Personalize your vegan diet

Personalizing the transition to a vegan diet is an excellent way to ensure a pleasurable experience. For habitual consumers of animal products, satisfying dishes, both savory and sweet, can be created using the myriad plant-based meats, milks and cheeses found in markets around the world. Egg replacers, available commercially or made from pantry staples, function so well as to be indistinguishable in most applications.

The following suggestions, suitable for novice cooks and home chefs, inspire ways to transition your diet with or without using purchased alternatives. By veganizing your cooking according to personal preferences, it’s possible to expand your culinary knowledge, and, in the process, learn to enjoy the vast array of plant foods.

 

Transitioning to a vegan diet

Transitioning to a vegan diet should be a pleasant experience. Although there are sure to be awkward situations and a few less than delicious meals along the way, personalizing your transition is an excellent way to enjoy the process. Consider following these simple steps:

(1) Examine your pre-vegan diet. Identify your favorite meals, favorite fruits and vegetables, favorite spices and textures. If you are making the switch with other family members, you will need to consider their preferences, too.

(2) Consider your cooking habits, whether you are an adventurous cook who enjoys experimenting with new recipes or prefer quick-to-prepare meals or fast food and restaurant meals.

(3) Adapt your diet by using vegan foods instead of animal products while changing your basic habits as little as possible.

All eating styles from junk food heavy to rigorously health conscious can be made vegan. Unhealthy animal-based diets can be transformed into healthier vegan diets, but it’s important to remember that animals benefit most when we make a lasting change to a vegan diet. Take the easiest route. Instead of impetuously abandoning your ingrained habits and preferred types of foods and attempting to force yourself into a new lifestyle with unfamiliar foods, focus on veganizing your existing diet, adjust rather than upend by taking your current tastes and habits as a starting point.

 

Umami

Individuals whose food preferences include large amounts of meats and cheeses may be experiencing taste sensitivity to umami, the fifth of the basic flavors along with salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Sweet and salty tastes have been shown to be experienced most intensely at the tip of the tongue, whereas umami is sensed all across the tongue and tends to linger as an aftertaste longer than the other basic flavors promoting gustatory satisfaction.

Umami-rich foods contain the amino acid glutamate, primarily, and in combination with inosinate or guanylate. While meats and some cheeses contain umami flavors, so do kombu, tomatoes, especially dried, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, miso, kimchi and other fermented foods as well as nutritional yeast. Incorporating these and other umami-rich foods may enhance our experience of vegan meals.

 

Commercial plant-based alternatives to animal products

For those habitually consuming animal products, the selection of high quality plant-based meats, milks and cheeses has never been greater. As demand has grown, even companies producing animal-based products have entered the plant-meat market. In the United States, non-dairy cheeses are the fastest growing category in the plant-based food sector, and the market share for plant-meats is expected to reach almost 47% of the protein market by 2020.1

The best of these veggie meats make excellent transition foods if you crave familiar tastes and textures. Soy and gluten-based products are meaty, developed to approximate the textures of animal-based ground beef, burgers, chunks, roasts and fried chicken strips. Others are vegetable and grain-based, and their more tender textures reflect these ingredients. Refined seasoning profiles ensure vegan sausages are favorites for lovers of spicy foods.

Gardein, Beyond Meat, Field Roast, Tofurky, Upton’s Naturals and Dr. Praeger’s are popular U.S. brands available in supermarkets and specialty stores nationwide. Smaller companies produce and market regionally, so plan to sample widely to identify your favorites.

Canadian markets stock brands like Yves Veggie Cuisine and SOL Cuisine, with some Gardein and Tofurky products available as well. Additional brands like Field Roast can be found in health-food stores.

In the U.K., well known brands include Linda McCartney’s (vegan line), Granose and Vbites Foods (formerly Redwood Wholefood Company). Look for store brand products including Trader Joe’s and Target in the U.S. and Sainsbury’s and Tesco in the U.K.

Non-dairy milks, and to a lesser extent, ice creams and yogurts, include the now familiar soy and rice with other varieties—cashew, hazelnut, flax, oat, coconut, banana, etc.—rapidly entering the marketplace. Fortification with calcium and other nutrients ensures that many are equal to dairy milks in these respects.

In the U.S., stalwarts Silk, Almond Breeze, So Delicious Dairy Free and their varieties remain ubiquitous, as Califia Farms quickly gains brand loyalty. Availability of other brands varies by region, but the Pacific and Dream lines are widely available, and increasingly, supermarkets will offer their own brands. There may be variations in quality, flavor and sugar content between different products, but you will eventually end finding a personal favorite. Canadians also have access to varieties of Silk, So Delicious, and Dream with the additional option of the Natura brand. U.K. residents can choose from blends and flavors of such brands as Alpro, the Dream line and the popular Oatly and Good Hemp.

Vegan cheeses have become tremendously popular, the best of which aren’t meant to mimic dairy cheese but to be enjoyed in their own right. Increasingly, producers are adopting traditional cheese-making processes beginning with fresh nut milk, such as cashew or macadamia, then culturing and aging. Whether spreadable or firm, these artisanal cheeses rival their dairy counterparts in terms of variety and flavor complexity. A few U.S. brands that pass the cheese loving chef’s test are Miyoko’s Creamery, Treeline, Kite Hill, Dr. Cow and Punk Rawk Labs. Less expensive meltable varieties include Field Roast Chao, Follow Your Heart and Daiya. Canadian markets offer Daiya, Follow Your Heart and Field Roast Chao depending on locale. Distributions of smaller scale nut-based brands Nuts for Cheese and Zengarry are steadily increasing. In the U.K., seek out Violife, Sheese and Sainsbury’s store brands. Available in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., Tofutti markets cream cheese products well suited for recipe use.

 

Egg replacements

In non-vegan cooking, the development of entire categories of sweet and savory dishes has been dependent on the use and availability of eggs. Functionally, the combination of fats and protein meant eggs could, for example, bind ingredients together, provide lift and moisture to baked goods, thicken custards and add distinctive flavor to some breads and pastas.

There have yet to be readily available egg alternatives introduced on par with plant-based meats, milks and cheeses and able to perform every function. Easy to use starch-based products from Ener-G, Orgran and Bob’s Red Mill have long been used in baking and are widely available online and in markets worldwide. Follow Your Heart and The Vegg have recently introduced products, a liquid and a powder respectively, meant to replace or create scrambled eggs and omelets and to be used in baking applications. Both contain algae derivatives and nutritional yeast as primary ingredients. Currently, the Follow Your Heart VeganEgg is only available in the U.S., the U.K. and Mexico. The Vegg products are available online and specialty stores throughout North America and Europe.

 

Vegan baking and aquafaba

Clever and thrifty cooks have been saving the viscous liquid from pots of chickpeas for decades as a base for vegetable broths or to thin hummus without sacrificing flavor. Only in the last few years has a further potential been realized and a new name, aquafaba, assigned. Once rinsed from cans as waste, this seemingly miraculous “bean water” or “bean brine” with its myriad applications has revolutionized the approach to vegan desserts.

Due to the properties of aquafaba enabling it to foam like egg whites when beaten, meringues, feathery light mousses, soft and fluffy muffins and pancakes are within reach of vegans. Savories, too, like cheeses, mayonnaise, and vegan butters can be enhanced. Even alcoholic drinks benefit from an aquafaba shot.

An egg white can be replaced with one tablespoon of aquafaba, two tablespoons replace a yolk and three stand in for an entire egg. Unlike egg whites from chicken’s eggs, aquafaba continues to stiffen the longer it is beaten, thus it is less temperamental to manage. Use as you would any beaten egg or egg white and fold gently into recipe base.

 

Veganize your cooking

Even with the many commercially available alternatives to animal products, preparing them ourselves can be more fun, healthier and less costly. Vegan versions of familiar burgers and “meatballs,” taco and wrap fillings can be made with beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains, gluten, if desired, and flavored with vegetables and spices in a virtually infinite variety of combinations. Firm varieties of Chinese-style tofu form the basis for excellent scrambles and eggless egg salads, and praise-worthy puddings, mousses, vegan custards and creamy dressings derive from silken tofu like the Mori-Nu brand.

Utilizing a few basic ingredients, we can create recipes that, while not exact replications of animal-based foods, can be delicious, and, especially with the addition of umami flavors like tomatoes and mushrooms, very satisfying.

For those preferring a less processed non-dairy milk product, most varieties can be easily and deliciously produced in a home kitchen. Basic cheese making requires a bit more time, but minimal effort, and usually demands little more than some nuts or seeds, water and seasonings.

 

Expanding your food choices

As people move toward veganism, they often fear dietary restriction, a view held by society and often reinforced by friends and family. In practice, though, the opposite is usually true. Food choices expand rather than contract as we look beyond animal products and traditional preparations to the vast array of plant foods we have previously overlooked. The discovery of new foods, new cuisines and flavor profiles—Thai, Indian, Greek, Ethiopian, French or Mexican, both cooked and raw versions—often inspires the acquisition of new skills.

Approaching vegan cuisine in the same way we would approach learning any new cuisine helps organize our thinking around change. Eager home chefs will test new recipes and create their own, while many inexperienced cooks quickly discover that, for the first time, they enjoy food preparation. Ultimately, the comfortable adoption of a vegan diet depends on a thoroughly personalized approach, whether that means veggie burgers and French fries or green smoothies and spiralized vegetables.


Further readings

Chavez, V. (2016) “No eggs, no problem – 10 vegan egg replacers for all your baking and cooking needs”, One Green Planet, 3 August [accessed on 15 April 2017]

Copeland, M. (2016) “20 sweet and savory vegan recipes you can make with bean juice (aquafaba)”, BuzzFeed, May 15 [accessed on 5 April 2017].

Goji Berry (2015) “All about aquafaba: 13 amazing recipes made with chickpea brine”, One Green Planet, September 15 [accessed on 2 April 2017).

Messina, G. (2012) “Is umami a secret ingredient of vegan activism?”, The Vegan RD, April 18th [accessed on 25 May 2017].

Parsons, R. (2014) “The missing link: How to add umami flavors to your vegan meals”, One Green Planet, July 31 [accessed on 13 April 2017].


Notes

1 Zitelli, J. (2017) “Plant-based foods are no longer niche”, The Food Institute Blog [accessed on 3 April 2017].

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