We all have those foods that we just can’t live without and always keep stocked in the kitchen, and I certainly have a few favorites that turn up again and again in my recipes. While some of them are commonly used, others are a little obscure or used only in certain types of ethnic cooking, so I wanted to provide some additional instructions and information. Here are just a few of my favorite ingredients with some thoughts about why I find them so awesome and a few tips for using or substituting for some of the less common ingredients.
Agave Nectar. This liquid sweetener comes from the same lovely agave plant that gives us delicious tequila for our margaritas. It has the consistency of thin honey, and I use it as a substitute for honey. It is also great as a sweetener for cold drinks, since it dissolves quickly.
Balsamic Vinegar. This is my favorite vinegar, favorite salad dressing and favorite marinade ingredient. You really can’t go wrong with balsamic vinegar. When using it for cooking, don’t buy the fancy expensive bottles. Go to Trader Joes and get it in the big jug or go to Costco and get Kirkland brand balsamic vinegar. Honestly, Kirkland is probably my favorite, and it tastes better than a few of the more expensive varieties.
Chili Paste. A Vietnamese friend once told me to always buy the chili paste with a rooster on the bottle. I’m not quite sure why, but he’s a great cook, so I didn’t argue. You can usually find this in the Asian section of the grocery store or in an Asian market if you have one. I usually buy Vietnamese varieties of Chili Garlic Sauce or Sambal Oelek both of which are fairly similar chili pastes. You can substitute some chopped hot peppers, other hot sauces or chili pepper flakes.
Coconut Milk. Believe it or not, there is a world of difference between different brands of canned coconut milk. I used to think they were all pretty much the same until the guy who owns my favorite vegan Thai food cart, The Ruby Dragon, told me that he uses Chaokoh coconut milk with Maesri curry paste. When I tried the Chaokoh coconut milk, I was shocked at the difference. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where we have a huge Asian population and many Asian markets, so those of you living elsewhere might have to make do with what you can get.
Coconut Oil. This is a great choice for vegan baked goods, and despite what you may have read to the contrary, it’s a healthy choice as long as you avoid the hydrogenated versions and buy virgin coconut oil. We’ve used it in cookies and cupcakes in place of a more traditional vegetable oil.
Crushed Red Pepper. These are the same red pepper flakes that you see on the table of most pizza joints and Italian restaurants and are sometimes called crushed red chili pepper, red pepper flakes or chili flakes. They are my favorite quick and easy way to add a little spice without the effort of chopping those spicy peppers that make my fingers burn.
Coriander. This often overlooked spice goes great with vegetables and Middle Eastern foods. Coriander, the seed from the cilantro plant, is a small, round, light brown seed about the size of a peppercorn. Freshly ground coriander is so much better than the ground coriander than you buy in the little spice bottles, so I have a pepper grinder that I keep filled with coriander. You can even grow your own coriander if you grow cilantro and let it go to seed. At that point, the cilantro won’t be much good, but the coriander will be fresh and delicious!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil. We use extra virgin olive oil for almost everything, except for dessert. This high-quality oil has a really nice, rich flavor. It’s more expensive than most oils, so if you’re short on cash, you can substitute other vegetable oils in most of the recipes.
Flax Seeds. While you don’t see flax seeds in any of my recipes, I do eat them frequently to add some omego-3 fatty acids into my diet. To get the most benefit from flax seeds they should be ground, so we keep a small amount in a pepper grinder on the counter. Since flax seeds go bad fairly quickly at room temperature, we keep most of the whole flax seeds in the refrigerator and refill the grinder often. I grind them on top of salads or other meals where they won’t interfere with the flavor.
Garlic. With the exception of some of the desserts and other sweets, most of these recipes have garlic. I love garlic, and it adds a lot of flavor. For those of you who aren’t big fans of garlic, you could probably reduce the amount of garlic used in most recipes or even leave it out entirely.
Ginger Root. A lot of people don’t buy fresh ginger root. It comes in huge pieces, and since most recipes only need a little ginger, it tends to go bad before you can use all of it. I love fresh ginger, and we’ve found that we can keep it for a really long time in the freezer. If you have a good microplane grater, you can even grate the frozen ginger without worrying about thawing it. We also buy jars of grated ginger for when we’re feeling a little lazy, but it isn’t nearly as good. Freshly grated ginger is great in most Asian dishes, but I also like to add ginger to my tea occasionally by grating a little fresh ginger into my pot of green tea or by itself in hot water to make a pure ginger tea.
Minced Onions (Dried). I know, I know. I’m always telling people not to buy all of those spices in the little bottles, but this is one big exception. Dried minced onions are a little sweeter than onion powder, and they add some texture when they soften and take on liquid after sitting a while. Fresh onions are better for most things, but for something that doesn’t get cooked, like onion dip or marinade, minced onions add a more subtle flavor than raw onion. They can also be used in a pinch when you are making a quick meal and don’t want to take the time to slice an onion.
Nutmeg. Did you know that nutmeg doesn’t come from a little bottle? It’s actually a seed about the size of an acorn and can be easily grated using a fine microplane grater. Like so many other freshly ground spices, or in this case grated, fresh makes a big difference. Try grating a light dusting of nutmeg on top of your favorite dessert or a spiced holiday drink.
Nutritional Yeast. This is the powdered cheese of the vegan world, but unlike the processed powdered cheeses, nutritional yeast is healthy and naturally full of B vitamins. It comes in flakes, which look too much like fish food for my taste, so we always get the powdered variety. I use it to give pesto a cheesy taste, as a popcorn topping and to make my version of Craft Mac and Cheese.
Olives. Do not, I repeat, do not buy olives in a jar or a can. I don’t know what they put in those little jars, but they aren’t something you should eat. Really good olives usually come from a bulk olive bar at a local grocery store and can make a huge difference when cooking or just for snacking. If you don’t have a bulk olive bar, you can usually find plastic tubs of decent olives in the deli or produce section. Most of my recipes call for kalamata olives because they are a really nice olive and are the kind that can be most commonly found already pitted and ready to use, but I encourage you to experiment with other varieties. For those of you who think you don’t like olives, I challenge you to go to the bulk olives at your local market and try one of each different variety and see if you can find at least one you like. Castelvetrano olives are my current favorite for snacking.
Pepper. Never buy ground pepper out of the shaker bottle. Seriously. Buy your pepper in bulk at the grocery store, keep it in a pepper grinder and have freshly ground pepper in seconds. If you buy some extra pepper that doesn’t fit in the grinder, you can store it in the refrigerator to keep it fresh.
Quinoa. This is my absolute favorite grain … well, it’s really a seed, but it acts like a grain from a culinary perspective, so let’s just call it a grain. You can use it in place of rice or any other grain to serve with food. It cooks more quickly than any other whole grain, is high in protein and other vitamins and most importantly, tastes delicious! It comes in white and red varieties, and I use both depending on what color I think would work best with a particular food. I eat it by itself, put it on salads, serve it with Thai curry and use it as a bed for vegetables and tofu. Whenever you need a whole grain and don’t quite have time to make brown rice, quinoa is the grain for you.
Sage. I like to use rubbed sage, which has a velvety, textured consistency, rather than ground. The flavor is a little more subtle and fresh, but you should still use sage cautiously because it can easily overpower other flavors in large quantities.
Salt. Despite having so many low-sodium variations, I’m a huge fan of salt, and the type of salt you use can make a big difference. The standard table salt is perfect for baking and pizza crust, but for most other things we use a course kosher salt. You can also buy some really interesting finishing salts that add flavor and color for those special meals. Finishing salts used to be available only at specialty stores or online, but lately I’ve been seeing more of them in the local health food stores and larger grocery stores. Turkish black pyramid, red alaea volcanic, pink murray darling and smoked salts are a few of the more interesting varieties. You don’t use them in cooking, but you can sprinkle them over the finished dish to add a little extra color and flavor. I regularly use a course fleur de sel on my popcorn. I also like to serve finishing salt with a really good Italian bread and flavorful olive oil as an appetizer or snack.
Sun Dried Tomatoes. This is probably my favorite ingredient, and I use sun dried tomatoes in almost everything. Sun dried tomatoes can usually be found either packed in oil in jars or completely dried in a plastic bag or the bulk bin. I always buy the dry ones, but using them comes with an extra step. To reconstitute the tomatoes, you need to put them in hot water until they are softened. I usually put them in a glass measuring cup with about twice as much water as sun dried tomatoes, and microwave them for 1 or 2 minutes depending on the quantity. You can also pour boiling water over them and let them sit for a few minutes. The benefit of using the dry tomatoes and reconstituting them is that you end up with a nice tomato broth that you can use in the recipe.
Tahini. Tahini is a little like the peanut butter of the sesame seed world and is made by grinding sesame seeds into a paste with the end result looking a little like peanut butter. If you can, buy a good, authentic tahini, like Joyva, but be prepared to do some aggressive stirring because the oil and solids tend to separate. We usually dump it out of the container and put it in a mixing bowl to give us a little room to stir or you can dump it in a food processor to get it back to a creamy consistency. Use it in hummus, to make sauces or spread it lightly on crackers or bread.
Tamari. I almost always use a gluten-free tamari, instead of soy sauce when cooking. Most soy sauce has wheat in it, which seems to dilute the soy a bit, and tamari just seems to have a stronger soy flavor to me. Some of the commercial soy sauces also have a very distinctive flavor that can be a little overwhelming at times. This is strictly a personal preference on my part, so in any of my recipes, you can substitute your favorite soy sauce or shoyu.
Tempeh. If you think tofu is too squishy, you should give tempeh a try. It’s made out of soybeans and sometimes other grains that have been fermented and pressed into a hard block. It holds up well in cooking and is high in protein. I use it on salads or cooked by itself as a side dish.
Tempeh Bacon. Tempeh bacon is really more like tempeh then actual bacon. It retains the texture of tempeh, but has a smoky flavor that seems a little like bacon without getting too fake meaty. I’ve tried a few different brands, and my favorite is Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon. I eat it just out of the pan as a side dish, put it in recipes, crumble it on salads and put it on sandwiches.
Thai Curry Paste. As a vegan, Thai curry pastes can be a little difficult, since so many of them contain shrimp paste or other meaty bits. My biggest advice is to read the ingredients very carefully or order your curry paste from a vegan store, like Food Fight Grocery. My favorite curry paste is Maesri, but you can only find them in Asian grocery stores, and you need to very carefully read the ingredients because some varieties are vegan and some aren’t.
Toasted Sesame Oil. This oil has a very distinctive flavor and is used in many Asian foods to add a slightly smoky flavor. Make sure that you buy the toasted sesame oil, which should be a dark brown color, and not just regular sesame oil because the two have very different qualities. If you don’t have toasted sesame oil and don’t want to buy yet another oil, you can substitute regular vegetable oil, but you might want to add a dash of tamari or rice vinegar to replace the flavor.
Tofu. Ah, the vegan staple food loved and hated by many. I’m a huge fan of tofu, and you’ll find it in many of these recipes. I generally buy the firm or extra firm tofu that you find in a little tub with a plastic cover packed in water in the refrigerator section. It’s great in stir-fries, on the grill, as a salad topping and in many other recipes. For those tofu haters in the crowd, you can probably substitute tempeh or even leave it out of most recipes and add a few extra vegetables. Warning: do not freeze tofu, since it completely changes the texture and gets really weird.
Vegan “Dairy” Products
I wanted to have a whole section for the non-dairy substitutes because they can be pretty tricky for anyone not familiar with using them in cooking. I can also tell you that I have tried a lot of non-dairy products, and they range from really good to completely repulsive. The goal of this section is to point you to the really good ones and give some tips for using them.
To be perfectly honest, I have a really strong dislike for most vegan cheese. Most of it smells so foul that I can’t get it past my nose to eat it. But take this with a large grain of salt, since I’ve always been a little weird about eating cheese even before I went vegan.
Pizza is generally the only thing I make with vegan cheese, and there are a couple of really good vegan cheeses for this purpose. My favorite is Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet Mozzarella, which actually tastes good and melts really well. The only caveat is that it takes longer to melt and requires a higher temperature than regular cheese, so make sure you plan for this when baking pizza or using it in other recipes.
Another good alternative is Daiya Mozzarella Style Shreds. The nice thing is that these come pre-shredded, which saves a little time for pizza, but I don’t like the flavor quite as much as the Follow Your Heart brand.
Most of the vegan ice creams these days are pretty good, so try a wide variety to figure out what you like best. Lately, my favorites have been the soy and coconut milk varieties, and I tend to avoid the rice milks, since they rarely taste creamy enough for me.
Purely Decadent makes both soy and coconut ice creams and is probably my favorite brand. Their Peanut Butter Zig Zag ice cream and Minis ice cream bars are a bit addictive. Other favorites include Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss and Tofutti Cuties.
It isn’t hard to find a really good vegan margarine in tubs or sticks depending on how you want to use it. I generally look for one of the many expeller pressed varieties with no trans fat, like Earth Balance. Lower fat versions of vegan margarine (probably true with any margarine) tend not to work well in cooking, so if you plan on cooking with it, make sure that you find one with an amount of fat similar to what you would find in regular margarine.
Most vegan mayonnaise is pretty good, since it’s really not that difficult to remove the egg from mayonnaise and still have something that has a good consistency and tastes great. I usually get one of the many varieties of Follow Your Heart Vegenaise brand, since they have expeller pressed, non-hydrogenated varieties with added goodies like Omega-3’s.
Tofutti makes a really nice non-dairy sour cream in two varieties. Both are equally delicious, but I buy the non-hydrogenated Tofutti Better than Sour Cream in the blue container. However, there are a couple of things you should know.
First, it freezes really easily, and when it freezes, it turns the consistency of a really watery and disgusting cottage cheese when it thaws. I’ve had it freeze when nothing else in the refrigerator did just by being too close to the back wall. To prevent freezing, keep it in the door or near the front of the shelves.
Second, go easy with heat on the other extreme. When using it in cooking, add it near the end and heat it to warm, but never let it boil.
Sweetened. Most vegan milks contain sweeteners to make them taste yummy, which is great if you want to drink them or use on cereal, but it is less than optimal if you want to make something savory, like mashed potatoes. You really need to read the ingredients to find out if sweeteners have been added, since even the “original” or “plain” varieties are usually sweetened. Most brands also have an unsweetened variety, which is what I buy for cooking. Even when making desserts, it can be difficult to gauge how much sugar to add if you are using sweetened milk, and the results can be disastrous when using it to make something that shouldn’t taste sweet.
Flavored. Similarly, you can also find vanilla, chocolate and other flavored milks, which taste delicious and are great for drinking. But like the sweetened milks, you should avoid them for cooking.
Coconut Milk (not the canned kind). This is made by So Delicious and is my new favorite vegan milk. It has few calories, very little sodium and an almost completely neutral taste with none of the chalky or beany consistency that you sometimes find with other vegan milks. Now, just to be clear, this is nothing like those cans of coconut milk that you use in Asian cooking. It has the consistency of regular milk and is great on cereal, to drink or for cooking. You can find it in the refrigerator section near the other non-dairy milk.
Soymilk. Soymilk is higher in protein than coconut or rice milk, so this is a good choice if you are looking to add a little more protein to your diet. Some of the flavored varieties are great to drink, and it’s also good on cereal. However, I usually try to avoid cooking with soymilk, since it can be a little beany and the taste sometimes comes through a little too strongly, especially in more delicate recipes.
Rice Milk. This is my second favorite milk for cooking, right behind the coconut milk listed above. It has a fairly neutral taste and is thinner than soymilk, so it works well in most recipes. One big advantage of rice milk is that if you don’t use it very often, you can buy it in shelf stable packages that don’t need to refrigerated and can be kept in the pantry for long periods of time.
Other milks. It seems like every time I go to the store, I see more and more other vegan milks made from almonds, hemp, oats and more. I recommend experimenting with a few of these other milks to see which one you like best.