When I first heard former President Bill Clinton talk about his vegan diet, I was inspired to make the switch myself. After all, if a man with a penchant for fast-food burgers and Southern cooking could go vegan, surely I could too.
At the grocery store, I stocked up on vegan foods, including almond milk (that was the presidential recommendation), and faux turkey and cheese to replicate my daughter’s favorite sandwich. But despite my good intentions, my cold-turkey attempt to give up, well, turkey (as well as other meats, dairy and eggs) didn’t go well. My daughter and I couldn’t stand the taste of almond milk, and the fake meat and cheese were unappealing.
Since then, I’ve spoken with numerous vegan chefs and diners who say it can be a challenge to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. They offer the following advice for stocking your vegan pantry and finding replacements for key foods like cheese and other dairy products.
NONDAIRY MILK Taste all of them to find your favorite. Coconut and almond milks (particularly canned coconut milk) are thicker and good to use in cooking, while rice milk is thinner and is good for people who are allergic to nuts or soy. My daughter and I both prefer the taste of soy milk and use it in regular or vanilla flavor for fruit smoothies and breakfast cereal.
NONDAIRY CHEESE Cheese substitutes are available under the brand names Daiya, Tofutti and Follow Your Heart, among others, but many vegans say there’s no fake cheese that satisfies as well as the real thing. Rather than use a packaged product, vegan chefs prefer to make homemade substitutes using cashews, tofu, miso or nutritional yeast. At Candle 79, a popular New York vegan restaurant, the filling for saffron ravioli with wild mushrooms and cashew cheese is made with cashews soaked overnight and then blended with lemon juice, olive oil, water and salt.
THINK CREAMY, NOT CHEESY Creaminess and richness can often be achieved without a cheese substitute. For instance, Chloe Coscarelli, a vegan chef and the author of “Chloe’s Kitchen,” has created a pizza with caramelized onion and butternut squash that will make you forget it doesn’t have cheese; the secret is white-bean and garlic purée. She also offers a creamy, but dairy-free, avocado pesto pasta. My daughter and I have discovered we actually prefer the rich flavor of butternut squash ravioli, which can be found frozen and fresh in supermarkets, to cheese-filled ravioli.
NUTRITIONAL YEAST The name is unappetizing, but many vegan chefs swear by it: it’s a natural food with a roasted, nutty, cheeselike flavor. Ms. Coscarelli uses nutritional yeast flakes in her “best ever” baked macaroni and cheese (found in her cookbook). “I’ve served this to die-hard cheese lovers,” she told me, “and everyone agrees it is comparable, if not better.”
Susan Voisin’s Web site, Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, offers a nice primer on nutritional yeast, noting that it’s a fungus (think mushrooms!) that is grown on molasses and then harvested and dried with heat. (Baking yeast is an entirely different product.) Nutritional yeasts can be an acquired taste, she said, so start with small amounts, sprinkling on popcorn, stirring into mashed potatoes, grinding with almonds for a Parmesan substitute or combining with tofu to make an eggless omelet. It can be found in Whole Foods, in the bulk aisle of natural-foods markets or online.
BUTTER This is an easy fix. Vegan margarines like Earth Balance are made from a blend of oils and are free of trans fats. Varieties include soy-free, whipped and olive oil.
EGGS Ms. Coscarelli, who won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars with vegan cupcakes, says vinegar and baking soda can help baked goods bind together and rise, creating a moist and fluffy cake without eggs. Cornstarch can substitute for eggs to thicken puddings and sauces. Vegan pancakes are made with a tablespoon of baking powder instead of eggs. Frittatas and omelets can be replicated with tofu.
Finally, don’t try to replicate your favorite meaty foods right away. If you love a juicy hamburger, meatloaf or ham sandwich, you are not going to find a meat-free version that tastes the same. Ms. Voisin advises new vegans to start slow and eat a few vegan meals a week. Stock your pantry with lots of grains, lentils and beans and pile your plate with vegetables. To veganize a recipe, start with a dish that is mostly vegan already — like spaghetti — and use vegetables or a meat substitute for the sauce.
“Trying to recapture something and find an exact substitute is really hard,” she said. “A lot of people will try a vegetarian meatloaf right after they become vegetarian, and they hate it. But after you get away from eating meat for a while, you’ll find you start to develop other tastes, and the flavor of a lentil loaf with seasonings will taste great to you. It won’t taste like meat loaf, but you’ll appreciate it for itself.”
Ms. Voisin notes that she became a vegetarian and then vegan while living in a small town in South Carolina; she now lives in Jackson, Miss.
“If I can be a vegan in these not-quite-vegan-centric places, you can do it anywhere,” she said. “I think people who try to do it all at once overnight are more apt to fail. It’s a learning process.”