If The Great British Bake Off gives us insight into British culture, which I believe it does, then baking is this nation’s favourite pastime. Of course, that’s paired with classical music, puns, innuendos, and a penchant for telling the BBC to stuff it (but that is a matter for another time). Baking serves our nation so well for it doesn’t discriminate; from carnivore to vegetarian and everything in between, baked goods can be enjoyed by the masses. Or can it? Is there a small minority group that fails to enjoy the sweet fruit of an oven? The Vegan. A highly demanding and admirable lifestyle choice, the vegan is a caring creature that abstains from all animal-based products. So you can kiss the dairy queen and humpty dumpty good bye, because they’re not going to be on their menu any time soon.
Now, as a very fond baker that Love Productions weren’t impressed enough with (I’m not bitter, honestly) I have always wondered how vegans manage to bake without Julia Child’s favourite ingredients – butter and eggs. I admit it’s something I was very sceptical about.
Vegan cakes in local delis never looked as good as the “normal” and even if they were cleverly disguised, a dry and crumbly interior remained. You can imagine the inner turmoil I experienced as such when one of my best friends took the plunge and became a vegan over the summer. “But my carrot cake – you love my carrot cake! You’ll never be able to have that again.” But they were adamant. Vegan they were and vegan they’d stay; it was me who would have to adapt.
Looking at the backbone of baking, it’s fairly straightforward to figure out substitutes. Butter can easily be replaced by shortening or margarine. Oil is also easy to substitute about it too – coconut oil adds an excellent depth of flavour. Milk, cream or buttermilk is straightforward too – just pick your favourite non-dairy milk, coconut milk or vegan yoghurts for cream and add lemon juice to either for acid powered dairy (buttermilk or sour cream). All that is pretty clear cut. The problem arises when you look at eggs. It seems like such a simple ingredient but it was the mother of all pain I experienced when exploring the realms of vegan baking.
Eggs, along with baking powder or soda, are partially responsible for the leavening and structure of baked goods. Along the same lines, eggs are natural emulsifiers, keeping your liquids (water) and fats (oil, butter: the list is endless) happy and close and not a curdled mess. Finally, it moistens. I’m just going to leave it at that.
There are plenty of options to imitate the magical power of the egg. Bananas, silken tofu, applesauce, flaxseed are just some of the most commonly used. They all work well, to an extent. The fruit based ones transfer taste, so will work wonderfully if you want a strong flavour, but don’t offer much otherwise. Flaxseed has its limitations and can leave specs in a cake, not ideal when making a “white cake” is it? And personally, I’m just not fond of the texture of tofu. So what else is out there?
Aquafaba has been sweeping the vegan world because of its easy availability and miracle properties. Basically made up of the water left in cans of chickpeas or other beans, aquafaba acts like egg whites, whipping into submission to create meringue when sugar is added. If it can do that, then it should work wonders in my vanilla cupcakes. However, light, fluffy and moist are words I’d never attach to the resultant cakes. The sunken craters from hell were practically inedible and a nightmare to make. Other than structural problems, emulsifying power was lacking too. It took five episodes of heavy-duty electric mixing to get the batter to come together and in the end there were still plenty of other issues. My verdict is that it is not wooden spoon friendly, nor is it effective. Plenty of other people do have success though, so perhaps it still has merits. I sadly didn’t see it.
I next moved onto a combination method. Corn starch or corn flour will provide the structure needed for a cake to not fall flat and vinegar with baking powder (it’s important it’s not soda – that provides too much air) will provide the natural aeration of eggs. As a batter it came together beautifully – silky, smooth, light and fluffy. Unfortunately, all those merits were burned in the 180 degree oven. They fell flat as well and it was back to the drawing board.
I’ll admit I then went to the internet and did search after search until I found a recipe that looked good. It worked. A light and fluffy cake was produced that rose and didn’t fall from grace, wasn’t dense or stodgy (the technical term) and wasn’t crumbly. Analysing the recipe like a Higher English text, I made several observations. High flour to other-ingredient ratio is the best way of achieving structure and support. When eggs aren’t there to do it you can’t rely on an equal quantity of fat and flour to do the trick, as is the standard for British cakes. Keeping your leaveners simple is the second thing. Don’t mix your powder leavener in vinegar, think of it as a mingle session not speed dating. Using both is definitely advisable but letting them meet in the batter will allow for slow and sturdier bubble formation to occur.
I would be lying if I said this was a painless experience. It was a long road with too many dips, literal and metaphorical to care for. But the end has turned out positively. I now have a selection of vegan baking methods that I can say I will never try again and some pointers about how to manipulate my wide expansive range of recipes. I’m not afraid to bake vegan anymore and most importantly you shouldn’t be either.