If you can’t have eggs, dairy or gelatin because you’re a vegan or otherwise intolerant to these ingredients, you might find yourself faced with a baking problem.
There’s no need to give up baked goods, you’ll just have to find yourself a plant-based alternative to a binding agent to give your recipes the gumminess they need to hold themselves together. The most common binding agent is eggs, but there are a wide variety of vegan-friendly binding agents that you can put to use in your baking, depending on what you’re cooking up.
The best vegan binding agents are actually flours, particularly those that have gluten, which is nice and sticky. There are plenty more options to choose from, and we’ve got an in-depth guide that will help you pick the right binding agent for your recipe, no matter what your dietary restrictions might be.
Check out my favorite gluten flour to bake with on Amazon.
What Is A Binding Agent?
When you’re cooking, binding agents help to give your baked goods volume, texture, and firmness. In the food manufacturing business, it’s very common to use artificial binders, but the most common natural binding agents are eggs, potato starch, flours and tapioca flour, which is sort of a blend between starch and flour. You may notice that 3 of those options are vegan-friendly right off the bat!
In home cooking, eggs are very often used to add color and texture to foods, but also to emulsify and coagulate, which effectively binds your ingredients together during the baking process.
Gelatin is another binding agent that is used is foods that have a gummy or elastic texture. It isn’t vegan-friendly because it’s actually made from collagen found in animal bones and skin.
You’ll see gelatin often in fruit-based products like jams and jellies, as well as candy, ice cream, yogurts, and even vitamins.
Even though eggs and gelatin are very easy to use, they’re also surprisingly easy to replace, and most likely with plant-based ingredients you have sitting in your fridge or pantry right now.
The Best Vegan Binding Agents
The best binding agents, aside from eggs, are all vegan-friendly: flours and gluten, seeds, purees, non-dairy butters, powders, and additives with the exception of gelatin, which isn’t vegan.
Essentially anything that is edible that will get a bit sticky when it’s wet can act as a binder. As an added bonus, most of these solutions also add volume to your baking projects.
Many of the binding agents discussed below also act as thickening agents, so keep that in mind. Quite often that’s a bonus, but in some recipes it can change the consistency form the desired result.
Flours and Gluten
Flours, especially glutenous ones, are very popular binding agents because they add enough sticky, gooeyness to hold your recipe together, but they also add volume and texture without changing the taste to much. It’s inexpensive and easily available all around the world and is likely sitting in your pantry right now, just begging to be used.
When most people think of flour they think of bread and pastries, but it can also be used as a batter in fried foods, as a thickener in sauces and soups, and plenty of other ways as well.
Of course, you can reach for a bag of all-purpose flour or even whole wheat and it will do the trick in most cases, but there are plenty of other options that you might want to consider when you’re shopping.
With the rise of gluten intolerances, many gluten-free flours have hit the market in full force.
- Buckwheat has gained a lot of popularity over recent years and it’s quite sticky though also rather heavy.
- Chickpea flour is rising in demand, as anything to do with chickpeas seems to be on-trend right now. Add that to gluten-free and you have yourself a winner!
- Teff and amaranth are also gluten-free and make good, though slightly heavy binding agents. They both have a nuttier flavor than traditional white flours, which can add a special touch to your recipes.
- Sorghum flour has the highest protein count of gluten-free flours, which makes it a great binder, but it’s also surprisingly light, which makes it perfect for fluffy treats like cakes and muffins.
- Almond flour is very popular in baking not just for its binding abilities, but also for its signature nutty flavor.
There are many seeds that work well as binding agents, but they do need to be finely ground first. The most popular options are psyllium husk, flaxseed and chia seeds.
Psyllium husk is the ingredient that Metamucil uses to make their fiber supplement, but it can also be bought all on its own, usually at health food stores. To make it useful as a binding agent, all you have to do is add 1-2 tablespoons to the wet ingredients in your baking and let it soak for a minute.
It expands quite quickly though, so make sure you’re ready to use your wet ingredients right away and it doesn’t just sit and soak up all your liquid. Once it’s mixed into your main batter or dough, it will simply retain the liquid it has already sucked up, and it won’t dry out your mixture.
Because of this lovely little feature, it is the most effective at giving height to your baked goods when it comes to seed-based binding agents.
Ground flaxseeds or flax meal works much the same way. You simply need to add it to your wet ingredients for a minute before blending them into your main batter and it will gel together into a very effective binding agent.
Many recipes suggest that to make a flax egg you need to mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax with 2 – 3 tablespoons of water before adding it to your recipe. I’ve personally found that this makes it too sticky and gummy, and it doesn’t actually mix or bind as well as if you simply added it to your wet ingredients 1 minute before the final blending.
You cannot do this the other way around, however, and add the flax to your dry ingredients before blending. This will not work! It needs a minute to soak up the liquids in order to sticky.
Finely ground chia seeds also make a fantastic binding agent and it works exactly the same way as ground flax. If you’re in a pinch, you can use whole chia seeds, but it doesn’t work as well.
Fruit and vegetable purees are very fun to use in baking, and they have many added benefits. First of all, if you open your fridge one day and realize you have an entire bag of some fruit or veggie that didn’t get eaten before it started to go soft, it is now in the perfect condition to puree for use in your baking. No waste!
Fruits and vegetables are also packed with incredible nutritional value, so it’s a fabulous way to increase servings on the sly, especially if you or someone you cook for happens to be a picky eater.
Almost anything can be pureed to use as an egg replacement and binder in your baking, but the most common options are sweet potato, bananas, apples and pumpkins. These are all very inexpensive and easy ingredients to work with.
Zucchini, carrot, coconut and even beans are also good plant-based options for pureed binding agents.
The one thing to note about using purees as a binding agent is that they add a lot of moisture to your recipe that might throw your balance off. To offset this, you can decrease the volume of your wet ingredients and/or combine with other binders like the ground seeds or one of the powders. Each recipe will be a bit different and might take a little trial and error to get your substitutions just right.
Cooked and mashed sweet potatoes or yams make fantastic binding agents and tastes great even in sweet recipes like icings and cakes. They can be a bit heavy though, so if you feel like your batter can become a bit too dense, you can lighten it up by mixing it with applesauce.
Speaking of applesauce, it’s very effective as a binding agent in its own right. Along with mashed bananas, these fruit purees add only a light flavor to the recipe but are also light in volume, so they work well for cakes and muffins.
Pumpkin puree, or nearly any squash puree, works well with softer recipes like pancakes and cookies and other baked goods that don’t require much height. They tend to be particularly high in water content and they’re heavy, so be conservative in your usage and if your batter ends up looking too soupy, this is the perfect situation to pair it with another light binder.
Vegetables like zucchini and carrot tend to be quite a bit lighter than starchier options and work as binders so well they don’t even need to be pureed, they can simply be shredded. They high in water though, so you may need to counteract that in another way.
Finally, cooked and pureed beans can be very effective binding agents, again, because they’re high in starch. They’re quite heavy though, so watch out for that.
Nut and seed butters are not just delicious on toast, but they’re also very sticky and make great binding agents for foods that really need to hold their shape. They’re popular for use in snacks like granola or protein bars, but they also work really well in vegan meat-alternative products.
A lot of nuts have very prominent flavors, but seeds can be much more forgiving. Sunflower seed butter can be used for just about anything, as can soaked raw cashews.
Starches are very common in baking and you’ve likely used cornstarch many times before. Corn is rapidly getting a bad reputation thanks to the highly industrialized production techniques used, but you can just as effectively use arrowroot, tapioca or potato starch as a binding agent in any baking or cooking.
Starches are generally pretty low in nutritional value, and also thicken really quickly, so that needs to be taken into account when you’re working it into a recipe as a binder. They are often used to hold together thickened liquids, like puddings, gravies and thick soups or sauces.
Powders and Additives
Powders and additives are very common in processed foods and in kitchens with adventurous chefs, but because of their unusual names, most average weekend bakers aren’t familiar with them.
Agar agar is very popular in vegan dishes since it works very much like gelatin, but it’s made out of seaweed instead of bones and skin.
Xanthan gum and guar gum are both plant-based powders that essentially turn into the gum that their names suggest when you add water to them. The bring a lot of elasticity to products so they’re handy for candies or jams and jellies.
New and Exciting: Aquafaba
The benefits and uses of the water that your chickpeas or garbanzo beans soak in are still very new in the culinary space, but showing extreme promise in the bid to replace eggs almost completely. Aquafaba was first launched to fame for its ability to mimic egg whites, particularly in recipes that require foam. But the proteins and starches have also been shown to bind very effectively, just like an egg does.
When you first open a can of chickpeas, or if you make your own aquafaba, you’ll notice that it has a fairly strong odor, but don’t worry, when it’s used in cooking, even for making a light and airy foam or meringue, it has no noticeable flavor.
To test out aquafaba in your own recipes, follow these measurements:
- 1 tablespoon = 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons = 1 egg white
- 3 tablespoons = 1 whole egg
There’s really nothing else to it, just treat your aquafaba exactly like you would treat an egg.
Honorable Mention: Honey
Honey is naturally very sticky so it makes sense that it would make an effective binding agent. It does share its flavor with whatever your making though, and it’s high in sugar, if that’s something you’re watching, so you need to keep both these factors in mind.
Honey is delicious in sweet, somewhat soft and gooey recipes like cookies or sauces.
Many of the studies that claim eggs are the healthiest food on earth are actually sponsored by the egg industry, so they have to be taken with a grain of salt, figuratively speaking.
That doesn’t mean that eggs aren’t full of nutrition, but it should soothe your mind a little bit about cutting them out of your diet. There are many contradictory studies that show eggs can actually be harmful to your health.
For example, there are studies showing that people who eat as few as 1 ½ eggs per week have an increased risk for certain types of cancers. The World Health Organization has analyzed data from 34 different countries and found that the areas with the highest egg consumption also have increased risk of colon and rectal cancer.
Even this information is hard to accept at face value, because a lot of questions still need to be answered about the quality of the eggs being consumed – is it really the egg itself, or is it the production process, the added hormones, antibiotics and low-quality feed that is going into the eggs being eaten?
In either case, swapping eggs for nutrient-dense plant-based solutions has at least as many pros as it does cons.
Diary is hugely controversial, mostly because the science points in one direction and cheese sits firmly on the other side of that argument. Unfortunately, most humans over the age of 2 stop producing the enzymes required to break down lactose, so consuming dairy products regularly can be very hard on your digestive system.
Since we’re unable to process it, it ends up causing damage to our gut. It has been shown to be a major contributor to inflammation which, in turn, is a root cause of almost all chronic illnesses.
Dairy is also high in hormones and bacteria, which can disrupt your body’s natural balance, leaving you with unwanted conditions like hormonal imbalances, acne and yeast infections.
Many of us were raised to believe that milk does a body good and is absolutely essential for healthy bones. This is not necessarily the case, and there are plenty of ways to get calcium without dairy. Vitamin D is added into milk products, to begin with, so there’s no reason you can’t simply supplement on your own for a more direct route.
Thankfully, every day the vegan diet gains in popularity more manufacturers and kitchen creators are motivated to develop dairy-free cheese, so the switch isn’t all that devastating anymore.
Health Benefits of Eliminating Eggs and Dairy
Many vegans choose a diet free from animal products out of respect for animals or for environmental reasons, but there are quite a few health benefits to eating a well-balanced, plant-based diet as well.
Are vegan binding agents gluten-free?
Many vegan binding agents are gluten-free, but it’s certainly not a guarantee. Nut butters, fruit and vegetable purees and many starches and additives are gluten-free.
On the other hand, many bakers use flours and gluten for their binding agent, so if you’re gluten intolerant it’s very important that you know the exact ingredients before digging in.
How many bananas or applesauce does it take to replace 1 egg?
For baked goods, you can replace a whole egg with either 1 ripe mashed banana or ¼ cup of pure applesauce.
You will want to keep in mind that fruit purees can make your recipe more dense than they would turn out if made with eggs, but you can counteract this by simply adding an extra ½ teaspoon of baking powder to your recipe.
What do vegans eat instead of cheese?
Most vegans either simply go without cheese or they choose vegan-friendly cheeses. There are many packaged varieties on the market, with availability depending on your location.
There are also a lot of recipes for making many different types of vegan cheese at home. Most vegan cheeses are nut or soy-based, but there are also some made from pea proteins or seeds.