For many of us used to typical North American fare, adopting a vegan diet can seem daunting at first. If you’re accustomed to eating hamburgers, pizza, or other meat-and-cheese heavy dishes, it can take a bit of adjustment to find alternatives. But what about bakers—and their desserts? Is it possible to find replacements for milk, eggs, or butter that produce the kinds of sweet treats to which we’ve become accustomed?
The simple answer is, “YES!” Actually, it’s quite easy to substitute baking ingredients when you’re converting to a vegan diet, even without using processed foods. Here is a little primer on some of the major vegan baking ingredients and how to use them to switch over some of those traditional desserts that once contained eggs, butter, or other non-vegan ingredients.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how simple it is to begin your vegan baking adventures!
Substituting milk couldn’t be easier. Vegan milks can be used one-for-one in place of cow’s milk (except for canned coconut milk, which is more like cream). Some of the options include soy, almond, rice, hemp, coconut milk in a carton, and potato-based milk (sounds weird but it is really delicious!). I find soy and almond to be the best subs, as they offer a similar flavor and consistency to cow’s milk. Rice milk is a little thinner, so you might need to use a tad less on occasion, and your result won’t be as moist or rich (but you can add 1 teaspoon extra oil per cup to compensate if you use rice milk). And hemp works nicely but does add its own distinct flavor the mix.
Many vegans like to use vegan margarine (Earth Balance is a popular one) or shortening in place of dairy butter. I prefer organic coconut oil, which, like butter, is naturally solid at room temperature. It can be blended, creamed, and mixed in every way the same as dairy butter; for each cup of dairy butter, use a cup of coconut oil.
If you don’t like coconut oil, regular vegetable oil (such as sunflower or grapeseed) can be used as well. Because most vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, however, you will need to use less, or your baked goods won’t firm up as they should.
As a general rule, I use about 2/3 cup oil per one cup butter in the original recipe. This amount will work for cakes and cookies, with minimal change in texture to the cookies (they may turn out a bit softer than usual when made with liquid oil).
Because it is filtered through bone char, regular cane sugar (even brown sugar) is not a suitable option for vegans. If you can get organic evaporated cane juice, that is one way to replace your white sugar in recipes (and for brown sugar, simply add 1/4-1/2 tsp organic blackstrap molasses to one cup of evaporated cane juice.)
A couple of other great (dry) sugar substitutes are unrefined evaporated cane juice and coconut (palm) sugar. Unrefined evaporated cane juice (brands are Sucanat, Florida Crystals, Rapadura) are made by dehydrating sugar cane juice without filtering the results, so they retain all the original vitamins and minerals of the plant. The result is a dry brown crystal that has a light molasses flavor. It can be used one for one in place of white sugar.
The same is true of coconut (palm) sugar, which is made from the sap of the coconut palm. It is lighter than brown sugar, with a caramel or butterscotch flavor, and the benefit of a low glycemic index (GI) of about 35 (regular sugar is about 68). You can use it one for one in place of white sugar.
Other great vegan sweeteners are usually liquid. Agave nectar, from the sap of the agave cactus, is a golden syrup that is often referred to as “vegan honey.” It is also low glycemic. My favorite traits of agave are its light flavor and non-crystallizing texture (unlike honey, which will harden at the bottom of the jar). You can also find brown rice syrup, made from fermented brown rice, maple syrup (with its deliciously distinct flavor) and two relative newcomers, yacon syrup and coconut syrup (or nectar). Yacon looks like molasses but boasts a very low glycemic index (some brands list it as “0”). It is quite sticky and offers a flavor combination like dark molasses with a touch of apple cider vinegar; I use it only in combination with other sweeteners. Coconut syrup, on the other hand, is also low on the glycemic index (around 35) but looks and tastes more like caramel (yum!).
To use liquid sweeteners in place of sugar, keep in mind that you are adding a wet ingredient and will need to compensate by decreasing other liquids in a recipe, increasing dry ingredients, or both. As a general rule, I use 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, I’d 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.
Egg substitutes are another area that may initially cause a bit of anxiety when you’re beginning to convert older recipes to vegan options. Eggs provide leavening and binding to most recipes. But have no fear! If you’re new to vegan baking and feeling a bit uncertain, you can always opt for a packaged egg substitute such as Ener-G egg replacer, which can be used in most cases. Results are consistent and directions are easy to follow.
If you prefer not to use packaged egg replacers, here are some of my favorites:
Flax “Eggs.” In addition to providing a fantastic source of Omega-3 fatty acids, ground flax seeds are also wonderful egg substitutes. 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 (very much the texture of egg whites), then add to your recipe wherever you’d add an egg. I find flax eggs work beautifully to replace up to 2 eggs in a recipe; if your original recipe has more than 2 eggs, the texture of the cake or cookie may be altered. Because they don’t provide leavening, however, you might wish to increase your baking powder by about 1/4 tsp per cup of flour when you use flax eggs.
Silken Tofu. It’s not just for tofu scrambles any more! You can 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, and increase the leavening if necessary.
Ground Chia Seeds. Like flax, chia is a superstar when it comes to Omega-3 fatty acids. It also develops a thick, viscous texture when mixed with water. Because chia seeds absorb so much more liquid than flax, I use 1 teaspoon ground chia mixed with 2 Tablespoons water for each chia “egg.” I’ve found chia to work best in recipes where the desired outcome is a moist, dense product, such as a carrot cake or banana muffin use for up to 2 eggs and increase leavening as necessary.
Fruit Purées. Many vegan bakers like to add puréed fruit to their baked goods as egg substitutes. The purée helps to bind the batter and adds both sweetness and density. Be aware, however, that many fruits will confer their own taste to the recipe. So if you use mashed banana, for instance, your cookies or cake will have a distinct banana flavor. Applesauce tends to be less noticeable in the finished product; and I’ve found that date purée works well in chocolate desserts and others with a strong flavor of their own. You can usually use about 1/4 cup purée per egg.
I’ve also 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.
Once you’ve spent a little time in the kitchen baking (and ultimately eating!) vegan desserts, you’ll find that you can enjoy all of your old favorites—plus a few new ones—that are every bit as rich, creamy and delicious as traditional baking. And with plant-based ingredients, you can even feel good about the desserts you eat.