veg food pyramidThe following is a practical guide to some ingredients that may be less familiar than vegetables and herbs:

Agar Agar:

A sea vegetable-based gelatin substitute that can be used for thickening and gelling.

Agave Syrup:

A very sweet syrup made from the juices of the Mexican blue agave plant. Use it as a sugar or honey substitute; 250 ml (8 fl oz) agave nectar is equal to 175 g (6 oz) sugar. If substituting agave nectar in a baked dish, reduce the liquid in the dish by a third.


Beans have been a vital source of protein since ancient times. They are also high in fibre and complex carbohydrates. Being inexpensive and versatile, it is no wonder that they are central to the vegan/vegetarian diet. A wide variety of beans are available fresh, dried or tinned. As a rough guide, 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) of dried beans produced three and a half 400 g (14 oz) tins of beans. To cook dried beans, pick over the beans and remove any damaged ones. Soak the beans in cold water overnight or for at least 4 hours, prior to cooking, both to reduce cooking time and to aid digestion. Drain the soaked beans and place them in a saucepan and cover with water or stock (the liquid should be about 5 cm (2 in) above the top of the beans). Don’t salt until the beans are cooked, because the salt with toughen them during cooking. Bring to a fast boil for 5 minutes (10 for kidney beans to remove toxins), then simmer over a low heat until tender. It is impossible to state cooking times precisely; therefore, cooking several types of beans together is best avoided.

The following are the most commonly cooked dried beans:

Mung Beans and Split Peas – Cooking time: 35-45 minutes

Dried Peas, Dried Broad Beans and Butterbeans – Cooking time: 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours

Cannellini Beans, Bortolini Beans and Kidney Beans – Cooking time: 1 1/4 – 1 3/4 hours

Adzuki Beans – Cooking time: 1 – 1 1/2 hours

Black Beans, Chickpeas, Haricot Beans and Pinto Beans – Cooking time: 1 1/2 – 2 hours

Soyabeans – Cooking time: 2-3 hours

Brown Rice Syrup:

A mild, lightly refined syrup that contains complex sugars, which are absorbed slowly in the bloodstream. Use it as a sugar or honey substitute; 250 ml (8 fl oz) brown rice syrup is equal to 225 g (8 oz) sugar. If substituting it in a baked dish, reduce the liquid in the dish by 1/3. Note that some brands are made with barley enzymes, so they are not gluten-free.


A chocolate-like substance made from the pod of the carob tree. It comes in powder, chips or in a bar. Carob beans are also the source of locust bean gum.


A number of manufacturers make soya-based cheese substitutes in a variety of flavours and textures. These include hard cheeses, such as cheddar and Parmesan, mozzarella and soft cream cheeses. In general, they have the same cooking and melting qualities as those cheeses they are mimicking. These non-dairy cheeses are available in health food shops and over the Internet (see also nutritional yeast and cheese substitutes)

Egg Replacer:

A commercially available blend of starches and leavening agents that can be used in place of eggs in many recipes.


The following fats are acceptable in a vegan diet: soya or other non-dairy margarine, non-dairy butter, non-dairy spreads, non-hydrogenated white vegetable fat and nut butters. (See also butter, and oils)


Wheat flour is used in a lot of recipes. The following flours are wheat and gluten-free: arrowroot, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, cornflour, chickpea (gram flour), cornmeal, millet, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, soya and tapioca flour. They may require the addition of slightly more liquid than wheat flours, so always check package details.


These include barley, buckwheat (kasha) corn, kamut, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, spelt and whole-wheat grains. They form the backbone of a veg diet and are either cooked whole or as a flour. To cook them whole, place in lightly salted boiling water, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until tender. Cooking time can take from 15 minutes for rice to 2 hours.


Honey is an animal-derived product and as such is not vegan. There are several good syrup substitution options, including agave, brown rice, golden, fruit and maple syrups. The different syrups have very different sugar levels per teaspoon, so check the labels.


Lentils are legumes. They are low in fat and high in protein and fibre, and they are a veg staple. Red, green and brown lentils are the most commonly used, but Asian markets and health food shops offer a wide range. Always pick over lentils to remove stray stones or broken lentils before cooking, then rise in cold water.

To cook lentils, use 100 g (3 1/2 oz) lentils to 375 ml (13 fl oz) water or stock. Add flavourings such as herbs, garlic and onions to the liquid in the pan, but don’t add salt until the lentils are soft. Bring the liquid to a boil, add the lentils, boil rapidly for 2-3 minutes, then simmer until tender. Cooking time varies from about 15 minutes for red lentils to about 20 – 25 minutes for other types. If using lentils in salads, drain as soon as they are tender; for purees, soups, and stews, a slightly softer texture is better.

  • Brown Lentils: Plumper than green lentils, can become mushy if overcooked, good for soups.
  • French Green Lentils (puy lentils): Retain their shape after cooking, good in salads and stews.
  • Green Lentils: A large flat lentil that holds its shape well, good in soups and salads.
  • Red Lentils: Become mushy if overcooked, good in soups, stews and purees.

Maple Syrup:

Derived from the sap of the maple tree, maple syrup has a wonderful rich, tonal flavour. Don’t confuse it with “maple-flavoured” pancake syrups in cooking, use 250 ml (8 fl oz) maple syrup for every 275 g (10 oz) sugar. Reduce liquid in baked recipes by a quarter.


A low-fat, meat free protein whose principle ingredient is a form of fungus. Beware, most varieties contain small quantities of egg, so they are not vegan.

Nutritional Yeast:

Don’t be put off by its fish food-like appearance. Nutritional yeast has a strong, almost cheese-like flavour and is great as a Parmesan cheese substitute. It also adds a depth of flavour to any soup or stew that is in need of a little oomph. Don’t confuse it with brewer’s yeast, as they are not the same thing. Purchase in health food shops or specialist food shops.


Nuts are a good source of protein and fibre. Almonds, cashew, macadamia, peanuts, pecans and walnuts are a great store cupboard staples. Store in a cool, dark place or in a freezer.


Extra-virgin olive oil has the best flavour and is a good choice where the flavour has a chance to shine through such as in stirfries and salads. However, where the oil facilitates cooking or in baking, subtle-flavoured oils such as sunflower, safflower or rapeseed oils are best. In general, avoid vegetable oil. This is usually hydrogenated, which results in higher trans fat levels (the bad cholesterols). Nut oils are great in gourmet cooking. Experiment with them in salad dressings or sprinkle them on freshly cooked vegetables. Peanut oil has gained in popularity and is particularly good for stir frying because of its high heat tolerance. Sesame oil is good for added flavour, especially in Asian dishes. Because of the chemistry of the oil, flax oil shouldn’t be used in cooking; however, it is high in omega-3 fatty acids and can be used in place of fish oils in the diet. Use it in place of butter on dishes such as popcorn and steamed vegetables.

Filo Pastry:

This pastry dough is vegan and very low in fat, which makes it perfect for making it perfect for making quick and impressive pastries. It comes packaged, either fresh or frozen, in a bundle of sheets. It is best to defrost filo slowly, use it at room temperature and to work with it quickly, keeping the sheets covered with a clean damp cloth to prevent them from drying out.


Seitan is made from wheat gluten and is a good source of protein. It may be made at home by removing starch from glutinous wheat flour, but is more commonly purchased from the fridge section of the health food shop. Its resemblance to meat in both appearance and texture makes it a popular meat substitute. It is the basis for many-meat alternative products.


White sugar may or may not be vegan. It is made from both can and beet sugar. Can sugar is refined by filtering through charcoal; in some factories this may be derived from cow bones. Beet sugar don’t require charcoal filtering as part of the refining process, so it is animal-free. Some vegans avoid commercial white sugar entirely by substituting raw sugar or unbleached cane sugar, available in health shops. Vegan organic, icing sugar is available but hard to find; however, you can make your own icing sugar by processing 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) granulated sugar with 2 tbsp cornflower on high in the food processor/blender. Brown sugar may be refined or unrefined; its brown colouring is due to the presence of molasses. Demerara and muscavado are brown sugars derived from evaporated can juice, so they avoid the filtering process.


Tempeh is fermented soya bean cake. It may be marinated, fried, grilled or baked. It can also be crumbled and used as a minced meat substitute in dishes such as chilli.

Texturised Vegetable Protein (TVP):

TVP is made from defatted soya flour, a by-product of the extraction of soya bean oil, hence it is also known as soya protein. It is high in protein but low in fat. TVP comes in small dry chunks resembling dried vegetables or in a ground form. Because of its varying texture and its flavourless quality, TVP is manufactured to mimic meat in the form of minced beef and chicken fillets, for instance. It is often used in chilli, tacos, veggie burgers, stews, curries and soups.


Tofu is a soya bean curd available in several textures and an increasing number of flavours. Being high in protein, it is a staple of a vegan diet. Firm and extra-firm tofu hold their shape, absorb flavours well and can be chopped or cut into slices, then fried, grilled or baked. Place a colander on top of a bowl, cover the tofu with a plate and weigh down with a tin or similar weight. Leave for a minimum of 20 minutes or overnight. Tofu may be frozen to alter its texture. The result is a chewier more “meaty” tofu with a sponginess that enables it to soak up more flavour when marinated. Defrost completely before use. Silken or soft tofu has a custard-like texture and a mild creamy flavour. It is excellent in desserts, sauces, dressings and as an addition to soups and stews.


Soya yoghurt is available plain and in a range of flavours. The brands vary in taste and texture, so test the market for your favourite.