Sarah Cook cracks out her top tips and favourite recipes this National Baking Week.
Bring out your baking tins! It’s time to pre-heat the oven, pop on your mitts and get things going in the kitchen. There are lots of great vegan recipes out there but it can sometimes be a bit bewildering if you’re not au fait with chef speak. Instead, this handy blog gives you an overview of vegan baking to help you to sift out batters from buns and raisins from raising agents.
Ingredients (which flour, sugar, egg substitutes to use, etc.)
Baking methods (various methods for making cakes, biscuits, scones and pastry)
Baking with yeast (bread, cinnamon buns, etc.)
Starting out can be a bit bewildering as there are so many different recipes and cooking methods. However, baking relies on some fairly simple principles about what ingredients you are using, how you combine them and how you cook them. Once you have those in your mind, you will be well on the way to British Bake Off. Here are some useful baking tips to help you get the most out of recipes:
• Weigh your ingredients properly, and use the same units of measurements for everything, don’t switch from grams to ounces. Get a set of American-style cups – a lot of vegan recipes come from the US and a set of cups will help you accurately measure out your ingredients
• It can often help to measure everything out before you begin. Whilst this does create more washing up, it is especially useful for recipes with lots of ingredients, and makes you feel like you are cooking on a TV show
• Follow the recipe. If it says “sift the dry ingredients” then sift them, if it says “use a wooden spoon” use a wooden spoon. Learn how to cream, rub-in-fat, whisk and fold. Good technique can really improve your finished product
• In almost all situations you should be adding wet ingredients to dry rather than the other way around. This helps you blend more effectively and results in a better texture. When you need to combine a lot of different dry ingredients do that into a separate bowl, and the same for wet ingredients, then combine the two
• I think that most kitchen gadgets are a bit of a waste of time and money: however, an electric whisk is a great budget item that doesn’t take up a lot of space, is easy to clean and will help you whip up cakes and batters really quickly
• Use the right size pan or dish and always make sure you grease it well so the finished product will actually come out of the pan
• Check your oven temperature by setting it to 180C and then after 10 minutes measure the actual heat using a thermometer. This will help you know whether your oven runs a bit hotter or cooler and so you can adjust baking times and temperatures accordingly
• Always pre-heat your oven so items go in at the right temperature
• Roll out doughs on a floured surface or you will get a sticky mess
Most of the ingredients in a vegan bakers’ cupboard are the same as for everyone else, but there are a few things to look out for when shopping.
First up is sugar. Now the vast majority of sugar in the UK is not bleached with bone char so most of the big brands are fine. However, you might want to use unbleached sugar to be on the safe side if you are not sure where the sugar comes from. Most baking calls for caster sugar, which is more finely ground than standard table sugar and gives a fine delicate sponge. If you need a liquid sugar, you can swap golden syrup, agave or maple syrup for honey. Not all recipes call for sugar and there are plenty that use a range of fruit sweeteners such as dates or other dried fruit, including some excellent raw recipes which are well worth a try (yes, it took me a while to get my head around raw baking but once I’d eaten a few I was really sold).
Margarine is an excellent baking ingredient that provides good value for money. Fat gives colour, flavour and acts as an emulsifier amongst other things. Vegan margarines are stocked in almost all supermarkets: you can also get vegan shortening which can be used in pastry, and vegan suet to make dumplings and old fashioned treats like jam roly poly (serve with both Bird’s Custard and vegan ice cream for what my Dad calls “the full works”). Some recipes call for oil instead of solid fat, so look for a neutral oil such as omega-3 rich rapeseed oil, as strong oils like olive oil will add a strange flavour to your baking.
Flour is suitable for vegans. All flour. Including white flour. There was some debate a while ago about whether flour is bleached using bone char (similar to sugar) however this is unfounded. There are flourless recipes, and I’ve included a section on gluten-free later on.
There are many different types of flour, all of which have an impact on how the final product will cook as well as its nutritional content. It’s very important to pay attention to whether your flour has raising agents in it: these give extra height and lightness to your baking, meaning they are great for cakes and scones but not pastry and the like. Always use the right flour for your recipe. Find out which is right for you here.
And of course, what about eggs? A question that is to vegan baking what “where do you get your protein?” is to veganism. Eggs are used to add moisture, lift, structure and to help the ingredients bind together. Different egg replacers perform different functions. There are some very good vegan eggs available, such as Vegg or Vegan Egg which are powders you mix with water to get a vegan whisked egg. Depending on the recipe you are looking at you will find all kinds of alternatives including plant milk, bananas, beans, chia seeds and many other things. There will often be multiple versions of similar recipes online that use different types of egg replacement so you can find one that suits you and what you have in the kitchen. Whilst writing this, I found so many recipes for vegan lemon cake that I was in citrus heaven! This post is really useful if you are trying to convert an eggy recipe into a vegan version: while it mentions that there aren’t replacements for egg whites and meringues, there are now! Skip to ‘Magical beans’ to find out more…
Different proportions and methods of combining and heating the basic ingredients of flour, sugar, fat and a liquid give you different baked goods. Think of it as science in your kitchen. But without a periodic table, and with results you can eat. Below I’ve put some common categories of baking and a summary of how they work so you can get a better understanding of why what you are doing gives you these particular results. This is not an exhaustive list – I could write several books on the subject! But as you develop your baking skills, you will learn more and more.
Most pastry is made from rubbing fat into flour and then adding just enough cold water (I add mine a teaspoon at a time) to make a pliable dough. There are more complicated pastries like choux and hot-water crust but they’re best left to another article.
Making shortcrust pastry:
The process through which the fat and flour work together is called shortening, hence the name shortcrust pastry: the dough is ‘short’ rather than long, stretchy bread-type dough. It gives a tender, flaky, crumbly product. The dough is shorter and therefore bakes better if it is kept cool right up until it goes into the oven. Keeping it cold minimises gluten development. Make sure you use cold water and margarine from the fridge. Pastry also benefits from ‘resting’ after it has been handled so putting it in clingfilm and letting it sit in the fridge for 20 minutes or so before rolling out and baking is a good idea.
Be gentle when you are handling pastry. When it’s the right size, use the rolling pin to transfer it to the greased baking dish (or on top of the filling if you are making a pie crust), glazed with a liquid that includes some protein, such as soy milk. If you are cooking pastry for the bottom of a quiche or pie, prick the surface with a fork so air can escape, and bake without filling. Some recipes ask you to weigh the pastry down by covering with some greaseproof paper and dried beans and then partly cook. Then they'll ask you to remove the beans and parchment and cook the pastry alone for a few minutes: this maintains a nice and flat pastry layer and avoids it burning. When it’s done, pastry should be golden brown and come away from the edges of the dish easily. You can then add filling once the pastry is cooked.
Puff pastry is more complex, and in all honesty it is generally easier to buy it from the likes of Jus-Rol. However, if you do want to try then this is a good recipe. Similarly, ready-made filo pastry is a great ingredient to have in the kitchen, and you can rustle up impressive recipes like this filo pie or vegan spanakopita. Cornish pasties are a firm favourite in our house and great for picnics, while I particularly love this quiche made with chickpea flour.
Many biscuits (like shortbread) and scones are also made using the rubbing method. It’s a good way of combining fat and flour when you have proportionally less fat – this was especially common during rationing, and many recipes from the 40s and 50s use rubbing techniques.
Most of these recipes will therefore start in a similar way to pastry. However, unlike pastry, biscuits and scones have more liquid, sometimes more fat and almost always sugar. Extra fat makes the final product richer and more moist. The extra liquid makes a softer, more pliable dough which gives a moister final product. Liquids also add volume when baking as the steam expands when heated. For nerds like me, there’s more detail on the science of liquid in baking here. Sugar obviously provides sweetness and hence flavour. It also caramelises when heated which gives a crunchy result, a delicious smell and a golden-brown colour. Darker sugars tend to be more moist and give darker finishes with heavier, caramel flavours. This is why you would use paler sugars for a delicate scone, but a brown sugar for a ginger biscuit.
Biscuits are generally crunchy, sweet and something of a British obsession. The main methods for making biscuits are rubbed (like pastry) or melted: instead of rubbing the fat in you add liquid fat, often melted with sugar or syrup, into the flour and create a dough that way. Shortbread is a rubbed method biscuit and is a nice and easy to make. A melted biscuit like the gingernut is another simple classic. Biscuits are endlessly variable, which is part of their charm, so once you have the hang of it you can make them exactly how you want, e.g. with extra flavourings or swapping the golden syrup for black treacle. As long as you keep the proportions of fat, flour and sugar about the same you will end up with a similar physical finish. There are some soft biscuits, usually American style chewy cookies, and tray bakes like flapjack which have more fat and liquid and thus don’t crisp up as much.
Scones are essentially a type of cake, unless you are in the US, in which case they are a biscuit and a biscuit is a cookie. Anyhow, this is a good scone recipe. There are lots of variations including adding dried fruit like sultanas or glace cherries (make sure they don’t have non-vegan dyes) or savoury scones like these. I use my grandmother’s recipe and substitute vegan margarine and unsweetened soy milk for my scones.
A scone’s start in life is similar to pastry, with fat rubbed into flour. However, the flour used is a self-raising flour and often the recipe calls for additional baking powder to make the scones extra light and fluffy. Instead of water, there’s a richer liquid (like plant milk) which adds fat, lift and flavour. The dough should be wetter than for pastry and needs to be rolled out much more thickly – around 2cm.
Scones also do not like to be handled too much. Just roll them out once, cut out your circles using an upside down glass or biscuit cutter, then place directly onto a greased tray. Brush with plant milk and bake until they rise up and go golden brown. You can tell scones are done because they will come easily off the tray and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
They are best eaten almost as soon as they are out of the oven, and do not keep very well due to their relatively low fat content. This means the water in them evaporates out and they go dry. So there's your excuse!
I love cakes. They are the thing I am most likely to bake when I’m in the mood for making something, and I especially love to bake them for friends.
Cake methods fall into one of six main types: rubbed cakes, melted, creamed, oil-based, folded and vinegar. There is also a seventh type of cake making which is my favourite as it’s super simple, the ‘all-in-one’: just put everything in a bowl and blend. The difference in methods are about the amount of fat in the cake and how you mix it in with the other ingredients.
Rubbed cakes generally have less fat and more flour. Most fruit cakes are made using the rubbed method, like this recipe here, as the fruit gives the recipe extra moisture. Melted cakes, like this chocolate cake, involve melting the fat and sugar to a syrup then adding them to the dry ingredients. Creamed cakes involve beating sugar into the fat until you get a pale, fluffy mixture (the mixture will actually become paler, so do spend a few minutes beating this with an electric blender). Then liquid is added, with flour finally sifted in. This Victoria sponge is a great example of the creamed cake method. Oil based cakes are common in vegan baking and involve mixing oil with flavourings in one bowl then adding this liquid to your sifted and mixed dry ingredients, then baking. You usually have to add a bit more raising agent to oil based cakes as you don’t get the lift created by blending margarine, but the recipe will let you know how much to use.
The folded method is sometimes also called a ‘whisked fatless sponge’ which doesn’t sound particularly enticing. It’s traditionally made using whisked egg whites and no fat. Ingredients are carefully folded in to preserve the air bubbles. This vegan version uses aquafaba (bean water). The result is a very light, very delicate sponge which needs to be eaten almost straight away. Vinegar cakes are rather old fashioned but are making a comeback in vegan baking. The vinegar replaces the moisture and lift given by eggs, and so they were very popular during rationing. Like this lovely coconut recipe, vinegar cakes involve making a liquid mix with vinegar plus other liquids and blending it together with the dry ingredients. They don’t taste like vinegar, I promise!
Here are some tips for cake baking:
• Cakes are best made from room temperature ingredients, so get everything out before you want to start baking
• You want the cake mix to be at drop consistency (when you tap the spoon on the edge of the bowl the mixture drops out easily) before baking
• Line and grease you cake tin, or use a spring form tin, to make sure the cake comes out safely
• You can tell a cake is ready when it is firm and springy to the touch, and when a skewer or toothpick comes out clean
• Let the cake cook before trying to remove from the tin
• Do not put cakes in the refrigerator, they will dry out and go stale very quickly: either cover with tin foil or put in a cake tin if you need to store it
• Generally speaking, the more fat and liquid you have in a baked product, along with the right amount of moisture-preserving ingredients such as sugar and fruit, the longer it will keep. Rich fruit cakes, for example, can keep for years and years, while coconut oil is a fantastic preservative
Though I am very partial to a breakfast muffin, I never quite got on board with the cupcake bandwagon as I find a lot of satisfaction in slicing into a cake and sharing it around. There are some incredible recipes around which are well worth trying. I think that we should make a bit of an effort to bring back the fairy cake, which has most of the advantages of cupcakes and is a British childhood classic. As well as this cute chocolate recipe, you could also cut off the tops of the cakes, slice them in half into wings, then glue back on with vegan buttercream to make the traditional butterfly shape.
Baking with yeast
First of all, yes, yeast is suitable for vegans. Yeast is a fungus, like mushrooms. As long as the yeast has not been prepared using animals or animal products, the yeast itself is perfectly fine.
Yeast baking can be a bit hit or miss, so usually comes into the ‘more complex’ category of baking. If you are already used to baking with yeast and have recently switched over to being vegan then it should be more straightforward as you will just need to swap a few ingredients (usually fat and/or eggs). However for people like me who have never really baked with yeast at all it can be a bit daunting. That said, sometimes I just need cinnamon buns and cannot bring myself to go to IKEA or buy Jus-Rol's ready to bake version. Other classics are bread (of course) and proper fried doughnuts.
The key things about working with yeast are:
• Make sure you use in-date yeast. I once baked some out-of-date bread from a packet mix and made some very sad rocks
• Know which yeast you need! This blog has a good explanation of yeast types
• Temperature is really important. Cold temperatures puts yeast to sleep and too hot temperatures can kill the yeast. Yeast wants to be at a warm temperature. Get a thermometer and follow recipes correctly. Generally speaking you want to mix yeast with warm liquids (between 40-50C) and leave the dough to rise at room temperature (20-25C)
• Adding too much salt or adding salt in high concentrations can kill yeast, so add salt in with the flour rather than adding it directly to the yeast.
Vegan baking gives you the opportunity to add extra nutrients (and extra tastiness) into your baking by adding a few secret, magic ingredients. My personal favourite is beans. Whether it’s chickpea blondies, blackbean brownies or this incredible white chocolate bean cake these little pods of protein give a lovely squishy moist texture to your cakes. And whatever you do, do not throw away the liquid from your empty bean can. Aquafaba (bean water) is a miracle worker for vegan bakers because it behaves almost exactly like egg whites.
That’s right! You can whip it up into fluffy peaks and make all kinds of treats, including meringues and ice cream. A few tips before you do:
• Always use clean bowls and spoons
• Add a couple of drops of flavouring such as vanilla to mask any lingering bean smell or taste
• An electric whisk will save you lots of time
Aquafaba has taken on a bit of a cult status in the vegan cookery world, and rightly so because it really is amazing. There are websites and Facebook groups dedicated to it so you will never be lost for a recipe, or three.
Vegetables in cakes are not new (carrot and walnut cake or pumpkin pie anyone?) but you don’t need to stop there. Get well on your way to five a day with options like chocolate and beetroot, butternut squash cake, parsnip cake, courgette cake and sweet potato brownies.
Shop-bought and time savers
There can sometimes be a bit of snobbery around baking, and particularly around it being an entirely ‘from scratch’ process that involves standing in a kitchen for hours up to your elbows in flour. Now whilst there is something extremely luxurious in being able to dedicate an entire afternoon to baking, most of us don’t have the option. Neither should we be excluded from the delicious range of treats that you can make!
Most shop-bought ready mixes are of good quality and deliver great results. I use shop-bought bread mixes and have always used Jus-Rol puff pastry, except the one time I spent hours making it from scratch: frankly it wasn’t as good. Did you know that many supermarket cake mixes are vegan and can be made up simply using fizzy pop?
If you live alone and can’t manage a whole cake to yourself (or are worried that you could!) then mug cakes are your friend. Just pour in a few simple ingredients in a single mug and this will cook you a whole cup of cake in the microwave. There are tons of recipes online, though this one is by the lady who inspired me to become vegan with her amazing deserts.
Finally, you don’t even need to turn on the oven to make something great. My favourite no-bakes are fridge cakes like rocky road and these mini peanut butter cheesecakes. There are loads of others available, including Nanaimo bars, raw recipes like these fudge brownies and don’t underestimate the value of the kid’s classic of mixing chocolate with either rice, biscuits or corn cereals.
Gluten-free and allergies
As people who bond over not always having the widest choice at the cake table, we vegans have plenty of time for gluten-free folks. Many vegan baking bloggers include gluten-free options on their recipes and a lot of the recipes in this post, such as aquafaba meringues are already gluten free.
Polenta makes a lovely textured cake, most commonly with lemon or orange, though this lime one is divine. Semolina also makes great gluten-free cakes, such as this oil-based rosemary cake. Buckwheat, which confusingly does not contain wheat, is appropriate for richer cakes – try out this pumpkin loaf. Ground nuts are also common, and these caramel brownies (yes, brownies again, I like them) are excellent. A lot of the time it’s about making simple substitutions such as using gluten-free biscuits, or grinding up dates and nuts for a cheesecake base or pie crust.
Gluten-free vegan baking isn’t all that difficult, though gluten-free flour can need a bit of taking used to as it doesn’t behave the same way as wheat flours. This blog has a really good run down on the different types of flours and how to use them. Often a mixture of dry ingredients are used to create the right balance, such as these chocolate cupcakes, so make sure you measure correctly.
Most vegan baking avoids the common allergies by default, so as well as wheat, you generally only need to think about avoiding nuts and soy. Many recipes which call for soy milk can be adapted to use a different sort of plant milk without too much difficulty, and you can easily check whether your margarine is soy-based or not. Soya lecithin is a common additive, particularly as an emulsifier for chocolate, so look out for that when you are buying ingredients. Nuts are common in vegan cooking and used to add fats and protein to recipes. Some oils are derived from nuts so avoid using those.
For many of us who don’t bake often, the times we feel the need to bring out the bowls and spoons is for important times of the year when we are celebrating with friends and family. This section is going to cover the main ‘baking holidays’ and what to do when you want to show off a bit.
Christmas cakes are dense, rich fruit cakes. They are best made in Autumn, then stored wrapped in greaseproof and foil in a cool, dark place and occasionally fed with brandy (the cake is pricked with a fine needle and a couple of teaspoons of brandy poured in every now and then until it is very moist and very boozy). You don’t have to use alcohol of course, and most recipes like this one from our friends at Suma mark it is as optional. For many people, there will be a particular cake in their family that is made each year and most Christmas cakes adapt well. I have been baking this recipe (warning: non-vegan) for years and started using vegan egg replacer and margarine when I went vegan.
Preparation methods vary, but here are some useful general tips:
• If you are using glace cherries, check they have not been dyed with non-vegan colourings and e numbers
• Keeping the cake protected during the long slow cook is important so it doesn’t burn. Wrap the tin in brown paper and have some greaseproof with a hole cut in to put on the top
• Soak the fruit the night before in a vegan fruit brandy (I like cherry) so the cake is extra moist. You can use a little fruit juice instead – the zest and juice of an orange is ideal
• Always sift the dry ingredients to add extra lift
• Many ready-to-roll icings and almost all marzipan is vegan. When icing the cake, use some apricot jam to help stick the marzipan and icing layers to the cake
• If you don’t like icing, there are some lovely patterns you can make with nuts and dried fruit, just glaze with some apricot jam for a nice shiny finish
• In our family, we serve the cake without icing and with a slice of sharp vegan cheese, like Sheese: the saltiness really complements the fruit cake.
Pancake Day is a big favourite of mine and I often have friends round for batches and batches of pancakes. I cook them in batches and put plates of different fillings (savoury and sweet) on the table for people to help themselves. I use the same recipe for pancakes as for Yorkshire pudding but double, or triple, the quantities depending on how many people I have round. You can make up the batter in advance and keep it in the fridge, just give it a quick whisk before you use it.
• Sift the ingredients well and don’t forget to add a pinch of salt
• Add the liquid a little at a time to the sifted flour, and use an electric whisk to make sure you have no lumps
• You can flavour the batter, if you like, by adding some cinnamon, or a few drops of flavouring such as vanilla
• Make sure you use a good non-stick pan and be prepared to get through a quantity of oil – the pan needs to be kept well-greased or your pancakes will stick
• Find the right spoon or measuring device (I use a ladle) to give the right amount of batter for your pan – you want it to be around 1/3 cm thick
• The oil needs to be hot before you add the batter, it should sizzle and start to bubble as soon as it hits the pan, run a wooden spatula around the edges as they cook so they don’t stick and move the pan with you other hand to get an even coating of batter
• You don’t need to flip if you don’t feel safe doing so, you can turn the pancake using a wooden spatula just as easily
• Put the oven on a low heat and place your cooked pancakes on a plate in the oven so they can keep warm whilst you make more. Cover them with tinfoil to stop them drying out.
The final special cake I wanted to talk about is a birthday cake. Obviously the type of cake you make will depend on the person and what flavours they like but given it’s a special occasion you might want to explore some more exciting vegan cakes or fancy decorations. You can use different shapes of containers to bake your cake in, such as using a heatproof bowl to make a rounded dome cake, or buy one of the many novelty tins that are available.
Rainbow cakes are layers of differently dyed plain sponge cakes which are then sandwiched together to give a rainbow cake. You can use pretty much any sponge recipe, (like this one) but be prepared for a few hours in the kitchen as you bake, cool, then layer lots of different colours of sponge. You need to use gel colours rather than liquid ones as they do not water down the batter and are more stable under heat.
Galaxy icing shown here on vegan doughnuts, is a beautiful swirling, sparkly way to top a cake created by marbling red and blue food colouring into icing then adding some edible glitter. You can also make galaxy buttercream by combining black, red, blue and purple buttercream into a piping bag and swirling that on top of your cakes.
Marzipan and ready-to-roll icing are great to model into shapes, dye different colours and make all sorts of creations if you are a crafty sort. This is not the quickest way to make a cake, but it can give you almost unlimited freedom in making any sort of design.
Fruit and flowers can make lovely decorations on top of cakes. Many petals are edible, and you can crystallise them at home with a simple sugar syrup. Fruit spoils quickly, so if you need to transport the cake, keep the fruit uncut and add at the last minute. Floral flavours give a lovely twist to plain cakes so if you are up for something different why not try adding rose, violet, lavender or elderflower flavours? To really push the boat out, you could bake small cakes in terracotta flower pots (grease well, and put a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom) and top with chocolate “soil” before adding some flowers.
And if that’s not enough for you, look at this wonderful Pinterest board full of gorgeous vegan celebration cakes.
Dealing with disasters
Sometimes it goes a bit wrong and things don’t turn out how you expected. That’s OK, there’s a good chance we can still rescue it for you. Below I’ve put a list of common problems with baking and what to do about it.
It has cooked unevenly. This is likely caused by your oven. Always make sure you preheat properly first and place the item to be cooked in the centre of the oven. Never put anything directly on the bottom of the oven, always put it on an oven shelf, otherwise the entire bottom of your baking will be burnt black. If it’s only a little uneven, rotate your dish by 180 and cover the more cooked section with greaseproof or tinfoil. This will mean that the undercooked section is now in the hotter part of the oven and the overcooked section is protected from the heat. If you are in the sad situation of having a half raw and half burnt cake then you can scoop out the raw filling into a new greased dish and bake that separately and deal with the burnt cake as per the section below.
It has burnt. Caused by a too hot oven, too long in the oven or not being protected whilst cooking. Some ovens run really hot and to get a decent result you will need to use a lower temperature and/or cover your baking with some foil or greaseproof to protect it. Some burnt things are beyond help and you will just have to feed them to the birds or put them to compost. Sometimes it’s a question of just cutting the burnt bits off, and this works particularly well for cake, though do let it cool first so you can take the burnt section off without breaking the cake into pieces. If you do break the cake into pieces then you can very easily cover the nice pieces with custard and call it pudding – a technique I have used many times, and also works for cakes that are a bit too dr. Just add a bit of melted jam or golden syrup before you pour over the custard and no-one will be any the wiser.
Pie base is soggy and undercooked. Although cooking the pastry without filling (baking blind) can seem like a bit too much effort, it really does prevent soggy bottoms. In this instance there is nothing that can be done about the pastry but you can scoop out the filling and serve it in a different way. Quiche fillings will generally cook quite happily without a pastry case (call it tortilla if you like), stewed fruit is great with custard or ice cream and savoury pie fillings are just as good with some potatoes and veggies.
By Sarah Cook