From stocking up on canned goods to cooking more at home, many of us are finding our day-to-day food habits changed in one way or another. And while the aforementioned meat shortage seems to have been a dud call, economists and agriculturists alike have promised that America won’t be running out of meat.
But if the scare has made you wonder about getting into prepper mode, here’s a thought: What if you could DIY palatable meat substitutes with plants?
No, we’re not talking homemade Tofurkey. And we’re going to leave engineering “I can’t believe it’s not meat”-level products to the gurus at Impossible Burger.
We’re talking about mastering your kitchen skills — like the right spice and veg combo, cooking techniques, and presentation — to create a vegetarian finished product that has meat-like qualities and genuinely tastes good.
Say it with us, just for fun: umami! This flavor, known as the fifth taste because of its late-to-the-game discovery in history, is often described as savory, meaty, or brothy. Even if you don’t think about it much, you’ve definitely tasted it in meat and numerous other foods.
“Umami in the form of free glutamates found in tomato paste, walnuts, dried shiitake mushrooms, and MSG are always in my pantry,” says chef, dietitian, and food blogger Michele Redmond. “My favorite source of umami in the form of ribonucleotides [flavor-enhancing compounds] is low sodium tamari or a fermented soy sauce.”
A number of other savory sauces, such as Worcestershire, liquid aminos, and oyster sauce, can help sprinkle on umami flavor too.
Spices and so-called aromatics are also on standby for replicating meaty taste. Opt for smoky choices like paprika, chipotle powder, cumin, or even smoked sea salt. As for fresh ingredients to start a meat-like meal, Redmond recommends onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, and scallions.
These can help your tongue (and your brain) perceive flavor. “Cysteine, a sulfur-based amino acid in onions, is also prevalent in roasted meats. We recognize it as a savory flavor,” Redmond says. “Our taste receptors also experience meaty umami-ness from the amino acid glutamate found in aromatic alliums.”
Stock up on these flavor winners
- For umami: Worcestershire sauce, liquid aminos, tamari, oyster sauce
- For smoky: paprika, chipotle powder, cumin, or even smoked sea salt
- For savory: onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, and scallions
There’s no denying that it’s tough to nail the texture of chicken breast, ground turkey, or pork chops with ingredients that, well, aren’t meat. Still, certain plant proteins do come close, especially when prepared appropriately.
Try starting with lentils. “Lentils have that granular texture that is reminiscent of ground beef,” says food blogger Katie Trant. She advises a smaller, firmer choice like green lentils for best results.
The right mushroom can also pull a trompe l’oeil on your eyes and taste buds. “A grilled king oyster mushroom has a very meat-like texture,” says Liran Leibman, executive chef at NYC Mediterranean restaurant Zizi. These woody-tasting fungi are often used to replicate scallops.
Hungry for more plant-based proteins? Soy products like tempeh have their place, particularly for mimicking white meat. “I would say the texture of tofu most resembles chicken, especially if you opt to coat it with, say, Korean barbecue sauce or other savory sauces,” says food blogger Thien-Kim Lam.
And then, of course, there’s jackfruit. This tropical fruit, which has been a popular substitute since 2016, is frequently dressed with barbecue sauce for an ersatz pulled pork many say is nearly identical to the real thing.
A close texture:
- lentils for ground beef (make sure it’s not too mushy)
- king oyster mushrooms for scallops
- jackfruit for pulled pork
- tempeh for shredded chicken
“Creating ground meat-like textures and flavors with plants or plant products involves browning techniques,” says Redmond. “To get flavorful colors out of ingredients by cooking, heat low-water-content ingredients to at least 300 degrees using a direct dry heat like searing or sauté.” Try this with nuts and seeds, which are especially low in water.
Firing up the grill is another way to add crispiness and crunch on the outside — two signature qualities of many meat favorites.
“Grilling gets the outside crispy and with some charred areas while keeping the interior heated through but not overcooked,” says recipe developer and food blogger April Blake. This technique works well with tofu, mushrooms, and sturdier veggies like cauliflower and zucchini.
Finally, if you really want to graduate to the big leagues, Leibman recommends another pro technique: “Smoking! The more the better.”
Granted, you may not have a smoker sitting around, but if not, Leibman offers some hacks. “Charring vegetables on your stovetop is an easy cheat. A very small amount of hickory liquid smoke is a well-known chef’s secret now and has a similar smoking effect.”
Ready to dip a toe (or, preferably, a fork) into the world of DIY meat substitutes? Consider these delicious options.
Vegan biscuits and gravy
Get the recipe via Oat and Sesame.
If you’re a fan of getting the day off to a meaty start, the shallot-mushroom combo in these vegan biscuits and gravy hits the mark with ground sausage-like texture. Spoon the gravy over the fluffy biscuits for a hearty weekend brunch.
Kale salad with carrot “bacon”
Get the recipe via Tipsy Shades.
Ever snuck a perfectly roasted carrot straight off the pan? (We get it — they’re irresistible.) Believe it or not, there’s a way to take the amazing flavors of caramelized carrot one step further: dehydrating shaved carrots into crispy ribbons of veggie “bacon.” Eat ’em all by themselves or atop a salad like this one with kale and pomegranate.
Crispy pan-fried tofu
Get the recipe via I’m Not the Nanny.
Folks who think they don’t like tofu have probably never tried it this way. Squeezing excess moisture out of soybean curd is the key to getting that chicken-like texture. The finished product: a versatile base for wraps, casseroles, stir-fries, and more.
Vegan sloppy Joes
Get the recipe via Hey Nutrition Lady.
Move over, Manwich. There’s a new — and significantly fresher — sloppy Joe in town. This recipe starts with cooked green lentils and adds all the usual savory seasonings to create a high fiber Joe with the meaty mouthfeel you know and love.
South Carolina jackfruit barbecue egg rolls
Get the recipe via The April Blake.
We’ll admit it: Subbing a tropical fruit for pulled pork may take some getting used to. Instead of going “whole hog” by piling pulled jackfruit on a sandwich, ease into it with this appetizer recipe.
Wrapping the smoky fruit in an egg roll with broccoli and a savory sauce creates a mix of Asian and Southern flavors in a category all its own.
Keep in mind that when you replace meat with a plant-based alternative, it’s not a one-to-one swap, nutritionally speaking. Though you’ll likely add fiber, antioxidants, and plenty of micronutrients, you might end up with less protein and iron and fewer B vitamins. And of course, if you’re a lifelong carnivore, a feast of tempeh or mushrooms may not meet all your meaty expectations.
But keep an open mind! Adding even a few meatless meals to your menu can stretch your grocery dollar and your culinary horizons. And if doing so brings health benefits, enjoy them as a bonus.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.