Learning a New Way of Cooking: Plant-Based Basics, Tips, Techniques and More
I often get asked the question of whether or not vegan cooking is more complicated than meat-based cooking. I love getting this one because after years of seriously cooking both types of foods I can honestly give you a straight answer from experience. Today we're tackling this topic and I'm going to teach you some plant-based cooking basics, show you some great tips and tricks, we're going to talk about cooking techniques and much more. First however, I'm going to tell you about my experience in cooking both types of cuisines, and share what cooking Thai food has to do with vegan cooking. It's going to be a total culinary party that will give you a ton of tips to help you out in the kitchen whenever you're cooking with plants.
Is plant-based or vegan cooking more difficult than meat-based cooking?
The short answer is no. The long answer has to do with Thai food.
I remember it like it was yesterday, the first time I ever went to a Thai restaurant. My aunt invited me along. She was having lunch at the most famous Thai restaurant back home, and her brother, who was also attending with his entire family, was one of these "get something from every part of the menu and bring two just in case" kind of people (and he was buying!). About 20 minutes later I had the most unbelievable authentic Thai spread in front of me.
My heart and taste buds couldn't take it!
Out of all the cuisines I've tried, this one is always the one that gets me with its shocking twists and turns on the palate and all those amazing flavors and textures. I was in heaven. Thai food was becoming very popular but restaurants were very expensive back then, so I decided to try making it and I bought some books and headed home to start experimenting. The minute I opened the book I was hit with a million questions: "What the h** is tamarind paste? There are how many types of chillies? Kaffir lime what?". I'm serious. I thought lemongrass would be green and grasslike, and I had no idea what all of it meant (keep in mind I was around 19 at the time, so yes... clueless!).
Whenever you're trying to make something new you've never tried before, whether it's a new world cuisine, a new baking challenge or yes, cooking vegan, all you need to realize is there's a learning process that has to take place. Just like you need to learn and understand how to make the perfect Thai curry or Tom Kha soup, you also need to get familiar with a new way of cooking that is based on plants. I can honestly say that my addiction to cooing skyrocketed the minute I went vegan. Why? because everything was so down to Earth and simple. No thermometers were needed to see if you had under or over cooked meat, there was no "ick" factor when finding a few feathers still remaining on the body of a turkey (it's icky for a reason, we really don't like realizing that that piece of meat wrapped in plastic was once a cute bird). There was no fat to trim off and no chicken to inject with lemon juice to make the flavors penetrate. There was also no risk of salmonella when you were elbow deep in cake batter, no fear of sanitizing the kitchen after washing chicken breasts. With plants, everything is just easy peasy. After years of cooking both meat and plant-based meals, I can honestly say that vegan cooking is as pleasurable as it gets. From the colors to the textures, to the dozens of cooking techniques that can even take the basic watermelon to completely mimic ahi tuna (not that you need to... just saying you can if you miss it!). Vegan cooking can be as simple as rice and beans or as elaborate as Sunday roast with gravy, all it takes is learning a new way to approach your ingredients.
Here are some great tips, tricks and basics to help you along the way:
Plant-based cooking tips
- The first tip I have for you is to get to know your new ingredients. Start in a farmer's market if you have one nearby, or go to the produce section of your local store. Talk to the growers or vendors, ask them about vegetables you've never seen before. They will almost always give you very simple directions on how to make them at home.
- After you hit the veggies and fruits, head on over to your local health food store. If there's one beginner tip I always recommend, even for people who are just flirting with the idea of going vegan it's this one.
- Play around the bulk section. This is where your lovely whole grains, nuts, seeds and even spices hang out. Buy some new ones and start experimenting.
- Browse the international aisles of the supermarket. Ethnic and international cuisines are often the most vegan friendly, so in these aisles you'll find great options to bring your dishes to life: curries, coconut milk, tamarind paste, rice noodles, seaweed and nori sheets, all types of fragrant rice, spring roll wrappers, Mexican tortillas, chili pastes and much more.
- Be adventurous, pick out something you've never used before and try to get creative or find a recipe.
- Keep certain staples always stocked. For me, some of these are: oats, brown rice, quinoa, some beans and lentils or canned beans for convenience, soy sauce, onions, garlic, tomatoes, avocados, sweet potatoes, kale or any other green leafy vegetable, broccoli, lemons, nut butters, a selection of nuts, bananas, berries, your favorite plant-based milk, and basic seasonings like sea salt, pepper, garlic powder, curry powder and chili powder. Add to these some fresh fruits or veggies that really stand out to you and you'll be able to whip up something delicious anytime.
- Buy fruits that are on sale, in season and inexpensive and freeze them. You'll have great bases for smoothies or sorbets year-round.
- Re-think convenience. Buy some healthy time savers: canned beans, pre-chopped veggies, vegetable broth, frozen fruits, washed and bagged salad greens, crushed canned tomatoes and curry pastes, etc.
- Copy the great athletes. Before you start, visualize the process, break it down into steps.
- Find new recipes to try, but also start flexing those cooking muscles by trying simple dishes that occur to you without measuring out ingredients. This skill takes a little time to master but it will give you so much freedom.
- Start by making what you normally do but with the plant-based version of ingredients. For example, use almond or soy milk instead of dairy-based milk. Use non-dairy butter instead of dairy-based butter, vegetable broth instead of chicken broth. Non-dairy cheeses instead of dairy-based cheeses. You get the idea.
- Embrace your oven. Roasting, especially for vegetables, is the number one flavor infusing technique there is. I can proudly say I think I use my oven every single day and I'm not baking cookies (well... sometimes I am!). My favorite vegetables to roast are: potatoes, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers (whole and then cut into strips for using on salads), brussels sprouts, cauliflower, asparagus, eggplant, parsnips, garlic (roasted garlic rocks!), carrots, beets, fennel, parsnips and turnips.
- Forget about what I like to call "the center of the plate syndrome". A.k.a, a big piece of meat in the center of the plate with a couple of sides. Although you can make incredible vegan main dishes that are just as "stick to your ribs" good as any meat-based ones, vegan food can also be an amazing fun plate of different "sides". I use quotation marks because the word side is just a construct we're used to giving veggies, but it's just a word. You can change the way you look at these components that will soon make up your plant-based meals. In Ethiopian cuisine a large thin bread called injera is served with lots of little mounds of vegetable dishes, spicy stews, etc., and there are no sides here! Every component is equally a part of the party.
- Fall in love with veggie bowls. This one goes hand in hand with the previous tip. Veggie bowls are basically plates or bowls in which you combine different components, and these usually include: a whole grain, a green leafy vegetable, another veggie you love, a plant-based protein source like beans, lentils, tofu or tempeh, and amazing toppings like guacamole, salsa, tahini, hummus, pesto and so many others (download our vegan toppings printable by clicking the button at the end of this post for an instant source of ideas). Once you start dabbling with veggie bowls just remember my motto: everything tastes good with some sweet potato or avocado on the side.
- Make your time in the kitchen something to look forward to. Put on some music or listen to your favorite podcast while you cook. You'll feel like heading in there even when you're feeling tired or cooking feels overwhelming.
- Remember that even a very simple meal can be a-ok. You don't have to make a vegan meatloaf with gravy and mashed potatoes every time you go into your kitchen. Plant-based cooking is about getting back down to basics and honoring these flavorful, colorful and nutritious ingredients that often shine for themselves with minimal work required.
Did you know the best restaurant ranking in the US a few years ago was won by a 100% vegan restaurant in Philadelphia? Several others since then have received amazing awards including James Beard awards. Top chefs around the world are using plant-based techniques to make the craziest, most amazing dishes. From dehydration to fermentation, spherification to "stuff-I-can't-pronounce-ation", culinary plant-based techniques are vast, but since you're probably a home cook like me, here are some basic cooking techniques and some of the ingredients that really shine when cooked in these ways.
- Steaming: Retains the most nutrients out of all the cooking methods. In this technique you place your foods in a steamer basket with some seasonings if you'd like, over a pot of boiling water. You cover the pot and cook the veggies until tender. It happens fast, which is why it's a great method for nutrient retention since foods don't leach nutrients into the water and are not exposed to heat for very long. You don't have to keep veggies as a bland mountain of steamed green beans on the plate though! After they come out of the steamer basket, toss them in seasonings, dressings or sauces to give them an extra kick.
- Favorites to try: broccoli, artichokes, asparagus, green beans, sweet potatoes (especially when using them as a natural sweetener or binder in desserts) and tempeh before using it in any other recipe.
- Boiling: Cooks harder vegetables like potatoes and foods like pasta and noodles. In this technique you drop the food into salted boiling water and cook it until tender. Probably the least used method in vegan cooking but very practical to tenderize certain vegetables quickly.
- Favorites to try: Potatoes (for mashing afterwards), artichokes, and foods like pasta and noodles.
- Simmering: Cooks foods in water, broth or a sauce but at a lower temperature than boiling. In this technique you can bring the liquid quickly to a boil and then lower the heat to reach a simmer, in which you'll see slight movement of the liquid and some bubbles but not as much as with boiling. This is a very common technique in vegan cooking since it's the way flavorful bean stews or curries are made! What's great about it is that since it happens slowly, you give the foods, spices and flavors time to really come together.
- Favorites to try: Rice or other whole grains, tomato based pasta sauces, peas, green beans, vegetable soups, beans, lentils, tofu and tempeh in curries, and seitan.
- Sautéing: Cooks foods in a pan while tossing, to create a nice golden color in the exterior of the food. You can do this with some kind of oil or non-dairy butter or also try dry sautéing without any oils. The food cooks quickly as it's directly exposed to the heat in the pan, and therefore it retains crispness, and the vibrant colors of the veggies pop!
- Favorites to try: mushrooms, onions, peppers, snow peas, snap peas, fresh corn kernels, tofu, tempeh (always steam tempeh for 10 minutes before cooking it with any other method), bok choy, spinach, kale, asparagus, zucchini, water chestnuts, green onions, thinly sliced leeks, and artichoke hearts (well drained and patted dry if using canned)
- Braising: Perfect for one pot meals and infusing a ton of flavor into your dish. In this technique you start by sautéing your vegetables, adding spices and seasonings and then adding a liquid for the foods to simmer in for the remaining cooking time. Foods get golden in the first stage and tender and flavorful in the second stage. This technique can also be done in the oven by submerging your foods half way in the flavorful liquid you are using (which will become reduced into a rich sauce in the oven), but since the top half of the food is exposed, you still get a little crispness or char on the top.
- Favorites to try: Seitan, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, kale, artichokes, eggplant, carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, cabbage, tempeh and tofu.
- Roasting: Where many veggies shine sky high! Roasting is basically cooking your vegetables in the oven, usually at a temperature of 400ºF- 425ºF (a bit higher than what you'd bake a cake at). This method caramelizes the natural sugars in food and makes the flavors really come out to play. It's probably one of my preferred methods for many of these favorites:
- Favorites to try: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tofu, leeks, garlic, fennel, beets, eggplant, carrots, turnips, parsnips, peppers, mini onions, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, daikon, pumpkin and spaghetti squash. Yes, basically everything!
- Grilling: There's nothing like an open grill for that perfect char and smoky flavor, and yes, you can barbecue your heart out even if you're cooking vegan food! In this technique you'll be getting a nice char on your foods by cooking them on a gas or charcoal grill, and you can even use an indoor cast iron grill pan for a similar effect if you don't have access to an outdoor grill. Take a look at how we grill corn on the cob indoors here!
- Favorites to try: Corn on the cob, mini onions, peppers, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, tofu, tempeh or seitan, veggie burgers or sausages, pineapple (yes!), mini potatoes, tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, fennel, endive and bok choy.
- Stir-frying: Cooks food in a wok on very high heat with a bit of oil and requires constant tossing. In this technique you're quickly moving the food around in a wok and the result is vibrant colors, a slight smoky flavor, and the perfect combination of tenderness in the vegetables while still maintaining crispness.
- Favorites to try: onions, peppers, broccoli, broccolini, water chestnuts, baby corn, sprouts, green onions, garlic, carrots, cauliflower, edamame, zucchini, tofu, tempeh, pineapple, asparagus, baby bok choy, cabbage and daikon.
- Sweating: Similar to sautéing but done at a very low heat to extract as much flavor as possible from the food.
- Favorites to try: Onions, garlic, carrots and celery (all finely diced and used as a base for many of the techniques above.
- Baking: Vegan desserts have been taking the world by storm! There isn't a single dessert you can't make vegan. Check out our video on vegan baking without eggs here, it's an oldie but a goodie!
As you can see, cooking with plants simply requires getting used to new ingredients, new ways of cooking, and when you really get down to it, it can be down to earth, really easy to master and so enjoyable. I hope this post has given you some great new tips, tricks and techniques to start using in your kitchen today!