Vegan Food Glossary

Agave Syrup

A sweetener derived from the agave plant. Vegans use this as an alternative to honey. Agave is available in light, amber, and dark varieties—with a corresponding intensity of flavors. Marketed as a healthier alternative to other sugars, it is nonetheless a refined sugar. Use sparingly.


A sweet Japanese cooking wine made from fermented rice. Can be substituted with sherry cooking wine.


A fermented paste made mostly from soybeans, but also can be made from barley, rice, or other grains. The result is a thick, salty paste used as a flavoring ingredient in many dishes. Miso that has been fermented for a longer period of time, such as a red miso, has a stronger, deeper flavor. Miso that has been fermented for a shorter period of time, such as a white miso, provides a lighter, sweeter flavor. Adjust the amount of miso in your recipe based on the type you’re using. Remember it’s salty, so start with a very small amount.

Nutritional Yeast

Yeast that has been “deactivated” (meaning you can’t make bread with it). It gives dishes a “cheesy” flavor. Some brands are fortified with vitamin B12. Available at health-food stores.


A paste made from ground sesame seeds. Most often used to make hummus, but it has many other uses, especially to make creamy dressings and sauces. Like natural peanut butter, over time the oil in tahini separates and rises to the top. You will likely need to stir the tahini you buy so that it’s well blended.


A salty liquid seasoning similar to soy sauce, but free of wheat. Made from fermented soy beans. 


Originating from Indonesia, tempeh is made by pressing soybeans into cakes. It’s then fermented in a controlled process. Tempeh can be sliced or crumbled for use. It has a nutty flavor and a nice bite to it.


Also known as bean curd, tofu is made from soy milk that has been coagulated (made into a solid). Tofu is available in soft, firm, and extra-firm varieties. The soft variety has the consistency of custard, and the extra-firm is more dense and holds its shape well. The taste of tofu is bland, but it absorbs the flavor of marinades and other ingredients. Tofu is high in protein. If the coagulant used in making tofu is calcium sulfate, the calcium content is high.

Wheat Gluten

Also called seitan, this is a high-protein food with a firm, chewy texture. To make wheat gluten, first a dough is made from wheat flour and water. Then, the ball of dough is washed under running water until all the starch has rinsed away, leaving only the protein from the wheat. This protein is called gluten. The remaining ball of gluten is cut up and cooked in a flavored broth until it’s firm. Wheat gluten is a flexible vegan food because it can be flavored and shaped for many uses.


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