I’m not one to define how I eat. Yes, I tried keto, tried going gluten-free, and had a Whole-30 kick one fateful January (didn’t we all?). But inevitably, I eventually revert to the way I’ve always eaten – mostly vegetables, animal protein here and there, and the occasional treat when the craving inevitably hits me. In other words, when it comes to my daily meals, I trust my intuition to lead the way. This is something I love most about plant-based eating: it’s a philosophy that emphasizes vegetables, grains, and legumes, crowding out meat and processed foods. But I have to admit, comforting pasta dishes will always have my heart (slice me a square of multi-layered lasagna and I’ll be yours forever). When nothing else satisfies you, ground meat substitutes are the way to go.
Rest assured, if you are a committed carnivore, I understand the hesitation. With an appetite for authenticity, it may seem like no vegetarian swap will ever come close to the real deal. To help me make a compelling case, I enlisted Suruchi Avasthi, CS Food Editor and recipe creator extraordinaire, to break down the best ground meat substitutes. She covers everything from how to give your mushrooms an extra rich taste to making sure your tofu is full of flavor. It’s time to indulge in meatless magic – take it away Suruchi!
Characteristic image by Suruchi Avasthi.
The best ground meat substitutes to make any (delicious) vegan and vegetarian dish
Tofu is one of my favorite ground meat substitutes. It’s packed with protein and takes on the flavors of whatever you cook with it beautifully. Most people dislike tofu because they remember bland or poorly textured takes and versions. You can solve this problem easily with a few key cooking tips and tricks.
How to cook tofu
Follow these steps to ensure your tofu is full of flavor. Because tofu is a blank canvas, it soaks up the flavors you incorporate very well. Trust me, you’ll never call it bland again.
- Squeeze out as much liquid as possible. This is the key to really nailing the texture. I normally choose the extra firm varieties and press them between kitchen towels with a very heavy pan for at least an hour, if not more. This ensures that as much liquid as possible has been removed. You can also buy pre-pressed versions that come out great.
- Marinate overnight. Once your tofu is pressed, I marinate it in super flavorful sauces (think: soy sauces, sesame oils, hot sauces, or whatever your heart desires!) in an airtight container. Do this for at least an hour or overnight.
- Crumble your tofu. When I cook tofu, I prefer to crumble it with my hands, tearing it into large chunks. This allows little pockets of texture to form from ripped ends rather than straight sliced edges (although those are delicious too!).
- Thinly slice. If you’re going to slice tofu, I slice a little on the thinner side. I lay my tofu on an unlined baking sheet with a little oil and plenty of space between the slices so they get crispier.
- Dry. For stovetop searing, be sure to pat the tofu well and sear it in the fat to give your edges a delicious texture.
How to serve tofu
- Try the kitchen sink style. Think quinoa bowls, rice bowls, noodle bowls, etc. Everything including all other toppings are about the same size as cubed tofu.
- Slide into a sandwich. Baked tofu slices work great here!
- Replace it with tempeh. If you want to switch things up, but still crave a satisfying plant-based option, tempeh is a great choice. I will use tempeh in similar situations where I use tofu. It also works well as crumbled instead of sliced, that is, making it one of the best ground meat substitutes. Crumble it up and bake your tempeh in the oven or sauté on the stovetop.
Recipe: Well Plated By Erin Tofu Tacos
Mushrooms are my favorite ground meat substitute – cross that off, they’re my favorite meat substitute, hands down. Their texture has a bit of a chew to them while the savory umami flavors add warmth to any dish you use them in. I use mushrooms in place of meat in almost all pasta dishes (from spaghetti to ravioli to lasagna). But regardless of the use, I prepare most mushrooms the same way.
How to Cook Mushrooms
- Never wash mushrooms in water! Mushrooms are like sponges and absorb the water you rinse them in, making them soggy. Instead, wet a paper or kitchen towel and wipe away any dirt. From there, cut the mushrooms as desired.
- Prepare the mushrooms according to your dish. For the linguini, I cut the mushrooms into longer pieces. But if I’m making a lasagna or Bolognese sauce, I’ll mince the mushrooms a bit more.
- Combine plenty of oil in a large saucepan. Use a generous sip of oil and a larger pan than you think you’ll need. This gives your mushrooms plenty of room to turn golden brown instead of cluttering up your pan and steaming.
How to serve mushrooms
- Replace soy sauce with salt. The savory, umami flavor of soy sauce pairs beautifully with mushrooms.
- Launch and go. It’s that simple! Once your mushrooms are prepared to your liking, add them to your sauce or on your pasta.
- Try them with (lots of) cheese. This four cheese lasagna recipe is one of the best ways to enjoy the meaty flavor and texture of mushrooms. Fresh herbs, creamy cheeses and a hint of mushrooms. Is there anything better?
Recipe: 4 Cheese and Mushroom Roll-Up Lasagna from The Modern Proper
Almost any variety of bean (chickpeas, black beans, cannellini, etc.) all do a flavorful job of adding protein and weight to dishes like stews, soups, and chilies.
How to Cook Beans
- Start with the dried beans. Dried beans will always beat all canned options. Yes, they take longer to prepare, but you will get better texture and flavor.
- Soak your beans. Fill an extra-large mixing bowl with dried beans and cover with double the amount of water. Leave to soak overnight, drain and rinse.
- Taste as you go. Sometimes I find that dried beans, even after soaking, take a little longer to cook. Be sure to taste throughout to ensure you get a well-cooked texture.
- Using canned beans? Be sure to rinse! For canned beans, when I make chilis or stews (like Camille’s Veggie Black Bean Sweet Potato Chili that I make all the time), I rinse my beans and add them to the recipe later in the cooking process so they don’t get too soft.
How to serve beans
- Change your beans. For most recipes, you can almost always use different types of beans interchangeably. For the sweet potato chili mentioned above, if I don’t have black beans on hand, I’ll use chickpeas, navy beans, or kidney beans. A convenient exchange that does not affect the flavor of the dish.
- The options are endless. While beans fully deserve their place on this list of the best ground meat substitutes, I’m also going to mash them up a bit and serve them on toast and in sandwiches as a substitute for tuna or chicken salads. It’s your adventure, do as you wish.
Recipe: Feta Salad with White Beans and Lemon Relish
To be honest, even as a vegetarian, I rarely buy alternative meat brands. If I’m going to a barbecue, I’ll bring a packet of Impossible Meat, but for home cooking, I prefer to use real plants to bulk up my dishes. I have, however, tried a whole range of other meat products and discovered a few go-tos that compare to my plant-based favorites.