By Betsy Andrews
Move over, beef, pork, and chicken. Plant-based meats — ones that mimic real meat but are made with legumes, grains, nuts, fruits, or veggies — have arrived. This March, with Covid-19 shutdowns sending us to our own stoves to cook, plant-based meats sales skyrocketed 148 percent, far exceeding sales of animal products.
The pandemic only accelerated an ongoing trend. A 2018 study by DuPont Nutrition & Health showed that, globally, 65 percent of people are eating more plant-based foods. Over half said that mock meats, with their lower fat and calories, made them feel healthier. Many are also concerned about animal welfare and worried by industrial meat farming’s greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destructiveness. Plant-based meats, which are primarily non-GMO, have few of these problems.
What they have had, historically, are issues with texture and flavor. When you’re swapping the ground beef out of your meatloaf, you need to do legwork to find a vegan crumble that approximates the real thing. Luckily, with advances in plant-based food science, it’s easier nowadays to get carnivore-adjacent satisfaction from plant-based meats. And with more brands sold in groceries and online, there are plenty of choices for a range of delicious mealtimes.
Just check the labels. Lots contain wheat gluten, soy, nuts, and other allergens. And though they can be a good source of fiber and protein, particularly the newfangled, engineered ones lack the nutrients of whole foods. Some contain enough sodium that you shouldn’t season them. Others you’ll need to salt. Finally, most plant-based meats lack the fat that protects proteins from sticking, so cook them with gentler heat on oiled surfaces.
Plant Based Breakfast Sausages
Morning sausages are among the most realistic plant-based meats. Lightlife Gimmee Lean Plant-Based Ground Sausage, from a 40-year-old, carbon-neutral company, is an oldie but goodie. Soy-based but with some gluten, it comes in a plump, sliceable roll that’s a bit sticky, yet pan-fries beautifully, for springy texture and savory, herbaceous flavor.
For links, try Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms Veggie Breakfast Sausage Links. They contain gluten and egg whites, but they’re firm and pork-like.
Classic BLT, But Hold the Actual Bacon
There are two kinds of bacon eaters: Those that like the meat, and those who crave the fat. For caramelly, crisped-fat flavor, go for MorningStar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips. They do contain gluten, egg white, and cornstarch. Made with non-GMO wheat gluten and organic buckwheat and adzuki beans, Sweet Earth Benevolent Bacon delivers smoky, meaty heft. The concern? It’s now made by Nestlé, a company implicated in rainforest destruction and other environmental ills.
Gotta Have a Burger?
Thanks to a GMO soy protein called heme, Impossible Burger looks, acts, and “bleeds” like real ground beef, but we found a tinny aftertaste. Made with non-GMO pea protein and wheat gluten, Sweet Earth Awesome Burger tastes better and, while denser, behaves nearly as beefy. Gluten- and soy-free Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger has a gas-grill flavor. All contain plenty of sodium, and though cholesterol-free, saturated fat from coconut and other oils still shows up. But on a bun with the works, they’re close to the real thing.
Prefer an old-style hippie burger? Physician-made Nutcase Vegan Meats’ Vegan Nutty Burger contains brown rice, quinoa, and a host of seeds and nuts for substance and an appealing crust when seared, with cumin and other spices for delectability.
If turkey burgers are your jam, Before the Butcher Uncut Plant-Based Roasted Turkey Burger has the chewy, crumbly consistency of cooked, ground turkey and a pleasingly poultry-like taste.
Taco Night is Still On
An Asheville farmers market start-up whose quick success has landed it on supermarket shelves, No Evil Foods is an ethically-motivated company that gives a portion of profits to animal and human rights groups. Made with non-GMO wheat gluten enriched with organic tomato paste and chili powder, Mexican oregano, and other seasonings, No Evil El Zapatista Chorizo has the tacky, crumbly texture of loose sausage and just the right flavor to stuff a hard shell.
It’s been the brunt of jokes from your carnivorous cousins at the holiday table forever, but they don’t know what they’re missing. Flavored like a stuffed bird, with aromatics like carrots, celery, garlic, leeks, and rosemary, the wheat-and-tofu Tofurky Plant-Based Roast & Wild Rice Stuffing is darned tasty, with a turkey-like texture and none of the tryptophan side effects.
Ballpark Dogs, Extra Mustard
Plant-based sausages are nitrate-free. Made with pea protein and coconut and canola oils bulked up with apple and chicory fiber, Beyond Meat’s Hot Italian Beyond Sausage is thick and juicy with garlic-and-paprika panache. With knockwurst heft, porcini depth, and herbaceous appeal from plenty of basil and oregano, High Peaks Wild Mushroom Plant-Based Sausage is an Italian dog for milder palates. Low in saturated fat, gluten- and soy-free Lightlife Planted-Based Bratwurst will have you reaching for a beer and some sauerkraut. With onions and garlic, celery seeds and mustard seeds, and liquid smoke in their recipe and moistened with organic palm oil, gluten-based Field Roast Frankfurters provide hot dog realness.
Even a Steak Dinner Goes Plant-Based
The wünderkinds of the plant-based meats, siblings Kale and Aubry Walch run an artisan deli, shop, and food truck in Minneapolis. But they also sell their hipster vegan meats online. The gluten-based Herbivorous Butcher Meat-Free Flank Steak has all the steely seriousness of a soy sauce-marinated primal cut.
For Your Sunday Gravy
There are several vegan crumbles on the market, from pea-based Longève Plant-Based Protein Crumbles to non-GMO, pesticide-free Butler Soy Curls and organic sunflower-based Haché, which offers a bolognese version boxed with an Italian spice mix. But for the closest thing to the ground beef you’d simmer in a true Sunday gravy, Quorn Meatless Grounds is it. Made from mycroprotein, derived from fermenting the fungus Fusarium venenatum, it has the umami oomph of mushrooms or meat, though it’s softer than animal protein. Add substance and spot-on flavor to your sauce with chunky Upton’s Naturals Italian Seitan, a wheat-and-soy plant meat spiked with all the right stuff from The Boot: garlic, fennel, oregano, and more.
With restaurants and food service halted by coronavirus, companies that worked exclusively with chefs are now providing their products to consumers. Hungry Planet is one of them. Their autolyzed yeast extract—the same stuff in Vegemite—adds depth to non-GMO, soy-based Hungry Planet Beef Ground and Hungry Planet Pork Ground. They both sear up nicely, and mixed together with a binder and seasonings, they make a toothsome meatball. Shiitake mushrooms, non-GMO soybean flour, and corn starch come together in the neat little Shroomeats Mushroom Balls. Season, sauce, and serve them in a crockpot for Swedish meatballs.
Wheat gluten amped up with liquid smoke, nutritional yeast, and loads of peppery spice, Herbivorous Butcher Meat-Free Pastrami is thin-sliced and ragged-edged to approximate the cured meat you’d pile on rye with a thick swipe of mustard.
Jerky For the Open Road
With so many vegan options, animal-loving hikers can pack jerky without feeling jerky. Cowboys will like Jerky Y’all Black Pepper & Sea Salt. The dark, little nuggets taste like well-seasoned, dried beef. For sweet heat, there’s no better than BeLeaf Meatless Vegan Jerky Wasabi. It has a soft, pulled texture, a candy-like sweetness, and a bristling wasabi finish. BBQ fans should go for Louisville Vegan Jerky Co. Maple Bacon. Liquid smoke, paprika, and tamari give these textured strips smoky depth. All are made with non-GMO soy. Looking for an umami bomb? Pan’s Mushroom Jerky Zesty Thai is earthy as can be, with a booming dried shiitake flavor spiked with cayenne, tomato powder, garlic, and more.
Gardein Chick’n Patties have just the right yielding texture to replicate poultry, with a sweet, crunchy crust that approximates the coating on a Chick-Fi- A sandwich. It’s made by agricultural giant Conagra, but it’s non-GMO soy and wheat. BeLeaf Vegan Drumsticks are made with non-GMO soy and pea protein hugging a sugar cane “bone.” Sear them off, douse them with your favorite spicy sauce, and then broil them for meaty, springy vegan Buffalo wings.
Almost Thai Takeout
Jackfruit, the world’s heftiest fruit, makes for a firm, plant-based meat that’s completely clean of legumes and grains. It has a tangy flavor that melds beautifully with the coconut-and-spice yellow curry sauce of Upton’s Naturals Thai Curry Jackfruit. Serve it over rice garnished with scallion and cilantro.
Sushi for Lunch
Former fish lovers can get plant-based seaside flavor with Jinka Spicy Vegan Tuna Spread. Made with soy and wheat spiced up with paprika, cayenne, and cumin, the spread comes packaged with nori strips in a cute little container with a (sigh) plastic spoon for serving. Wrap in the nori, and top it with Orange-Red Cavi-art, a seaweed-based “caviar” with the briny flavor and textural pop of flying fish eggs, and you’ve got the best vegan version of spicy tuna roll.
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