Your Meatless Match: A Personal Guide to the Best Vegetarian Meat Substitute for You
Want to eat less meat? Welcome to 2020, where there’s an entirely new alternative- meat landscape exploding in our food culture. For the uninitiated, a first trip down alt-meat lane might feel like a series of blind dates. Before you swipe left on something you’re unsure of, it pays to do some homework. That’s why we created a lineup of eight of the most popular meat substitutes, and a flowchart to help guide you to the one that is right for you — consider it a first date, but one that may lead to a lifetime of plant-based love.
New Year, Time for a New Meat Substitute
While vegetarians and vegans have long enjoyed plant-based diets, a growing sense of both the health benefits of adding more vegetables to one’s diet, plus increasing awareness of climate change and the effect meat production has on the environment, are inspiring both meat-avoiders and omnivores alike to experiment more with meatless meals.
And there are more options than ever, including new-wave vegan foods and meatless meats intended to mimic the real thing. Restaurants, from tiny burger joints to national chains, are getting in on the trend, sparking people’s curiosity and willingness to try a plant-based burger. Some of these, like the Impossible Burger, have the buzz and energy of a new tech startup and a rush on their IPO. Others have millennia of history. In fact, it’s important if you’re new to the alt-meat space to recognize that jackfruit, seitan, tofu, and tempeh are not novel or exotic new proteins for an age freshly interested in meatless eating. They’re staples of culinary cultures that have long histories and connections to these ingredients, and listening to the cooking of those cultures is a great place to start.
So, with all the alternative meat choices now available, you might find yourself having a minor panic attack in what used to be called “the tofu section” of your local grocery store: You want to bravely forge ahead and put yourself out there with a new vegetable protein… but which one?
1. First, follow our flowchart to find your match.
Whether you’re a lifetime vegetarian exploring new ingredients or an omnivore dabbling in the occasional meatless Monday, our flowchart will show you what meat alternative matches your wants, needs, tastes, and cravings. Born vegetarian? Maybe there’s something new for you to try, like jackfruit or a soy-based chorizo. Looking to take Meatless Monday more seriously, or double down on your weekly commitment to making a few meals without meat? We’ll teach you how you can put juicy sausage front and center without involving an actual pig. Reading this in secret in the bathroom so your carnivorous partner doesn’t see? The Impossible burger is very well named. We won’t tell if you don’t tell.
2. Then, go on a date with your meatless match.
Once you’ve found your meat match, we’ll help you decide what to cook, based on how you answered the questions in the flowchart about what goals you bring to the dinner table. We hope you’ll fall in love with your match, and learn that alt meats are no longer so alternative, and that these days, there’s a lot of room for love without involving meat.
A Flowchart to Find Your Meatless Match
Answer the questions on the flowchart above, following the arrows and answering additional questions until you find your very own vegan meat partner. Then scroll down to learn more about your new love, find the perfect dinner recipe, and get access to more in-depth info. Have fun!
What is tofu? (And wait, I think I do know this one…)
Yes, chances are good that you’ve had this staple of several Asian cuisines at some point before. But do you know what it actually is? It’s made by coagulating soy milk, then scooping it into a form, where it thickens into a white cube. (The firmness of the cube depends on the type of tofu being made.)
What’s great about tofu?
Beside being a wonderful source of protein, tofu has a mild, slightly beany taste, which means it pairs well with lots of foods and the firm, textured variety is great at soaking up flavor, so can be easily marinated. Plus, there’s so much you can do with it, from making classic tofu dishes (like mapo tofu) to using it in more modern ways (such as in pot pie, or as an alternative to egg salad). Many grocery stores sell tofu-based meats and sauces, too.
How is it different from other meat alternatives?
Tofu isn’t designed to be “meaty” or to mimic any sort of animal product; it’s closer to cheese in the way that it is made. It’s a protein to be enjoyed on its own merits.
Where do I find tofu, and how do I start using tofu?
Look for tofu in a refrigerated tofu and meatless section in any grocery store, usually near the produce. When buying it, pay attention to the type of tofu your recipe calls for (silken, soft, firm), as it won’t work as well with different types. Be sure to drain your tofu, and note whether your recipe calls for it to be patted dry before cooking.
What kind of recipes is tofu best for?
Silken tofu is great for smoothies, soft tofu is often used in soups, firmer tofus can be fried, and extra-firm tofu can be pan-fried or even grilled like a piece of meat. You’ll often see tofu cut into chunks in curries or stews. Here are 5 recipes we love and that show off what tofu can do best.
Read More About Tofu
Still curious? Learn more about tofu here, including the different types.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh is a fermented, high-protein plant food usually made from soybeans. Pale cream to lightish brown in color, it comes in a firm cake that needs to be cooked before serving.
What makes tempeh so good?
Tempeh has a chewy, meaty texture that holds up well to cooking. It’s great simmered in your favorite sauces because it loves to soak up flavor, but it doesn’t resemble or taste like meat, so it’s good for those who are looking to make a clean break. It’s also very easy to use because it comes totally ready to cook.
It’s made from soybeans, right? How is it different from tofu?
Yes. Like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans. But tempeh’s beans aren’t totally broken down — which means they retain a lot of great nutrients and fiber that aren’t found in tofu. Because it’s made with strong fermenting cultures, it’s important to remember that tempeh needs to be cooked.
Where can I find tempeh?
Look for tempeh in the cold foods section of a large grocery store, wherever you find the tofu. You can also buy it online.
What kinds of recipes is tempeh best for?
Start with an Indonesian recipe — most historians point to tempeh being created on the island of Java — or slab it, sear it, and use it instead of chicken in a Caesar salad. It has a chewy, satisfying texture that is great in sandwiches too. Here are a few favorite recipes to give you some ideas.
Read More About Tempeh
Still curious? Learn more about tempeh here.
What is soyrizo? It sounds similar to chorizo.
It is! It’s a soy-based sausage alternative that mimics the strong, pungent flavor of a good Mexican chorizo. It usually comes in a two-link package, and keeps well in the refrigerator or freezer. Soyrizo — the most popular kind — is the trademarked name of a product made by El Burrito (and packaged by other companies), but there are many similar products typically labeled soy chorizo.
What makes soy chorizo so good?
Chorizo (the Mexican kind) is a highly spiced sausage that is typically cooked into crispy crumbled bits. Soy chorizo acts and tastes almost exactly the same, which makes it perfect for taco night or as a topping for salads or on scrambled eggs. Even better: It’s a lot lower in fat than chorizo (about 60% less).
How is it different from other alt-meats?
Unlike many alternative meats, which serve as a blank slate that takes on other flavors, Soy chorizos come fully flavored — like pork chorizo. It is cooked and served as a crumble, and used just like Mexican chorizo. It’s super easy to use, reliably delicious, and more flavorful than most vegetarian sausages. As a meat that crumbles into what you’re cooking, it also can be almost indistinguishable from an animal product. A good gateway for meat-lovers!
Where do I find soyrizo and soy chorizo?
Look for it in the tofu section of most well-stocked grocery stores. You can also buy it online.
What kind of recipes is soyrizo best in?
Squeeze it into a pan with a little bit of oil, cook as you would cook ground beef until it’s well browned, then add it anywhere you’d use regular chorizo — soups, stews, burritos, or tacos, for example. Be sure to discard the plastic casing. Unlike chorizo, the casing around most soy chorizos (including Soyrizo) is not edible. Here are a few more recipes where soyrizo would be a dynamite addition.
Still curious? Learn more about soy chorizo here.
What is seitan, again? (And how do you pronounce it?)
Seitan, pronounced SAY-tan, is a chewy faux meat made from vital wheat gluten, which is made from wheat flour. It’s been used in Asian cooking for centuries.
So, there’s gluten in seitan?
Yes. If you’re gluten-free, you should not eat it: This ingredient is literally made from wheat gluten. But if you aren’t gluten-averse it’s a great option. It’s tasty, and high in protein as well as low in fat and moderately low in carbs. It has a nice, mild taste and a very delicious chewy texture.
How is it different from other alt-meats?
If you like the chewy texture of, say, beef — something tofu really can’t provide, seitan is your friend.
Where can I find seitan? How do I cook it?
Seitan is actually something you can make yourself but you can also find it at most health food and some grocery stores (or online), where you can purchase it cooked and ready to heat and eat. You can give it a little sear in a pan to brown it, or you can cut it into chunks and throw it into stir-fries and stews — but there’s really no cooking required if you purchase it already prepared.
What are the best recipes to use seitan in?
It holds up well in stir fries, soups, or on the grill. Like tofu and tempeh, it also absorbs flavor well, making it very versatile. Here are a few excellent seitan recipes we love.
More About Seitan
Still curious? Learn more about seitan here.
What is jackfruit? Can a fruit really be a meat substitute?
Yes, it can! The ripe version of jackfruit that has a very floral, fruity flavor (like Juicy Fruit gum), which is also sometimes described as a mix between banana and mango. This sweet fruit isn’t what is used as a meat substitute. The jackfruit used as a meat alternative is unripe, and therefore much less fruity-tasting (which we’d consider a plus). Before it ripens, the flesh is starchy and almost stringy, which is what makes it a convincing stand-in for shredded pork or chicken.
Why do people like jackfruit as a meat alternative?
While modern food producers have come up with a number of ways to replicate the texture of chicken, beef, and sausage (to varying success), pulled pork has been a lot more difficult. And yet many vegetarians miss it. Jackfruit hits the jackpot. The texture is a good stand-in, and the mild flesh is easily able to absorb flavor. Also, jackfruit is available canned, which means it can be inexpensive and convenient to have on hand.
How is it different from other meat alternatives?
One big drawback: Jackfruit isn’t a great source of protein. It’s got lots of fiber, though. And it certainly has less fat and cholesterol than pork — and less than some other meat alternatives. Still, the unripe fruit has far fewer nutrients than even the ripe version.
Where can I find jackfruit?
You can find canned green jackfruit at most Asian grocery markets. A burgeoning interest in this South Asian staple has also led to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carrying it. (You can also just buy it online at Amazon.) The proliferation of pre-seasoned jackfruit ”pulled pork” products has put prepared jackfruit in tubs near the hummus at many grocery stores, too.
What are the best recipes to use jackfruit in?
Try simmering it in barbecue sauce, or use it like you would any other vegetable you would put in stir fries, curries, or rice dishes. You can also find pre-seasoned jackfruit “pulled pork” in packages. You just open the package and use it like precooked pork! Try one of those, or one of these recipes:
More About Jackfruit
Still curious? Learn more about jackfruit here.
What is chick’n? That’s not spelled correctly.
Hey, we’re not the website to throw stones about missing vowels, okay? About 25 years ago, Canadian company Gardein started making soy-based meatless meats, including their Chick’n product, which is intended as a substitute for (you guessed it!) chicken. It comes in many forms, including breaded and unbreaded, strips, and even a breast-like option called “chick’n scallopini.” Confusingly, other companies, such as Tofurky and Veestro also make chicken substitutes called chick’n. There’s even a band by that name. We can’t speak for the band, but Gardein’s product is widely available, and the meat alternative that we’re recommending.
What’s great about Chick’n?
Gardein’s various chick’n products are very widely available, and they come frozen, which means they’re easy and convenient to have on hand. Visually, it resembles white-meat chicken quite closely, and while a plain chick’n “strip” isn’t a dead ringer for a true bird, when it’s used in dishes, it has the flavor and texture of chicken — without the drawbacks.
How is it different from actual chicken?
Gardein’s products cook much faster than regular chicken, and because they come frozen and you cook them from frozen, they’re wildly convenient.
Where can I find Gardein Chick’n?
Look in the frozen section of your grocery store.
What are the best recipes for Chick’n?
First, note that with chick’n products (and many other vegan meats), it’s best to sear them quickly, as opposed to simmering them in a sauce for long periods. Cook the breasts according to package instructions and add a sauce, or chop or slice and add them to salads, stews or soups, or in big hunks in main dishes. And then try one of these favorite recipes, using it as a substitute 1:1 with chicken.
More About Chick’n
Still curious? Learn more about Gardein chick’n here.
What is Beyond Meat? (To infinity… and beyond?)
Beyond Meat is a plant-based meat substitute that looks and tastes an awful lot like real ground beef (or in the case of their sausage products, real pork). It’s become one of the two leading go-to vegan burgers nationwide in restaurants (the other is the Impossible burger), and is increasingly available not just in health food stores, but in large grocery stores, too.
What’s great about Beyond Meat?
Beyond Meat is a super approachable product for anyone who knows how to cook with meat and may be nervous about learning to cook new things. On the plate, it’s juicy and aromatic like real meat. And nutritionally, it is similar to real meat (though with less saturated fat).
How is it different?
While some alternative ground meats are meant to act like ground meat in a dish but not actually taste like it, Beyond Meat does a pretty convincing job mimicking meat’s flavor and texture, all with plants. Also, it’s made without soy or gluten, which have historically been the cornerstones of vegan meat products (such as chick’n and soyrizo).
Where do I find Beyond Meat?
First, decide which product you want to try — maybe the burgers, or the ground “beef,” or the sausages. Look for them either in the refrigerated section of a large grocery store (often near the tofu), or in the freezer section. (Frozen versions need to be fully thawed before cooking.)
How do I cook Beyond Meat, and what are the best recipes to use it in?
Just cook it like meat, only usually with no oil in the pan. Note that it does need to be cooked before serving, and it’s best added to dishes toward the end of cooking, because the flavor changes if it’s simmered for a long time. Then try it in one of these recipes, some of our ground meat favorites.
More About Beyond Meat
Still curious? Learn more about Beyond Meat here.
What is the Impossible Burger, and what’s impossible about it?
The company behind the Impossible Burger, Impossible Foods, started by identifying the molecule that makes meat taste like meat. It’s something called heme (it’s part of hemoglobin), and as it turns out, it can be derived from soy and yeast. The company used that to develop a meat alternative that, like Beyond Meat, really tastes like meat.
Why should I try Impossible meat?
It’s good if you want to eat something that actually tastes like meat— but without the drawbacks. According to a number of reviews their burger tastes like a burger, cooks like a burger, and even “bleeds” like a burger. Their ground beef browns beautifully in a pan, which makes it great for meatballs and anything else where a good sear is important.
How is it different?
Unlike other meat alternatives, Impossible’s products have been genetically modified—meaning that instead of combining existing foods, Impossible has learned how to alter foods to create totally new things. From a flavor standpoint, it’s a major breakthrough, but some object to having so much technology on their dinner plate.
How do I find and start using Impossible meat?
That’s the current challenge. Right now, you can purchase Impossible meat in select stores on both coasts in the U.S., but it’s not yet available nationwide. If you can get your hands on some, you use it like ground beef. No strings attached.
What are the best recipes for Impossible Meat?
When it’s available, and if you can get your hands on some, try one of these!
Still curious? Learn more about Impossible Meat here.
Well, how did it go? Tell us how you and your meat match got along!