Vegan food hacks: 15 animal-free ingredients that pack a flavour punch

Vegan Jambalaya - paprika rice
Having been a vegan for over four years, I’ve been inadvertently pulled into numerous conversations about my choice of diet. One of the most common reactions I get from non-vegans is ‘your food must be so dull’, and it’s hard to convince these people of otherwise by using words alone.

It’s only when I cook vegan food for meat-eaters and vegetarians that I feel they accept that, yes, my take on a plant-based diet is bloomin’ delicious. Furthermore, the nutritional values in a flavourful, balanced vegan meal can match or even exceed those in a portion of meat and potatoes.

If you’re looking to add oomph to your cooking without opting for animal products or highly processed additives, here are some store-cupboard staples for you to try. Trust me, they can transform bland slops into scrumptious meals.

Sauces and Liquids

Soy sauce 
A splash of this adds depth to tomato-based sauces, and when combined with crunchy stir-fried vegetables can bring an authentic oriental flavour. I have tried soy sauce with most staple vegan foods and can vouch for its versatility. If you want saltiness, an intensity to flavour or just a touch of richness, this is your go-to guy. My favourite is Kikkoman‘s – it ticks all the umami boxes.

Tofu Soy Sauce

Vegetable stock
Never underestimate the power of a good stock. In order to achieve a full flavour to stews, soups and grain-based meals, add a stock cube or stock granules. If your recipe is already liquidy, such as a bolognese, you can crush the cube straight into the cooking pot when you add seasoning. For foods where the water is absorbed or cooked off , such as cous cous, dissolve the stock cube into the amount of water you would usually add. Check the ingredients carefully – some stocks contain milk or meat extracts. A safe bet is Kallo’s organic veg stock, available in larger supermarkets. Better known brands like Oxo and Knorr also have vegetable stock cubes that are vegan – just double-check the labels.

Lemon and lime juice
For a zesty lift, to break down dense flavours or to counteract the heat of chili peppers, trickle a tablespoon of either of these citrus saviours into your saucepan. When used part way through the cooking process, you will find little citrus taste remains at the end – just a lightened, more fragrant feel to the food. For big lemony flavours, add a generous drizzle once served.

Quinoa

Puree
Coming in a variety of flavours – including tomato, mushroom, umami and even garlic – purees pack a punch. Use sparingly to avoid making your food too rich – a tablespoon of puree to each 500ml of liquid should be plenty when used for sauces. I like spreading a thin layer of sundried tomato paste on pizza bases instead of normal tomato puree. Try it!

Vegan meal

Ketchup
Enhance tomato-based sauces, rehydrating grains and even curries by squirting a blob of red sauce into your cooking. I use Wilkin & Sons‘ Tiptree ketchup as it adds sweetness and richness without the tanginess that you get in some of the value range ketchups available, but many typical brands like Heinz work just as well.

Balsamic vinegar
This slightly sweet, dark vinegar is thicker than the sort you’ll find in the chippy, plus a lot more flavourful. Use it as a dipping sauce when tucking into a crusty loaf, drizzle it over salads, add a dash to Italian sauces or trickle lightly over pasta dishes. Experiment with it by using it as a substitute for red wine vinegar. I did this for a Chinese recipe and it worked brilliantly.

Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, bread

Seasoning, herbs and spices

Chili flakes
Used sparingly, these dried crushed red pepper flakes can add heat or spiciness as well as general warmth to a meal. They can be quite intense, so if in doubt, use less than recommended in recipes. You can always add, but once these little flames hit your food it’s hard to nullify the spice. One option is to add them as a garnish to finished dishes, which gives you more control.

Garam masala
Buy a tub of this and you open the gateway to a whole host of cuisines. Spoon into curries when you’ve softened the onions for a beautifully fragrant Indian hit, or add to slow-cooked Moroccan stews for a one-step passport to the souks. Garam masala can vary according to who makes it, since it is a traditional mix of spices. I really like the Bart blend for its aromatic qualities.

Spice

Paprika
This ground red spice is a favourite across the globe, with the most popular forms being red paprika and smoked paprika. Use paprika in Mexican cooking to replicate the taste of expensive pre-mixed spice sachets in tortilla kits, add to goulash and stroganoff for subtle heat or use in bean-based recipes to unleash the earthiness.

Garlic
The smaller you chop it, the stronger the flavour. Pop a few cloves amongst vegetables when roasting for wintery dinners. Alternatively, crush a clove or two into Italian dishes, Chinese food and curries after you have cooked the onions at the start of the recipe. It’s a pungent one, and it’s not very nice when experienced second hand, so use it sparingly to avoid social isolation.

Hummus

Dried mixed herbs
The staple of all staples. A blend of dried green herbs that usually includes basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, this works in pretty much any savoury meal. Just add a small spoonful part way through the cooking process – this way the herbs will soften as you cook and their flavours will enrich all of the other ingredients.

Flavour-boosting extras

Sundried tomatoes
Available in jars of oil or in packets without any moisture, sundried tomatoes are available in most supermarkets and delis these days. Despite the simplicity of their preparation – i.e. drying out halved tomatoes in the heat of the sun – the flavour that they pack is huge. Perfect rehydrated and added to salsas, salads, sandwiches, rice dishes, pastas and nearly everything else savoury you can imagine (except Chinese food), these little miracles bring a saltiness and richness that eradicates the need to add lots of salt to your cooking.

Pasta

Sweetcorn
Tinned, fresh or frozen, sweetcorn is always undeniably sweet. It lifts dishes that have one dominant flavour, allowing your taste buds to appreciate the complexity of the flavours from other ingredients. I love the stuff. Not once have I opened a tin for a recipe and resisted eating half of it cold. The sweet water from the tin is surprisingly useful too; tip a little into Mexican dishes and tomato-based stews to add sweetness throughout.

Olives
Not everyone likes them, but olives are a good alternative to additional salt. If you add them to sauces from halfway through the cooking process, they will infuse the liquor with a wine-like taste and another layer of flavour. They are less harsh than capers, tending to be bold and salty without being bitter. Marinated olives can make a great party dish – just add cocktail sticks.

olives

Nuts and seeds
A brilliant source of good fats, protein, vitamins and minerals, nuts and seeds are often eaten by vegans for their nutritional values alone. It just so happens that they are also packed with nutty, earthy and often malty flavour, too. Scatter on top of salads, soups and stews, incorporate them into bakes or simply snack away on them. There is a nut or seed out there to please even the pickiest of palates!

A vegan diet is a lifestyle choice and does require some forward thinking, but this handy resource should ensure that whatever you make, you can make it tasty. We hope you find this list useful – let us know if you have any flavour tips of your own via Twitter or by leaving a comment below. Happy Veganuary!

Amy sig

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4 thoughts on “Vegan food hacks: 15 animal-free ingredients that pack a flavour punch

  1. Thanks, Gemma 🙂 Glad to have helped you widen your taste horizons! It’s amazing what a few simple ingredients can do to food that would otherwise be bland. Paprika works really well in goulash, if you fancy making another European meal some time. I like smoked paprika for it, but any will add a lot to the dish.

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