As a part-time vegan, I’m in truth not a vegan at all—I eat whatever I want, and ninety percent of the time, that’s plant-based. But as a person who regularly cooks for real vegans, I want to avoid using ingredients that would be deal breakers in our shared meals (Worcestershire sauce, I’m looking at you). Here’s a list of foods to have on your radar when you want to play it safe, as a pretend vegan like me or a real vegan who simply wants to avoid all animal-derived ingredients.
No, it’s not made up of dead bees, but it is animal derived.
What to use instead: Agave nectar has a similar consistency, level of sweetness, and floral notes. It works best in recipes where honey is an accent (dressings or marinades) and not the main event (honey cake).
2. Certain Store-Bought Meat Substitutes
Not all vegetarian refrigerated or frozen meat substitutes (or “meat analogs” in old-school vegan talk) are vegan; some contain egg whites as a binder. As of this writing, some Quorn MorningStar Farms products contain egg whites.
What to use instead: Quorn and MorningStar Farms do make some vegan products. Check the label just to be sure.
3. Worcestershire Sauce
Most mainstream brands of Worcestershire (Lea & Perrins and French’s come to mind) sauce contain anchovies.
What to use instead: There are some brands of vegan Worcestershire sauce out there, but honestly I can’t say I’m enough of a fan to recommend seeking them out. You can use soy sauce in a pinch, or Maggi sauce if you have it around. I made my own Worcestershire sauce, which might sound ambitious but really it’s a case of blending a bunch of ingredients, steeping them, and straining them.
Before you put them on that sweet potato casserole, know that most commercial marshmallows contain gelatin, which is derived from animal bones or, in the case of Kosher marshmallows, fish.
What to use instead: Vegan marshmallows are available (I like Dandies enough that I’d recommend them for marshmallow lovers of any persuasion), or you can make your own with our recipe, which replaces gelatin with seaweed-derived agar agar.
Are you scratching your head? Hang in there. Because conventional sugar is processed with animal bone charcoal, some vegans don’t eat it. Some vegans do eat conventional sugar, because there’s no residual charcoal in the sugar itself. It just depends on the person.
What to use instead: Because granulated, white, and brown sugars are all processed this way, the 100% vegan workaround is to use organic versions of these products, as they are not processed with animal bone charcoal.
6. Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
Milk chocolate is for sure not vegan, but did you know many dark chocolates, including most mainstream brands of semisweet chocolate chips, contain butter fat or milk fat?
What to use instead: The only way to know is to scrutinize the ingredients list. As of this writing, most brands of organic chocolate chips are vegan-safe.
It depends on the booze, but there’s a whole list of non-vegan alcohols, and it can be a little hard to keep track of. Here’s a sampling of non-vegan booze.
- Sherry: Sherry is often clarified with egg whites.
- Kahlua: As it’s made with conventional sugar, some vegans consider it non-vegan.
- Some bright red liquors: Campari’s signature red color once from carmine, a coloring made from the cochineal beetle’s secretions on a certain species of cactus. Since 2006 they've used a vegan-safe artificial dye that's petroleum based. Some brands making boutique Campari-style liqueur choose to use carmine, as it is not derived from petroleum.
What to use instead: The website Barnivore has a handy database of vegan-safe alcohols. It’s updated quite frequently.
8. Fish Sauce
Obvious, you say? Correct, fish sauce is made with fish. Have I spaced out and added it to, say, an otherwise vegan eggplant stir fry? Yes, I have.
What to use instead: Vegan fish sauce exists, but it’s not available at all mainstream markets. You can use soy sauce instead, but it lacks a certain something. I concoct a mix of soy sauce spiked with a little rice wine vinegar and something funky like miso or shiitake mushroom powder.
9. Oyster Sauce
Ditto the above.
What to use instead: You can buy vegetarian oyster sauce made with mushrooms. For a tablespoon or two of quickie fake oyster sauce, mix equal parts ketchup, soy sauce, and miso. It’s not going to win any awards, but it totally gets the job done.
10. Butter-Flavored Crisco
The butter flavoring comes from real dairy products. Who’da thunk?
What to use instead: Plain old unflavored shortening, which is admittedly much blander.
Yup, it’s fake butter, but some margarine spreads contain dairy-based ingredients or flavorings.
What to use instead: Plant butter is the margarine of the 21st century. Same concept, no animal-derived ingredients. Check the label just to be sure.
Tips for Non-Vegan Hosts
Unsure or anxious about your guests’ needs or expectations? Just ask! Often people with special dietary needs are happy to furnish all the info you need, and appreciate your concern. Don’t have time to ask? Play it safe and avoid any questionable ingredients altogether.
When in doubt, have backup “safe foods” on hand. A crusty loaf of rustic bread and some good olive oil are nearly universal crowd-pleasers. A plain baked sweet potato is the perfect mix of vegan and gluten-free and reliably glows under the olive-oil-pepper-salt. On a plate with roasted broccoli it’s a pretty solid dinner for most anyone.