If you are new to plant-based eating, you may be looking at some recipes and wondering WTF is up with some of the ingredients listed. I know this was definitely me when I first started out. I went to the grocery store armed with a list of ingredients I’d never used before and had little idea of where to find them. Suffice it to say, that first grocery store visit was one of the longest of my life. Once I got the stuff home I didn’t really know how to use any of it either. I was dependent on those recipes because I was uncomfortable with the ingredients and what they would add to a dish. I don’t want you to struggle like I did, so I created this handy list of new items you may be unfamiliar with to help you in your plant-based kitchen.
Agar agar is a gelatinous substance derived from red algae. It’s frequently used in vegan cooking as a substitute for gelatin (which is derived from animal products). It’s typically sold in powder or flakes. To use, they are dissolved in boiling water. Whatever it is added to will require time to set. You can find it in health-food stores or the health food aisle of any well-stocked grocery store. As always, if you can’t find it locally it can be found online.
Aquafaba is the liquid found in a can of chickpeas. You can also use the liquid from other beans, though for certain applications, chickpea water works best. Most people just dump it down the drain, but it’s a really useful ingredient. It works as a substitute for eggs in baking as well as a sub for oil in certain cases. (Hello oil-free hummus!) It can even be whipped up like whipped cream or baked like a meringue.
So, next time you open a can of beans, consider saving the aquafaba. It will last in the fridge for up to a week. Or, you can freeze it in ice cube trays. Frozen and thawed aquafaba retains the same leavening power as fresh.
There are some things to keep in mind. It’s best to grab unsalted chickpeas if you will be using the aquafaba. It’s also advisable to choose beans packaged in BPA-free cans. If you prefer,
you can use the cooking liquid (not the soaking liquid) from a batch of dried chickpeas, but you may need to simmer it a little while so it thickens up like the canned version.
Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
Sometimes referred to just as “Bragg’s.” Liquid aminos are made from soybeans and water, so there aren’t any preservatives or BS additives. It’s also gluten-free, which makes it a great option for those who are gluten intolerant. It adds a salty flavour, very similar to soy sauce, but with less sodium. It can be used in dressings, sauces, marinades and stir fry’s, or straight up sprayed on your popcorn for a little flavour. Basically, anywhere you would normally use soy sauce. You can find it in the health food aisle of larger grocery stores. Some stores may have it mixed in with the soy sauce in the condiment aisle or there are many retailers on the web that sell it.
Very similar to Bragg’s, except coconut aminos are made from fermented coconut sap. It has that same dark appearance and salty, umami flavour associated with soy sauce. (Umami is one of the 5 basic tastes and it refers to the savoury flavour often found in broths and stews.) The flavour of coconut aminos is a little milder and slightly sweeter than traditional soy sauce. It also contains much less sodium, and is gluten-free, making it a great option for those avoiding sodium or gluten. You’ll find this in the same sections as you would Bragg’s at the grocery store, or on the internet if your local grocery store fails you.
Kala namak is a rock salt that is also referred to as Himalayan black salt. It looks different from what you might expect, it’s typically brownish pink to deep purple in colour, and lighter when ground up. It has a pretty distinctive smell, due to the sulphur content. Due to the sulphur content, kala namak lends an eggy flavour to any dish it’s added to. This makes it perfect for things like tofu scramble, chickpea omelets or vegan quiche. You can typically find it in ethnic markets, in the international section of any well-stocked grocery store, or online.
This is a liquid flavouring made from wood smoke that has gone through a condenser. The smoke then forms condensation as it cools, and those drops are collected and filtered. It’s often used in sauces or marinades to add that grilled or smoky flavour. It can usually be found in the grocery store near the bbq sauces, or online. There have been some questions as to the safety of liquid smoke, but good ole Dr. Greger gives us the goods (backed by scientific research, as always) here: Is Liquid Smoke Safe?
Miso is a thick paste made from fermented soybeans. Due to the fermentation, it is a great source of probiotics. It is salty tasting and is often used to add umami and depth of flavour to a sauce or soup. It comes in different varieties; white or yellow miso having a milder flavour than red or brown miso. Due to the probiotics, you’ll want to purchase miso that’s in the refrigerated section. If it’s just sitting on the shelf, don’t bother. You can find this at most larger grocery stores or Asian markets.
The first time I went searching for miso, I asked a staff member at the store. I was then handed a packet of dry miso soup mix (the kind you add boiling water to). Sadly, this did not have the intended results in the recipe I was making. Ah well, we live and learn, right?
More affectionately referred to as “Nooch.” Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that has a cheesy, nutty flavour. It contains some fibre and protein and is naturally high in certain B vitamins. It’s also low in fat, calories and sodium, so it’s a great substitute for those trying to avoid salt. You can use nooch in small amounts to add richness to soups and sauces, or in larger amounts to lend a cheesy flavour to a homemade cheese sauce or nut-based cheese. You can typically find it at the health food store, in the health food aisle at larger grocery stores, or in the bulk bin section. If all else fails, you can definitely get it online.
Tahini is part of the nut and seed butter family. It’s made by blending sesame seeds until they form a paste. Like sesame seeds, tahini is rich in protein, minerals (like iron and calcium) and antioxidants. It’s also a good source of omega 3 fats, making it one of the better plant-based fat sources. Tahini is commonly used in hummus and other dips, but it also works great as a base for salad dressings. You can normally find this in the health food aisle of most grocery stores, tucked in and amongst all the other natural nut and seed butters. As with most things, it can also be found online.
Tempeh is one of the healthier meat substitutes out there. It’s made from fermented soybeans that have been formed into blocks. It has a nutty flavour but is often marinated or seasoned to take on other flavours. Tempeh has a firm, meaty texture, which makes it a popular choice as an alternative to meat. It’s high in protein and also a good source of calcium. It can be prepared in a number of ways, steamed, sautéed, or baked to name a few. It’s great to have on sandwiches, in bowls or even on its own (especially if it’s been nicely flavoured). You’ll find it refrigerated in the same section you would normally find tofu at your local market.
Most people have at least heard of tofu, but just in case I’ll give you a quick rundown. Tofu, sometimes referred to as bean curd, is made from curds of soymilk that are pressed together to form blocks. It comes in a variety of textures from silken or soft varieties all the way up to firm and extra firm varieties. The difference is the overall consistency. Silken or soft tofu is great in dips, smoothies or dressings, and the firm and extra firm varieties are better for things like baked tofu or scrambled tofu. It is a good source of protein and important minerals like iron and calcium. You should be able to find this in most grocery stores nowadays, usually in a refrigerated section with other vegan faux meats.
It’s important to note that tofu requires some specific care to come out well. For starters, it’s packaged in liquid, so if you’re using it in a preparation where mushy tofu would be gross, purchase a firmer variety and press it a little before cooking. If you don’t have a tofu press, you can use a DIY version. Just wrap the block in a paper towel and place it between two plates with a pile of books on top. Tofu also has a pretty neutral flavour, which has given it a bad rep in the past, but it actually absorbs flavour really well. So, if you have bland, boring tofu, blame the cook, not the ‘fu. Just marinate it for a bit before cooking to get those flavours popping.
The Bottom Line
When you start to cook a different style of food than you are used to it can be daunting. Don’t get trapped in the fear of the unknown though. Step out of your comfort zone a little, it’s a good learning process. Hopefully, this post will help you avoid some of the struggles I had early on so you can cook like a pro with these new ingredients in your plant-based kitchen.
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Feature image credit: Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash