Ingredient Substitutes Every Vegan Should Know

There's a common misconception that being vegan is restrictive. But adopting a plant-based diet no longer has to be equated with an ascetic lifestyle. The rise and mainstreaming of veganism in recent years has meant there are more animal-free options on the market than ever before, including a variety of high-quality and accessible meat substitutes and vegan products. It's estimated that the number of vegans in the U.S. has shot up to more than 9.7 million since 2004, according to the market research company Ipsos.

Forgoing animal-derived foods doesn't necessarily mean giving up the meals you love. If you've recently transitioned to a plant-based diet or are thinking about making the switch, you'll be pleased to know that there are plenty of simple swaps you can make to replace your regular non-vegan ingredients with plant-based alternatives. From chia seeds to coconut oil, here are some useful substitutes every vegan should have on their radar.

Eggs with flax seeds (or chia seeds)

There's no denying that eggs are a popular building block in baking. They help give foods structure (via The Kitchn), and the idea of ditching them all together may baffle you at first. But you'll be happy to know that flaxseeds make for an excellent egg replacer for a number of reasons: They act as a binder, emulsifier, and leavener, making them a super handy ingredient to have in vegan baking (via Simply Recipes).

Simply simmer your flaxseeds with water in a saucepan for around five minutes (more or less depending on how much you're making) until they acquire a thick, gel-like consistency. Make sure that you grind them down in a grinder first. If you buy them already ground, immediately store them in the fridge or freezer since flax oil can quickly oxidize and go rancid. It's recommended that you opt for golden flaxseeds rather than the brown ones if you don't want your baked goods to darken. Chia seeds also work well as an egg substitute: They develop a similar texture that can help hold foods together, providing structure and sticking power (via Baked).

Cream with silken tofu

Silken tofu can take the place of heavy cream in vegan recipes. Simply swap out one cup of pureed tofu for one cup of cream, notes Epicurious. Silken tofu can be used to concoct all kinds of sauces, dressings, dips, and even desserts. For example, it can replace the egg yolks in Caesar dressing or the sour cream that usually gets added to ranch dressing. You can adjust its texture by adding more liquid to the mix, such as water, olive oil, or lemon juice.

This plant-based ingredient is appreciated for its versatility and "satiny texture" (via Epicurious). It won't whip like cream, but it can provide a similar body and emulsifying effect. It can also be used as a thickener in creamy soups like tomato soup (via The Wicked Noodle). Silken tofu has the highest content of liquid compared to other varieties of tofu, which makes it equally easy to stir into smoothies (via Minimalist Baker).

Eggs with firm tofu

Tofu's chameleon-like quality means it can be easily swapped out for numerous different food items. Low in calories and high in protein, tofu is made from curdled soybeans that are pressed together to form solid blocks (via Medical News Today). It's become a bit of a vegan cooking staple over the years. A bit like the softer variety, firm tofu is a clever stand-in for eggs and eggy dishes, as noted by the Simple Vegan Blog. In fact, vegan scrambled eggs are a popular plant-based creation made out of crumbled tofu.

Firm tofu is also convenient for use in vegan baking, as it has a similar texture and mild flavor as eggs (via The Spruce Eats). Many plant-based recipes have tofu as the main star, including a wide variety of decadent pies, cakes, cookies, brownies, puddings, and desserts. It goes equally well in quiches, casseroles, tacos, and frittatas.

Eggs with mashed bananas

The almighty egg has several important roles in baking. Luckily, there are a number of decent egg substitutes out there — an unexpected one being ripe mashed bananas, which can replace eggs in recipes where their primary use is binding the ingredients together (via Organic Authority). Though, naturally, you can expect your creations to taste (at least a little bit) like banana.

Using bananas in lieu of eggs can give your baked goods a softer texture, so long as they're ripe and mushy (via The Beet). After all, bananas consist of 75% water, which means they're packed full of moisture. You may need to experiment with your recipe somewhat to get the texture right, however, since bananas do run the risk of making your cake a tad rubbery (via The Kitchen Community). On the other hand, if you're looking for an egg substitute that gives your cake a rise, vinegar and baking soda may be the combination you're after. 

Honey with agave syrup or coconut nectar

Not everyone is aware that honey isn't vegan. Not only is the sweet sticky stuff actually food for bees, but sadly our furry friends are often harmed and killed throughout the honey production and collection process (via The Vegan Society). The good news is: There are plenty of plant-based alternatives. Agave syrup is a popular honey replacement because it tastes, looks, and feels similar to honey (via Vegetarian Times). This diabetic-friendly, all-natural sweetener is touted as a healthier alternative to sugar as it has a low glycemic index, so it doesn't trigger a surge in blood sugar levels. Unlike honey, however, agave syrup easily melts in liquids.

Coconut nectar — while slightly more niche — is another great substitute for honey (via Epicurious). It shares a similar consistency, which means that it can be used in much of the same way. Extracted from the sap of coconut flower blossoms, coconut nectar has a mild flavor that's probably more similar to molasses or maple syrup than coconut. It's also relatively low on the glycemic index, not to mention high in nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids.

Cheese with nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast can replace cheese in various ways. Affectionately nicknamed "nooch," it's become a fast favorite among many plant-based eaters (via Bon Appétit). It has that distinctive nutty flavor that makes it a perfect substitute for cheese in vegan versions of classic savory dishes like mac and cheese, enchiladas, or risotto. It often takes the form of powder or flakes, which can be sprinkled on top of salads or melted over pasta. As the name suggests, nutritional yeast is brimming with nutrients including dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It's packed with protein and conveniently happens to be gluten-free. Yet unlike actual cheese, it's low in sodium and calories.

Nutritional yeast is grown on things like blackstrap molasses or sugar beets in a controlled environment (via Medical News Today). It's then deactivated through heating and drying, which prevents it from foaming when it comes into contact with liquids.

Beef with seitan

Seitan is a full-fledged substitute for meat that's often sold in cubes, strips, or ground (via The Spruce Eats). But it can also be easily crafted at home. All you really need is a liquid, such as water or vegetable broth, and vital wheat gluten — a flour-like powder mostly consisting of gluten. Some recipes also call for nutritional yeast and herbs like curry power or onion powder for flavor. Since most of the starch is washed out during preparation, it remains naturally low in carbohydrates and fat. It's a potent source of protein, but not an ideal choice for people with a gluten sensitivity.

If beef is one of the foods that you've been missing as a newbie vegan, seitan might be a convincing alternative. With its dense and chewy texture, it can be used in lots of dishes, including stir-fries, stews, burgers, and sandwiches. This quick and easy beef-flavored vegan recipe on has seitan as the leading ingredient — as does this vegan version of Mongolian beef (via Yup, it's Vegan).

Egg whites with aquafaba

Aquafaba has a few different tricks up its sleeve. This underrated vegan alternative is the thick, sticky liquid that's left over from cooked or canned legumes, particularly chickpeas (via The Vegan Society). It can easily replace dairy foods like cream or butter. It stands out as a particularly useful substitute for egg whites due to its ability to whip into a stiff and fluffy foam. For this reason, aquafaba can be used in plant-based versions of meringues, marshmallows, pies, ice cream, and even mayonnaise. It's cheap, nutritious, and easy to get your hands on. And don't worry — it won't leave behind a bean-y taste (via Bob's Red Mill).

You can also use other types of beans to get aquafaba, such as garbanzo beans, though, some may have a stronger flavor. Simply shake the can to release the starch of the beans before draining the liquid using a sieve. You can also make your own aquafaba by soaking and cooking dried beans in water for a few hours (via The Vegan Society). Just be sure to let it cool down before adding it to your recipe.

Chicken with tempeh

Tempeh is a food that hails from Indonesia (via Medical News Today). It's made out of fermented soybeans that are pressed together into little cakes. Because of its firm and spongey structure, tempeh has quickly become a popular substitute for meat (via One Green Planet). This badass vegan go-to has numerous advantages: It's rich in nutrients (including protein, vitamin B, iron, copper, and fiber) and yet low in calories.

Its nutty flavor complements and blends well with many different foods, so it's easy to incorporate into plant-based meals like stews, stir-fries, and salads. Tempeh has become a common food to make vegan burgers with, as it can be easily grilled or broiled in the place of meat. It's easy to spice and marinate in a range of creative ways. And foodies with a subtler palate can mellow out the strong taste by poaching it in boiling water (via Food.).

Butter with coconut oil

Coconut oil is often touted as one of the best vegan butter substitutes out there. It's smooth, rich, and creamy, and you can slip it into a number of plant-based dishes in both simple and imaginative ways (via The Spruce Eats). Use it in place of melted butter in baked goods such as muffins or cakes — or slather it onto warm toast or a hot stack of pancakes and it will melt just like a dollop of butter. Or you can use it to fry or sauté your vegetables, or cook eggs. And just like butter, coconut oil has a low smoke point. You can even use it to make popcorn in a saucepan (via Allrecipes).

Another great way to make use of coconut oil as a vegan is to incorporate it into your baking regime as a butter substitute (via The Spruce Eats). It's important to bear in mind that it won't work in exactly the same way, since coconut oil has less moisture than butter — it's unlikely that you'll have any nasty surprises, though.

Butter with mashed sweet potato

Did you know that sweet potato is also pretty effective as a butter replacer? This exciting food hack may have gone slightly under the radar in the vegan cooking world due to the abundance of other accessible alternatives like banana and applesauce. Mashed up cooked sweet potato has a rich, earthy flavor and thick consistency that's reminiscent of butter (via Kitchn). 

It might be easier to imagine sweet potato substituting for butter in savory dishes, but this unexpectedly versatile vegetable can also add texture and depth to plenty of sweet recipes too, such as this one for sweet potato muffins from Biscuits & Burlap. Sweet potato butter can also be turned into a spread similar to apple butter – you can simply add sugar or sweeten it with agave or molasses, and add spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg for flavor (via Biscuits & Burlap).

Meat with jackfruit

Jackfruit is another fast-growing gem in Western vegan recipes. Yet, this tasty fruit has been celebrated across Asian cuisine for centuries, revered for its unique flavor and vast nutritional qualities (via Food 52). Jackfruit is an enticing substitute to meat due to its chewy texture and juicy flavor. Best cooked young and unripe, it can be shredded and seasoned into a decadent filling for vegan chilis or stews, sandwiches, tacos, and more (via Pure Wow). Rich in potassium and vitamins A and C, the superfood has become a great option for plant-based eaters who are looking for unprocessed, whole-food alternatives to meat and dairy.

Cooking with a whole jackfruit can be fiddly. But luckily, the exotic fruit can be also be bought in a tin. "All you will need to do is drain and rinse the jackfruit, remove the core and cut the pieces in half, removing any seeds as you go," as Jessica Lockyer-Palmer wrote for the Happy Foodie. The website also provides a handy how-to guide on cooking and preparing jackfruit, as well as a tasty vegan recipe for a "barbecue pulled jackfruit sandwich" that incorporates jackfruit instead of pork.