How to pick the best ingredients for stellar vegan baking

March 20, 2024

You think you know how to make a cake until someone asks you to do it without butter, eggs or milk, and then you start to wonder if you ever knew cake at all. Today, an increasing number of people are asking just that, whether they’ve chosen a plant-based diet or have a dairy allergy. We’re all having to rethink a lot of what we know and how we go about baking. It can be overwhelming.

In the last few years, though, several intrepid, well-versed talents have published cookbooks on vegan baking and pastry, and home cooks may be surprised to discover that we have a wealth of useful information, resourceful tips and inventive, achievable recipes at our fingertips.

These practiced bakers know how to navigate the myriad vegan butters, plant-based milks and egg replacements to be had nowadays, which might be the largest knowledge gap many of us face. All those ingredients, while they can do the work of their animal-derived counterparts, don’t share their chemical compositions, so you can’t simply swap one for the other in a 1:1 ratio. This can make things especially challenging in baking. But it needn’t be. I’ve gathered some of the essential intel from this new crop of cookbooks and their authors to streamline your process, help you build your vegan-baking pantry and encourage your progress. What awaits are the most tender of cake crumbs, luxurious of ganaches and creamiest of custards (that’s right, custards).

Butter: Although many brands of vegan butter are available, they’re not all created equal, and that affects how they taste and perform in a recipe.

“The fancy vegan butters are really good,” says Amanda Bankert, the American owner of Boneshaker bakery in Paris and author of “Voilà Vegan.” She recommends European-style plant-based butters because they mimic the texture and flavor of the dairy butter she previously baked with professionally in France.

Whatever you choose, make sure it isn’t labeled “light,” “whipped” or “spreadable,” and that water isn’t first on its ingredient list.” In “The Vegan Cake Bible,” British author Sarah Kidd explains that where there’s more fat, there’s less water, and that means less curdling of batter or splitting of buttercream. In her book, “New Vegan Baking,” Bucharest-based Ana Rusu states that “a 75 percent fat butter is preferred for baking” and cites the sticks from Earth Balance, which come in at 78 percent, as her top pick. Miyoko’s European Style Cultured Vegan Butter has the same amount of fat and is another favorite of professional and home bakers alike.

DIY options: For people who can’t access a baking-friendly vegan butter, the Australian author of “The Vegan Baker,” Zacchary Bird, offers a formula that combines soy milk, a combination of neutral oils, apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, turmeric (for color) and a surprise, aquafaba. Over email, he explained that it’s “inspired by the legendary Nina’s Aquafaba Butter, a viral recipe in the vegan baking community that [I] stumbled on using aquafaba to make flaky dairy-free butter that you can use in any recipe.”

Oil: Philip Khoury, who oversees all of Harrods’s pastry production in London, eschews vegan butter completely in his cookbook, “A New Way to Bake.” He relies heavily on everyday olive oil , which doesn’t make its presence known as such or else adds flavor when used in relatively small doses. His are one example of what a few tablespoons of that fat can do to enhance the effect of the chocolate’s cocoa butter. In situations where he needs to add more oil, he recommends sunflower, safflower or peanut instead, preferably cold-pressed.

Shortening: Let’s not forget Crisco. Bankert got the idea to use it from her grandmother, who was not vegan and deployed the fat to render her pie crusts flaky. “I tried it, and it yielded great results,” Bankert said. “I found out it was initially created out of lard shortages. So, its initial purpose was to replace lard in pastries.” Additionally, she appreciates its ubiquity.

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