Demystifying Some Vegan Staples

Extra firm?  Silken?  Nutritional yeast?  Miso?  Tahini?

At first, it might sound erotic.  Then, maybe like you’re treating a miserable skin condition.

But alas, these are wonderful terms commonly found in the vernacular and cookbooks of  vegetarians and vegans everywhere.  I’ll share what I know about some of the vegan go-to items like these and offer some ideas about how to use them.

Soy Milk – This is a milk derived from soybeans.  The most pervasive brand, it seems, is Silk.  I’ve loved the light chocolate Silk, but have found that the taste can be inconsistent.  Sometimes it’s terrific and sometimes it’s just okay.  I’ve been using my local grocery store brand lately (Wegman’s) and love it.

I baked whole wheat bread yesterday and altered the original recipe by using reduced fat soy milk.  The bread turned out AWESOME.  I use soy milk when I cook to replace milk or cream in recipes.  No one has ever noticed a difference.

Most significant to me is that it’s been a great help with my cholesterol.  There is research to support my experience. There is also information that challenges the value of soy; so while I’m a big fan, I’d encourage you to read up and be an informed consumer.

Almond Milk – I love it in my coffee.  I use it interchangeably with soy milk when I’m cooking, but it’s more expensive, so soy’s usually my go-to in those cases.  But I also love the unsweetened vanilla variety on my oatmeal.  Blue Diamond brand really is my favorite.  I’ve tried the others….

Tofu – This is a soft, cheese-looking soybean curd.  It’s made by curdling hot soymilk with a coagulent (Source:  It comes in difference consistencies, from extra-firm to silken.  I’ve used the extra-firm to make Smoky Miso Tofu Sandwiches and Sweet and Sour Tofu (both Vegan Yum-Yum) and the silken to make smoothies and sauces.  You don’t want to eat this right out of the package.  Good recipes can guide even the most reluctant cooks to great tofu success. The downside to using the firm tofus is that you need to plan ahead about 20-30 minutes before you start cooking to drain and press it.  This isn’t difficult at all, but you do need to think ahead a little bit.  To press, all you have to do is wrap it in a couple of paper towels, and then a clean dish towel, set it on a plate, put another plate on top and weigh it down with a few cans of stuff.  The point is to push most of the moisture out.

Tofutti Cream Cheese – I don’t miss the regular stuff and this is so much better for you!  I’m looking forward to my bagel for breakfast tomorrow.

Earth Balance – This butter-replacement is vegan and tastes terrific.  My kids love it.  We don’t miss butter at all. (Hint:  The “whipped” variety is our preference.)

Nutritional Yeast – In the natural foods section of my store, I can buy this in bulk and it’s cheap.  This is not a rising yeast.  Don’t bake with it!  It’s loaded with protein and B vitamins.  It has a cheesy-ish flavor and is a nice add-in for sauces when you want a tangy, complex flavor.  I’m new to it and I really like it!

Ground Flaxseeds – You should definitely have this in your pantry.  They work as omega-3s in your diet (2 Tbsp a day) and can work as an egg substitute in cooking things like pancakes when mixed well with water (1 Tbsp mixed with 3 Tbsp water = 1 egg).  I also mix them in with my oatmeals, breads, even cookies and smoothies.  Pulling them out happens easily on a daily basis.

Tahini – This is a paste made from sesame seeds.  The most common use is in hummus (though I make hummus without it, too) or as a falafel topping, but it’s used in lots of recipes that I’ve found.

Miso – This is a fermented paste of soybeans and grains.  I just used this for the first time last week in making a marinade for my tofu slices.  Here’s a great site with a couple of recipes and a great history:

Cashews – These aren’t intimidating, but they’re used a lot in cooking.  I made an amazing tomato sauce last night with cashews and they make a terrific Alfredo sauce–great comfort food with none of the guilt.  Here’s the recipe:

Seitan and Tempeh – My next step is to venture into these…. “Fake meats” have been a little scary for me (though we have done Boca Burgers:o)

Ultimately, a great cookbook will be the best impetus for you to wade into these foodstuffs.  Let me know if you have more specific questions or have an ingredient that you’re curious about!


3 responses to this post.

  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome blog . . . George and I are starting Power 90 (workout), as we will never pay a gym membership again. We also need to change our eating habits due to his chol. levels. However, I am convinced that the entire family needs to be a part – so I’ve been looking for something to guide me.

    It’s YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Following you now . . . not like a stalking thing.

    Well, kind of.


    • I’m going to be doing my next one on getting the whole family on board. Thanks for the comment, Joline!!! My sister’s doing the P-90 thing. Let me know how it goes!


      • I get so overwhelmed by vegan sites . . . or just plain vegetarian sites – but something about how you’ve structured yours, with the list of ingredients to start the pantry and stuff seems so doable.

        I started Power 90 last night (not P90X – I don’t have 1 hr plus to workout) and really liked it. It’s just no nonsense circuit training. Keeping it steady for 90 days straight will be the hard part. But it’s a start.


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