Wednesday, 20 April 2011

What do I need to give up and how do I do it? A guide to vegan substitutes

When people are contemplating veganism, I don't think it's any secret that a lot of people get stuck dwelling on what they have to "give up."  The popular public perception of vegans is one of asceticism; apparently we all sit around joylessly chewing on dry spinach leaves, waiting for Anna Wintour to walk by in her fur coat, so that we can throw red paint on her (c'mon, who wouldn't throw red paint at Anna Wintour?)

I assume that you, dear reader, are informed enough on the subject to know that there is an amazingly broad world of delicious vegan food out there.  But I know that plenty of people still get confused, and even a little scared, at the prospect of giving up food that they have eaten since childhood, and a lot of people aren't really sure what exactly vegans do or do not eat.

OK, so, here is the basic lesson.  Vegans do not eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and some do not eat honey.  In this post I will explain and recommend some substitutions for these products; as well as, put your minds at ease regarding some items of confusion.  Some of the products I'll recommend to you will be things that I haven't tried myself, but that are so highly regarded in the vegan community that I feel pretty confident in including them.  The recommendations are as multi-regional as I can make them.

Let's start with the easy stuff.  Milk: Substitutes for milk are Plentiful with a capital P.  There are many different kinds: soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, hemp milk, hazelnut milk, quinoa milk...I'm sure I've left some out.  If you don't like one, keep trying others.  Soy milk is most common, and is still my favourite, especially for putting in my tea and coffee. Note that while many people find the initial taste of soy a little off-putting, after drinking soy milk regularly, they either don't notice the same taste anymore, or they start to enjoy it.
Brand:  Quality varies hugely from brand to brand, even for the same variety of milk.  In the UK, I would recommend Alpro Soy Milk (I'm particularly fond of the long-life original), Rice Dream, So Good, and Oatly.  In Canada and the States, I would recommend Silk and Rice Dream.
Uses: Pretty much the same as dairy milk.
Where to buy:  Soy milk is available EVERYWHERE, even corner shops and gas stations.  I really doubt that you live somewhere with no access to soy milk.  Rice milk is probably the second most common, and can often still be found in your regular grocery store.  For other varieties, try a health food store.

Butter:  Butter is easily substituted by margarine, or canola oil in baking.  Be careful when you are buying margarine, most brands use some amount of milk as a cheap filler or texture regulator. 
Brands:  In the UK, I buy Pure, which comes in either a soy version or a sunflower version.  In Canada and the States, I haven't ever tried it, but I've heard many, MANY recommendations for Earth Balance. 
Uses:  Same as dairy butter.  Canola oil works very well in many baked good recipes.
Where to buy: Your regular grocery store.  In the UK canola oil is usually labelled as rapeseed oil or just vegetable oil.

Eggs: Replacing eggs in cooking in baking is probably a large enough subject that I'll do a separate post on it one day, so I won't really go into detail here.  In cooking, tofu is often used to substitute eggs successfully in a variety of different dishes.  In baking, a multitude of techniques exist, including a mixture of baking powder/soda and vinegar, a commercial egg replacer, flax gel, or fruit puree such as applesauce or mashed banana.

Meat: This topic also begs it's own post, so this is a very brief overview.  Meat is sometimes very successfully replicated, sometimes not.  I would recommend veggie burgers, vegan sausages, and ground/minced not-beef pretty confidently.  However, if you are looking to replicate having a hunk of meat at the centre of your plate, meat substitutes might be a little hit and miss.  Besides commercial meat subs, try tofu, tempeh, and seitan as the hunk of meaty protein in your meal (again I will do a separate post on these items).
Brands:  In the UK, try Redwood, Fry's, and Goodlife.  Quorn and Cauldron, the major meat substitutes available in UK grocery stores are NOT vegan, and have outright rejected proposals develop a vegan line (should this make us suspicious of their ethical motives?  I think so).  In Canada and the States, Yves veggie burgers and veggie ground round are pretty dead on replicates of fast food burgers and ground cow, but without the blood and gristle.  You should also try Gardein and Boca products. 
Where to Buy:  Try your local healthfood store for Redwood and Fry's.  Goodlife can be found in Waitrose.  Yves, Gardein, and Boca can be found at regular grocery stores.

Cheese: Oh, the quest to find a true cheese replicate.  I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but again, cheese deserves it's own post.  Cheese subs also vary hugely in quality from brand to brand, and work best as a component of a meal, rather than as the focus.  Cheese subs are often made from soy, rice, and nuts.  You can also make your own substitutes at home (try Joanne Stepaniak's The Uncheese Cookbook, UK, CAN).
Brands: In the UK, I quite like Cheezly, although I think differing opinions exist.  Scheese is also controversial, while I haven't tried it, I've really good things about their cheddar subs, and really bad things about their blue cheese subs.  Tofutti makes a cream cheese substitute that'll do.  In Canada and the States, I've heard good things about Daiya, Follow your Heart, and the pricier Dr. Cow.
Where to Buy:  Tofutti, Cheezly, and Scheese are both available in health food stores, Cheezly more widely that Scheese.  Daiya is available in health food stores in Canada, and I think more widely available in the US.

Yogurt: Soy yogurt is a good substitute for dairy yogurt, and I think you won't notice much of a difference.  I've heard rave reviews of coconut milk yogurt, which I haven't found yet in the UK.
Brands:  In the UK, Alpro yogurt is the standard, and comes both in large tubs of plain, and individual servings of flavoured. In the States, I've heard recommendations for So Delicious Coconut Yogurt.  In both Canada and the States, Silk has a soygurt product.
Where to buy: Alpro and Silk are ubiquituously available. 

Mayonaise:  Commerical non-dairy mayos are good replicas.  You can also try making your own, just search online for a recipe.
Brands:  In the UK, Plamil makes a variety of different vegan mayos.  In Canada and the States, Vegenaise is the gold standard.
Where to buy:  Plamil is sold in health food stores.  Your local chain grocery store will probably carry vegan mayo in their Free From aisle.  Veganaise is widely available.

Sour Cream:  Sour cream is also something that can be made at home using tofu or ground up cashews and lemon juice.  Like I said before, yogurt can be substituted for several different uses, such as a dollop in your borscht.
Brands: Tofutti makes a non-dairy sour cream I haven't tried but that seems to be well-liked.
Where to buy: Health food store.

Now that we're done with the obvious stuff, here's the confusing stuff:

Bread: Vegans eat bread.  99% of the bread available is probably vegan, but occasionally milk products are used as cheap filler, so check the ingredients list just in case.  Note: egg bread contains eggs.

Chocolate: Fear not, you will not have to put down the chocolate, but you might have to switch brands.  Good quality dark chocolate will almost never contain any milk products, but crappy dark chocolate brands sometimes use it again filler.  I don't want to blow anybody's mind, but milk chocolate contains milk.  In terms of baking with chocolate, or making hot chocolate at home, you won't notice a difference, as cocoa powder is vegan.  Cocoa butter, in case the inclusion of the word butter incites confusion, is also vegan.  Smile.

Peanut butter:  This misconception is a pet peeve of mine.  Peanut butter DOESN'T CONTAIN ANY BUTTER!  On the same note, neither does apple butter, pumpkin butter, or other similar foods wherein butter is used to refer to the texture, not the ingredients.

Pizza bases, pre-prepared pastry, and other surprises:  Traditional Italian pizza bases never, ever contain dairy or eggs, but we here in the modern world are in the business of bastardising other cultures' cuisine, so check with your local pizza place to make sure.  Phyllo pastry is also traditionally and typically vegan.  Surprisingly enough, in the UK, Jus-Rol makes vegan puff pastry and shortcrust pastry, and in Canada and the US, Pepperidge farm frozen puff pastry is vegan as well. 

In short, check the label, and you might be surprised what is vegan.  Of course, sometimes you might be surprised at what isn't.  But no matter what the product is, chances are, someone has come along to make a vegan version.

If anyone reading this has any brand recommendations, feel free to add them in the comments.  Next time we revisit this subject, I'll talk about vegan clothing and other inedible products.  Excited?


Asparagus and Thyme Quiche-ish

This recipe is timely for this post for two ways: one, the very short asparagus season is in swing right now; grab 'em while you can.  Two, this recipe is a good example of a way to create an equally pleasing vegan version of a traditional, non-vegan dish.

For the pastry:
3/4 cup whole wheat flour (whole wheat pastry flour if you have it)
1/2 cup white flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup vegan margarine
1/4 cup ice cold water

For the filling:
1 tbsp olive oil, or water
1 leek, sliced into half-moons
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch asparagus, chopped into inch-ish long pieces*
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 of a 420g package of extra-firm tofu (not silken)
3/4 cup non-dairy milk
2.5 tbsp flour
1 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes (optional)

For the pastry, combine the two flours and salt in a mixing bowl.  Divide the margarine into small chunks, and toss into the flour mixture, and work quickly with your fingers or a pastry cutter to combine until small crumbs form.  Sprinkle in the water a few spoonfuls at a time, and combine until the dough holds together in a firm ball.  Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Preheat the oven to 375/190 degrees.  Heat the oil in a medium sized pan, and add the leeks and garlic.  Saute for 5 minutes or so, until soft.  Add the asparagus, thyme and 1/4 tsp salt, and saute for another five minutes or so, or until the asparagus is tender-crisp.

Blend together the tofu, non-dairy milk, flour, 1/4 tsp salt, and nutritional yeast, until smooth.  You can do this with either a food processor or a hand-held immersion blender.  Combine the tofu mixture with the leek and asparagus mixture.

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and place it into a pie plate.  Prick some holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork, make the edges of the crust look as fancy as you like, and then add the filling, and bake for 45 minutes, or until the filling is set and the pie pleasingly golden.

*to stem the woody ends of asparagus easily, bend the lower half of each stalk with your hands.  The stalk will naturally and crisply snap right where the woody part ends.


  1. I like sojade yogurt because it's creamier than Alpro or Provamel. Redwood falfafels are delicious! The most full of flavour. And their Thai 'fish' cakes:) Pure started making an olive version!

  2. Actually if we can add more fruits and vegetables to our food we will be healthier.

    Other thing is artificial foods are bad for health.

  3. I haven't tried the Sojade yogurt, but I will. For some reason, my desire for yogurt, dairy or non, has left me completely lately.

    Dulantha, that's certainly true, and I talk about the importance of not letting substitutes take over your diet in other posts, but this particular post is for people who want to satisfy cravings for the food they grew up with, and maybe make the transition from non-vegan to vegan a little easier.