The A-Z of vegan food: a beginner’s guide

From aquafaba to za’atar, this handy guide offers tips on ingredients and recipe ideas for a plant-based diet

Chickpea broth - aquafaba

Aquafaba

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.

Baking

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.

Cashews

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 …

Dried fruit

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.

Bosh! co-founders Henry Firth and Ian Theasby

Experiment

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.

Flax seeds

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.

Various cereal grains

Grains

To avoid the unhealthy carb trap of timid vegan cooking, Elizabeth Turner of Forks Over Knives highlights whole grains. From millet and buckwheat to wheat berries and wild rice, they provide both a vehicle for flavour and wholesome heft.

Herbs

Fresh and bunched, or dried to crumble into dishes, it’s all about ramping up flavour (see also za’atar below).

Invest

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 jackfruit, a tropical fruitPDGJGA the jackfruit, a tropical fruit

Jackfruit

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.

Kombu

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).

Bowl of Japanese miso soup

Miso

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.

Nutritional yeast

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.

Sesame and green olive bars

On the go

Always, always pack emergency snacks in case you can’t find vegan food wherever you land up.

Protein

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.

Reasons

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.

Seitan

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.

Garlic-marinated tempeh

Tempeh

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, vegan chef

Umami

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.

Vitamins

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.

Weight loss

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.

Xanthan gum

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.

Parfait of chia pud, coconut yoghurt and green smoothie

Yoghurt

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.

Za’atar

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.

Contributor

Dale Berning Sawa

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Meera Sodha’s recipe for vegan salted date caramel biscuit slices
The new vegan An indulgent, gooey treat that’s leagues ahead of any normal biscuit

Meera Sodha

23, Jun, 2018 @8:30 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha’s recipe for sunken plum, spelt and ginger cake
The new vegan Best served warm, this rich and dense cake makes for an indulgent dessert

Meera Sodha

28, Jul, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha’s vegan recipe for kitchari | The new vegan
The new vegan A centuries-old rice and lentil dish is given a new spin with wild rice and a baked almond yoghurt topping

Meera Sodha

24, Feb, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha's vegan recipe for avocado and matcha ice-cream | The New Vegan
Avocado is buttery enough that, paired with rich condensed coconut milk, it makes a beautiful, dairy-free ice-cream. Sprinkle with matcha powder and enjoy!

Meera Sodha

27, Jul, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
How to make a vegan beanburger | Felicity Cloake
A Mexican-inspired version of the meat-free burger with black bean, avocado and spicy homemade sauce

Felicity Cloake

16, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Meera Sodha’s Christmas recipe for vegan chocolate panforte | The new vegan
This impossibly addictive, chewy and crunchy centrepiece makes an ideal festive treat

Meera Sodha

14, Dec, 2019 @10:30 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha's vegan recipe for wild rice salad with two dressings
The new vegan This muddle of rice and vegetables drizzled with spice is a great picnic combo

Meera Sodha

16, Jun, 2018 @8:30 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha’s potato and cabbage curry | The New Vegan
The New Vegan A generations-old Gujarati recipe that’s a cheap and delicious curry to make at home in the 21st century

Meera Sodha

03, Feb, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Meera Sodha's vegan recipe for piccalilli spiced rice
Transform the Indian-style classic from a relish to a hearty meal with bright-yellow rice and crisp vegetables

Meera Sodha

13, Aug, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Anna Jones’ vegan recipes for aquafaba meringues and pancakes
These vegan recipes use chickpea water in place of eggs, perfect for baking or pancake making

Anna Jones

11, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM