Between meat shortages and rising meat prices, many people are turning to plant-based meats for the dinner table. But how do you use plant-based meats? Can you merely substitute plant-based meats for ground beef in your chili recipe? Do plant-based meats have as much flavor? And there are so many brands and types of plant-based meats; how do you choose which one to use?
As a long-time vegetarian (25+ years), who doesn’t want to give up my childhood dinner favorites, I have been re-creating traditional family recipes for decades. Along the way I have seen the selection of plant-based meats drastically increase. Some taste and feel just like meat – too much so for my preference in fact. Others taste much like the plants they are made from. Still other options fall somewhere in between. But they all share one thing; they benefit from a flavor boost.
Adding Flavor to Plant-Based Meats
Meatless, or plant-based meals do not have to be bland or tasteless. Meatless meals simply get their flavor from ingredients other than the meat protein and fat. There are a variety of ways to do this. When food processors remove fat from a product, they add back flavor by increasing salt or sugar. Already you can see the problem. Excess salt and sugar aren’t any better for than excess fat. We see this even with our meat products. As American consumers demand leaner cuts of meat, processors boost flavor by injecting a salt solution into meat, this is especially true with chicken breasts and pork chops. Many other low-fat products are filled with high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners to boost flavor. We can do better.
Herbs and Spices
The quickest and easiest way to boost flavor in plant-based meat (meatless) dishes is to increase the amount and numbers of herbs and spices in the dish. If a favorite Beef Stew recipe calls for ½ tsp of dried marjoram, try making a meatless version with double that amount. Or add a complementary herb like basil or oregano along with the marjoram. Another trick is to add herbs that you commonly associate with certain meats. Making a meatless chicken dish? Include poultry seasoning, tarragon, or thyme. Meatless beef dishes could include thyme or rosemary, pork dishes sage or ginger, and fish dishes dill or fennel.
Spices are a little trickier. You don’t always want to double the amount of spice – adding twice as much chili powder in a meatless Chili might be a bit overwhelming – but adding a complementary spice like Spanish paprika or dried coriander to the chili powder might be just the thing.
Vinegar and Mustard
Vinegar is wonderful flavor booster. A splash of red wine vinegar added to a bowl of meatless split pea soup, or balsamic vinegar made into a beef-less gravy, or a fruit vinegar used in a meatless chicken marinade all add a meaty flavor to your dinner. Prepared mustard does the same thing for a sauce or marinade and dry mustard can be added to give depth to any meatless beef or pork dish.
So much of what we taste comes from smell. Adding aromatics to a meatless meal boosts flavor quality and dining pleasure. I always advise my healthy cooking students to start every dish with sautéed onions, garlic, and bell pepper. Just the aroma increases dining anticipation. Ground cloves or aniseed added to soups or bean dishes provide a mouth-watering aroma wafting over the kitchen. Other highly aromatic herbs and spices are curry, cilantro, ginger, basil, and rosemary. Celery, fennel, and carrots are highly aromatic vegetables too.
Beer, Wine, and Spirits
Beer, wine, and spirits all add flavor to a dish by increasing its umami (or savory quality). Red wine, porters, stouts, bourbon, brandy, cognac, and dark rum all a meaty richness to dishes, especially beef-based selections. White wines, ales, vodka, light rum, tequila, and gin add a sweetness or citrus-like lift to lighter chicken or pork-based dishes.
Quick and Easy Fixes
While all of this is good information if you are cooking from scratch, what if you just want your veggie burger to taste more like a regular burger?
- Go crazy with toppings: add flavorful toppings like sharp cheddar cheese, mustard, tapenade, beefy tomato or onion slices, or pineapple. If you want a beefy tasting burger, opt for a plant-based Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger. If you want a burger that has less meaty flavor, choose a Boca patty or a ubiquitous Morningstar Farms variety.
- Use any ground plant-based meat in tacos, just add a little more taco seasoning and a little less water when preparing.
- Make a quick plant-based chicken Parmesan using meatless chicken cutlets like those made by Morningstar Farms or Quorn. Add some extra crushed red pepper and red wine or wine vinegar to the sauce, and use an excellent quality Parmesan cheese.
- I often make one of my husband’s grandmother’s old-time chicken and rice casseroles using Quorn brand plant-based chicken pieces, and boost the flavor with extra herbs like summer savory, chervil, and tarragon.
Grocery store freezer cases are full of plant-based meats these days, but what is available in my area may not be available in your home town – or vice versa. Experiment with what you can purchase. You may love some brands, while disliking others. For example, I personally don’t care for some brands because they taste too much like meat – and I don’t like the taste of meat. But my husband refers to one of my long-time favorite meat substitutes as “sponges.” I love it, he doesn’t like it at all. There are enough choices these days that I guarantee you will find something that works for you.
Whatever flavor boosters you use, do remember that their purpose is to enhance, not overwhelm, the dish. Meatless cooking encourages creativity and experimentation. Think of your meat substitute as a canvas waiting to showcase your work of art. Now let’s get cooking!
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