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What to Substitute for Oil in All Kinds of Dishes

What to Substitute for Oil in All Kinds of Dishes

olive oil and bread.jpg

In my cooking demos, when I talk about avoiding oil, I don’t get a lot of smiles and nods. I get it. We’re bombarded with info about the health benefits of coconut, olive, and flaxseed oils. And they taste good. It’s no wonder people don’t want to hear that oil may not be as good for them as they think.

Why Decrease Oil Intake?

The more I’ve read over the last few years, the more I’ve moved toward using very little oil in my cooking. I could go on about the reasons why, but actually Matt Frazier, the “No Meat Athlete,” wrote a blog about his very similar journey, called Why I’ve Finally Stopped Eating Oil. I recommend it highly. Essentially, reducing your intake of oil (and vegan butter and shortening) translates into fewer calories, less processed fat (as opposed to natural fats, which our bodies need), and less stress on our arteries. If you want to know more about the science behind this, you could start with videos on’s page on oils.

Where to Start Decreasing Oil?

But oil is in everything! Yes, many of our favorite dishes have evolved to depend on oil—or apparently so. I used to keep my pantry well-stocked with oil and started most recipes by pouring a glug of olive oil into the pan.
I’ve worked a lot the last few years to decrease and, in most cases, eliminate oil from my cooking. In some of my recipes I’ve used solutions I haven’t seen elsewhere. So I wanted to lay out my ideas and approaches.

Evolution? Or Revolution?

You may want to take a more evolutionary than revolutionary approach to this idea about reducing your oil intake. If so, you can simply decrease the amount of oil in recipes. See what you think. In many recipes you’ll likely not even notice the difference. Actually I prefer the lighter texture of many dishes now.

Oil Substitutes

Sautéing vegetables for soups, stews, casseroles, and other dishes
In most cases, using water, broth, or wine works perfectly well for softening the vegetables, and you don’t need the oil. The vegetables won’t brown much, but that usually isn’t important anyway. You can also microwave vegetables instead of sautéing them on the stove. See any of my soup recipes for examples of water-sauté.

Roasting vegetables
Yes, you can roast vegetables without tossing them in several tablespoons of oil. You can use spray oil on the pan and then on the top of the vegetables for significantly less oil, or you can use a light coating of non-oil ingredients, as in my No-Oil Roasted Sweet Potatoes in Bowls. I use a similar technique for Oven-Roasted Vegetable Fajitas. Some bloggers explain how to roast vegetables by misting them with water, tossing them with broth, or pre-steaming the harder vegetables before roasting. I prefer some kind of coating for maximum flavor, but you may want to experiment with these ideas.

Salad dressings
There are many recipes for salad dressings without oil. Tahini-based dressings are great, as are creamy dressings with cashews or sunflower seeds as a base. Here are some delicious examples of oil-free dressings: Kale and Quinoa Greek Salad, No-Sacrifice Tahini-Dill Dressing, Gracious Vegan Oil-Free Tahini Dressing, Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing, and Gracious Vegan Mexican Salad with Creamy Lime-Cumin Dressing

Grilled sandwiches
You can use tahini or no-oil mayonnaise like you use butter on the bread of a grilled sandwich. I use this technique in my Grilled Olive Tapenade and Almond Goat Cheese Sandwiches.

There are a lot of ways to eliminate oil and butter from sauces. Sometimes I just leave out the oil for the initial sauté, as in the Gracious Vegan Marinara Sauce and No-Oil New York-Style Pizza Sauce. Sometimes raw cashews provide enough natural fat to thicken a sauce, like my No-Oil, No-Butter White Sauce and Gracious Vegan Creamy Tomato Sauce. Some sauces are based on peanut butter, which has plenty of good fat on its own, as in my Thai-Inspired Peanut Sauce. For a dessert sauce without butter or cream, try my Healthy Chocolate Fudge Sauce (no added sugar, vegan, gluten-free).

Stir-fry sauces
Many stir-fry sauces call for sesame oil. I discovered that roasted sesame paste (here’s my FAQ on it), made from darkly roasted, ground-up sesame seeds, substitutes very nicely for sesame oil in most recipes. Try my Sugar Snap Pea Stir-Fry, Moo Shu Vegetables, and Candle-Cafe-Inspired Stir-Fry.

Peanut sauces and dressings
Some sauces are based on peanut butter, which has plenty of good fat on its own. These don’t need oil. But some recipes also call for sesame oil. I substitute roasted sesame paste and water for the sesame oil. For recipes, see Thai-Inspired Peanut Sauce and Cold Sesame Noodles, Without Oil.

Gravies without oil or other fat are kind of sad. It took me a long time, but I finally found a winning combination for my Gracious Vegan Easy Gravy. The secret was adding some tahini—it helps blend and smooth out the flavors.

For most homemade mayo recipes, the largest ingredient is oil. You can get pretty close to the taste of vegan oil-based mayo with some clever no-oil recipes. I like Kim Campbell’s tofu-cashew recipe, which can be found here.

Pesto recipes always depend on oil, right? While I haven’t found a way to reproduce exactly the effect of pesto on pasta (because the oil from the pesto coats the pasta), I achieve a nice texture using tahini and water instead of oil in my Gracious Vegan Kale Pesto and No-Oil Vegan Basil Pesto. If you are super-aware of pesto’s texture, you’d notice the difference, but, for example, my husband has never seemed to notice it. I use avocado in my Zoodles with Creamy Pesto Sauce, which is not like a classic pesto but is delicious.

Broiling or baking tofu, tempeh, or seitan
Most recipes for cooking slabs of soy- or gluten-based proteins call for oil, especially if you’re baking or broiling. Through trial and error, I’ve found some combinations using tahini and roasted sesame paste that work very well. For a quick coating for broiling, see the bottom of my blog on 15-Minute Plant-Based Bowls. I also have a great combination for Baked Tofu and a wonderful marinade for Banh Mi Sandwich with Seitan.

Mashed Potatoes
Most mashed potato recipes call for a knob of butter. You can substitute half as much tahini and achieve a rich texture.

Plant-based cheeses and sour cream
Many recipes for plant-based cheese call for oil. I have experimented with various substitutes (and just plain leaving it out). Two of my go-to “dairy” recipes are Gracious Vegan Ricotta Cheese and Gracious Vegan Crema.

Baking is a whole world until its own when it comes to substitutes for butter, oil, and shortening. Recipe developers use applesauce, vegan yogurt, mashed banana, mashed sweet potato, mashed pumpkin, and sometimes water thickened with cornstarch as substitutes for pure fat ingredients. The five recipes in my I Love Desserts But Not the Guilt! collection (free download) are my answer to some of baking’s challenges, but there are many other great no-oil recipes out there.

I’d love to hear from you -- your questions and ideas or any comments on this topic. Just email me. Thanks!

Oil photo by Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau on Flickr

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