Since becoming vegetarian ten years ago (and having written thousands of vegetarian recipes), I am all too familiar with the ingredients that appear to be vegetarian (even vegan) but are actually not.
You might not be fully vegetarian so the odd bit of fish sauce for instance might not be a big deal to you, but for me and all the full-time vegetarian and vegans out there it's super important to be on top of the foods that might have animal products in them and might not be obvious.
This is a divisive topic; for some vegetarians a little grating of Parmesan is ok, but for others even using the word Parmesan in a recipe in reference to a 'vegetarian style Italian hard cheese' (the catchy name for vegetarian alternative) can be insulting. I can see it from both sides, and while I choose not to eat proper Parmesan I can understand the usefulness of the catch-all term for a style of cheese which has become part of how we cook.
The good news is that there are alternatives for all, wether you are vegan or vegetarian, and in my mind many of them are better than the original. I've tried to make this an exhaustive guide but if there are any things I have missed then please do let me know and I will try and add them on.
Parmesan is probably the ingredient I get most emails and questions about. If we’re going to get technical about it, a cheese that’s called Parmesan, or Parmigiano Reggiano, can never be vegetarian. For it to be called ‘Parmesan’ it has to be produced according to traditional methods, which always use calf rennet. Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and a whole host of other cheeses use rennet in the same way, but there are plenty of alternatives nowadays and a cheese will always be marked with a ‘v’ when it’s suitable for a vegetarian diet.
Whenever a recipe calls for Parmesan specifically, I try and use an Italian style hard cheese instead - this one is great. Another option is this British cheese called Old Winchester,which is a great replacement but also delicious in it's own right.
Health food shops and a lot of the bigger supermarkets are usually quite good for havinga range, too.
There are a lot of vegan cheese alternatives nowadays too. Often I like to make my own - like this Cashew Ricotta - but some of my vegan friends do buy a cheese alternative. This is East London-made vegan cheese, mostly nut-based and completely delicious. Ocado have agood one my brother likes too.
Yoghurts and Desserts
When I first stopped eating meat, I began to experiment with replacements for gelatine (which is usually made from pork or beef), in some of my favourite sweet dishes. Look out for it in flavoured or thickened yoghurts, set desserts, and even mints, as it's often a hidden ingredient.
A good vegetarian panna cotta is a hard thing to come by, but with the help of my friend Emily, I think we smashed the formula when we came up with our Coconut, Rhubarb and Lime Panna Cotta. It’s just the right side of sweet rhubarb, hidden below barely set coconut, lime and vanilla custard. All vegan, dairy, refined sugar and, most importantly, gelatine free. It’s a dessert that will make your life better.
Agar agar is a clever natural setting agent, made from seaweed, that you can use just like gelatine, though bear in mind it is a more powerful ingredient so you’ll need less. Make sure it's fully dissolved before you pour it into the puddings or you may get a grainy texture.
Before I started eating a plant-based diet, Percy Pigs and marshmallows sometimes made an appearance on a long car journey when I wanted a sugar hit. Nowadays I try and avoid them and the sugar rush that comes with them and batch bake something like these Salted Almond Butter Bars, but there is the odd afternoon that still calls for a chewy afternoon sweet, and there are so many alternatives now. There is, of course, the veggie Percy staple, and there are some marshmallow brands that do the trick too.
The Vegetarian Society is a good resource for finding out how animal-derived products are used in wine and beer making. As a general (not exhaustive) rule, organic wines are a safer bet for vegetarians. More info here.
A classic umami-rich ingredient in a Bloody Mary or Welsh rarebit, Worcestershire sauce is a cupboard staple for lots of cooks. The conventional recipe for the sauce contains anchovy, so I buy a veggie one, often this good one from Biona, which makes an amazing marinade to pep-up your tofu too.
Similarly, as you can probably guess from the name, fish sauce, often the base for a lot of South East Asian dishes, is something I try and avoid.
Sometimes I make my own:
- 5g of dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon of white miso paste
- 2 tablespoons of fermented black bean paste
- optional: 1 tablespoon of umeboshi plum seasoning
- 1 tablespoon of white miso paste
- 100ml of tamari or light soy sauce
- Cover the mushrooms in about 200ml of hot water and leave for about 20 minutes. The sitr in the miso and black bean paste and push the lot through a sieve, using the back of a spoon to push through the last bits, throw away the mushrooms now they have done their job.
- Add the plum seasoning and soy and leave to cool completely. Store in a jar in the fridge, it will keep for about 6 weeks.
When I'm in a fix though, I have tried this one, which uses seaweed for a deliciously savoury umami hit and does the job nicely.
Any Sunday roast, veggie or otherwise, is incomplete without gravy. This is the staple recipe in my house for a flavourful sauce. If you're out in a restaurant also check what the roast potatoes/ Yorkshire puddings were cooked in as it's often animal fats.
Three Unsung Flavour Heroes
These are ingredients that I think are often underused in veggie cooking. Both seaweed and miso add that deep savoury flavour of umami - which is not only absolutely delicious, but it has also been shown to help us feel satisfied when we eat. The flavour is found naturally in meats, but also in plenty of vegetables - these ingredients will add depth and nuance to your dinner.
Underused and under celebrated, seaweed comes in a huge range of textures, flavours and colours and can add a savoury depth to plenty of plant-based foods that some people miss if they stop eating meat or fish. It also has the added bonus of being very nutritionally rich - all of the 56 elements essential for human health are present in sea vegetables.
I mostly use Nori in my cooking but do experiment with various different types. Try this Black Kale and Sesame Sushi bowl, or these addictive Savoury Energy Bars. (At first I was sceptical about a savoury energy bar, but these are as moreish as they are balanced: salty olives and nori, buttery sesame seeds, toasted oats, crunchy puffed rice and a hint of sweetness)
Miso is one of my most used ingredients (for those of you who don’t use it, it's a fermented soy bean paste which tastes amazing). It’s great in soups, stews, broths, dressing and marinades and is even good in sweet things like caramel. It adds a welcome salty umami note as well as somehow being a little sweet.
I recently pulled together some of my favourite miso recipes, including the below Golden Miso Potato Salad. (This recipe also uses sundried tomatoes, another of those magical flavour enhancing ingredients)
3. Peanut butter
A versatile ingredient that goes well beyond breakfast. We get through a lot of nut butters in my house. Sometimes I make my own with different flavours and nuts, but we always have a jar of good store bought peanut butter too. It can add a real depth to all sorts of meals - I have a serious affection for satay-style sauces as well as sweet things like these Salted Peanut Cookies.
The title image of this post is my Really Hungry Burger - still one of my favourite ever recipes.