The day I decided to go vegan, I feared I’d need to spend $300 at the supermarket before I could make a single meal. But, back in my kitchen, I took a deep breath and surveyed the contents of my refrigerator and pantry.
I realized a vegan kitchen has more in common with an omnivore one than I first thought. That night for dinner, I adapted my dinner plans (eggplant parm) and made an eggplant, lentil, olive, and tomato casserole instead.
I also realized I could actually go the rest of the week without another trip to the store. I had oatmeal, canned beans, a crisper full of vegetables, pasta, rice, and more. Vegan food isn’t weird. It relies on many of the everyday ingredients you probably have on hand right now.
There are as many reasons to go vegan as there are plant-based milks at the supermarket. I decided to make the switch because I wanted to lower my high cholesterol without medication. (Mission accomplished!) As someone who loves to cook, the idea that food could be medicine appealed to me. Other people adopt vegan diets to avoid contributing to animal suffering. And still others want to eat in a way that is more sustainable and better for the environment. Whatever your reasons, stocking a vegan pantry is easier than you might think.
To maximize my meal options and make the most delicious food possible, I did give my pantry a vegan update. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took some time to learn all the swaps and new ingredients that make vegan cooking fun and flavorful. In some cases, I needed to taste-test multiple brands before I found my new pantry staples. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to stock a vegan pantry over the past few years of my own plant-based journey.
My Go-To Vegan Swaps
These are some simple ideas of how to offload animal products and replace them with plant-based ingredients.
I keep plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, and soy curls in my refrigerator or freezer to stand in for chicken, red meat and seafood. Hearty vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, and mushrooms (especially the big ones like portobello and king oyster) can be cut into slabs and seared or baked to stand in for steaks.
The category of prepared plant-based meats has exploded in recent years. I especially love Trader Joe’s soy-rizo (a soy-based chorizo) and Field Roast sausages (I keep the Italian flavor in my freezer at all times.) And though it isn’t to my tastes, many vegans swear by Impossible and Beyond Meat products.
Eggs are one of the toughest things to replace in the vegan pantry. In baking, Bob’s Red Mill egg replacer or a flax egg works well if you are replacing just one or two eggs. Aquafaba, a fancy word for the liquid in a can of chickpeas, works like egg whites in meringues and some other baked goods.
If you love omelets and scrambles, you may want to keep a bottle of pea-protein-based Just Egg on hand. (I really love a tofu scramble instead of scrambled eggs.)
You can almost always get away with substituting soy sauce, tamari, or coconut aminos for fish sauce in a pinch. I keep a bottle of Tofuna Fysh brand plant-based fish sauce around to use whenever fish sauce is called for. It’s made with seaweed and better mimics that traditional oceanic funk.
The alt-milk category is booming. You probably have a dozen or more non-dairy options at your grocery store, including oat, almond, flax, hemp, pea, cashew, and coconut milks. You’ll have to taste them to find the right one for you.
I’ve been drinking plant-based milk for so long (decades before I went vegan) that my preference is for the OG nondairy milk: soy milk. We make it from scratch in my house, but I also love Edensoy.
Vegan cheese has gotten really good in recent years. Miyoko’s, Chao, and Violife are worth picking up. (I especially like Violife’s “Better than Parm.” It’s not better than imported Parmigiano Reggiano but I like it more than what you get in a can.)
For a cheese-plate-worthy splurge, my choice is Conscious Cultures Barn Cat.
To make quick vegan buttermilk, stir 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice into a cup of plant-based milk, stir, and let stand for 10 minutes.
Cream and Sour Cream
The best replacement for cream is cashew cream: soaked raw cashews pureed with water in a blender. Make a thicker cashew cream (less water) and add lemon juice for something you can use instead of sour cream.
There are many good vegan butters these days. My favorite, both for baking and for spreading on toast, is Earth Balance’s “Buttery Sticks.” Miyoko’s cultured vegan butter is also wildly popular.
Essential Ingredients for a Well-Stocked Vegan Pantry
Plant-based home cooking isn’t just about making swaps to vegan-ize your old favorites. It’s a cuisine style unto itself and thinking outside a meat-and-potatoes dinner template can unleash your creativity. Infusing plant-based dishes with big, satisfying, umami-rich flavors is important here, and these are your pantry MVPs for layering savory flavors into every bite.
This is a fermented bean paste often used in Japanese food. You find it in white, yellow, and red varieties. (The lighter hues offer subtler flavor.) Miso’s complex saltiness brings dimension to many foods you wouldn’t expect: risotto, pureed soups, salad dressings, and nut-based cream sauces to name a few.
Nutritional yeast, sometimes affectionately referred to as “nooch,” is a deactivated yeast used not for its leavening power (it doesn’t have any) but its wonderful nutty, cheesy flavor. You can sprinkle it directly on your pasta and salad, but it really shines in a variety of homemade cheeses and cheese sauces.
Nutritional yeast typically has vitamins added, including vitamin B-12, which is important if you are on a strictly vegan diet. Make sure the brand you buy is fortified with the goods. Bob’s Red Mill makes a good one.
More neutral in flavor than peanut or almond butter, this sesame paste is good for a lot more than hummus. Mixing it with water turns it into a cream-like, versatile ingredient that can be used to add richness to salads, soups, and even dishes like mac and cheese.
The brand you buy matters here. Many supermarket options are unpleasantly bitter, gritty, and not especially fresh. I highly recommend Soom.
Many vegan recipes call for soy sauce it due to its umami-packed flavor. You often see it in combination with other ingredients on this list. Use it in marinades for tofu and tempeh to amp up their meatiness.
Garlic and onion powder
These two pantry staples - garlic powder and onion powder - take on a prominent role in many vegan recipes because they increase the savoriness of everything they touch. You’ll often see them called for in addition to fresh onion and garlic. They bring something different to the party.
Better Than Bouillon No-Chicken Base
A dab of this concentrated flavor paste goes a long way. I use it mixed with water instead of chicken or vegetable broth but I also add it to the water I cook dried beans in, sauces, and any homemade mock-meat project I take on, such as seitan. It’s also excellent in marinades.
Liquid smoke is just condensed smoke—there’s nothing weird or unnatural about it. It really brings out the meatiness of mushrooms and eggplant and can make just about anything taste like it was cooked on the grill.
You can accomplish the same thing with smoked paprika and chipotle chiles, but liquid smoke provides the purest form of smokiness.
Omnivore Pantry Staples That Are Extra Important for Vegans
As I mentioned earlier, a well-stocked vegan pantry will have a lot in common with a well-stocked omnivore pantry. Here are some of the things you find in all pantries that have extra importance for vegans:
Whether you crack open a can, cook heirloom varieties from dried, or a combination, beans are a go-to plant-based protein. Use them to make dips, tacos, sauces, sandwiches, and soups.
Whole grains are a big part of a well-balanced vegan diet, and quinoa is one of the most nutritious, quickest cooking, and most versatile. It makes for an interesting spin on pilaf and it’s a good swap for white rice.
Without butter, you are likely to find yourself reaching for more olive oil than ever before. I stock a fancy finishing oil to use in salad dressings or drizzling over raw or roasted vegetables (my favorite is Olio Verde) as well as an inexpensive everyday olive oil for cooking and baking.
Pasta is the chicken of the vegan diet. I eat it about twice a week. I keep many boxes of Bionaturae brand whole wheat fusilli and penne on hand. There are many ways to make a vegan pasta dish “meaty.” (Try a cauliflower and mushroom bolognese.)
Nuts have plenty of flavorful fat to replace those you lose when you cut cheese and meat. They add substance to salads, stir-fries, and grain bowls. Many nuts (especially cashews) can be pureed to a thick smooth texture that gives dishes a creaminess without dairy.
You always want an assortment of vegetables around for last-minute meals. Frozen veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and edamame make homemade dinners quick and convenient.