Is bread vegan? If it is plain old bread, yes it is given that it is made of flour, water, salt and yeast. Sweet bread, on the other hand is typically enriched with milk, eggs, and butter. Not vegan. Not at all. What do you do if you are vegan? If you refuse to eat margerine? If you don’t want soya milk or powdered egg replacer? How do you make vegan sweet bread? First you need to understand what all those non vegan ingredients do and then you can go about figuring out how to replace them.
The role of the butter in a sweet bread is three fold: It softens the crumb and the crust, it adds flavour and, when enough is added, it helps the dough expand. Brioche dough, for example, will triple in size in the first and second fermentations because of the butter. Puff pastry dough puffs because the butter explodes in the oven between layers of dough and creates layers of air and dough in the final product. There is no fat that is absorbed into flour as well as butter. Treated correctly, butter will not “leak” out of the dough, leaving it heavy and greasy. No butter in my vegan sweet bread. What to do?
The role of the eggs in a sweet bread is to help the bread stand up – not to help it rise. Think of a quiche. It’s mainly eggs. It sets firmly. That’s what eggs do: they gelatinise when they are baked. The only time eggs add levity is when they are separated and the whites are beaten. Whole eggs don’t do that. They add richness and strength to your dough. Think of a cake with tons of whole eggs – it bakes in a way it would not bake if there were fewer eggs – the cake mixture actually “sets” just like a quiche. The eggs cook and provide structure. The eggs lend strength to the dough. So….no eggs in my vegan sweet bread. What to do?
The role of the milk in a sweet bread is to enrich it to give it a lucious “mouth feel” and to help keep the crust and the crumb soft and moist. Full fat milk does the job best. So…no milk in my vegan sweet bread. What to do?
To substitute for butter you have to use oil or margarine. If you are using oil, or an un- hydrogenated margarine, the dough will not expand into a super light loaf, as it would do with butter. These kinds of fats are simply not absorbed into or held by dough the way butter is. If you use too much of these kinds of fats, you will weight the dough down and it may taste and feel greasy rather than luscious. If you are happy with the taste of olive oil or coconut oil, you can use those. If not, you should use a neutral oil like grape seed or avocado oil or a neutral un-hydrogenated margarine like Earth Balance original vegan spread. If you are using hydrogenated margarine, you can substitute like for like and your dough will suffer less. However, it will taste of margarine.
in either case, lower butter doughs will not suffer as much as high butter doughs. Getting a really great vegan brioche is pretty impossible simply because the alternatives to butter don’t taste or feel so great, nor do they perform in the same way. Butter and hydrogenated margarine can be used interchangeably but butter and oil or un-hydrogenated margarine do not swap in and out of recipes like for like. If you see 125 g of butter in a brioche calling for 250 g of flour (that’s what I use for my brioche), you cannot just use 125 g of oil or spread. The taste is pretty repellent, the mouthfeel is greasy, and the dough is heavy. As a rule of thumb, cut the butter in half if you are using oil or un-hydrogenated margarine. For example, if a recipe calls for 100 g of butter, use 50 g oil or un-hydrogenated margarine. Anything else will be pretty greasy and rather worthy.
There are various options for substituting for eggs. You can make flax eggs (10 g ground flax + 30 g water left to swell for an hour before you add it to the dough is equal to one egg). You can use soft tofu or plain non dairy yoghurt (30 g equals one egg). What they all do is add protein to help the dough stand up. The flax also swells so that helps the dough expand and gelatinise too. You can also add some wheat gluten or corn flour/starch (1 tablespoon = one egg) to the dough. You can also use higher protein flour versus the plain or all purpose flour your recipe may call for. You can also add a paste made of oil, water, and baking powder (1 T oil + 1 T water + 1 t baking powder = 1 egg). This both sets and gives the dough lift. You will have to experiment to see what you like best but essentially you need something to replace the protein, swelling, and gelatinising effect on the eggs if you have a high fat dough.
What the flax egg does, particularly well, is set – sort of like an egg – to provide structure and a certain gelatinous feel to the dough. To make a flax egg, grind flax (or buy it ground) and mix 15 g with 35 g of water. Shake it up and leave it for a couple of hours. When you need it, stir it up and you will see it turns into a gooey mixture a bit like bogies (seriously, it’s kind of gross and it does not taste great). Weigh out what you need. The weight of one large egg (shell off) is about 50 grams. For a recipe that calls for lots and lots of eggs. you may want to use up to 2/3 in flax eggs and the rest in tofu or non dairy yoghurt. That is simply because the taste of flax can be pretty powerfully not so very nice. To use the baking powder egg, substitute 1/5 T water + 1/5 T vegetable oil + 1 t baking powder. Stir it all up and put it into the yeast and water mixture along with everything else BEFORE you add the bulk of the flour. Make sure you use single action baking powder as it begins to work when it’s in the oven as opposed to straight away, the way double action baking powder does.
There are plenty of non dairy substitutes for milk and these include drinks made of soya, oat, nuts, rice, flax, etc etc. Some have flavour (great if you want your bread to taste like coconuts) and some do not. Some have lots of additives, including sugar, guar gum, and other oils, and some do not. These additives may compromise the efficacy of the yeast (I have no scientific basis for that statement – just that there is a lot yeast does not like). The best quality milks on the market come from and English company called Rude Health. if you are lucky enough to be able to get them, I recommend them. Many nut milks are quite fatty and sweet. Taste them for sweetness and adjust the sugar down accordingly. The fat in a nut milk is not like the fat in milk from a cow. It does not get absorbed by the flour in the same way. The point is that there IS fat in nut milks and this will weigh down the dough so think about that when you are substituting for the butter. Too much fat of any kind and you will have a heavy, greasy final product.
As ever, with these things, it’s a case of experimenting. Which is what I am doing now so watch this space. My first attempt at vegan sweet breads was OK. Just OK. The panel of judges thought they were OK but rather heavy. So we have thought of some reasons for this and I am going to tweak the recipes. Here is what we think we have learned:
1. Always taste the milk before you use it. Some milks are really sweet, even if they are sugar free. If you are using a naturally sweet milk, you may want to either change milks or cut down on the sugar you add. I used oat milk and even though it’s unsweetened, it is really sweet. Also because I cannot buy Rude Health where I am, I had to use Pacific brand which was the best I could get- organic, no sugar added, fewest ingredients. The ingredients include: water, oats, oat bran, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, gellan gum, riboflavin, vitamin A palmitate and vitamin D2. It’s really sweet and I did not cut back on the sugar in the recipes so the buns were far too sweet. I am going to make some oat milk next time and see if that helps.
2. Drastically cut back on the oil. I used Earth Balance vegan spread. It has a neutral taste but it did leave our mouths with that greasy feeling that butter does not give you. Also, I suspect the oil just weighed the dough down. I am going to limit the amount of oil to about 50% of the original butter amount next time and see if that helps.
3. No comment on the eggs – flax or otherwise because I think what was at play in making the buns just ok was the milk/oil combo. Watch this space.
I am aiming for a light, airy vegan bun. I will let you know.