Creating Flavor Without Oil: Cooking Techniques from Chef Del Sroufe

What differentiates Better than Vegan from most vegetarian or vegan cookbooks, more than anything else, is the absence of oil in the recipes. The only challenging aspect of oil-free cooking is in sautéing, because that’s where most of us were taught to rely on olive or canola oil or other “cooking” oils.

Image courtesy of Supertrooper /

Image courtesy of Supertrooper /

Sautéing without oil is a pretty straightforward process, whether you’re sautéing vegetables as a side dish or doing a stir-fry. You start out with a dry pan and make it warm. Keep in mind that some vegetables have more water in them than others. Onions, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, fennel, beets, and celery have high water contents, so they tend to do quite well in that oil-free environment. Add vegetables in order of their cooking time, and try to factor in how much water is in the vegetables. Higher-water-content vegetables go in the pan first, and the low-water-content vegetables generally go last—eggplant, broccoli, snow peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, zucchini. It’s a good idea, for example, to put onions and carrots in first, since they are water rich and have a long cooking time.

Use the water-rich vegetables to help provide liquid for the cooking of water-deficient vegetables. Sauté broccoli with onion, for example, and sauté cauliflower with mushrooms. You should need to add very little liquid to the pan when you sauté. A residue will build up on the bottom of the pan—that’s caramelization—and you should scrape the brown off the bottom of the pan as you cook and retain those flavors in the dish.

Another technique is to steam or parboil slow-cooking vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower first before putting them in the sauté pan.

If you’re doing a stir-fry instead of sautéing, it’s a hotter and quicker process. Get the pan or wok very hot before putting the vegetables in, and then stir them around quickly when you do. Add water as needed, while trying to allow some caramelization to take place. For me, stir-fries change by the season according to what’s available fresh. I tend to cook according to what’s available in my garden. When I have fresh basil or tomatoes in my garden, I toss them in my stirfry.

If there’s a good variety of fresh mushrooms at the farmers’ market at a low price, they’re destined for my wok. But if not, you can still make a healthy stir-fry even with a package of frozen vegetables. Learning how to make an oil-free stir-fry is a great foundation for many of the recipes you’ll find in this Better than Vegan.

Braising vegetables can add flavor to food, especially when you do so with a vegetable stock or wine with fresh or dried herbs. Braising is recommended for longer cooking times in dishes that don’t “fry” well. Potatoes or root vegetables in a stew do well with braising.

Baking or roasting accomplishes many of the same effects as sautéing. It browns the dish, removes water, and concentrates flavor. Casseroles like lasagna do well with baking. While roasting vegetables is a popular way to cook them, doing so without oil can be a little tricky because of the drying effect of the technique. Using a combination of braising and roasting is a good way to cook vegetables when you want a roasted flavor; the braising cooks the vegetables and then you can finish them and caramelize them by roasting (although not long enough to dry them out).

Stewing is the technique of slow-cooking ingredients in a broth. Vegetables such as those in a mirepoix are popular in many stews as well as soups because they make a great foundation upon which to build flavor. As herbs and spices are added to the broth, the flavors all marry to create a dish with all the nuances of taste that you desire.

BetterThanVegan_FrontCoversmChef Del Sroufe, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Forks Over Knives—The Cookbook.

In 2006, Sroufe joined Wellness Forum Foods as co-owner and chef. Sroufe also joined The Wellness Forum as a member where, after a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, he has lost over 200 pounds on a low fat, plant-based diet. He continues to teach cooking classes at local venues like Whole Foods, Community Recreation Centers, and The Wellness Forum.

In his new book Better than Vegan, Sroufe provides more than a hundred recipes that prove that the healthiest diet can also be the most delicious. With photographs by Robert Metzger and coauthored by Mad Cowboy coauthor Glen Merzer, Better Than Vegan offers healthy and professional cooking tips with nutritional advice to help you achieve the optimal vegan diet.

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