I don’t consider myself a baker (for good reason) but when I came across the website Diet, Dessert and Dogs I began to believe that perhaps I could bake. Ricki Heller is a wonder. She is smart, funny and has done the legwork for you in figuring out how to bake vegan and gluten-free. I am so pleased that Ricki is offering vegan baking tips as part of the Vegan 101 series!
If you ask most cooks which they find more difficult, cooking or baking, I suspect most would answer “baking.” For most people, a perfect pie crust or fudge brownie requires more science than, say, mixing up a spaghetti sauce or even a tofu scramble. Baking calls for very precise measurements, specific temperatures and timing, and the mysterious alchemy of wet vs. dry, leaveners mixed with fats, caramelization and binding power.
Then, if you throw “vegan” into the batter, you may end up with a truly intimidating endeavor for some people. Whether you’re a novice baker (or even a seasoned one) who has just begun to use vegan alternatives, you can find something of use in these tips for how to produce stunning, delicious creations without any animal products—using only real, whole or minimally processed ingredients.
(And for those of you with the challenge of both vegan AND gluten-free baked goods, I’ve posted a little primer on that kind of baking, too, in this post).
Milk It for All It’s Worth
Just about the easiest ingredient to replace is dairy milk. After all, there are so many wonderful vegan options available in this ingredient category! I find that soymilk and almond milk function most like dairy milk in recipes, but you can also try hemp, coconut (the kind in a carton) or even sunflower seed milk. Rice milk is great, too, but because it’s substantially thinner than the others, the final results may turn out a little dry or crumbly.
For a great cream substitute, use full-fat canned coconut milk. You can also buy vegan dairy creamer (Silk is a common brand) for creaminess in things like mousses, pies or puddings.
Eggs are an easy, relatively foolproof way to bind and to leaven most baked goods. They also add a portion of the fat content (which can render the final product more tender) and flavor. But eggs can be replaced in almost every situation except meringue (and even then, vegan mixes are available).
Here are some great choices:
Ener-G Egg Replacer. One of the most popular vegan egg replacers, Ener-G is a prepared mix that can be used in most instances. Results are consistent and directions are easy to follow.
Having said that, I’ll admit that I never use packaged egg replacers in my own baking. There are many whole-foods alternatives that you can try, and in my experience, they work just as well:
Flax “Eggs.” Simply mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax with 3 tablespoons of water in a small bowl for each egg you replace, allow to sit 2-3 minutes until the mixture becomes gel-like (the texture of egg whites), then add to your recipe wherever you’d add an egg. You can replace up to 2 eggs in a recipe this way.
Silken Tofu. Use 1/4 cup silken tofu as a replacement for one egg in a recipe. Again, I wouldn’t advise using more than 2 tofu “eggs” at a time.
Ground Chia Seeds. These seeds develop a thick, viscous texture when mixed with water. All you need is 1-2 teaspoons ground chia (depending on the recipe) mixed with 3 Tablespoons water for each chia “egg,” for a moist, dense product (great in carrot cake or muffins).
Starches: Cornstarch, tapioca or arrowroot added to the dry ingredients can provide some of the binding function of eggs in a baked good. Use about 2 Tablespoons of starch per cup of flour, and add 2-4 Tablespoons extra liquid to your recipe.
Fruit Purées. While good binders, many fruits will confer their own taste to the recipe. Applesauce tends to be less noticeable in the finished product; and date purée works well in chocolate desserts and others with a strong flavor of their own. Most often, about 1/4 cup fruit purée replaces one egg.
I’ve read that you can make your own vegan eggwhite substitute by whipping 1 tablespoon agar in 1 tablespoon water, then chilling the mixture and whipping again; I haven’t tried this method but it sounds promising.
Note: these substitutes are generally not recommended for desserts that rely heavily on eggs or egg whites alone, such as meringues or sponge cakes. There is a vegan meringue mix available online, and many vegan cookbooks also include their own “meringue” recipes.
Also keep in mind that, if you’re using wheat flour and granulated sweeteners, you probably don’t need any egg substitutes at all; the gluten in the flour does a fairly good job of binding on its own, and your baking powder and/or soda will provide the leavening lift the recipe needs.
Don’t Butter Me Up:
The most common choice to replace butter in vegan baking is margarine (Earth Balance is the most popular brand) or vegan shortening. Again, because I try to use real, whole foods as much as possible, I usually opt for organic coconut oil, which, like butter, is naturally solid at room temperature (it melts at 76F). It can be blended, creamed, and mixed in every way the same as dairy butter. Because coconut oil tends to separate out more easily, I find that when I use it one-for-one, the final product is often a bit too oily; I’ve started using about 7/8 cup of coconut oil per cup of butter, but you can see what works for you.
Regular vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed) can be used as well; but because it’s a liquid, use a bit less (about 2/3 cup oil instead of one cup butter), or your baked goods won’t firm up as they should.
Some Sweet Substitutions
When I first began following a vegan diet, I had no idea that regular cane sugar was filtered through bone char and so is not vegan. If you can, purchase organic evaporated cane juice (and for brown sugar, simply add 1/4-1/2 tsp organic blackstrap molasses per cup of evaporated cane juice.)
Unrefined evaporated cane juice (brands are Sucanat, Rapadura) are made by dehydrating sugar cane juice without filtering the results, so they retain all the original vitamins and minerals of the plant. They look like a dry brown sugar and can all be used one for one in place of white sugar. Similarly, coconut sugar is a low-glycemic crystal that can be used one-for-one instead of sugar.
To create your own powdered sugar, simply whir a cup of dry sweetener, above, with two tablespoons of cornstarch in a blender until powdered (you can also use a coffee grinder, but will have to do it in small batches). Use as you would any other powdered sugar.
Other vegan sweeteners are usually liquid. Agave nectar, from the sap of the agave cactus, is a low-glycemic syrup often referred to as “vegan honey.” You can also find brown rice syrup, made from fermented brown rice, maple syrup, yacon syrup and coconut nectar. Yacon looks like molasses but boasts a very low glycemic index (some brands list it as “0”); it tastes like a combination of dark molasses with a touch of apple cider vinegar. Coconut nectar looks and tastes more like caramel (yum!).
When switching up a liquid for sugar, use only about 2/3 the amount of wet versus dry sweetener, and increase the dry ingredients in the recipe by about 25%. For instance, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of flour, begin with 2/3 cup liquid sweetener plus 1-1/4 cups flour. You’ll likely need to experiment a bit when you convert old recipes until you find the ratios that work best for your particular dessert, especially since not all liquid sweeteners are equally sweet (brown rice syrup, which is much less sweet than sugar, would likely need to be combined with another liquid sweetener, for instance).
Like any change in lifestyle, moving from conventional, milk-and-eggs-and-butter based baking to the vegan counterpart may seem intimidating at first. But once you try out some of your fabulous new animal-free sweet treats, you’ll discover how easy it is to bake up delicious desserts that everyone will love—especially the animals.
—Ricki Heller is the author of Sweet Freedom: Desserts You’ll Love without Wheat, Eggs, Dairy or Refined Sugar (one of only three cookbooks endorsed by Ellen DeGeneres on her website) as well as three e-cookbooks. She writes the popular food blog Diet, Dessert and Dogs, where, for the past two years, she has chronicled her struggle with candida and has posted almost 500 sugar-free, vegan, whole-foods recipes.
Don’t you want to bake something this very minute? Thank you, Ricki for breaking it down and encouraging all of us to tap into our inner baker!