Americans are the second largest consumers of meat per capita, the average person eating about 270 pounds per year. And so some of us are moving away from meat-based meals, whether via big portions of vegetable-rich sides beside or meat or by committing to eating fully meatless meals a couple times a week. Campaigns like Meatless Monday and a growing awareness of the problems with factory farming have made meat-free meals more and more common.
Read more: our vegetarian cookbook!
If you’re switching from a meat-heavy diet, cooking vegetarian may seem like a daunting task. But with a few tweaks here and there, you’ll soon find that its easy to master the technique for making meat-free meals. Here’s where to start.
Vegetarian cooking isn’t always about switching meat out for something else. If you’re a steak and potatoes kind of person, you may not be so satisfied with a plate of tofu and potatoes, but you could be bowled over by a Mushroom and Sweet Potato Pie. The key here is thinking outside of the box, and not simply replacing ingredients but thinking about the meal as a whole.
Salad is delicious, but a bowl of lettuce won’t always translate into dinner. When cooking vegetarian, you’ll want to consciously bulk up your meal. Combining protein, fiber and unsaturated fats will keep you feeling fuller longer and ensure that you get all the nutrients you need from your meal. So instead of eating rabbit food, opt for a warm grain salad.
Incorporating a variety of oils is a good way to go in vegetarian cooking because it helps you consume healthy fats. Not only does oil add flavor, but it can also help us feel more full. Beyond olive oil there are plenty of oils to experiment with, including sunflower, flax, hemp, walnut and toasted sesame. Nuts deliver the same satisfaction–that’s one of the reasons we use cashews in the soba recipe pictured above.
Often what makes a meal are the handful of spices that go into seasoning it. Italian dishes wouldn’t be the same with thyme and oregano. Indian cuisine needs cumin and turmeric. It’s not just because you took the meat out of a dish that the taste changes; test your dish and see what flavors are missing and what you can add in from the spice pantry. You might be surprised how much “meaty” flavor you can build up with rich spices like cumin, coriander, or smoked paprika.
Ever heard of umami? Discovered by a Japanese scientist, umami, which translated means “delicious” or “yummy,” is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter). This is basically what gives savory foods their deep flavors, and is often associated with hard cheeses, aged meats like salami and salted fish like anchovies. It’s why you love to douse your noodles in soy sauce. Ingredients like soy sauce, tamari, nutritional yeast, and toasted nuts will all help to bring out that savory flavor that so many of us crave. If you eat cheese, go crazy with the Parmesan–it may be the most umami-rich substance yet.
Master a Few Veg Substitutes
When it comes to replacing meat in a dish, some people are focused on the nutritional value (omega 3s, iron and the like) and others are more concerned with the taste and texture. Beyond your fake-out meat substitutes like soy and TVP, here are 5 basic vegetarian ingredients that you can easily begin to incorporate into your cooking.
- Beans. From vegetarian chili to simply sautés, beans are a simple, tasty and healthy way to replace ground or chopped meat. Most beans can be bought dry and in bulk, but keep in mind that if you go this route, you will most often have to soak them. Use beans to make hearty soups and stews, or add them to salad when you need an extra dose of protein.
- Lentils. Part of the legume family, just like beans, lentils are a nutritionally sound ingredient for anything and everything vegetarian. Dal, the Indian staple, is an excellent way to put lentils to everyday use, while this recipe for Braised Beluga Lentils makes a hearty dish that feels a bit more special.
- Mushrooms. Earthy and firm, mushrooms can often have a similar texture to meat, and therefore work great as a substitute in traditionally meat-based meals, like a mushroom stroganoff or a slider. Because they contain a high enough percentage of water to stay moist during cooking, they’re great for grilling. Throw on a few portobellos on the grill in the summer beside your beef or turkey burgers.
- Vegetable Stock. For any soups or stews that require a meat-based stock, you can simply sub in a vegetarian one. Stock is easy to make yourself, and you can even use the water that beans or pasta has been cooked in, or you can buy bouillon base.
- Eggplant. Looking for a vegetable that almost acts like meat? Eggplant is it. Its texture makes it a common replacement in vegetarian lasagna and other meat-based meals. Try an Eggplant Parmesan instead of the chicken classic. It’s also good on the grill!
The best part about cooking vegetarian? You get to cook out of the box. Think of all the ingredients that you have at your disposal to play with. When we cook meat, it’s easy to get lazy. Cooking a steak is so easy you’ll be giving your creative genius a rest each time you go to search one. By contract, when we remove some of the things we usually work with, we actually end up being more creative. Think of new ways you can use common vegetables, like Acorn Squash Tempura Tacos instead of regular fish tacos. Vegetarian cooking shouldn’t be about limiting, it should be about remembering all the wonderful things that you do have to work with.
This post was written by Anna Brones, a food and travel writer based in Paris, France who has a love for bikes, coffee and all things organic.