Converting an animal-based product into a plant-based one can be tricky. You’re probably aiming for something that’s almost identical to what you’ve got.
And, ideally, you’d replace that butter, eggs, or milk 1:1 with a plant-based version.
It’s almost impossible.
Instead, do what Philip Khourry does in his book ‘A new way to bake’. Taking the original, but experimenting with seemingly simple plant-based alternatives. It’s how you end up with cake with 50% less fat and sweet potato. But no less delicious than the original.
Here’s three key lessons I took from his approach.
3 Lessons for product developers
Why do cakes contain eggs?
A simple pound cake contains a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of eggs and a pound of butter.
You can’t just leave out the eggs. It would collapse. So, may no-egg recipes try to replace the egg with another stabilizing ingredient (as we did in these pound cakes).
But Philip Khoury, in his quest for a delicious plant-based cake, took a different approach. He took a step back, wondering ‘why are the eggs in cake in the first place?’
A crucial role of eggs is to stabilize all the fat in the cake. Turns out, if you drastically reduce the amount of fat, you no longer need those eggs. You can create a light, fluffy loaf cake, without any eggs, without any major changes to the process or complicated ingredients.
Lesson 1: Don’t just look at the ingredients you want to change
Just because you need almost 25% fat in your classic cake recipe, doesn’t mean you need it in a new iteration. Ingredients have their role and place in your current product. If you want to make some drastic changes, don’t just look at the ingredients that you need to switch out. Look at it more holistically.
Can you drastically change the quantity of one ingredient, to eliminate the need for another?
Sweet potato in your brioche?
Making a vegan whole wheat bread is pretty simple. All you need anyway are flour, water, yeast and salt. No animal-based ingredients necessary.
Things aren’t look simple for a brioche though. Brioche is a light, soft and fluffy style of bread. And one of the last you’d think of when thinking of vegan breads. Most classical recipes use many eggs and a lot of butter to create that soft characteristic style of bread.
In this instance, Philip Khoury couldn’t make do with a relatively minor adjustment such as decreasing the overall amount of fat. Sure, he could do so, and just leave out the eggs, but it would no longer taste and look like a brioche anymore. The bread would become more pale in color, and become a more conventional, basic white bread.
So he started experimenting and ended up with a probably surprising solution for his butter-free and egg-free brioche: sweet potato.
It’s the sweet potato that adds a nice color to the bread. Taking of the role from the yellow/orange egg yolks. And, using vegetables such as sweet potato allows you to add additional moisture, but, in a way that it’s ‘trapped’ by the vegetable itself. It’s why zucchini, carrots and pumpkin work well in breads and cake. They add moisture, without making a batter or dough too wet by itself.
Lesson 2: Keep it simple
Of course, Philip could have looked for a fancy ingredient to replace the eggs and butter. There are ample fibers and powders out there that could have helped. And ample plant-based margarines that might have worked as well. But, he took a different route and ended up with a humble sweet potato. This keeps the recipe simple, and uncomplicated, also for your regular home baker.
There’s nothing wrong with using technical ingredients to take over the roles of eggs. But, it’s not the only way forward. Don’t assume you have to ‘engineer’ a new egg. Instead, there might be overlooked vegetables, fruits, beans or other whole ingredients that you could use just as well.
Little process tweaks
No matter how perfect your ingredients, if you don’t put them together the right way, you still don’t have a good product. Of course, again, ideally, you don’t make any changes to your process. It theoretically makes the development less complicated.
But, as Philip Khoury explains, it can also become a lot easier if you are open for making those tweaks. If your brownie batter no longer contains any eggs, there’s no point in whisking it vigorously. If you’re no longer using butter, pre-mixing the butter and sugar to incorporate air bubbles no longer makes sense.
If, on the other hand, you want to replace butter with oil and water in your cookies, you may need to add an extra step to ensure the water and oil emulsify. You don’t want the oil to separate from dough. So, here, you may need to add an extra step: whisking the water and oil with a little bit of sugar. It brings the dough together a lot more easily.
Then, when shaping the cookie dough, you may find it’s a lot softer than one made with butter. Enter another extra step in your process: chilling the cookie dough just a little extra. Liquid oils turn harder in the fridge, helping you to shape your cookie.
Lesson 3: Don’t forget to adjust the process
Ingredients make up only half a product. Just how you put them together is just as important. So don’t overlook that when developing something new. Different ingredients, may need to be put together in a different way as well.
Thinking out of the box doesn’t have to be fancy
Developing plant-based versions of tried-and-tested versions that do contain animal products such as butter and eggs can be challenging. You might be tempted to engineer a perfect egg replacer, or make a new plant-based butter. This can make recipes complex and still almost impossible to perfect.
But, as Philip Khoury shows, that’s not the only way to get there. You can develop delicious plant-based versions by thinking just a little differently. That doesn’t mean you need the fanciest newest equipment or ingredients. Instead, all it requires is a little creativity and the will to try something a little different.
It makes for insightful, creative, and simple innovation.
Philip Khoury, A new way to bake, 2023, Hardie Grant Books
Pastry Arts Magazine podcast, Philip Khoury: Raising the Bar on Plant-Based Desserts, Dec-6, 2023, link ; for an insightful conversation with Philip Khoury and his plant based journey