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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Day 19: Wednesday

Breakfast: A quick slice of toast with olive oil
Lunch: Watercress, Avocado and Beet Salad, Crispy Tofu Skin Rolls, and Moo Shoo Vegetables from Wild Ginger
Dinner: Leftover Moo Shoo Vegetables from Wild Ginger and a small bowl of polenta with scallions, cilantro, miso, and maple syrup (sounds weird, tastes great).

Since I went vegan, I've had at least a half dozen people look at me while eating toast, a roll, or a sandwich and say, "Wait a minute, you can eat bread?" It's usually followed up by one of the following questions:

  • "But doesn't bread have milk in it?"
  • "But doesn't bread have eggs in it?"
  • "But doesn't bread have butter in it?"
  • "What is the air-speed velocity of an uladen swallow?"
  • "But vegans can eat yeast?"

The answers to all of these questions asides from the last two is sometimes, but often not.

This seems to surprise a lot of people, especially non-bakers or non-cooks, but there are many breads that are completely dairy free and vegan-friendly. All lean old-world European style breads, such as baguettes, ciabatta (not ciabatta al latte, which is made with milk), ficelle, pane genzano, pizza bianca, pane francese, etc, are dairy free. It's only when you get into the realm of soft, enriched breads that you have to start worrying. Breads like brioche or challah, for instance, are made with eggs and/or butter.

Some hardcore vegans avoid process cane sugar, as it is made using activated charcoal that may come from an animal source in the bleaching process. Beet sugar, on the other hand, is never bleached and is thus vegan friendly. Unfortunately, with most baked goods it's tough to figure out exactly where the sugar they use is coming from (some bakeries will tell you). I've even seen some people mention that white bleached flour is bleached with the same process making it not fit for vegans, but I have not seen much evidence to support this statement. The Vegan Society seems to agree that white flour is vegan-friendly. Phew!

Pastry of all kinds—pie crusts, croissants, cinnamon rolls, cakes, cookies, biscuits, scones, Danish, you name it—are almost always made with butter and/or eggs, which means that if you're someone who loves baked sweets, a vegan lifestyle might be a hard one to adopt. Luckily, I've never had much of a sweet tooth tooth though I do miss the occasional sticky bun or croissant.

Any bakery where they bake bread on-premises should be able to tell you exactly what's going into them.

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Vegan sticky bun from The Smile To Go

This just in: If you live in New York and love sticky buns, Ed just brought me a fantastic vegan one from The Smile To Go. Orange scented, sweet, sticky, moist, and ever-so-slightly stretchy, I had a very hard time believing that it was vegan friendly (even Ed and Carey couldn't believe it, and Ed is a vegan-skeptic if I ever knew one). I do not know how they are made, but I will be getting more. I suggest you do the same.

Is Yeast Vegan-Friendly?

Yeast is a single-celled organism that's classified as a fungus, which makes it 100 percent vegan friendly. It is cute to picture yeast as little dudes running around in your dough or swimming through your wine eating sugar, excreting alcohol and carbon dioxide, and spitting out babies, but the reality is much less cartoonish than that. Want to get a good idea of what yeast looks like? Here you go:

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But much smaller. Yeast also happens to be everywhere. In the air, on your fingers, in your food, on your fruit. Indeed, if yeast wasn't floating around in the air or hanging out in your flour, natural leavened bread or fermented wine would not even be possible. If you can't bring yourself to eat yeast, well then, you may as well declare yourself a Level 5 Vegan and fast for the rest of your (not very long) life.

What About Sandwich Bread?

With that said, there are a number of common additives to commercial shelf-stable long-life sandwich breads that make them unfit for vegans. These are some of the major things to check for on the labels:

Never Vegan:

  • Eggs and milk, obviously. You are likely to find eggs in packaged challah, while milk shows up in many different packaged breads, either in fresh form or dried.
  • Casein and whey are both milk-derived products that add texture and flavor to bread.
  • Honey and royal jelly both come from bees and are vegetarian, but not vegan.
  • Gelatin comes from animal's connective tissue and is never vegan.

Usually Vegan (But Not Always):

  • Mono and diglycerides. These guys are emulsifiers that help to give breads a consistent texture and to retain moisture. They come from a variety of sources including animals, plants, and synthetic. Most of the time they are plant derived—made from soybean oil—industrial food giant Archers Daniels Midland, for instance, produces all of their mono and diglycerides using vegan-friendly sources.
  • Lecithin is another emulsifier that is almost always derived from soybeans, though it can also be derived from egg yolks.

Scanning the bags of supermarket baked goods, to my dismay I found that the vast majority of them are not vegan as they included whey or dry milk in their ingredients. Pretty much all of them contain mono- or di-glycerides, which are most likely derived from a plant source, but if you want to be extra careful, well I can't tell you for sure.

One great way to locate vegan bread on your shelves is to look for Jewish or Kosher-friendly brands. Nearly all of these are made with no milk products whatsoever; It's against Jewish dietary law to mix milk with meat, and those manufacturer's don't want you to buy bread that you can't put pastrami on! If you like rye bread, you're in luck.

Pepperidge Farms bread is not vegan, including their burger and hot dog buns. Thomas' English Muffins are not vegan either, though I found several vegan-friendly brands sitting right next to them on the shelf. Just about every brand and type of bagels is vegan (except egg bagels, obviously), The popular Lender's and Thomas New York Style brands included.

Arnold brand bread is a mixed bag. Their regular white and whole wheat pullman loaves are vegan, but most of their "Country," "Health-full," or "Grains & More" line are not, as they contain milk products. Their hamburger buns are vegan, which is good news, as they placed second in our hamburger bun tasting. I have a bag of their white bread and their burger buns on my shelf right now.

My beloved Martin's Potato Rolls are not vegan, unfortunately, but Arnold's potato rolls are. Other largely vegan-friendly bread brands include Cobblestone Mill, Dutch Country, and Baker's Inn.

Oh, and for you cookie monsters out there, guess what else is vegan? OREOS.

PETA has a pretty comprehensive list of common products that are vegan-friendly. If you are concerned with such things, I suggest you take a look. Otherwise, always remember to check the label!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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