Maintaining healthy eating habits can be a real struggle if every snack or meal involves a long debate or look at a recipe book. Lots of people wonder how it's possible to eat "only" vegan food at home. Being familiar with the options, and keeping your favorites stocked in your pantry can be a huge step in the right direction! Below is a list some of the things I keep on hand, including quite a few items you might not be so familiar with. I hope this will serve as a good introduction to some new ingredients, as well as some creative ways in which you might utilize some of the items with which you're already familiar.
My Pantry Staples:
Be aware that vegan substitutions in baking can be a bit tricky! They may require some experimentation. For more information on vegan baking substitutes (and when to use them), I'd recommend checking out the Post Punk Kitchen.
Also known as agar agar, this gelatinous substance has traditionally been used in Asian desserts. It is a great vegetarian gelatin substitute, and can be used as a thickener for puddings, jelly, ice cream, gravies, and soups, among other things. It is a seaweed derivative (but doesn't taste like it), and is typically sold in powdered or flake form (the powdered form can generally be substituted 1:1 for gelatin).
Also known as agave nectar, agave syrup is extracted from the agave plant. It can be used as a substitute for sugar in most recipes (see "Sugar" section below), and while I still use it from time to time, it does have its own drawbacks (The "healthfulness" of agave has been a subject of much debate in the natural foods community). But if you have some lying around, or prefer it over cane sugar, it's a nice option and can generally be substitute about 1:1 as a sweetener.
You're probably quite familiar with this one...but do you know all the different ways you can use it? There's the more obvious 1:1 substitution for oil in most baking recipes, but 1/4 cup apple sauce can also substitute for 1 large egg. If you've never tried, I'd recommend making your own apple sauce sometime...it can be healthier than what's in the jar, and also tastier!
Arrowroot, also known as arrowroot starch, is a great thickener. It's derived from a tuber, and is easy to digest. It's nice because it has a more neutral flavor than many other thickeners, and can stand up to freezing. To use, just mix powder with equal parts liquid, and whisk together, then stir into hot liquid for about 30 seconds, until blended, being careful not to overheat. 1 tbsp arrowroot should thicken about 1 cup liquid.
1/2 ripe (or overripe) banana mashed (or blended) very well= 1 egg. Bananas are an awesome egg replacer, which is why banana bread recipes often don’t call for eggs. They make things really moist, so they can be an excellent option. The taste can be a bit intrusive, however, so be sure to keep that in mind when choosing the baked goods in which you'd like to incorporate it.
The dairy-free, vegan (duh!) kind. There are several options out there, many of which are quite tasty and virtually indistinguishable from their butter alternatives, particularly when baking. I highly recommend Earth Balance.
1/4 cup canned pumpkin can substitute for one large egg. In the fall especially, I love making pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cake, etc. Plus, if you have a vegan dog, a little bit of canned pumpkin can be a great treat for him (and a great vehicle for sneaking in his pills!).
Like many people, I didn't know much about chia seeds until recently. Their use originated in Central America. They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fiber. They've been kind of blowing up on the health food scene for a variety of reasons. They're supposed to provide energy, while also being much more filling than many other seeds. When combined with water, the fiber causes the seeds to gel (which you may be familiar with if you've ever tried the chia-infused drinks they sell in the stores!), allowing them to be used in puddings and even jams. If you'd like to make your own chia-seed infused drink (and save on the expensive bottled beverages at the store!), you can put a tablespoon or two in your lemonade or fruit juice. Just let it sit for about five minutes to gel. They can also be substituted for eggs in baking. They can be a bit more difficult to find, and are quite expensive in health food stores, but a little will go a long way. If you have a Mexican grocery store near you, I'd highly recommend shopping there; if they carry chia seeds they are often much more affordable (and equivalent to what you'll find at the health food store!).
There are a variety of egg replacers on the market. The main ones I know of are Ener-G and Bob's Red Mill Egg Replacer. I've never actually tried the Ener-G brand, but I've found Bob's Egg Replacer to work well. While it's an easy substitute in a pinch (just follow the package directions), I find that it does tend to make baked goods denser, and even slightly chalky sometimes. My favorite vegan baked goods usually call for vegan yogurt or other moist ingredients as a substitute for eggs.
Flaxseeds can be another great vegan egg substitute, and they have omega-3 fatty acids. Be sure to store ground flaxseeds in the freezer because they're quite perishable. Like some other vegan substitutes, you have to be careful with flaxseeds as they do have a distinctive flavor (for more tips on when to use them, see the Post Punk Kitchen tips). 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds whisked together with 3 tablespoons of water replaces one egg.
White flour (I recommend organic, unbleached, all-purpose flour) is of course a pantry staple we are all familiar with, but as you start exploring healthier recipes you may find that different baked goods call for flours outside of your normal comfort zone. Oat? Brown rice? Potato? Amaranth? Whole wheat? Some of these flours may need to be combined with others (such as the regular white stuff), because they may not rise on their own. Using them in combination with or instead of white flour is a great option, as they contain nutrients, protein and fiber that white flour does not.
There is vegan shortening available that works well and, I think, is virtually indistinguishable from the "other" stuff. Again, I'd recommend trying Earth Balance (available at most health food stores, and at all Whole Foods I've ever been to).
Vegan sugar is...a bit complicated.
It depends on how you define ‘vegan.’ Refined sugars available at the supermarket are generally derived from cane sugar or beet sugar, and do not contain animal products. Most cane sugars are, however, processed with animal bone char, which is used to remove color, impurities, and minerals from sugar. Conversely, bone char filtering is never used in beet sugar processing. Unfortunately for consumers, it is difficult to know the source of the white refined sugar that most foods contain. Many manufacturers use both cane sugar and sugar derived from sugar beets. If you do choose to avoid sugar processed with animal bone char, Whole Foods, many natural food stores, and even many regular grocery stores, do sell vegan refined sugars. Additionally, certified USDA organic sugars are not processed with bone char. C&H Sugar, Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, Hain, Sugar in the Raw, Wholesome Sweeteners, and 365 (Whole Foods Brand), all offer some organic, vegan options.
Vegan yogurt used to be all about soy*, but these days there are other alternatives, including almond-based and coconut-based yogurts. I don't generally care for the texture of almond yogurt on it's own (in fact, I think the coconut-based yogurts may be favorite), but incorporated into baking all three types of yogurts make a good egg substitution, while providing moistness. 1/4 cup of yogurt can be substituted for 1 egg in a recipe.
Although it is also made from soybeans, it has a different texture from, and does not taste like, tofu. Additionally, the fermentation process used in tempeh production (and the use of whole beans) give it a higher protein, vitamin, and fiber content. Although tempeh has a nice nutty flavor on its own, it is especially good when marinated. Tempeh is quite firm, and should therefore be sliced into small strips or cubes, (less than 3/4 inch thick). You can also boil tempeh briefly to soften it. It can be added to a stir fry (it browns nicely), tacos, or crumbled into chili. It's commonly used on vegan reuben sandwiches. Tempeh is available in most health food stores and in many well-stocked grocery stores. Aside from basic tempeh, you can also buy pre-marinated tempeh, such as "Fakin' Bacon" or make your own.
Tofu is one of the more well known meat substitutes, and for good reason. From a nutritional perspective, tofu is an excellent source of protein. It's neutral taste absorbs flavors from other ingredients quite readily (making it a prime candidate for marinating), and it can be used in a variety of ways (fried, used as a dressing base, in smoothies, desserts, etc.). Firm or extra-firm tofu can be a great addition to stir fry, while silken tofu is an excellent addition to smoothies, and can also be used to provide a light, fluffy texture to many desserts. Since it doesn't have much of a flavor on its own, imparting a nice flavor requires a small amount of effort (like marinating or frying). For some innovative recipe ideas, click here (and don't forget to check out my own buffalo tofu recipe).
Seitan is one of those foods that I truly love but most non-vegetarians have never heard of or encountered. Also known as "wheat gluten," seitan has a similar texture and look to meat when cooked, and is a popular meat substitute. While I haven't yet endeavored to make it on my own (although I'd like to!), seitan can be prepared by hand. It is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves, leaving insoluble gluten that is then cooked before being eaten. Prepared seitan is also available in most health food stores, and in some well-stocked grocery stores.
Seitan is often used by asian restaurants as a mock meat. It has a high protein content, which also makes it an ideal meat alternative. I love seitan piccata, and I've had a sort of wine-braised seitan at several restaurants that was just to die for. It can easily be incorporated with a stir fry. It does have a bit of its own inherent flavor, and if you add a splash of soy sauce it can be quite good (see my entry on pak choi stir fry).
Dinner (and lunch) Standbys
A great alternative to peanut butter, almond butter can be used in almost any recipe that calls for peanut butter. It has a similar flavor (although a bit less "nutty") and consistency, and just like peanut butter it's available smooth, crunchy, salt-free, etc. It's available in many grocery stores, and nearly all health food markets. It can also make a great, protein-rich addition to a shake or smoothie. It works great as a binder (in things like burgers!), as its taste is a bit more subtle than peanut butter.
Beans (dry and canned): black, garbanzo, red, white
Another familiar ingredient, but keeping them on hand can be a great way to throw together a meal in a pinch. They're a great source of iron and protein. Mix with quinoa and some fruits or veggies (like mango, avocado, bell pepper) and vinegar, and you're on your way to a great salad. Throw some beans in with some greens (like spinach, escarole, kale) and some tempeh and you've got another quick and easy meal. Beans can be great for a nice dip as well (try a white bean dip, or a nice hummus with the garbanzos!)
Broccoli is an easy vegetable to cook, and most people are quite familiar with it. Aside from a great side dish (I like blanching it, then mixing in the frying pan for a brief bit with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper), it can make a nice addition to a stir fry as well. It's also a great source of iron!
This makes a great addition to a stir fry, or a nice side to many other meals. Why brown over white? A grain of rice has several layers. In the production of brown rice, only the outermost layer (the hull), is removed, avoiding the loss of nutrients that occurs with further processing (like that used to produce white rice). Brown rice is a great source of manganese, selenium and magnesium, and contains much more vitamin B, fiber, and iron than white rice.
Edamame are whole soybeans, and a great source of protein. I like the in-the-shell version, which you can buy fresh or frozen. They're pretty addictive, but unprocessed--so enjoy!
These days, most people are familiar with hummus. Made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon juice, hummus is another great source of protein and iron for vegetarians. Aside from it's standard use as a pita dip, it also makes a great dip or spread for veggies, crackers, wraps and sandwiches.
With its high mineral and iodine content, some people use kelp as a nutritional supplement. It has a bit of a salty flavor (without actually containing salt), so it can be a nice addition to a pasta sauce or a slightly savory shake that might be able to handle the slightly robust flavor.
This is a gluten-free alternative to soy sauce. It is soy-based, but the soy is not fermented. It contains many essential amino acids, so it can be a nice addition to stir-frys, dressings, marinades, and sauces. It has a slightly different flavor from soy sauce, and is often used when making vegan bacon. I think it can impart a nice salty flavor to collard greens.
Yup, noodles. Aside from using wheat-based noodles in your standard tomato or pesto-sauce dishes (which you can round out by adding some nice meat substitutes and a veggie side dish), don't be afraid to branch out. Rice or soba noodles can be added to a stir fry, or a great meal on their own, with veggies, tofu, and some soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil used for flavoring.
Nutritional Yeast (also known as Brewer's Yeast or NOOCH)
What is nutritional yeast? Just what it sounds like...yeast (often infused with a B-vitamin complex). It is usually sold in flake (or powder) form, and can be found in the bulk food section of most natural food stores. It has a cheesy taste to it, and is great on top of (or in) pizza, or pasta sauce. You can add it to sauce in much higher quantities to really impart a cheesiness. It makes a great addition to any vegan diet (I love sprinkling it on top of all of my salads!). You can read more about it here.
Nuts (and seeds!) are a vegan's best friend. Pine nuts, cashews, almonds, pecans, sesame seeds, and pepitas (pumpkin seeds) can be a great addition to salads, stir-fry, or pasta, especially if you toast them a bit first! Cashews, pine nuts, and walnuts can make their own great sauces, creams, cheeses, and dips, too. They can even be used to thicken up a soup!
Another great staple. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a big favorite around my house--especially if we're going on a hike or otherwise out and about and we want to make something easy and virtually non-perishable. And there's no need to limit peanut butter to sandwiches! It can also make a great, protein-rich addition to a shake or smoothie. Mixed with a bit of thai curry paste, ginger, soy sauce, and lime juice, it can also makes a great dipping or pasta sauce!
While quinoa is considered a grain, it's actually a seed. The use of quinoa originated in the South American Andes, where it is still used today. After cooking (it cooks just like a grain or rice), it can be mixed with vegetables, incorporated into soups, or used cold with oil, vinegar, and lemon juice (and some fruit or veggies) to make a salad. One of my favorite recipes (from Vegan with a Vengeance) is quinoa and black-bean stuffed peppers in tomato sauce. Quinoa is gluten-free and cholesterol free, but is a great source of protein (higher than all other whole grains), as well as iron and amino acids.
Likely another familiar item to most readers, soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans, wheat, water and salt. If you're looking for a wheat-free alternative, check out tamari soy sauce, which is often made with little or no wheat (gluten-free varieties are available). When I first began eating vegetarian, I was a bit of a stir-fry addict, and I quickly learned that there are many different types of soy sauces, which have a range of flavors. So don't be afraid to experiment!
Tahini is a creamy nut butter made from ground sesame seeds. While it's a commonly-found ingredient in hummus, it can also be incorporated into dressings and sauces, or used as a sandwich topping. The flavor is a bit strong, so many people prefer mixing it to using it straight.
Vegetable broth/vegan bouillon cubes
You'll need broth or vegan bouillon cubes for all kinds of soups, but also some sauces, and to incorporate into rice, grains, or quinoa to impart additional flavor.
Another "obvious" ingredient, but here I would like to emphasize to again not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Aside from the more obvious sources of iron, like spinach and broccoli, don't forget about the other greens: swiss chard, turnip greens, kale, brussels sprouts, and bok choy!
Oils and Vinegars
The advantage to stocking oils and vinegars in your pantry is you can throw them on veggies, stir-fry or a salad in a pinch. They can be a slightly healthier alternative to store-bought dressing, and once you become familiar with them, adding them to a freshly cooked meal can be just as easy! Additionally, oils and vinegars can be an important addition to many vegan baked goods.
Apple cider vinegar
I love, love, love apple cider vinegar. A splash can make a great addition to some greens (I love adding it to brussel sprouts and kale), or be an excellent start for a salad. Additionally, a bit of apple cider vinegar mixed with soy milk can substitute for buttermilk (just whisk together 1 tbsp vinegar with 1 cup milk, and let sit for 5-10 minutes).
I also love balsamic vinegar (I guess I'm something of a vinegar nut). I like adding it to salad dressings, and putting a splash in my green beans or on some freshly-boiled gnocchi. If you are also a balsamic-lover, might I recommend to you one of my favorite childhood snacks: half of an avocado with vinegar poured into the pit cavity (you scoop a little vinegar up with each bite of avocado). One of my childhood classmates (along with the rest of her family) ate her avocados this way, and I still love it!
There's not too much to say about canola oil, except that I consider it an absolute staple when baking. It has a more neutral flavor than most other oils, and can be substituted in any recipe calling for vegetable oil.
Coconut oil (refined)
Don't worry if you don't like coconuts! Unlike unrefined coconut oil, refined coconut oil has been exposed to high temperatures, so it does not retain it's original "coconut" flavor. It can, however, be a great addition to many baked goods and is a common ingredient in vegan truffles, as it hardens upon cooling. It's become a very "hot" ingredient in vegan and health-food cooking over the last few years.
This is another great option. Although it's pretty expensive as far as the oils go, it has virtually no flavor, so it makes a really great base for dressings.
Everyone's pretty familiar with olive oil these days. It's great for frying, for dressings, and even for tossing with cooked veggies. It does have a distinct flavor, however, so it's not appropriate for use in baking (unless you're planning on making an olive oil cake!).
I still remember when I first tried peanut oil. This stuff is awesome, especially because of its nutty flavor. I love using it in stir-frys to impart an extra-rich, nutty flavor (you can use it instead of whatever other oil you'd normally fry in). It can also be a great addition to cookies. One of my all-time favorite cookies--the chocolate thumbprint cookies from Vegan with a Vengeance--calls for peanut oil.
Red wine vinegar
This is another nice option for dressings and veggies. It's slightly sweeter and milder than balsamic vinegar, so use accordingly.
This stuff is great for stir-frying. There's toasted sesame oil and regular, and both are delicious in my book! You can also incorporate a bit of sesame oil into an asian-style dressing (and some toasted sesame seeds and rice vinegar and you're good to go!).
There are a lot of vegan milk alternatives, and if you'd tried more than one of them, you know that they can be quite distinct from one another. Aside from taste, they have slightly different properties as well. Also, don't forget that different brands generally taste very different. They come in unsweetened, original (although the "original" flavors have a bit of added sweetener, most people find them much more palatable, and a better approximation to milk), and vanilla flavors. Many brands also offer a chocolate milk, if you're feeling particularly indulgent.
Almond milk has gained popularity in recent years for a number of reasons. While it offers most of the richness of soy milk, most people find it much easier to digest. Also, since most vegans do incorporate some forms of soy into their diet (such as tofu), it's nice to be able to have a non-soy alternative so that you're not limited to consuming soy products all-day long! While almond milk has a relatively neutral taste, it can come off as a bit nutty, so I do tend to avoid using it in frostings and some beverages and desserts. For the most part, however, it can be easily substituted into any recipe that calls for soy milk.
The coconut milk you buy in a can at the grocery store is generally reserved for specific special dishes, such as a soup or curry (rather than being poured over your cereal). The great thing about it is that it actually has a significant fat content, so it can create a nice, richly robust flavor that is impossible to get with almond, soy or rice milk. Because of this high fat content it can also be used to make vegan whipped cream.
Rice milk was never one of my favorites and you won't find it featured in too many vegan recipes. That being said, it can often be used in place of soy milk, and until almond milk came around was generally called upon as an alternative. It does not have the rich body of almond milk, and therefore particularly in beverages it can seem a bit thin or diluted. Be sure to experiment if you're using it for the first time in a baked good, but I think you'll find it will work just fine 90% of the time.
Soy milk is a great milk alternative that is currently the most common dairy-free option in most restaurants and other food establishments. Its relatively rich body and somewhat neutral taste approximates, in my opinion, dairy milk more closely than other alternatives.
Breakfast options are pretty straight forward. Just add some dairy-free milk to your cereal and you're good to go! Of course, you can also go the muffin, toast, or bread (like banana bread!) route. I also like to throw in a little smoothie from time to time:
If you keep lots of fruits (frozen and fresh), some silken tofu or vegan yogurt on hand, you'll be pretty ready to throw together a smoothie any time. Check out my recipe for one easy idea to get you started! And, of course shakes or smoothies can be a nice dessert treat, too...don't forget to add in some almond butter or peanut butter in for protein and flavor!
See the "Baking, etc." section at the top of this page.
*A note on soy: There have been all kinds of studies and discussions about the healthfulness of (unfermented) soy, with many people claiming that it can be detrimental to your health. Nothing from a reliable source that I've read, however, suggests that soy intake on a moderate level is bad for you. Vegans may therefore need to be particularly careful to ensure that they're not eating substantial amounts of soy with every meal. With the number of increasingly soy-free options available, however, this really isn't an issue for most people. Some people do have trouble digesting it, so this is something to keep in mind if you're introducing it into your diet.