The most pertinent lesson I took away from my time as a vegetarian-sometimes-vegan was that animal-free dishes can be wonderfully nourishing and delicious when you know how to prepare them. I learned how to cook with tofu and legumes (which, alongside meaty dishes, I still enjoy today), and with tempeh and fake meats (which I abandoned long ago as they weren't ever really my thing). I also learned how to bake without eggs, milk and butter. Gradually, I acquainted myself with a number of equally practical substitutes.
I cook with eggs, milk and butter, but not all the time. The thing is, they require far more resources to produce than plant-based foods. When we use an egg, we are using a whole lot of water, fuel, land and feed that we simply don't see. As the majority of us are aware, we are consuming these resources to an extent that is beyond our environment's capacity. So we need to think up ways of using less, wasting less - dare I say, needing less - that we can act out with relatively little fuss.
Here are some alternative baking ingredients. You won't see it, but you will be using far less water, fuel and other valuable resources than you use when making a traditional cake. Plus, you mightn't need to race down to the shop for some last-minute eggs after all.
Alternatives include mashed bananas, apple sauce (simply boil down some old apples) and ground flaxseed mixed with water. The latter has the most neutral flavour, so it's a good idea to keep flaxseeds on hand (you can also add these to porridge, smoothies and salads. Multiple uses!). There are also a number of egg-replacement products on the market, but I never felt the need to buy them.
Almond, rice and soy milk are all sound alternatives. So is coconut milk, but as it holds a distinct flavour, I find it only works in some cakes (like banana, pineapple or chocolate).
Mix 1 cup of soy/almond/rice milk with around 2 tablespoons of white vinegar of lemon juice.
A simple substitute is, obviously, margarine. If you're like me, though, and don't like margarine, you can try canola oil, sunflower oil, melted coconut oil or any other oil that has a high smoke point. Again, consider the subtle flavours of each of these.
Some Further Reading
I highly recommend The Joy of Vegan Baking, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Not only does this book contain dozens of eco-friendly recipes, it addresses the general science of baking. Ready yourself for some impressive baking superpowers.
I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan. He has a number of beautifully written and researched books about food and eating that won't bore you. Also, if you have Netflix, you can watch a four-part documentary that's based on Pollan's book, Cooked. Warning: reading Pollan will probably make you feel bad about how you eat, however, this feeling will be followed by a strong conviction to eat better and smarter, so it's not all too bad.
Eco-Friendly Banana Cake Recipe
The first cake I ever made was a banana cake. The first vegan cake I ever made was banana cake, too. Whichever type of banana cake I'm making, I am reminded of how deviating from our personal and cultural norms can often lead us to a similar result, but just with a better process. Cheers to further deviation!
This recipe is from the Joy of Vegan Baking, but with some personal adaptations.
- 2 cups (250g) unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 1/5 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup (80ml) canola oil
- 4 ripe bananas, mashed
- 1/4 cup (60ml) water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup ground flaxseeds
- 1 cup walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts or almonds (150g)
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- zest of one medium-sized lemon (which is hands-down the secret to a killer banana cake)
- Preheat your oven to 180 celsius (350 F) and grease your pan.
- Mix all the wet ingredients in one bowl.
- Mix all the dry ingredients in a separate larger bowl.
- Throw the wet ingredients in with the dry ingredients and combine.
- Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for about 40-45 minutes.
- The batter might be thicker than you are used to. This is usually the case with most vegan cakes. Go with it.
- Check to see if the cake is cooked by inserting a toothpick into its centre. If the pick comes out clean, the cake is ready.
- The same recipe can be used to make cupcakes. Simply adjust the cooking time to approximately 15 minutes, depending on their size.