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Vegan Alternatives for Common Recipe Ingredients

How do you replace key ingredients you’re either avoiding or don’t have on hand when trying new recipes? How do you make plain and basic meals more flavorful or vegan-friendly? How do you add variety to your plant-based diet when you have a limited number of ingredients in your fridge and pantry?

Below we put together a few tips we’ve learned both from our own experience as well as from a few food and nutrition experts, nutritionists, and registered dieticians.

How to Replace Animal Products with Plant-Based Alternatives

Vegan Alternatives for Eggs

Whether for baking or for a traditional, hearty breakfast – eggs are a pantry staple in many households and a common ingredient in many recipes. Eggs are actually one of the most common food allergens.

  • Aquafaba – Many vegans and plant-based eaters are used to stocking their pantries with beans and legumes. If you have canned chickpeas on hand you can easily use the liquid inside, aquafaba, as a vegan egg substitute. One can of chickpeas will give you about 8-12 tablespoons of aquafaba, or about 4 ‘eggs’. “Use 3 tablespoons aquafaba per egg to use as a binder in pancakes and muffin recipes,” says Jaime Bachtell-Shelbert, RD.
  • Flaxseed and chia seeds – Hailey Crean, RD shared another way to replace an egg – with ground flaxseed. Flax egg is made by adding a 3:1 mix of water to ground flaxseed and letting it soak up the water for about 10 minutes until it creates a gel-like consistency. You can follow the same ratio and instructions with chia seeds. They both work great as a substitute for egg and with a much longer shelf life so it can be kept on hand. Maria Adams, RD also prefers to use “flax eggs” because in addition to tasting great, adding flax meal also gives the finished product a fiber boost! The kids also love cookies made using “flax eggs” because they know it’s safe to taste the dough!
  • Tofu Leah Swanson, RD uses tofu to make vegan scrambled eggs. You can do it by pulsing extra firm tofu a few times in a food processor (or break up into scrambled egg size pieces with a fork) and heat in a little oil in a skillet with veggies, turmeric (for color), and nutritional yeast (for the cheesy flavor).

Vegan Alternatives for Milk

The easiest way to replace dairy milk is to buy a plant-based alternative for milk from your local store. If you can’t find one, there are some quick ways you can make it at home.

  • Nut butterRachel Mistry, RD prefers to make a homemade nut milk by simply blending one tablespoon of nut butter of your choice with one cup of water in a high-powered blender for 1-2 minutes. Double or triple the recipe to make a larger batch that will stay fresh in the fridge for up to a week. Rhyan Geiger, RD also prefers the nut butter method because you don’t have to deal with the hassle of soaking and straining nuts.
  • Hemp and oats – Another easy way to make plant-based milk at home suggested by Taisha Bell, RD is to use ½ cup hemp hearts and 4 cups of water (add vanilla extract if you like). Again – you don’t have to soak or use a filter bag, and it’s ready to go as soon as it’s done blending! The same applies for oat milk – mix one cup rolled oats and 4 cups water into a high-speed blender and blend on high for 30-45 seconds, but you will need to strain it through a clean cloth.
  • Coconut milk – If your local store is also out of coconut milk cans and curries are one of your go-to meals, you can use your favorite dairy-free milk as a substitute, just add one teaspoon of cornstarch to give it the thicker consistency. Make sure you mix those separately before adding to your dish; otherwise, you will have lumps in your sauce that are very difficult to remove. If you’re particularly fond of the coconut flavor – you can add some coconut oil as well, which will also add more richness.

Vegan Alternatives for Butter

Here are a few alternatives you can use as a substitute for butter in your cooking and baking.

  • Vegetable oils – Coconut or olive can be used in place of butter in cooking and baking. One cup of butter can be swapped for ¾ cup of oil.
  • Canned pumpkin or mashed banana Leah Swanson, RD also uses canned pumpkin or mashed banana 1:1 as oil or fat replacements in baking – this is great for cookies and quick breads.
  • Mashed beans – Another fun and high-fiber fat replacement – try garbanzo or white beans for a mild flavor and color!

Vegan Alternatives for Buttermilk

Use Forager Project Drinkable Yogurt as a 1-for-1 substitute for Buttermilk.

Substituting Other Common Ingredients


If you run out or can’t find the All-purpose flour that you usually use, it’s time to experiment with different types of flour – you can try whole wheat, buckwheat, oat, or almond flour. The best part is that you can make some of these at home if you have a food processor. Maria Adams, RD loves to make oat flour by pulsing oats in a food processor until fine. You can combine it with spelt or white whole wheat flour, but you can also use oat flour on its own.
Jaime Bachtell-Shelbert, RD uses the oat flour in pancake and muffin recipes, as well as to make bean burgers. Another option is to get creative with flourless recipes (not all baking requires flour!). You can start with a flourless cookie recipe that uses your nut butter of choice as a base.

Canned Beans and Chickpeas

Both of these are extremely handy to have in the kitchen because they are so easy to add to any meal and are very nutritious, which explains why they have been difficult to find on shelves as of late. You can make your own batches of beans or chickpeas.

If you have an Instant Pot, cooking dry beans is as easy as it gets – taking between 20 and 45 minutes to prepare depending on the type and quantity of beans. Otherwise, cooking dry beans can take more time – we recommend preparing a big batch at once and either storing it in the refrigerator for up to 5 days (with a bit of the cooking water, similar to the cans in the store) or you can also freeze your batch in 2-cup servings for up to three months.

Vegan Alternatives to Breadcrumbs

These are great to add a crunchy texture and truly upgrade a basic dish. If you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand, you can instead use a couple of oven-dried bread slices, crushed in a food processor. You can also replace them with crushed croutons, cracker crumbs, crushed potato or tortilla chips, or even crushed cornflakes.


A common ingredient that adds a unique, refreshing, and bright flavor to plain dishes, lemon may seem difficult to substitute. For small amounts, you can swap lemon juice with orange juice one-to-one – it’s sweeter and less tart and might alter the flavor a bit but it’s a worthwhile backup. When you need a more acidic or tart flavor, replace lemon juice with vinegar one-to-one – this will work in recipes where lemon is not the key flavor but plays an enhancer role.

How to Add More Flavor and Variety to Basic Meals


A given but they are your best friend. Add to your assortment next time you do groceries or just reevaluate what you have in your pantry and aim to use each condiment more often. Some great ones to have on hand are garlic powder and onion powder – not as good as the real thing, but they will do the trick in most dishes.

These powders work especially well in roasting because they won’t burn as fast as garlic or onion. The same applies to dried herbs – rosemary, coriander, parsley, basil, oregano, etc. Add cumin, red chili flakes, curry powder, cinnamon, turmeric, or other favorites, and you have a world of flavors at your fingertips.

Frozen veggies

While these are great to have in bulk in the freezer, ready to add to any meal – you’re not the only one who thinks frozen veggies taste a bit bland. We recommend trying different ways of cooking them – steam, saute, roast, stir-fry, add them to brothy soups, or blend them into creamy soups.

The real pro tip is to experiment with your herbs and spices and go beyond just salt and pepper. Try some of these ideas: coat steamed veggies with toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, and salt, stir-fry veggies with grated ginger and minced garlic, drizzle roasted veggies with balsamic glaze (made by simmering and reducing balsamic vinegar), or add some curry powder if you’re making a creamy veggie soup.


Whole grains and ancient grains are nutritious pantry staples and have been for thousands of years. Not only do they stay fresh for months, but they offer fiber, plant-based protein, and B vitamins. Jenniffer Hubbard, RD suggests “experimenting with new grains like farro, quinoa, couscous, bulgur or millet.” She adds,” this is a great time to experiment with new ingredients and recipes if your common grocery items are not available.”

For another filling option, registered dietitian, Taisha Bell suggests trying a legume-based pasta. It is higher in protein and “reduces the need for animal protein.”

Another way to add variety and enhance the nutrition profile of your meals is to experiment with grain mixes instead of cooking one grain at a time. Some popular mixes combine some of the following: white rice, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, red beans, dried soybeans or edamame, etc.

Regardless of the mix, you can also choose to add vegetable broth when cooking your grains for extra flavor. Lastly, explore other ways to cook rice or use leftover rice such as rice soups, fried rice, rice salads, breakfast porridge, or try to make onigiris (Japanese rice balls).

Sauces and Dressings

These have always been a staple to adding flavor to meals. The best part about it is that you’re most likely to find a recipe to make from whichever ingredients you have in your kitchen, especially useful when you have leftover herbs. Some of the basic ingredients great to have for whipping up sauces and dressings are: olive oil, sesame oil, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, onion, garlic, ginger, lemon, miso, mustard, sugar, and tahini.

Monica Salafia, RD has been mixing plain dairy-free yogurt with herbs such as thyme, garlic, and dill and adding these simple dressings to her daily salads. Again, you’re likely to find a recipe for whichever combination you have in your kitchen. We recommend making a jar of a different dressing / sauce every week – most of these will last a couple of days in the refrigerator.

We’re grateful to the Registered Dietitians that were kind to share their own tips with us: Maria Adams (MS, MPH, RDN), Melissa Altman-Traub (MS, RDN, LDN), Jaime Bachtell-Shelbert (RDN, LDN), Taisha Bell (RD), Hailey Crean (MS, RD, CDE, CSOWM), Rhyan Geiger (RDN), Jenniffer Hubbard (RD, LD/N), Rachel Mistry (MS, RDN), Monica Salafia (MS, RD, CPT), and Leah Swanson (MHSc, RDN, CD).

If you have more tips you think others would find useful – please share them with us.