PLANT-BASED VEGAN ESSENTIALS
Level up your meals with this simple guide to plant-based essentials.
Have you recently made the switch to being vegan?
Maybe you are toying with the idea and want to be prepared.
Whatever your reason, it can be daunting when you first make this change; I can remember feeling overwhelmed about the amount of information out there and didn’t know where to start.
There was the time I posted on Facebook, asking for help; where could I find this mystical thing called ‘Nutritional Yeast’ something which now seems to feature in almost everything we cook. The revelation that you can make mayo from oil and soy milk, or that you can flavour stuff with pickle juice.
Every day is a new food adventure, and you end up muddling through and finding things out as you go.
It will be three years in January that I have been Vegan, I still consider myself a fledgeling really, but in those three years, I have learned a lot about creative cooking. I want to share my favourites with you in the hope it might make your journey a little bit easier.
1. High-Speed Blender
We have used our trusty jug blender every single day without fail since we went plant-based. Ours is just a high powered Phillips, not one of these fancy makes, but it does a great job of decimating anything in its path. I would say that if there is only one thing you can buy, this is the one that is the most essential!
2. Air Fryer
The air fryer was a revelation — you can cook almost anything in it with either no oil or a tiny bit of oil, and everything comes out golden and crispy. We have not fried or deep-fried anything since we got it, (we didn’t much anyway) this pretty much guarantees crispy fries every time! It is also a speedy way to cook things. If you want to put something in it that has a batter coating, make sure the batter is extra thick otherwise the air circulating in the Fryer will blow it off.
You may well find you are mandolin-ing within an inch of your life; it’s great for shredding cabbage for sauerkraut, onions for coleslaw, making thin slices of things to cook into crisps in your air fryer — you get the gist. I strongly recommend a mandolin with a safety cover, I have lost several chunks of thumb, finger and knuckle to this machine.
4. Stand Mixer
No, I don’t own one, but I would like to. Many an hour has been spent kneading dough, pummeling seitan and generally building new muscles as I am yet to add this to my armoury of kitchen equipment. If you can invest in one (I say invest as they are expensive), then do it, unless of course you have an incredibly stressful job and would enjoy the relief that the hours of pounding and kneading bring you.
4. Nutritional Yeast
Sometimes this is fortified with B12, but not always so don’t rely on this to get your dosage. When I first became Plant-Based this was the one ingredient that everyone raved about; it adds a savoury flavour, makes everything taste like cheese etc. I have a slightly unpopular opinion on this. Yes, it has a savoury, cheese taste, but it’s very, very mild — think more like cheesy Wotsits than a fine aged cheddar. Regardless, you find yourself using this in almost everything you cook, so I would advise bulk buying if you can.
5. Onion & Garlic Powder
Two things I had barely used before our days of being Plant-Based, but now I would find it virtually impossible to live without. This is essential for Tofu marinades; it helps to ensure that it ends up tasting of something. Also beneficial for any cheesy creations. For those of you that are not onion or garlic fans, for some reason (and I have no science to back this up) they add a savoury depth of flavour rather than an onion/garlicky taste.
6. Pickle & Caper Juice
I can remember the first time I watched Lauren Toyota (from Hot For Food) pour some juice from her pickles into something, and I thought what in God’s name is that crazy woman doing!?* She is really onto something here. When your Caesar dressing is not quite there, or your cream cheese is a bit off, this is what it needs; this is your missing link! Never throw it away once your pickles or capers are gone, keep it, it’s the secret weapon of vegan cooking!
7. Smoked Salt and Liquid Smoke
Full disclosure I have tried liquid smoke in my mouth, don’t do this, it tastes of bonfires. However, much like the pickle and caper juice, these are two little ingredients of witchcraft that we now add to many things to give them that salty, smoky profile that you would associate with things like bacon and barbecues.
8. Miso Paste
Umami is a word you will constantly hear when you are doing your youtube research on what to cook. Well, Miso is so much more than just a soup base. It’s great for marinades and helping you pack in salty, savoury umami punch. Just check your Miso paste is Vegan as it can occasionally contain non-vegan ingredients.
9. Vegan Worcester Sauce
Similar to the Miso. This is a salty fermented sauce with a slight vinegar undertone. It traditionally contains anchovies, so you will need to hunt out a vegan version. This is another excellent way to get your umami flavour profile.
10. Smoked Paprika
Not to be confused with regular paprika. Smoked paprika has a sweet-salty taste where it has been smoked typically with oak wood. It is great for dishes like paella, adding to cheesy sauces and you’ll often find you use this in meat substitute recipes.
11. Old Bay
I didn’t know what Old Bay was until I became vegan. I just happened to pick it up in our local speciality shop, and now it is a go-to for anything seafood or southern fried.
We are continually running out here, so we learnt to make our own — here is the recipe:
- 2 tablespoons bay leaf powder
- 2 tablespoons celery salt
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked salt
Blend it all up until you have a fine powder then store in a jar — this will make around 1/2 cup, will keep 1–3 months depending on temperature and humidity.
12. Coconut Yoghurt
Even though we live in the land of coconuts for some inexplicable reason, almost all ready-made coconut products come with added milk. So, the rows and rows of yoghurt and ice cream are sadly all off-limits. The good news is that it is incredibly easy to make the yoghurt, all you need is tinned coconut cream and some probiotics.
You want your cream to be nice and thick, separated from the water, put the cream into a sterile glass jar, empty the capsules in, give it a good stir (with a clean, sterile spoon/whisk) cover it in muslin/cloth/kitchen roll, fasten with an elastic then keep somewhere warm for 24–48 hours.
I do this pretty freestyle these days, and it is surprisingly hard to screw up, but here is a proper recipe to ensure your success.
13. Vegan Mayo
We finally started to get vegan mayo in local stores about a year ago, it was in a tiny jar, and it cost around $8. I recently found a video in Good Eatings about how to make mayo. It looked surprisingly authentic and also very easy, so I couldn’t believe it could be anything like real mayo. Oh, how wrong I was! It’s just Soya milk, Sunflower Oil, Salt, Apple Cider Vinegar and a bit of sweetener (maple syrup etc.) if you need it. We don’t. This was a revelation.
I urge you to try this out; it’s an absolute game-changer, not to mention money saver. Here is the video that prompted us to make our own:
This is another one I had not tried until I went plant-based. It makes you very adventurous all this veganism. I think the thought of it just seemed weird to me, but it’s delicious. It’s also handy to have a jar on hand because you can use the juice to flavour things. I felt quite intimidated at the thought of fermenting foods, but it’s straightforward to make.
I have tried many recipes, but I like this one the best:
15. Fermented Hot Sauce
As I sat transfixed watching the legend that is Brad from Bon Appetit, I reached an episode in which he makes his fermented hot sauce. If like me you are a fan of hot sauce then this is a great way to make your own, and it’s so much tastier than anything you will buy from the shops! You are also left with brine which Brad raves about; the brine is excellent as a marinade for tofu or tempeh, also works well as a salad dressing. You don’t even need to chop your chillies up, I have done this with them whole and stems intact, and it was just as good!
Nuts, Seeds and Other
16. Raw Cashews
Again buy these in bulk if you can. You will most likely use these for the base of any creamy sauce or cheese. It’s pretty hard to get raw cashews where we live, which is somewhat ridiculous as I believe we are one of the biggest cashew producers in the world. So we are often stuck with roasted which don’t work as well and need more soaking/boiling first. You’ll find a lot of recipes will tell you to soak them overnight, but you can also boil them if you are against the clock and it has the same effect just much faster.
17. Sunflower Seeds
These can be used as a much more pocket-friendly substitute for cashew nuts, they have such a mild flavour and are so creamy when they are blended up. I have even switched them out in cultured cheese, and also in place of pine nuts in pesto and it worked perfectly.
The humble breadcrumb. I had never breaded anything or even owned a bag of breadcrumbs, until going vegan. My determination to make Tofu taste of something lead me to buy some and I have never looked back.
If you are working with tofu, you can put extra spices and herbs in with your breadcrumbs to add some further complexity to the flavour profile. They are also great for bulking things out, I had some leftover and just chucked them in with my not lobster salad to make it go further. You can add them to anything you want to mould into a shape — meatball, burger, falafel etc. Or why not elevate your mac not cheese with a crust of golden breadcrumbs on the top. YUM!
Tempeh is an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans. It’s high in protein, prebiotics and a wide array of vitamins and minerals. You can make it yourself, click here for how; or you can buy it ready-made in a block. We get ours delivered monthly wrapped in banana leaves, and it’s always quite the event when it arrives. There are many ways to cook tempeh, but much like tofu, you are going to need to help it a little with the flavour. We split ours; half goes straight into the freezer, then I usually simmer a few blocks in vegetable stock for 20 mins. This will cut through the bitterness of the tempeh, soften it up if you have an incredibly hard brick, then I slice it and keep it in the stock in a jar, in the fridge until I am ready to use it. Tempeh can then be used much like tofu, you can coat it fry it, bake it, add it to salads, stir-fries etc.
Before I moved to Vietnam, I had dabbled in the world of Tofu eating, and it had mostly been disastrous. Honestly, I didn’t get what the fuss was about.
How things have changed my friends. I am now an accomplished Tofu user; I can appreciate the absolute genius of this humble little white chunk of joy. Maybe I will go on to write a whole piece, an ode if you will because it is so incredibly versatile, but for now, let me share the basics.
A — Marinade it!
I often watch vegan cooking shows where they chuck it in a pan with a bunch of seasoning, implying it will take on the flavour profile of said seasoning. I suppose it may pick up some of the flavours, but if I want it to have real depth, then you have to marinade it. I use the standard vegan essentials: garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil and nutritional yeast at the very least. Depending on what I am planning to cook this will then dictate what other herbs and spices I add. In a perfect world, I would then allow this to sit for 2–3 days before cooking with it.
B — The soft/silken Tofu is great for mimicking cheese/bechamel sauce. Throw it in the blender with some plant milk and the aforementioned standard flavourings, and you’ll be surprised at how authentic this can be.
C — The freeze/defrost debate.
This one depends on what tofu is accessible to you.
We have a plethora of different types here, we have tried this technique out on several, and I feel like it’s meant for the blocks that are of medium hardness. The idea is you freeze them, get them out of the freezer, let them thaw then use a Tofu press (or a towel and something heavy) to squeeze out the liquid before adding your flavourings, which it will now absorb better and faster. You can even refreeze it again, and this is supposed to give it a more realistic meat-type texture if that is your jam.
There are billions of youtube videos and recipes on Pinterest, but I urge you to marinade no matter what!
When we made the switch from Vegetarian of 17 years to Vegan I was living in Vietnam. At the time the Vegan community was in its infancy and we couldn’t buy Vegan cheese or butter off the shelf, we had to make everything from scratch. I think you become so conditioned to going to the supermarket and buying things ready-made and prepackaged that you forget what it’s like to really cook.
So now is your chance, good luck!
Enjoy this article — more from the same author here: