This Miami bakery is making vegan Cuban bread because you asked for it

Pity the long-suffering Cuban vegan.

Leading a life without eating animal products means a conscious decision to leave behind most every Cuban staple.

No black beans. No Cuban sandwiches. No Cuban bread at all, in fact.

Manteca, or lard, is used in just about every Cuban dish this side of tostones and platanitos maduros. Traditional black beans require ham hock in the stew. Cuban sandwiches, obviously, contain ham, roasted pork and cheese.

But even the simple pleasure of fresh Cuban bread is off limits for a vegan. The most magical ingredient in Cuban bread also makes it verboten: water, flour, yeast, salt — lard.

That is, until Vicky Bakery decided to do something about it.

One of the oldest and best-known bakeries in South Florida, Vicky will introduce a vegan version of their Cuban bread at all 16 of their locations this week.

Fernando Oramas of Vicky Bakery compares loaves of traditional Cuban bread (left) and a new vegan version. Carlos Frías

“Now, you can be vegan and eat Cuban bread,” said Fernando Oramas, one of the owners of the family-run business, who helped create the plant-based recipe over the last year.

The vegan version of Vicky’s well-loved Cuban bread replaces lard with vegetable oil. Oramas said he and the staff went through more than 20 different recipes of Cuban bread without lard until settling on this version. And even this one will continue to be tweaked as they roll out their bread at their bakeries.

“You can have the flavor of Cuban bread,” he said. “But to reach that point, we had to bake a lot of Cuban bread.”

Blasphemy, critics will say. To remove lard from Cuban bread is to remove everything that makes it what it is. Without lard, Cuban bread becomes French. Italian. Anything but Cuban.

Oramas doesn’t disagree. But he says Cuban bread is more than a sum of the ingredients. Cuban bread is a process. It’s the result of mixing, proofing, raising and baking the bread that makes it different from even its Caribbean cousin, the slightly sweeter Puerto Rican bread.

“The goal is to make it as close as possible, but it’ll never be identical,” Oramas said. “Even identical twins are different in their own ways.”

Who asked for this? You did, Oramas says.

Customers over the last two years — particularly a younger generation — have been asking for vegan products. Maybe not at the original location, which the family bought in 1972, in the heart of Hialeah, where Cuban stock still expects Cuban bread as José Martí intended. But as they expanded into South Dade and Broward, younger, more health-conscious customers started asking if it were even possible.

“We had to find a way to change the method and not the tradition,” Oramas said. “The point was to create exactly what the customers were asking us for.”

Vicky Bakery has created a vegan version (right) of their traditional Cuban bread, using vegetable oil in place of lard. Carlos Frías

Side by side, Vicky’s traditional Cuban bread and its vegan cousin could look indistinguishable — if the company hadn’t made them obviously different.

Oramas said Vicky skipped the step of using a string lain over the top of the crust that causes the bread to expand in the middle without cracking as it bakes. Why? Simply so the staff could tell it apart from the traditional bread at first glance.

The vegan dough pulls apart just like traditional bread. Sliced in wheels or lengthwise, it’s an excellent doppelganger.

The key, of course, is taste.

Lard gives traditional Cuban bread a succulence that the vegan version lacks. It is one of the key ingredients in the flavor of the dough and the bubbled bottom of a traditional loaf. However, both breads carry the slightly fermented sourdough flavor that smacks your taste buds.

But pressed and toasted, and slathered in salted butter (or, like most restaurants in South Florida, spreadable margarine), Vicky’s vegan Cuban bread is a respectable facsimile. The biggest difference, though, is the price. The regular Cuban bread loaf costs $1.35. The vegan Cuban loaf is $2.50.

But for anyone roaming the desert of vegan Cuban food, it’s an oasis.

Details: Find Vicky Bakery locations here.

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”