Why Isn't This Easy?
You may have noticed that baking is not a problem for ovo-lactos. You probably noticed because baking became a problem as you become vegan. Certain substitutions are easy: where you see the word "milk", preface it with a word like "soy" or "rice". Butter can be replaced by margarine, at least by those who don't worry about trans-fatty acids in partially hydrogenated oils. The biggest problem, however, is eggs, which play a significant structural role in unyeasted baked goods.
Leaving eggs out of yeasted breads is not a problem. The structure of yeasted bread depends on gluten, a protein which is plentiful in many wheat flours. When one kneads bread, one is developing the gluten, encouraging its proteins to extend and bind together to form a network of gluten sheets with pockets between them. Yeasted bread rises because yeast gives off carbon dioxide as it metabolizes sugars in the dough. This carbon dioxide fills the pockets between the sheets of gluten, causing the bread to inflate like a honeycomb of little balloons.
Why doesn't this work in unyeasted breads? The problem is that the short burst of gas released by chemical leavenings (i.e. baking powder/soda) is not strong enough to inflate the elastic network of gluten, especially considering that these leavenings use up at least half their rising power immediately after they first interact with water. This happens before the gluten has a chance to form. When one kneads the dough to develop the gluten, one flattens any gas pockets which might have formed. Also, chemical leavenings have a destructive effect on gluten, so one would be working at cross-purposes to begin with.
Unyeasted breads are like yeasted ones in that they rise via a multitude of little gas pockets. The difference is that in unyeasted breads, these pockets are more like little bubbles floating in a thick emulsion, not rubbery balloons between sheets of elastic gluten. When baked, the solid which holds them in place is not coagulated gluten proteins, but instead a more tender collaboration of gelatinized starch and coagulated egg proteins. Therefore vegans need to either provide another protein which will coagulate cooperatively, like whizzed tofu, and/or to provide extra starch, as Ener-G Egg Replacer does.
To summarize, the challenges in making breads, cakes, muffins, and suchlike is first to get tiny bubbles into the batter or dough, and then to keep them there during mixing and baking, so that other ingredients can solidify around them.
So the trick in making light baked goods is to make a batter full of tiny air bubbles, and then provide a structure which will solidify around these bubbles, so your cake doesn't fall. There are several traditional ways to incorporate air in your baked goods, and some of which are easily used in vegan baking, and others which may be adapted to vegan ingredients.
The simplest method is to capture the maximal amount of the carbon dioxide released by your chemical leavening. If you've ever followed a muffin recipe which says "Mix only enough to moisten all ingredients, then bake ASAP", you've used this method. Most baking powders (especially non-aluminum ones) use up the greater portion of their leavening power as soon as they first get wet. Similarly, baking soda does most of it's frothing as soon as it meets up with it's acidic liquid counterpart. Therefore, mixing actually breaks open your air pockets and wastes the gasses which were just released, which is why many recipes suggest that you mix no more than necessary, and bake before your gasses escape.
However, as you may expect, quick mixing tends to create a more coarsely grained product -- imagine a muffin's large crumbs, in contrast to the fine grain of a layer cake. To achieve such a fine grain, one needs to mix one's batter thoroughly, and to have one's air pockets remain small and to be distributed evenly throughout the batter. How does one do this?
Creaming Solid Fats
The most common method is to cream the fats and sugars together. It was not until I was an apprentice baker using monster Hobart mixers that I realized just how long and hard you were supposed to cream this stuff -- much more than you'd ever want to do with a wooden spoon (old cookery books suggest that one summon a strong footman to the kitchen at this point!), and more than one would tend to do with a hand mixer. One should cream this stuff until it's quite pale and fluffy, just like whipped frosting. At that point in life I was just starting to read professional baking texts, and finally learned that the creaming step was not just an odd ritual passed from mother to daughter for generations, but instead that one did it in order to put little air pockets into the fat, which would contribute significantly to the rising of the cake.
The theory here is that it is advantageous to provide a multitude of places for the carbon dioxide released by one's leavenings places to accumulate -- in this case, the little air pockets created by creaming one's fats. That way, the baking powder doesn't have to do all the work. Also, having more bubbles means that each bubble is likely to be smaller, and small bubbles are less likely to rise up to the top of the batter and pop.
If one doesn't mind using margarine, one can use the traditional creaming method using margarine and some sort of crystalline sweetener. Note that the crystals in the sweetener are a vital component -- their sharp little edges cut through the solid fat, helping to aerate it. Many vegans avoid sugar, but Sucanat or other cane-juice crystals work fine. I personally prefer fructose because it uses less insulin than sucrose when it gets metabolized, thus causing less problems with my hypoglycemia. After creaming the fat and sweetener until they're fluffy as frosting, add the egg replacer, just as traditional recipes suggest, then alternate pre-sifted dry ingredients with wet ones. I'll assume you know know the ritual here; if not, it's all there in the Joy of Cooking...
I try to avoid hydrogenated oils, so I've worked out a variation on what professional bakers call the high-ratio or two-stage method. This is a method where the flour and sugar are creamed with shortening, then the rest of the liquids are added later. My variation is to cream the gooiest of my wet ingredients (e.g. whizzed banana or tofu, flax goo, rice syrup, etc.) with the combined dry ingredients. This would be a problem if I used flour that contained much gluten, since the moisture and mixing would develop the gluten, making a tough, chewy cake. The trick is that I use a "cake flour" that contains very very little gluten -- it's a mixture of 4 parts barley flour (has a delicate, sweet flavor, btw), 3 parts brown rice flour, and 1 part tapioca flour (which also adds structure in the absence of eggs). To make 2 cups of flour, that would be 1 cup barley flour, 3/4 cup brown rice flour, and 1/4 cup tapioca flour. So I whip this "cake flour" with the gooey wet stuff until I've incorporated as much air as I think I'm going to, then slow down the mixer and add the rest of the wet ingredients, mix until smooth, and bake. (Note: I wouldn't use this cake flour along with Ener-G Egg Replacer -- there would be too much starch added to the recipe).
This doesn't have anything to do with creaming one's solid fats, but I'll tuck it in here for lack of a better place to put it. One of the things about butter that's so magical is that it literally melts in your mouth -- the temperature at which it goes from solid to liquid is right around body temperature. This is not true of margarine or shortening, since their melting point is higher. That's why they leave you with that icky sensation that you tongue is coated in grease (it feels that way because it's true (eeeew!)). A secret to making a very special vegan baked goods is to use a flavorless liquid oil for half the fat, and using melted cocoa butter for the other half. No, cocoa butter doesn't come from cows (you'd be amazed at the number of vegans who insist it does... ). Milk chocolate has milk in it, but cocoa butter comes from cocoa beans; it's pretty much what would be left over if you knew how to extract the cocoa powder from unsweetened chocolate (borrow a professional cake or confectionary text from the library if you don't believe me!). It is one of the rare naturally saturated fats of vegetable origin, so this technique is not one for healthier baking -- it's just a way to make vegan baking taste as decadent as the butter-laden kind. If you're interested, look for cocoa butter at a cake and candy specialty supply store. To find one, ask at a good cake shop (not the supermarket bakery!) where their cake decorators get their tools and supplies.
Folding in Beaten Egg Whites
Many old-fashioned cake recipes (before the days of Quick and Easy) have you whip egg whites to be meringue-like, then fold them into your batter. Angel cake depends entirely on beaten egg whites to leaven it -- I don't think that makes it a good candidate for veganizing, but it demonstrates the significance of incorporating those tiny bubbles. One can add some bubbles to vegan cakes by folding in whipped flax goo, or whipped Ener-G Egg Replacer. Neither of these solidifies into anything meringue-like when baked, thus my skepticism for the viability of vegan angel cake -- but they can be gently folded into a batter to aerate it before baking. Personally I'm not sure how effective this is, but it's a nice idea, isn't it?
But eggs do a lot more than this in baked goods...
What Do Eggs Do Anyway?
When I started working on this project, everything said that eggs had two functions in baked goods, as leaveners and as binders. Most replacement strategies went on to say that they could serve as binders, but not leaveners. After reading something like this for the twentieth time, I had the feeling (familiar to philosophy students across time and space) that I had lost all concept of what any of these words were supposed to mean. So I abandoned the world of hearsay and good advice, and did some reading in food science and professional baking.
I'll start by quoting from Wayne Gisslen's Professional Baking, which lists 8 functions of eggs in baked goods:
Next, I'll mention how various egg replacements might fulfill these functions. I describe how to make and use these replacements on another page, so don't panic!
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Copyright ©1999 Noël V. Nevins