A friend recently asked me for some advice on plant-based meat substitutes. He’s a very new vegan and said he’s having a tough time avoiding too much processed food. He doesn’t mind vegetables, but isn’t really comfortable with cooking them. So, he said he basically replaced the meat and cheese in his diet with fake meat and cheese.
I’ve found this is pretty common, and I went through the same thing when I first started on my vegan diet five years ago. Previously I’d been vegetarian for years, so I wasn’t totally starting from scratch but when you cut eggs and cheese out it can be pretty limiting.
One of the most common questions Sam and I get is, “what do you eat? Salad?”
To be honest, neither of us even like salad all that much. So if we had to rely solely on leafy greens we would both starve. I love to cook and have had a great time experimenting in the kitchen. I love coming up with different recipes and recreating vegan versions of my favorite dishes.
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Betty Goes Vegan by Annie and Dan Shannon is hands down the best cookbook I’ve found for recreating classic dishes, meat-free (using classic Betty Crocker recipes. The sequel: Mastering the Art of Vegan Cooking takes a cue from Julia Child, recreating more classic dishes with plant-based ingredients. Both books are perfect for beginners. They’re always the first I recommend for those exploring a meat-free diet.
So if you’re looking for some vegan meat substitutes to replace meat in a meal or your whole diet, look no further. Give these ingredients a try. If you need more guidance I highly recommend picking up those two cookbooks. It’s definitely possible to find satisfying and delicious meat substitutes so you don’t feel deprived or left out. (More on dairy swaps to come!)
Best Meat Substitutes
Of all the meat substitutes in all the world, beans are probably the easiest to access, most familiar and simplest ingredient. Chickpeas form the base for hummus, can be roasted and the brine can be whipped like egg whites. Beans are great to bulk up the protein in a dish (beans offer 19-22 grams in half a cup). Black beans, pinto, refried beans, butter beans…If you think you don’t like beans, give them another shot. They’re super versatile and an easy way to swap out meat in tons of dishes.
Mushrooms offer a meaty texture that’s pretty unbeatable. They don’t have a lot of calories–only about 16 calories per cup. Mushrooms offer some protein, folate, vitamin B2 and D which means they have a pretty big nutritional bang for your buck. The main draw of mushrooms is they fill in great as portobello burgers (marinate in a little soy sauce and lemon), work as mock oysters (use oyster mushrooms) and are a perfect fit for stir fry.
Squash is neither meaty nor particularly savory, so why is it on a list of meat substitutes? Because if fills in really well as a main course. A squash is the perfect vessel for stuffing with rice or even breaded stuffing. It goes well with many dishes–try spaghetti squash in peanut noodles or spaghetti. Use butternut squash as a satisfying main dish–stuffed, roasted or glazed. Acorn squash is another great option. Squash has potassium, vitamin A and C. If you aren’t sure how you feel about squash try it in a new way.
Jackfruit has been quite trendy lately with several companies offering pre-marinated jackfruit. It also comes in cans. The fruit isn’t particularly savory and plain it tastes fairly bland–a little sour and tart. With jackfruit it’s all about the texture. Slow roasting your jackfruit in the oven or sauteing it in a cast iron skillet with your favorite barbecue sauce will create a dish that is nearly identical in texture to pulled pork or chicken. It comes in many of your favorite flavors (cajun, barbecue, teriyaki) or you can create your own sauce–anything you’d put on barbecue works great here. Serve it on a bun with slaw or in crunchy tacos and no one will believe they aren’t eating meat. Jackfruit is high in potassium, B6 and vitamin C.
Walnuts have a surprisingly meaty texture and a great savory quality. They’re terrific roasted and sprinkled onto pizza or in dishes. Walnuts are also amazing in pate or pureed into a dip. Now, keep in mind, they’re quite high in fat, but it’s a healthy omega-3 fat. Using them as a taco filling, or even as a snack is a great boost. A 1 oz serving offers about 4 grams of protein.
Lentils were one of those items I took a LONG time to come around to. They just seemed sort of weird and not very satisfying. Then I discovered beluga lentils and I am totally in love! These black, caviar-looking lentils offer 12 grams of protein per cup and they’re delicious. Boiled and then tossed with a little rosemary and olive oil, they’re so yummy. Thanks to these little guys I’ve come around to other types of lentils too. Lentil soup is surprisingly delicious, especially with some balsamic swirled in.
Now, here’s one of those, “what everyone thinks I eat” meme-foder. I like tofu. When it’s extra firm, pressed and marinated before you sautee or bake it, it’s really good. There’s even pre-marinated tofu you can buy (which is also good). However, tofu is a little labor intensive for newbies AND I think people have all had a weird gelatinous blob, tofu experience which has put them off to the idea of tofu for life. So, basically, as a meat substitute, tofu isn’t bad as long as it’s prepared correctly. Don’t let a bad experience turn you away from tofu forever.
Seitan is AH-MAZING. Hail seitan! Seitan is the bomb. Many meat substitutes are made from seitan. It’s created from vital wheat gluten and spices. After it’s kneaded, baked and then prepared in a dish, it’s by far the closest in both texture and flavor to meat. However–seitan is labor intensive. I suppose, if you looked at the entire process of fabricating meat, it’s also pretty labor intensive. I’ve also known chefs who spent days marinating, smoking, roasting and preparing meat dishes, so in the grand scheme of things, seitan isn’t really anymore involved. BUT good news: you can buy seitan pre-prepared (it’s what most commercial meat-analogues are made of). Oh and it’s super high in protein–21 grams in just 3 ounces!
Oh tempeh…you’re weird. I have to be honest of all the meat substitutes out there, I like tempeh the least. It’s made from soybeans that are fermented and pressed together. It’s a strange texture that takes some getting used to. With the right sauce or marinade, it’s not bad barbecued or used as taco filling. I’m sure there are many people who enjoy tempeh. A 100 gram serving has about 19 grams of protein, so it’s certainly worth giving it a try.
Tofurky products are made by Turtle Island Foods. They make awesome slices for sandwiches that are a dead ringer for cold cuts. The peppered, Italian and hickory smoked varieties are all delicious (as is the original). With 13 grams of protein in 5 slice servings, these are great for sandwiches. Tofurky also makes the famous Holiday Roast, which is created from a blend of seitan and tofu. The Ham Roast was our Christmas Eve dinner this year (covered in brown sugar a la “honey baked ham”) and it far exceeded our expectations. It was also fantastic as cold sandwiches the next day.
One of my favorite meat substitute brands is Gardein. Their products are amazing and they have a great variety. All their products are vegan and a few (like the Chick’n Scallopini and the Beefless crumbles). Their Crabless Cakes are incredible, too. I stock my freezer with their products and there’s not one I don’t like. The nutritionals vary by product but the Chick’n Scallopini for example has 9 grams of protein per serving. Of course, processed meat substitutes aren’t the best option for every day BUT as an occasional meal, they’re wonderful.
12. Beyond Meat
Everyone’s been talking about the Beyond Burger. They’re the closest, meatiest meat substitute I’ve ever tried. Almost to the point where, for me it was too much at first. The color, flavor and texture are spot on. They’re highly satisfying and offer 20 grams of protein. All the Beyond Meat products are great, however–the beefy crumbles are really flavorful and the grilled strips are perfect for chicken salad, BBQ chicken pizza or Caesar wraps.
Litelife products are a little harder to find in our neck of the woods, but their Smart Deli Ham and Smart Deli Pepperoni are both really great products (with 13 grams of protein per serving). They also make great sausage which works well in all kinds of soups, pastas and other recipes. I’ve heard their Smart Hotdogs are the best veggie hotdogs out there. I cannot confirm this, because even the thought of a veggie hotdog doesn’t appeal to me. Yves is another brand that makes similar deli products. I haven’t been able to find them near us, but I’ve heard positive feedback.
14. Field Roast
Field Roast makes some of my very favorite veggie sausages. The Mexican Chipotle and Smoked Apple Sage sausages are the best (but the Italian’s great too). These are hands down one of my favorite meat substitute products. The sausages are made from seitan and have 28 grams of protein per sausage! Their great in pasta, tacos, on pizza or just on their own. The Celebration Loaf is also a wonderful holiday dinner with a delicious stuffing. They make great deli slice too–the Smoked Tomato is a don’t miss.
Viana’s veggie gyros are the most incredible treat! These products are challenging to find, but if you run across them, definitely snatch them up. The gyros are our favorite dinner with homemade tzatziki sauce and we’re so glad our local co-op, Outpost carries them. Viana also makes Cowgirl Steaks, which are a treat! If you can find these, be prepared for a steak dinner you won’t believe is vegetarian!
Three Runners Up:
When it comes to meat substitutes there are so many options and companies that offer an array of products it’s hard to narrow it down. Here are three other items to try or watch for.
Quinoa is widely available these days. If you haven’t cooked with it, it’s a great product to incorporate into your diet. It’s not particularly “meaty” (it’s a grain) but it IS high in protein with 14 grams in a serving. I enjoy quinoa as the base for many bowls and in salads. The one meat-swap I use quinoa for is in chili. The grains provide a texture in chili that doesn’t exactly mimic meat but still makes it seem hearty and filling.
2. Morningstar Riblets
Most Morningstar products are not vegan, unfortunately. Almost all their products contain dairy and egg. They’re great for those transitioning to vegetarianism or who would like a meat-swap once in a while. One of their few products that IS vegan are the Hickory BBQ Riblets. These provide 16 grams of protein and they’re really good. They’re quickly prepared in the microwave AND from what I’ve been told they taste just like the McRib (which I never tried but whatever floats your boat).
3. Boca Crumbles
Boca is a line from Kraft that’s available in many grocery stores across the United States. With vegan products becoming more and more common, there are many options out there, but if you live in rural areas you may have to look a little harder (or order online). I put Boca on this list because their Original Veggie Crumbles really are good and comparable to Gardein. They’re vegan and you can find them in a lot of small grocery stores. They make great sloppy joes, tacos, chili or spaghetti sauce. The Boca Original Vegan Veggie Burger is also vegan.
Hopefully this list gives you some great ideas for meat substitutes. If you’re looking to incorporate more veggie dishes into your diet, hoping for meatless Monday ideas or transitioning to an all plant-based diet, there are still plenty of items you can enjoy and eat.
So, what are your favorite meat substitutes? Any items you love that I didn’t get on the list?
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