Vegan cooking is remarkably easy to learn and delivers all sorts of unexpected payoffs. While most hobbies will cost you money, learning to cook will save you piles of cash overeating at restaurants or buying frozen foods.
You’ll invariably eat fresher, tastier meals made with higher-quality ingredients. As your cooking skills develop, you may also grow to love the calming, meditative time spent in the kitchen doing simple tasks like starting rice or chopping vegetables.
It’s easy to master the basics of vegan cooking. Unfortunately, many beginners don’t know where to begin. So that’s where this guide comes in. I will take you through all the basics of vegan cooking, so you’ll know how to make fantastic meals without a bit of help.
One of the best parts of doing your own cooking is that you gain absolute control over what goes into your food. Great meals start with great ingredients.
Savvy chefs take their grocery shopping as seriously as their cooking. They know which farmers grow the best carrots, and where to buy the nicest greens. Second-rate restaurants don’t obsessively seek out the highest quality ingredients—they just rely on foodservice companies to deliver commodity vegetables, grains, cheeses, and meats.
The quality of your vegan cooking will depend on the quality of the ingredients you purchase. So developing your food shopping skills is a big part of learning how to cook vegan. For detailed advice on buying vegan groceries, please read our How to Go Veganguide. It tells you how to buy the best possible food from supermarkets, natural food stores, farmers’ markets, and online.
In order to obtain the freshest and highest-quality fruits and vegetables, seek out your local farmers’ market. There are tens of thousands of farmers’ markets around the world, and more than 8000 in the United States alone. Here’s the USDA directory for United States farmers’ markets.
As your vegan cooking skills progress, you’ll eventually get comfortable preparing every conceivable sort of vegetable. But you have to start somewhere. Here are some obvious choices:
All of these are in the cruciferous family, and they are perfect for stir-fries. There have been numerous studies that find that the consumption of cruciferous vegetables may reduce cancer risk. Be sure to peel the stalks and stems of your broccoli before cooking. Cabbage is great for coleslaw, and many people love eating fresh broccoli and cauliflower florets paired with a hummus dip.
Delicious and so easy to make. Just stab each a few times with a fork about a half-centimeter deep (to allow steam to vent), and throw in 350° F oven. Baking requires 40 to 70 minutes depending on size. Alternately, diced potatoes or sweet potatoes are terrific in stir-fries. Sweet potatoes are a much more nutrition-rich choice than regular potatoes, and they have a lower glycemic index as well. Many supermarkets sell oven-baked sweet potato fries in the frozen foods section, and you can easily make them from scratch as well.
These might be the most nutrient-rich of all foods, and it’s wise to eat some every day. Go for dark, rich colors since that signals more nutrients. For calcium’s sake, consider kale and bok choy instead of spinach or collards. You’ll thereby avoid consuming high levels of oxalates, which can inhibit calcium absorption. If you want to really boost your greens consumption, stir-fry them—they’ll cook down to a tenth of their previous volume, which makes it easy to eat huge amounts in a relatively tiny portion. Cooking also improves digestibility.
A mainstay of most cuisines, including Mexican, Indian, and Italian. Most onions are pungent, so they’re generally diced and cooked. If you like onions, buy them in every available color, since it’s an easy way to liven up your meals. Red, yellow, and white onions are widely available. One popular onion variety, the Vidalia, is sweet and it’s delicious raw—just slice it for sandwiches, or dice it for salads
There are two main varieties, summer, and winter. The most common summer variety is zucchini. The most popular winter variety is butternut, but it doesn’t hold a candle in flavor to the far more ugly kabocha squash. In fact, kabocha has my vote as the world’s tastiest vegetable. You should keep summer squash refrigerated and eat it within a few days of harvest. But winter squash (as its name suggests) can last for months when stored in a refrigerator or a cool dark place. Be careful cutting winter squash, as its hardness can make it easy for your knife to slip while cutting. Many supermarkets, therefore, sell winter squash pre-cut.
Yeah, just like squash botanically they’re actually fruits, but they’re so versatile, healthful, and flavorful I’m including them here. Nothing compares to a locally grown vine-ripened summer tomato. Avoid buying tomatoes out of season from far away, since most of these tomatoes will have poor texture and a little flavor.
Eating a lot of vegetables requires cooking a lot of vegetables, which in turn means buying a lot of vegetables. With that in mind, I created a simple rule for myself that has improved my diet immeasurably: every time I wheel my shopping cart to the checkout stand I take a last look inside and see if I’ve bought a decent assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables. Often, I decided I could have done better, and so I’ll head back to the produce department to pick up a few more items.
In addition to buying fruits and vegetables, you’ll want to keep your pantry full of imperishable foods. The bulk section of a good natural food store is the perfect place to buy many of these items. A good bulk section tends to offer much better prices by weight than what you’d pay for packaged foods. Here are some staples commonly sold in the bulk section:
You can reliably judge the quality of your natural foods store by the quality of its produce and bulk sections. If you don’t have a local market with an excellent bulk section, Amazon.com can fill in the gaps. Our grocery page features the best products and deals on vegan staples available from Amazon.
Every skilled cook is familiar with a variety of herbs, spices, and other seasonings. These concentrated flavors are what turn wholesome foods into delectable meals. Before we explore this topic, let’s define terms.
Herbs are the leaves and sometimes stems from various fragrant plants. Italian cooking, in particular, is loaded with herbs, especially oregano, marjoram, basil, and rosemary. Note that while most herbs are purchased dried, they’re even better if you can find them fresh. Many serious cooks, therefore, keep a window sill herb garden for growing with their favorite varieties. They’ll use scissors to snip off whatever herbs they need whenever they’re about to cook.
Spices typically carry stronger flavors than herbs. Most spices come from the seeds or seed pods of various plants. If Italian is the cuisine most heavily based on herbs, Indian is the cuisine most reliant on spices. The most common Indian spices are cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric, and mustard (all of these typically go into the region’s quintessential spice mix: curry powder). Cardamom, which is often used to flavor basmati rice, has my vote as the most appealing of all spices. It has an indescribably special flavor and aroma, unlike any other spice.
Seasoning is a broad term that encompasses more than just herbs and spices. It can also refer to strong flavorings such as salt, tamari, lemon juice, bullion cubes, pickled vegetables, and balsamic vinegar.
A gourmet chef will routinely use dozens of different herbs and spices. But just a few of these can be added to almost any meal with great results. If you’re new to vegan cooking, start with a few herbs and spice mixes. The most popular spice mixes are Mexican, Indian curry, Caribbean jerk, and barbecue. The most useful herbal mix is Italian seasoning, which contains all the classic herbs of that cuisine.
Spice mixes are perfect for a casual or time-strapped cook. Gourmet chefs insist on freshly-grinding their spices for the same reason that coffee connoisseurs demand freshly-ground beans. Just like coffee, the essential oils in spices begin to volatilize upon grinding. While the smell of freshly ground coffee and spices is heavenly, that very smell means flavor is being lost with each passing hour.
So, in order to make truly gourmet food, you’ll want to own a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. These tools let you grind your spices just prior to cooking, to maximize flavor intensity. This also explains why pepper mills are so common since pre-ground pepper quickly loses its most special flavors.
Think of pre-ground spices as good enough, whereas freshly-ground spices can be magnificent. If you’re short on time, by all means, use a spice-mix.
One of the best places to buy herbs and spices is from a natural food store’s bulk foods section. Buying spices in bulk can save you at least 50 percent over buying them prepackaged in small containers.
Fortunately for everyone who loves flavorful food, there is no reason to fear fats or oils. In fact, there’s a strong reason to think that at least 20 percent of our calories ought to come from fats and oils. Fats are an important source of calories, and foods that contain decent amounts of fat are great at staving off hunger. Compared to low-fat diets, diets that contain moderate amounts of fat help to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Additionally, fat deepens the flavors of foods, in part because when oils coat the tongue they enable flavors to linger. Since fats provide such a concentrated source of calories—which can make the difference between survival and perish during a famine—our bodies have likely evolved to take much greater pleasure from fattier meals than from meals that contain little or no fat.
Many people keep only one sort of vegetable oil in their kitchen and do all their cooking with it. Limiting yourself in this way is a huge missed opportunity. Let’s take a look at four oils that are worth always having on hand:
High oleic safflower oil. Perfect for higher-temperature cooking since the oil is resistant to scorching.
Olive oil. Good for general lower-temperature cooking. Always buy “extra virgin” and try to get it unfiltered if possible. Unrefined olive oil offers a strong, peppery flavor that, together with balsamic vinegar, is a wonderful dip for freshly-baked bread.
Sesame oil. An inexpensive way to jazz up any dish, especially stir-fried vegetables and Asian-style noodles. Sesame oil has a very low scorching point, so it’s best to add to your food right before serving. The flavors are strong, so just a squirt of oil goes a long way.
Unrefined coconut oil. Perfect for dishes with delicate flavors. The nuanced flavours of coconut oil perfectly compliment the flavour of most vegetables.
Although you’ll rarely cook with them, vegan butter and margarine are almost entirely fat, so they’re worth a mention here. Vegan butter has improved greatly over the past decade or so. All the Earth Balance buttery spreads and buttery sticks taste great (one of their spreads even comes in a Whipped Organic version ). And Miyoko’s Kitchen makes a Cultured Vegan Butter spread that is heavenly.
If you want to tackle an involved but rewarding vegan cooking project, try making Bryanna Clark Grogan’s palm oil-free vegan butter at home.
I hope I’ve convinced you to give vegan cooking a try. Spending just a little time cultivating your cooking abilities will yield an enormous payback.
To summarize the advice I’ve offered in this cooking guide:
Above all, have confidence and always be open to trying new ideas. Just a little practice can enable you to reliably prepare delicious vegan meals on the cheap. And it’s great to know that, when you do your own cooking, you’ll never have to worry if some milk or chicken stock found its way into your food.
Cooking might be the easiest life-changing skill you’ll ever learn. With just a little practice and exploration, you’ll be on your way to becoming an accomplished vegan cook.