The Surprising Appeal of Vegan Baking (for Non-Vegans)

Necessity is the mother of invention: finding creative genius in vegan cooking.

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I am not vegan. To be honest, I'm not really even V-curious. As much as fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and beans are daily staples of my diet, I also consume milk, real butter and eggs – and bake with them as well.

Tamara Duker Freuman
Tamara Duker Freuman
This is why I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself going back again and again to a half-dozen or so vegan baked goods recipes in my repertoire … instead of their conventional counterparts. There were those whole-grain apple poppy seed muffins that my kids gobbled up; some tasty gluten-free, teff, peanut-butter cookies; an airy, chocolaty batch of flourless black bean brownies; and the chewy oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies that marked my first foray into baking with my children.

 While I haven't attempted a vegan cake yet, the idea is starting to grow on me – if only for the chance to experiment with a chocolate avocado-based frosting recipe I came across recently on Pinterest. What on earth has happened to me?!?

[See: Best Plant-Based Diets.] 

Shocked at my own recent proclivity for plant-based baking, I've been giving lots of thought as to why I enjoy making these vegan recipes so much ... particularly when I hold no grudges against butter, milk and eggs. In so doing, I realized that there are several very appealing qualities to vegan baking that merit consideration for a far broader audience than the roughly 1 million Americans who follow a strict vegan diet. For example:

• Vegan recipes are ideal for baking with kids. Anyone who's baked with young children knows that curious little people love to lick spoons, fingers and bowls along the way. When recipes contain raw eggs, however, this becomes a safety concern. Not so with eggless vegan recipes, though!

When I undertook my first baking project with the kids at age two and a half – an oatmeal cookie recipe selected for its low-sugar content rather than its veganism – the benefits of an eggless recipe came into quick focus as I watched more of the raw batter wind up in their mouths than in the bowl.

• Vegan baking offers many nutritious (and tasty!) substitutes for eggs and butter. Eggs and butter play multiple important roles in conventional baking and therefore need to be replaced with ingredients that can mimic their essential physical properties – from leavening and moistening to flavoring and binding.

[Read: Is Dairy Healthy or Not?]

A classic vegan trick to bind batter without eggs is to swap in a gel made of ground flax seeds (or whole chia seeds) and water for each egg the recipe calls for. Doing so also happens to bump up a recipe's fiber content by several grams per egg swapped out. Other delicious and nutritious stand-ins I've tried, depending on the recipe, include mashed bananas or canned pumpkin puree.

While many recipes stand up to substituting vegetable oils for butter to veganize them, I've had good results with peanut butter or tahini in cookie and bar recipes and canned black beans (!) for brownies. Nutrient-dense swap-ins of this variety elevated many of my baked wares to contenders for the regular snack rotation from their previous position as occasional treats.

[Read: Great New Foods for Restricted Diets.]

• Vegan baking can be a nod to food science ingenuity. There is something about vegan baking that appeals to my inner science geek. Achieving moist, tender results that are neither gummy nor crumbly can be a challenge when baking without eggs and butter – and I have to hand it to those vegan recipe developers who have devised clever ingredient combos and baking techniques to work around these challenges.

At one recipe developer's behest, I've whipped up brownie batter in a blender to aerate it, and it worked like a charm. And that flax/chia "egg" trick is pure genius. So when my kiddos beg to have a "vegan muffin," I can't help but smile on the inside and feel that extra bit of satisfaction that comes from having achieved a delicious result with one hand tied behind my back. Butter is to baked goods as bacon is to Brussels sprouts: It's ridiculously easy to make something delicious when you use it, but it requires skill to make a standout dish when you don't.

[Read: Kid-Approved Brussels Sprouts Recipes.]

Having publicly acknowledged my admiration and appreciation for vegan baking, it is still worth mentioning that a vegan designation does not automatically bestow a healthy halo onto any old cookie, donut or cupcake one encounters.

After all, white flour and sugar are vegan ingredients, and any recipe loaded with these is no nutritional bargain. Similarly, margarine is vegan – with its trans fats and all. In other words, vegan sugar is still sugar, and vegan fats are still fat, so consume them as judiciously as you would their non-vegan counterparts.

[Read: When a 'Healthy Diet' is Anything But.]

Recipe: Vegan Apple Poppy Seed Muffins

Adapted from Katie Casto Hynes, dietetic intern extraordinaire

Dry ingredients:

• 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

• 1 cup oat flour

• 1/3 cup almond meal

• 3 teaspoons baking powder

• ½ teaspoon salt

• 1 1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (or 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg)

Wet ingredients:

•1 cup unsweetened almond milk

• 2 ripe bananas

• 2 tablespoons lemon juice

• 3 tablespoons ground flax seeds combined with 1/4 cup warm water, set aside for a few minutes until gelled

• 1/3 cup maple syrup

Fold in:

• 1 cup finely chopped apple

• 2 tablespoons poppy seeds

Optional: cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on top

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spray muffin tins with oil to prevent sticking.

2. Combine dry ingredients. Set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, mash the ripe bananas. Then, add remaining wet ingredients until smooth.

4. Add your wet mixture into your dry bowl. Then, fold in your apples and poppy seeds.

5. Pour batter into muffin tins. Top with cinnamon-sugar sprinkle if desired.

6. Bake for 25 minutes (or until tops lightly brown).

7. Cool on rack for 10 to 20 minutes before removing from tins.

[See: 10 Healthy Desserts – and They're Tasty, Too.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog,www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.

Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.