There's learning additional skillsets. And then there's my ethics.
February 13, 2013 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Want to up my game as a vegan baker, but feel weird about going to a pastry school that doesn't use ingredients common to my chosen field. A few snowflakes inside.

Obviously, I love what I do. I bake, I get paid for baking (not often enough but that's a whole other AskMe), I want to establish myself as a viable dessert alternative for a growing percentage of the population, and I have been offered an opportunity to attend pastry school to sharpen my current skills, and to learn some new skills to apply to new things.

But...considering there are no vegan baking/pastry schools--this was the only thing I could find via Google but it's 7 hours and another country away from me--should I go to the regular pastry school in my town? Aside from the fact it will be terrifyingly and completely in French, I will be handling and using ingredients I don't use: butter, eggs, milk, etc. Wouldn't this be sort of redundant? Or would it be good to go so I can make notes of how I would use substitutions as I participate?

I'm not comfy with the idea of putting my animal rights-ethics aside by using ingredients I no longer use/eat, but at the same time, I also like the idea of upping my game to help me advance my nascent business.

Any advice/suggestions/alternatives?
posted by Kitteh to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you contact the local school, talk to the instructors, and ask them what they think? They might be open to letting you participate and use your own ingredients. They may even be curious.
posted by Shepherd at 8:07 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know... it seems like you would learn a lot of techniques that you may very well not be able to apply to vegan baking. And you'd be compromising your ethics while you did it. You might be better off apprenticing yourself to another vegan baker, or forming some kind of mentoring relationship with him/her. (Unless vegan bakers are very competitive?)
posted by mskyle at 8:16 AM on February 13, 2013

I think the best option is to find a credible vegan baker who won't be competition for you (or, more pertinently, you for them) and see if they can give you private lessons.

Honestly, unless that is available and affordable, the best option here is that you self teach and carve out a niche for yourself as both baker and possibly a teacher.

You will need to self-teach to some degree anyway if you want to substitute ingredients in a normal baking class because you are not going to find many bakers or pastry chefs that have spent a lot of time cooking without butter, eggs and milk. They aren't going to know where to start, and given the precision required for bakery they would have to work out whether substitutions of ingredients would be OK if you didn't. And they probably won't spend time doing that for a single student.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:25 AM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am unhampered by your ethics, so take this with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that vegan baking is still in its early stages, and maybe with additional traditional training you'd be better equipped to help move things forward in the field.
posted by looli at 8:25 AM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

This is an interesting dilemma. It seems like vegan baking is exploding right now, just to judge from the number of cookbooks coming out. Any chance of contacting a cookbook author you admire-- and who does actual baking, clearly-- and asking them what they did, or what they would do in your position? I've found that authors can be really generous if you have a real interest in what they do. (Maybe bakers are too; I just don't know any.)

Ethically? I would probably consider looli's idea.
posted by BibiRose at 8:31 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would go to the local class, but approach it as a science class.

A friend once made a really good observation - "baking isn't cooking, it's alchemy." There are specific chemical reasons for why each of those specific ingredients gets used in baking - butter does one thing, eggs do another, milk does another. And a better understanding of eggs' purpose in a recipe, and eggs' behavior under certain conditions, may help you work out a vegan adaptation of a given recipe ("okay, I learned that egg does [foo] and [baz], so for this recipe I need something else that does that without doing [schmeh] -- hey, agar-agar does that, let's try that").

I'd tell the teacher that this is where your interests lie, and maybe they can emphasize the chemical-properties-of-ingredients for you a bit (if they're not doing so already - it'd be good for the rest of the class to know this stuff too).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:33 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

As with any art, I think baking is a situation where you are really only fully equipped to transgress the boundaries once you have a decent grounding in the basics. I think there could be massive benefits to you learning "traditional" baking from the ground up in order to improve your vegan baking. Especially if you learn a lot about the science of baking.

Now, if you feel like it would be a violation of your ethics to use animal products at all, even in this sort of learning experience, you should probably not do it. There is no sense in making yourself feel miserable about yourself in order to improve in your craft. Keep in mind, in order to really excel at baking, you will need to do at least some tasting of your own products and the products of other people in the class, so weigh that in your ethical calculations. I don't know if you would find it worse to eat animal products rather than just use them, but you should consider it.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:36 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is already a lot of great advice in this thread, but as a pastry cook who has tried many a terrible vegan baked good: if you would like to ultimately sell your product to both vegans and non-vegans, it would be helpful if you knew what a real brioche or eclair paste or any other traditional, heavily non-vegan item tastes like and what chemistry is required to get it there.

If you are trying to up your game -- which I take to mean "make vegan pastries that even non-vegans will like" -- it may well be worth setting your ethics aside long enough to know exactly what you are going up against. Think of it as paying off in the long run: if you can get non-vegans to eat your product eventually, you'll be furthering your ethics overall.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:44 AM on February 13, 2013 [11 favorites]

One of my good friends is a top-of-her-field local vegan baker who runs her own moderately successful business. She did attend pastry school prior to going vegan, but has never given the impression that pastry school was vital to her current modicum of success. What has made her so successful are her incredible (!) decorating skills, which have been toiled over for decades, as well as perfecting a vegan baking mix (flour, leavener, &c.) that appears to guarantee a light, moist, perfect cake crumb every single time. She also makes the most incredibly buttery, flaky, delicious fancy pastries I have ever eaten, so maybe she internalized more lessons from pastry school than I think. I have another good friend who published a rather popular vegan baking cookbook a couple of years back, and her next one is due out in a few months, although she is not formally trained in any way and has learned everything she knows via trial by error.

The non-vegan baking school is definitely going to require/request that you to taste what you make -- how else could you learn how to get a "feel" for it, or be able to adjust ingredients according to texture/flavor/etc.? For that reason alone, I'd be averse to attending (YMMV - I'm a strictly ethical vegan and do not consider learning specific cooking techniques to be a compelling enough reason to eschew said ethics).

That said, you could contact them and ask if it would be OK to bring in your own vegan ingredients (Earth Balance, Ener-G, etc.) -- you might be able to cook along with them but substitute on the fly, taking notes all the while.
Considering you're already a fairly experienced vegan baker, it might be particularly easy for you to go into that situation, because you know ahead of time that 1 egg equals 1 Tbsp ground flax mixed with 2-3 Tbsp warm water, 1 cup of buttermilk equals 1 Tbsp vinegar with the rest of the cup filled with plantmilk, etc., so maybe you could even have that stuff on hand ahead of class or stored in the classroom. With the current explosion of popularity that veganism is experiencing, it wouldn't surprise me if many other non-vegan cooking schools have heard similar requests from other students. Then again, there are a number of pastries that have yet to be successfully recreated in vegan form (EX: folks often suffer in the quest for vegan meringue), so parts of their classes may simply be totally inapplicable to you and your needs.

If there are any very specific techniques you're looking to learn (how to make vegan puff pastry from scratch, for example), you can definitely look for tutorials online as well as personally reach out to vegan bakers/cookbook authors, the vast majority of whom are super-friendly and approachable. And if you'd like me to put you in touch with either/both of my local vegan baker/business owner friends, drop me a MeMail!
posted by divined by radio at 8:51 AM on February 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Having baked as an amateur, I'd say that learning how to handle, say, butter might be a bit pointless if you never end up using it. If you need to taste a non-vegan pastry you don't need lessons, you can buy them.

Grab a book about the chemistry of baking. Learn about why butter and eggs are used. Experiment. See if that helps before dropping money and time on a class where they try to teach you physical/sensory skills that you might never use.

That said, if it's more focused on things like presentation, decoration, construction...might be useful after all.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:19 AM on February 13, 2013

Hi, everyone! There's some excellent feedback in here. For everyone telling me I should attend because I should know what non-vegan pastry tastes like, well...I wasn't born vegan, so I have eaten more than my share of non-vegan baked goods in my lifetime! I am aware of how the chemistry in baking works, have been baking since I was a kid (thanks to a Southern grandmother who did everything from scratch); I just want to know if it's vital I acquire this sort of new knowledge, or if I just keep on' truckin. :)
posted by Kitteh at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2013

I think, based on your update, and a lot of the sage advice in this thread, you should keep on truckin'! Here's a quote I read recently that might be appropriate:
“The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are.”
― John Burroughs (an essayist and naturalist)
Really, it's that last part that I think applies most. I think reaching out to other bakers in your field is a better way to go. Or, simply reading up these traditional techniques and experimenting on your own. Could you even create your own sort of vegan workshop where you get together with like-minded folks and see what you come up with? Could be very interesting.
posted by amanda at 8:01 PM on February 13, 2013

Vegan baking is different enough from non-vegan baking that I think it wouldn't be a good use of your time, energy, or money. If teaching yourself from books doesn't appeal, watching for individual vegan baking classes might be more productive in the long run than studying standard, non-vegan baking.

Have you checked out They've got some good articles, like this one on making homemade, suitable-for-baking vegan butter.
posted by Lexica at 8:18 PM on February 13, 2013

I agree with Lexica. Also, you may want to look into developing flawless recipes for those with common food allergies (gluten, soy, nuts), as well — there may be schools for this type of cooking, but I doubt it is necessary to attend since so much info is out there online or in books and magazines. Practice is needed though, and gluten-free presents a number of (totally surmountable) challenges.

A friend operates a tiny vegan catering business and advertises it as dairy-free, suitable for those with food sensitivities, and vegan. She has received more business inquiries for desserts (usually birthday cakes) that are safe for food allergy sufferers. Everything she makes is vegan though, so once her initial stream of customers were amazed with her products, she has had repeat, regular customers, and they've spread word about the vegan element (e.g. "I know, can you believe this is vegan?!" to their guests), and she's gained more business. I think finding a way to make yourself niche and be absolutely fantastic at it and able to produce anything you imagine a customer may ask for is key. Maybe find sites/cookbooks that focus on technique and how to create / test recipes? Best of luck with this!
posted by mayurasana at 10:09 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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