Top Flavor Ingredients in Plant-based Cooking
Getting ready to try plant-based cooking, but not quite sure where to start? This list includes many key flavor-builders for a plant-based kitchen. With them, you can take simple, whole foods such as beans, rice, and greens and elevate them to awesome. It’s time to set your butter, sugar, and salt aside!
If you are a fan of using soy sauce, step up to tamari, a more flavorful condiment from Japan that is less salty and somewhat thicker. Buy low-sodium tamari whenever possible. Tamari does add nice saltiness to food, but even more important, it adds a savory, full-bodied flavor called umami. (Umami is said to be the fifth flavor dimension, in addition to sour, salty, bitter and sweet.)
Where to find: Asian section or international aisle of the grocery store
How to store: Refrigerator
Assuming you are not allergic to them, you may want raw cashew nuts to make any number of creamy soups, sauces, and dressings. By soaking the raw (unroasted) cashews in water for a few hours or overnight, the nuts become softer and then a blender or food processor can whip them into a creamy-textured sauce. These can be used for vegan “mac and cheese,” to make a sour cream-like condiment or a béchamel sauce, and so much more. One caveat: nuts have a lot of calories, so be careful about overdoing the recipes using cashews and keep an eye on how much you eat at one time.
Where to find: Bulk bins of health food store, natural snacks aisle in grocery store
How to store: Short-term in pantry; long-term in freezer
Nutritional yeast (sometimes called nooch) is a form of yeast that has been cultivated on glucose, and then collected, heated, and dried, rendering it inactive. In this way, it is different than yeast for bread, which is still active yeast.
Nutritional yeast adds a somewhat cheesy, savory flavor to foods. It’s often used in plant-based “mac and cheese” as well as many sauces and as a seasoning. You can also sprinkle on pasta dishes, pizza, salads, etc. for additional flavor. Fortified nutritional yeast is a good source of B vitamins including vitamin B12, which is an especially important vitamin for plant-based eaters to consume. Buy either flakes or the fine-powdered form of nutritional yeast; flakes look better if you are sprinkling directly onto food.
Where to find: Bulk section of your local health food store; some stores sell it pre-packaged in the pasta aisle along with grated cheese
How to store: Keep it in a cool, dry place (pantry or refrigerator) in a well-sealed bag or jar
If you plan to experience the full health benefits of plant-based cooking and eating, you’ll want to replace traditional dairy milk from cows (and related products). Substitute plant milk for your granola, oatmeal, smoothies, soups, baked goods, and casseroles; perhaps you’d like a replacement for dairy cream in coffee or tea as well, but read the labels of such products so you can avoid products that have added various oils or coconut cream for creaminess. Those are not healthy.
There are so many plant-based substitutes for dairy milk on the market—soy, almond, cashew, hemp, flax, oat, rice—so you can choose the flavors and nutrient profiles you like the most. Look for varieties labeled “unsweetened” as many seemingly plain or “original” versions have actually snuck in a sweetener. Check the nutrition facts for other desirable nutrients, either naturally occurring or added: calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, etc. Be careful about the sugar and sodium levels, as well as the fat content (especially for coconut milk, which is very high in saturated fat). Aim for no more than 3 grams of total fat per serving, of which only a small amount is saturated fat.
Think about how you will use your plant milk and whether you may need more than one type on hand. For example, while vanilla-flavored plant milk tastes great on cereal and in baked goods, it’s not so good in savory dishes, so you may need plain plant milk for cooking.
Want to make sure you never run out of having a non-dairy milk option on hand? Purchase a box of shelf-stable, vacuum-packed plant milk to keep in your pantry as a spare supply.
Where to find: Refrigerator cases near dairy milk, or beverage aisle for shelf-stable varieties
How to store: Refrigerator or pantry, however it was kept in the grocery store; refrigerate all plant milks once open
If you are regularly cooking meals in your plant-based kitchen, try to keep fresh parsley and cilantro (both preferably organic) on hand all the time. They are both very nutritious and add a welcome punch to the taste and visual presentation of your meals. Use them generously! (Caveat about cilantro: for a fraction of the population, cilantro tastes like soap, so use caution in adding it to food you will serve to guests or at parties. Instead, serve it in a side dish, so people can add as much or as little as they want.)
With fresh herbs, the flavor and bright green color diminish quickly when cooked, so it’s best to stir them into a hot dish right before serving, and then sprinkle more on top as a garnish for maximum flavor and color.
When using parsley, chop up only the leaves, as the stems are often bitter. With cilantro, you can use both stems and leaves, assuming your dish will benefit from the crunch of the stems. Using store-bought spaghetti sauce? Toss in some chopped parsley. Using store-bought salsa? Add chopped cilantro. These little tricks make prepared food taste so much better.
If you have a green thumb, consider whether you have the right conditions to grow these and other herbs outside or indoors, for an endless supply. Basil and mint are among the other common herbs used in a plant-based kitchen, but buy them when you have a recipe in mind so they do not go to waste.
Where to find: Produce department or farmers’ market
How to store: Wrap cilantro and parsley in paper towel and put in plastic bag in refrigerator; keep basil on the counter in a glass of water, as it does not like cold temperatures. Wash all fresh herbs before using.
Lemons & Limes
A bit of citrus juice or zest is so refreshing and the acidity can balance other flavor elements. Find a good tool for squeezing out the juice. (We like the Chef’n Citrus Juicer: powerful, durable, effective, and fast!) Especially if you are going to use the rind for zest, try to buy organic. In any case, wash before using.
Where to find: Produce department
How to store: Store in loose plastic bag in refrigerator
Ginger root is an important ingredient in the food of many Asian cultures and India, lending a hot, citrusy flavor. It has a thin brown skin on it; we eat the fibrous interior. It can be peeled and chopped when fresh. it can be hard to peel with a traditional vegetable peeler; try scraping the root with the edge of a small spoon and the skin will come right off. TIP: If you keep ginger root in a bag or container in the freezer, it will last longer and then is easily grated on a microplane grater (no peeling required).
Where to find: Produce department
How to store: For short-term refrigerate in plastic bag; for long-term storage, put in plastic bag in freezer.
Fresh Garlic and Onions
Keep several heads of garlic, white onions, and red onions always on hand. Shallots and fresh leeks are fabulous, too, but a bit pricier. If you need an excellent garlic press that is easy to use and clean, try the Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press. It costs more than run-of-the-mill presses, but will last longer and save you time and aggravation. That said, a garlic press is not entirely necessary if you prefer to just smash or chop your garlic with a knife.
Where to find: Produce department or farmers’ market
How to store: Garlic, onions, shallots at room temperature, dry and dark, in open air (not plastic); refrigerate leeks and wash carefully to remove dirt in between the layers.
Keep rice vinegar, cider vinegar, white vinegar, balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar at the ready. Specialty stores and mail order outlets provide many other tangy flavors to try. Some additional favorites include ume plum vinegar (use sparingly…lots of salty/savory flavor), sherry vinegar, and vinegars flavored with herbs, citrus, etc.
Where to find: Condiments aisle in grocery, or specialty food stores
How to store: In pantry
Miso lends its complex umami and salty flavor to many dishes, well beyond the classic miso soup. Made into a thick paste from fermented soybeans or other base ingredients, it lasts well in your refrigerator (over a year) and comes in many strengths, so you can select according to how it will be used. For starters, try the mild “shiro” miso, also described as “white” or “sweet.” (It’s actual color is pale yellow.) Miso’s beneficial active cultures from the fermentation are damaged when miso is heated too much, so it’s usually stirred gently into soup just before serving or added to other dishes as a flavor element in the final stages of a recipe.
Where to find: Miso comes in small plastic tubs; look for it in the refrigerator case in grocery store, sometimes near tofu, tempeh and other soy products
How to store: Refrigerator
Tahini is a paste made of ground up sesame seeds. It is used in hummus and helpful in making a variety of plant-based dressings without using oil. There will be a natural settling of the paste into layers of oil and the ground up seeds when you first open the container, so take a knife and stir it well before using.
Where to find: International aisle of grocery; health food stores
How to store: In pantry before opening, then refrigerate
Assuming you don’t have peanut or tree nut allergies, or suffer from heart disease, nut butters provide protein and other essential nutrients for plant-based eaters. (If you are pursuing a plant-based diet to improve your heart health, please review Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s recommendations, including his advice to avoid nuts and all oils.)
Whether you will spread a nut butter on sliced apple, celery, bread or toast, incorporate into baked goods, or use in spreads, dressings, and entrees, take time to find one or more varieties you like. Many specialty stores now have stations where you can grind your own peanut or almond butter. If you are buying something already in a container or jar, check the ingredient list to make sure there is no added sugar, oil, or other ingredients. You want just ground nuts (and occasionally other whole food ingredients). This will mean that you’ll have to stir the product before you use it, to blend in its natural oil, and then keep it in the refrigerator for long-term storage.
Where to find: grocery store, health food stores
How to store: In pantry before opening, then refrigerate after opening and stirring, to keep from separating
Hot Sauce and Salsa
The sky’s the limit with the variety of hot sauces and salsas on the market. Even for people who don’t like spicy food, a mild salsa or hot sauce can add some pleasing zip and depth to a dish. Our favorite hot sauces that are widely available are Sriracha and Tabasco Chipotle, but give the small-producer varieties a try as well. For salsa, find the level of spice and ingredients that work for you. While we suggest you avoid snacking too much on the ever-popular tortilla chips and salsa combo, as most chips are high in salt and fat (try baked chips instead!), we like to use salsa as a quick means of adding flavor to grain and bean salads, as a garnish for soup, atop baked potatoes, with bean dishes like chili, and to finish a platter of grilled vegetables.
Where to find: Condiment or international aisles of grocery, specialty food stores, or make fresh salsa from scratch
How to store: Refrigerate
Smoked Paprika, Chipotle Peppers, Liquid Smoke
There are a variety of items that can add smoky flavor to plant-based food. With all of them, a little goes a long way. Delicious in soups, beans, dips, marinades.
Where to find: Liquid smoke and smoked paprika in the condiment or spice aisle; chipotle peppers in adobo sauce in the international aisle, with the Mexican food.
How to store: Pantry. If you open a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, you’ll likely need only a small amount for any given recipe. Refrigerate or freeze the rest for later use.
Black Pepper, Salt, and Other Seasonings
Freshly ground black pepper is useful in so many ways. If you’ve been buying pepper that’s already ground and in a tin, get a quality pepper grinder and try it out with fresh peppercorns. The difference is significant.
For most people, it’s a good idea to cut back on your salt (sodium) intake, as we typically have too much salt in a diet with processed foods. One can usually season food well with other items. Salt is added almost all the time to packaged food, so be careful of what you buy. Also, many seasoning blends, such as chili powder, may have salt in them. Look for no-salt blends instead.
All of that said, table salt usually has iodine added to it, and iodine is an important nutrient. You can also find iodine in sea vegetable products, including the nori used in sushi and others like dulse, wakame, and kombu. If you are going to add salt to a dish, using a small amount of regular table salt can be helpful for its iodine content. Sea salt or specialty salt, which does not contain iodine, is best saved for a finishing touch on a dish when it’s needed but try for citrus, fresh herbs, and other garnishes instead.
A specialty salt that is used fairly frequently in plant-based recipes is black salt or “kala namak.” This salt is known for its sulfur-like flavor, which can make things taste like eggs. It is often used in dips, sauces, or in tofu dishes where an egg-like flavor is desirable.
In terms of other herbs and spices, there are so many options. Some stores now offer spices available in the bulk section, where you can get just a very small quantity to try. If you are new to cooking with a wide range of herbs and spices and want to keep things in your kitchen simple, look for international herb blends that are salt-free to add a combination of pre-blended herbs or spices easily. Buy in small quantities at first as you try them out. Dried herbs and ground spices lose their full flavor over time, so don’t stock up too far in advance.
Where to find: Spice aisle of grocery, specialty food stores, bulk section of health food stores
How to store: Pantry