Getting Started With Meatless Cooking
Whether you’re worried about meat shortages or just looking for ways to reduce meat consumption, we’ve got you covered. For this article, Cook Smarts members dished about the best vegan meat substitutes and their favorite tips for going vegan or vegetarian.
The benefits of eating less meat are clear: It’s good for our health, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for our wallets, to name just a few. Plus, vegetarian and vegan meals are often some of the most flavorful, colorful, and nutritious plates around.
Yet many of us are accustomed to meals where meat is the star and everything else is a supporting player. If you’re interested in eating less meat, it can be hard to know where to start in planning balanced meals that don’t seem like they’re missing something.
As the United States braces for potential meat shortages, now is the perfect time to learn to cook more meat-free meals. We spoke with several Cook Smarts members who eat vegetarian or vegan much or all of the time for their best tips on products to try and how to make a successful transition to eating more plant-based foods.
1. Faux Meat Products
For meat eaters, the easiest way to ease into vegetarianism — or just to cut back on meat — is to get to know some faux meat products. Faux meat products — also called meat alternatives, meat analogues, or meat substitutes — are vegetarian or vegan and are usually plant-based foods made to look and taste (to varying degrees) like meat, so they’re easy to use in places you’d otherwise use the meat version.
You’re probably already familiar with some of these products, such as veggie burgers, soyrizo, and plant-based chicken nuggets. But choosing a brand when you’ve never had any of them before is easier said than done. That’s why we wanted to get recommendations from people who have been eating them for years.
The most common recommendation? The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat patties, which several Cook Smarts members mentioned. According to Lyndsey B., who has eaten a flexitarian diet for the past several years, “Impossible has the best taste; Beyond has the best texture.” Don’t expect them to taste just like meat, the members cautioned, but taste them, season to fit your preferences, and you’ll wind up with a great burger patty. To learn how to cook and serve plant-based burgers, ground meat, and sausages, check out our article on Meat Substitutes for Burgers, Sausages, and Ground Meat.
Faux hamburger patties, whether they’re made from meat substitutes or more traditional veggies, grains, and beans, are certainly the most popular and well-known meat alternatives. However, there are also plenty of products designed to mimic the texture of chicken, turkey, and other meats. Lyndsey likes Trader Joe’s Chicken-less Mandarin Orange Morsels and the Gardein line of products. Another member, Caitlyn W., is pescatarian but cooks exclusively vegan at home because her boyfriend is vegan. She seconds the Gardein recommendation, saying that her five-year-old loves the faux chicken tenders, while she’s partial to the “meatballs.”
“The meatballs are really versatile,” Caitlyn says. “I’ve used them for the Cook Smarts Korean meatballs recipe (using the original recipe and subbing out the meatball prep for the faux meatballs), or you can mash it to use it as a hamburger alternative.”
Tiffany L., who has eaten a vegan, plant-based diet for the past 10 years, says: “I love Tofurky peppered turkey slices for sandwiches or as roll-ups with vegan cheese. Field Roast sausages are great to add into soups or eat with veggies.” She also recommends Trader Joe’s brand tempeh.
For more tips on cooking with and using plant-based chicken, deli meat, and fish, check out our post on Meat Alternatives for Chicken, Fish, Deli Meat, and Roasts.
2. Beyond Faux Meats
Several of the Cook Smarts members we talked with said they don’t often eat meat alternatives. “I usually prefer to eat hearty grains and beans (including tofu) when I’m avoiding meat products,” Lyndsey said.
As a fellow flexitarian, Gabrielle S. generally eats a vegan breakfast, lunch, and snacks. For dinner, she cooks vegetarian for her family two nights a week, and eats meat the other nights. When her family is going veggie, they eat a lot of beans, frozen veggies, and tempeh, and rarely use faux meat products. “There are so many types of beans,” she said. “I think we are accustomed to seeing only a few types, but there are so many kinds.”
Linda M., whose family’s dietary preferences range from omnivore to vegan, says, “Using meat substitutes can be a fun way to expand your options, but there are lots of ways to cook hearty plant based meals without ‘replacing’ meat. Tofu, edamame, beans, nuts, pasta, rice, veggies can all come together in so many great ways.”
Emily J., who eats plant based most of the time but also eats some meat and seafood, also prefers to avoid faux meat products. “I am never really trying to replace meat,” she said. “There are so many great plant-based whole foods that meet my nutritional intake!” She relies heavily on lentils, nuts, chickpeas, avocado, sweet potato, spinach, quinoa, tortillas, tofu, tahini, nut butter, nut milk, and edamame, many of which are great sources of protein.
She also enjoys Manitoba Harvest hemp hearts, which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, contain all essential amino acids, and contain 8 grams of protein in just 2 tablespoons. “I make overnight oats with it, and use it to sprinkle on top of other things such as salads for added protein and nutrition,” she says.
Tiffany agrees that meat substitutes should be used in moderation. “All the products I mentioned should not replace the great benefits of cooking with whole food proteins,” she said. She particularly loves making taco “meat” out of lentils and walnuts or quinoa.
3. Vegan Replacements
Cooking and baking vegan foods goes well beyond meat replacements. Here are our members’ recommendations around substituting other vegetarian ingredients for their vegan counterparts.
Several of the members we spoke to recommended Earth Balance as a butter alternative, though Tiffany and Lyndsey prefer Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter as a splurge or for making brown butter, which can’t be done with other vegan butter products.
“I do find that Miyoko’s doesn’t hold up quite as well for baking (biscuits, pie crusts, or scones) because it melts so quickly,” Lyndsey cautions.
When it comes to cheese, Tiffany recommends Field Roast’s Chao cheese. “The creamy original is my favorite, and it’s amazing in grilled cheese and in a Beyond Meat burger patty . . . yum,” she says. She also likes Miyoko’s cream cheeses and cheese wheels, which are perfect for cheese boards, as well as Treeline soft cheeses and Heidi Ho’s Ne Chevre.
Lyndsey seconds the recommendation for Miyoko’s cream cheese, and says Tofutti is good when paired with more flavorful ingredients — not by itself on a plain bagel, for instance. For vegan ravioli, she likes Rising Moon products, and says that Annie’s vegan mac is a good shortcut to an easy, comforting meal. She also recommends Follow Your Heart and Go Veggie for vegan parmesan cheese.
Vegan cheese is tricky to cook with, though, she says. “I always have to plan more time to toast or broil to get it to melt and soften enough.”
On the other hand, Caitlyn W. doesn’t like the taste of faux cheeses. Instead, she says, “If there’s a cheese-based pasta dish, a lot of the time I’ll make a cashew cream sauce and add nutritional yeast to give it a cheesy texture and taste.”
For vegan yogurt, members recommended CoYo and Kite Hill. “On dishes that meld with coconut, CoYo has been my favorite plain yogurt,” said Lyndsey. “It’s thick and tangy and is phenomenal on Indian-inspired dishes.” If she doesn’t want coconut flavor in her meal, she often opts for Tofutti sour cream instead.
For egg replacers, Lyndsey likes Follow Your Heart’s VeganEgg for any use where the egg serves as a binder — for instance, in holding veggie burgers or faux meatballs together — as well as in carbonara. “In baking, I almost always replace whole eggs with a mix of ground flaxseed and water, like King Arthur Flour recommends, since it’s so easy and no one notices. If I’m doing something requiring egg whites, I pull out aquafaba [the water in which chickpeas and other beans have been cooked].”
Linda M., whose daughter is vegan, says they use Just Egg or Bob’s Red Mill egg replacer for baking with excellent results. They also go through a lot of Enjoy Life vegan chocolate chips. “Even the most skeptical are floored by my daughter’s vegan desserts, from her chocolate cake with chocolate ganache icing, to her chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies,” she says.
4. Tofu Made Tasty
Tofu may be the most controversial of vegan foods. Luckily, our members had several recommendations for improving results when cooking with tofu.
Tiffany L., who recommends Trader Joe’s brand of sprouted tofu and extra-firm tofu, often adds flavor to her tofu by marinating it in vegetable stock before using it, especially if she’s starting with the extra-firm version. Cut the tofu into smaller pieces and let it soak in the stock for at least four hours, she recommends. When you’re ready to cook, drain the stock and follow the recipe as normal.
Caitlyn W.’s favorite tip for tofu packaged in water is to freeze the package, let it thaw before using, then squeeze out the excess water. “Freezing it makes it much easier to get all the water out, and it gives it a different texture,” she said. “Be careful, though: It tends to soak up more oil (if you pan or deep fry) if it’s been frozen first.”
For that reason, she opts to cook tofu that’s been frozen by baking it in the oven rather than cooking it other ways.
Linda says tofu is great in anything that has a flavorful sauce.
Gabrielle S., on the other hand, didn’t like tofu when she first tried it. “I couldn’t stand it,” she says. “It was a few years before I even tried it again.” When she did, she discovered she enjoyed tofu in stir-fries, soups, and pasta dishes. For that reason, she recommends preparing a new ingredient — whether it’s tofu or another vegan food — 2 or 3 different ways before deciding you don’t like it.
5. Cooking Tips and Advice
Whether you’re starting with meat replacements or prefer to eat a plant-based diet, there’s a learning curve when you first start cooking meatless meals. Here are our members’ general tips for cooking better meat-free dishes.
Spices are your friend
The members agree that seasoning becomes extra important when cooking without meat, which includes both herbs and spices as well as ingredients such as sesame oil or soy sauce. They recommend having a full spice rack, and tasting and adjusting as you cook. They also advise giving new foods a proper chance before disregarding them.
Manage your expectations
Bottom line? While vegan and vegetarian products can be delicious, they probably won’t taste the same as their dairy- and meat-heavy equivalents. “I think the biggest thing to remember is that these things are good in their own way, and don’t fully replace whatever they resemble,” said Lyndsey. “For example, with vegan cream cheese, I’m careful to pair it with flavorful things if I’m using a plain version, like everything bagels or fun toppings. That way it doesn’t stand out that what I’m eating is ‘different’ than what I grew up with.”
Lyndsey says that eating less meat has helped her and her husband to become more adventurous with their cooking and grocery shopping. “Meat is so often the focus of a meal, but when you take it out of the equation it’s really fun to put extra time and love into other parts of the meal,” she says.
Elevate your sides
Lyndsey also recommends that anyone interested in eating less meat reconsider their side dishes to think about how they could be the star of the meal. For example, she’s started cooking dried beans in the past few years. “There’s nothing like a fresh pot of herbaceous pinto or black beans,” she says. “They can easily carry a meal with a grain and side of veggies, and can be used a bunch of ways.”
Keep it simple
Make the adjustment to lower meat consumption as easy as possible if you’re cooking for a family. Linda M.’s family consists of two omnivores, one vegan who likes faux meat, and one pescatarian who does not like faux meat. This doesn’t make for the simplest of dinnertimes, but she finds ways to simplify. “We often enjoy ‘assembly line’ dinners, where folks can pick their own ingredients to make their plate,” she says. “This works well for salads, rice bowls, tacos. On other nights, we’ll make most of the recipe without meat or cheese, and then add the meat or cheese at the end for those who want it.”
Lastly, if you’re struggling to make vegetarian or vegan meals work, don’t stress. “Just be creative,” recommends Gabrielle. “It can actually be a fun process learning to work with new items.”
If you need some recipes to get you started, here are some of our members’ favorite meatless recipes from the Cook Smarts archives. (Photos are of the original versions of the meals.)
1. Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Lentils, Spinach, and Cheese
This vegetarian recipe contains just a few simple ingredients yet it packs a flavorful punch. It pairs the sweetness of sweet potatoes with the tangy saltiness of feta, and is served with a delicious side of roasted apples.
2. Skillet Enchiladas w/ Butternut Squash & Black Beans
Skillet enchiladas combine the flavors of decadent comfort food with the ease of a casserole. This version gets a nutritional boost from butternut squash, kale, and black beans. Use vegan cheese and sour cream (or leave them off) for a vegan meal.
If you’re on the fence about tofu, just wait until you try these flavorful tacos topped with quick-pickled vegetables and a tropical pineapple-banana smoothie. This meal could be made vegan by using vegan mayonnaise and ensuring you buy tortillas that don’t contain lard. You can also make this in the air fryer for extra crisp tofu!
Aside from the feta cheese, this salad is vegan, though meat lovers will never miss the meat. Crispy pita chips pair with creamy avocado in this veggie-packed salad, while dukkah spice mix and creamy tahini dressing give it a memorable, craveable flavor.
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