Vegan Baking 101 – The FAQ

(originally published January 2002, in Co-options, the newsletter of Sevanada Natural Foods Cooperative in Atlanta, GA. http://www.sevananda.coop)

It’s a new year and I’m sure that some of you have decided that this is your year to go vegan. Others of you have vegans who are near and dear to you – the sort of friend or family member you like to cook for. You’re not worried about main dishes and sides – rice, beans, and vegetables can get you through any dining emergency. But what about dessert? Birthday cakes? Sweet rolls? Holiday pies? Not to worry – the Organic Goddess is here to see you through. This year I will be writing a regular monthly column to help teach you all the basics of vegan baking.

Since this column is supposed to be a “how-to”, I’d like to take some time this month to answer some of the common questions I get about vegan baking. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it covers most of the usual queries. Let’s call it the Vegan Baking 101 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

What exactly does “vegan” mean? Is it just short for vegetarian? How do you pronounce it?
Vegan (vee’ gun [original pronunciation] or vay’ gun – never vej’ un, no matter what the old Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook says) means pure vegetarian – no flesh foods (beef, pork, poultry, fish, etc.), no dairy, no eggs, no honey. This column isn’t long enough to talk about why someone would choose this diet/lifestyle. If you would like more information about why people choose veganism, I’d suggest looking at http://www.veganoutreach.org/whyvegan/.

Are vegan foods fat-free? What about cholesterol?
While vegan foods can be lower in fat than their animal-based counterparts, this is not always the case. Olive oil, for example, is vegan, but derives 100% of its calories from fat. Vegan foods are naturally cholesterol-free (only animal products contain cholesterol) but some vegan fats such as hydrogenated vegetable shortening can raise your body’s own cholesterol levels. Again, this column isn’t long enough to address these issues (and I’m not a nutritionist).

I understand that butter isn’t vegan, since it comes from milk, but what about margarine? Is it OK?
It depends on the margarine. Most margarines are hydrogenated (made solid at room temperature by “saturating” the molecules with hydrogen). This makes them a heart-unhealthy choice for regular consumption. Most margarines also have small amounts of dairy products added to make them taste more “buttery.” There are a couple of margarine-type products available that are not hydrogenated and don’t contain dairy products. My favorite is Earth Balance. It’s available in the dairy cooler at Sevananda. I use it in any recipe that calls for butter or margarine. It’s a bit salty, however, so keep that in mind before using it. You might want to cut back on any other salt in your recipe.

I looked at the label for some margarines and didn’t see any milk on the label. What do you mean by “dairy products?” Are there other “milk” words I need to look out for?
Some of the other names for milk products include whey (the watery leftovers from cheese-making which are often dried into a cheap, high-protein filler and flavor carrier), non-fat dry milk powder, buttermilk, buttermilk solids, milk solids, butter oil, lactose, and casein (or sodium caseinate). This last one is especially sneaky. Casein (and its derivative, sodium caseinate) is a milk protein. It is used in many soy cheeses to make them melt more like dairy cheese. These products are suitable for people who are lactose intolerant (can’t digest milk sugars) but are not vegan. Casein is also found in many “non-dairy” items such as non-dairy creamer and non-dairy whipped topping (e.g. Cool Whip). There are alternative products available at Sevananda. For whipped topping, for example, try “Hip Whip”. It’s in the freezer case. (Update: Try Soyatoo Soy Whip – in aerosol cans or in cartons, in the dairy case.)

What do you use in place of milk? What about buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream?
For baking, I usually use a fairly high-fat soymilk (VitaSoy Creamy Original or Westsoy Organic). I simply substitute it in equal measure for the dairy milk in the recipe. Instead of using buttermilk or yogurt in baked goods, you can sour soymilk by adding 1 tabelspoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to each cup of “buttermilk” you need. For yogurt or sour cream, let the mixture sit for a few minutes in a warm place to thicken.

Does peanut butter contain butter? What about apple or peach butter?
No, “butter” here just means a smooth butter-like spread.

What about eggs? They’re in every cake and cookie recipe I find. How do you bake without them?
Eggs serve many purposes in baking. They are very complex and I will do an entire column soon on the many ways to substitute for eggs in baking. For now, however, if you have a cake or cookie recipe that calls for no more than two eggs, I would try using Ener-G Egg Replacer powder, mixed with water according to the package directions (1 1/2 tsp. Powder + 2 Tbsp water per egg). I use it in most of my vegan-ized recipes with good results. You will find Ener-G Egg Replacer powder on the baking aisle.

Why do all your recipes call for unbleached flour and unbleached sugar? What’s wrong with bleaching?
Bleaching removes some of the trace elements that occur naturally in wheat and sugar cane juice. Bleached flour does make somewhat lighter cakes and flakier pastries, but I haven’t been able to find an organic bleached flour.

Sugar is a bit more of an issue for vegans. Bleached cane sugar is often processed using animal bone char (a form of charcoal). Although none of the bone char ends up in the sugar, many vegans find this use of animal bone char repellent. Beet sugar (which looks, tastes, and cooks just like cane sugar) does not need this processing step, but I have found it impossible to determine which U.S. processors use beet sugar exclusively. For this reason, I use unbleached sugar in recipes that originally called for white sugar. For recipes that call for brown sugar (which is just white sugar with some molasses mixed in) I use Sucanat (which is just unbleached sugar with molasses mixed in! It gets its brand name from the somewhat misleading phrase SUgar CAne NATural).

Well, why don’t you use 100% whole wheat flour and Sucanat in all of your cakes?
I believe that desserts are a treat, not everyday food, so they had better taste good. I don’t try to make desserts a major source of nutrition. I don’t make cakes with 100% whole wheat flour. They’re simply too heavy and “health-food-y.” I use a mixture of unbleached flour and whole wheat pastry flour or other alternative flours (e.g. spelt) instead. I use the best, cleanest ingredients (including as many organic ingredients) as possible, but I don’t skimp on flavor and I won’t compromise on texture. I don’t want someone to say “You know, for a vegan cake, this is pretty good.” I want them to say “This is a great cake.” It’s also important to me for my cakes and cookies to look pretty, so I don’t use any whole wheat flour or Sucanat in light-colored products. For darker colored cakes and cookies, I use a mix of flours and choose the sweetener I think will taste the best. (N.B. I wrote this before I tried using 100% whole wheat pastry flour. It makes very light cakes and biscuits. I recommend it highly.)

What about other sweeteners? I’ve heard all cane sugars are bad for you.
There are a number of other sweetening alternatives, including maple syrup, date sugar, brown rice syrup, and fruit concentrates. I’ll go over them in detail in another column.

I guess since you’re vegan, you can’t use chocolate, right? Carob is just vegan chocolate, right?
Well, yes and no. Chocolate comes from a plant (the cacao tree) and is a vegetable product in its own right. It is only when it is processed that chocolate is often adulterated with milk or other dairy ingredients. All Most unsweetened baking chocolate is vegan, but it is very bitter and must be sweetened before you can eat it. There are wonderful ready-to-eat vegan chocolate bars and baking chips available at Sevananda. All of the Tropical Source chocolates are vegan, as are the Chatfield and Sunspire malt-sweetened chocolate chips and the malt-sweetened chocolate chips (marked “vegan”) in the bulk bins. (By the way, the bulk chocolate chips are by far the least expensive of all the vegan chips in the store and taste just like the Chatfield and Sunspire.) Baking cocoa (not hot cocoa drink mix) is also vegan. Next month’s column will focus on chocolate, so I’ll give you some hints on how to handle it then.

Carob is produced from a completely different and unrelated Mediterranean plant called the Locust Bean Tree. It is also sometimes called St. John’s Bread, because the fruit of this tree was apparently what John the Baptist ate when he was in the wilderness eating “locusts” and honey. Carob is naturally much higher in sugars than cocoa and therefore requires less sweetening. Carob is caffeine-free, while chocolate has a small amount of naturally occurring caffeine. Carob has a flavor that somewhat resembles cocoa, but does not have cocoa (or chocolate)’s complexity. I find carob to have an unpleasant aftertaste, but many people like it. I use real chocolate (not carob) because I like it and the small amount of caffeine in it doesn’t bother me. If you like, you can substitute carob for the chocolate in recipes, but it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. Carob, like chocolate, is naturally vegan, but is often processed with milk products. Read your labels carefully.

Are there other ingredients in common baking products I need to look out for?
Gelatin, which is derived from animal skins and bones. Look for alternative products such as Hains Super Fruits and Emes Kosher-Jel both of which are on the baking aisle at Sevananda. Watch out for marshmallows and marshmallow cream. Marshmallows contain gelatin, and marshmallow cream contains egg whites. In a future column, I’ll publish a terrific homemade marshmallow recipe that is free from cow skins and horse toenails! (note from 2007 – Emes Kosher-Jel was proven to be not only non-kosher, but also non-vegan. The product is no longer available. Honest-to-goodness vegan marshmallows are available through Cosmo’s Vegan Shoppe.)

Now, here’s a carrot cake recipe to brighten up your drab winter days. This recipe is baked in a Bundt or loaf pan and calls for a glaze instead of a frosting, so it’s a snap to make. The glaze is adapted from the glaze my grandmother Pansy always used on her carrot cake. It is poured on while the cake is warm, and soaks into the cake, so don’t expect to see it run in artistic drizzles down the sides of the cake.

Carrot Cake and Glaze

Cake recipe adapted from The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, 1988

1 cup safflower or canola oil
2 cups Sucanat (natural brown sugar)
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
3 cups grated carrots (organic preferred)
1 cup chopped pecans, optional
1/2 cup raisins, optional

Preheat oven to 350 F. Oil and flour (or spray with pan spray) one large Bundt pan* (to glaze) or one 9×13 cake pan (for unglazed snack cake squares) and set aside.

Blend oil and sugars, add water and beat.

Sift the flour with the remaining dry ingredients and add to wet ingredients. Fold in carrots (and nuts and raisins, if using) and mix batter well. Spread into pan and bake at 350 F until cake springs back in center when touched lightly and the edges pull away from the pan, about 40-45 minutes.

Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes. If using the glaze, turn cake out of pan and pour glaze on while cake is still warm.

*Depending on the size of your Bundt pan, you might have some batter left over. Fill the pan no more than 2/3 full, then put any leftover batter in muffin cups for carrot muffins. Top with chopped pecans for a pretty finish.

Pansy’s Carrot Cake Glaze

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serving Size: 8
Preparation Time: 0:05

1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup soy milk
1/4 cup margarine (Earth Balance preferred)
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Prepare the partially cooled cake by poking it all over with a cake tester or long skewer.

Mix the vinegar and soy milk in a measuring cup. Melt margarine in a deep saucepan with maple syrup for a minute or two. After margarine is melted, pour in soured soy milk, then stir in baking soda at the last minute. The mixture will foam; just stir it down and pour glaze quickly over cake.
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