-variety steamed vegetables or dumplings, though, certain vegan specialties benefit from spending some time above simmering water: Steaming is often the first step in preparing tempeh, and it streamlines the process of making seitan from scratch.
You may think of carnivorous classics like pot roast when you hear the word “braising,” but this slow-cooking technique works wonders with vegan recipes, too. The technique calls for browning food in a little added fat, then pouring in a bit of liquid, covering and simmering for a good long time. This adds tremendous amounts of flavour to bland vegan proteins like tofu, and turns vegetables into exquisite, melt-in-your-mouth morsels.
A relatively short time (usually half an hour or less) in a hot oven transforms vegetables from so-so to spectacular. That high, dry heat caramelizes the outside of the vegetables, lending a hint of sweetness, even nuttiness, to virtually anything. Come holiday time, impressive roasts made with seitan or tempeh grace many vegan tables.
Time was, vegan baking was shorthand for leaden, not-terribly-appealing food. But as more and more bakers tried it, the techniques changed and so did the results. Butter is now easily replaced with vegan fats and as much as half the amount with puréed fruits, vegetables, even beans. (As with any low-fat baking, take care not to over-mix, or the finished product might be unpleasantly tough and chewy.) Vegan egg substitutes are sold in most natural-foods stores, or you can make your own using the techniques described above. Milk options abound, with soy, almond, coconut, even grain-based varieties widely available.