A Beginner’s Guide To Meat Substitutes
We know that it’s not easy being green, MOB, but sticking to a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean you spend your days consuming an endless cavalcade of salads and smoothies. Vegetables are obviously going to be your best friend when it comes to providing the bulk of your diet, and packing flavour into the plant-based dishes you do eat, but being a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean that hot dogs and burgers are completely off the menu.
With everything from faux-fish fingers to meat-free burger patties that actually bleed at your disposal in the local supermarket, we’ve got access to a greater variety of high-quality meat substitutes than ever before. The UK saw a massive demand for new vegan food products over lockdown. But that wide array of options has also brought about some confusion over what these products actually are. Tempeh. Tofu. Seitan. Soyrizo. It’s easy to get bowled over by the assortment of vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives that crowd the shelves, MOB. Which is where we come in.
Whether you’re looking to cut meat out of your life or simply want to have a meat-free Monday every now and then, we’re here to try and help clear things up about the wonderful world of meat substitutes. We’re not saying you’re guaranteed to have a religious epiphany and become a tempeh-and-two-veg kind of person overnight after reading this but these vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes should hopefully have you seeing the benefits of hailing seitan from time to time.
Here’s everything you need to know about meat substitutes.
She’s big, she’s bad, and boy is she beautiful. Tofu is one of the most popular vegan meat substitutes in the entire world, MOB – and for a bloody good reason. Made by curdling soy milk, tofu comes in a range of different textures that span from silken and soft to firm and extra firm. Its mild, pleasant flavour – combined with the varying degrees of softness it’s readily available in – is what makes tofu an excellent vegan addition to any dish that needs a bit more substance. Whether you’re frying it up for a portion of crispy smoked tofu or letting it simmer and soak up the flavours of an unctuous tofu and sweet potato curry, you’ll always be pleased with what you can get out of this high-protein meat substitute.
Seitan (aka wheat gluten) is an old school meat substitute that’s favoured for its somewhat squeaky texture and uncanny ability to resemble real meat. Or, at least, the closest thing you’re going to get to real meat without actually butchering an animal. While you might have thought seitan was a modern made-in-the-lab creation designed for Whole Foods shoppers and Stoke Newington mums, wheat gluten has been documented as a food source in China as early as the 6th century. It’s not hard to see why it’s still so popular today. Throw seitan in a stir-fry or drape some grilled slices over a bed of noodles and you’ll quickly see where its strengths lie. Keep an eye out for some of the “mock duck” varieties knocking about – it’s almost spookily reminiscent of the real deal and one of the tastiest alternatives out there if you find yourself hankering for plant-based duck pancakes.
If you’re after a nutty meat substitute that won’t fall apart under pressure, then you should really give tempeh the time of day. This Indonesian soy product is traditionally made from fermented soybeans – giving it a slightly earthier note than tofu – and is perfectly suited for mincing into curries, bulking out a bolognese sauce, or even grilling on its lonesome with a slick of tangy marinade. Not only does tempeh taste great but it's packed with fibre and gets bonus points in our books for having a much meatier texture than most other vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes. Get your hands on a block and start experimenting.
Right, fungal protein might not sound like the sexiest (or most appetising) thing in the world but mycoprotein is a deceptively delicious protein derived from fungi that’s an absolute powerhouse of a meat substitute. In fact, we’d say it’s pretty likely that you’ve eaten a load of mycoprotein-packed products without even knowing it. Quorn is the most popular brand of mycoprotein in the UK and Quorn’s products, which range from meat-free cocktail sausages to meat-free meatballs and chicken bits, have taken over the meat-free aisles in supermarkets over the last few years. You’ve probably demolished a packet of their cocktail sausages on more than one occasion. Mycoprotein’s superpower is that it’s a blank canvas: a substance made delicious by the addition of a healthy blend of spices that can be formed into just about any shape imaginable. Do be wary, however, that some commercial versions of mycoprotein contain a small amount of egg or milk protein, so they might not be completely vegan. Check the label.
We’ll be the first to admit that jackfruit certainly tests the limits of what you can classify as a meat substitute seeing as it is, after all, a fruit. A slice of apple or a wedge of plantain might not always cut the mustard as a meat substitute but considering just how pivotal a role jackfruit plays in recipes like our jackfruit vegan curry, we’re more than comfortable with including it in this primer. Jackfruit’s delicate flavour and fleshy texture make it the go-to choice as a pulled pork surrogate and – you know what? – we’ve got no problems with that! The more jackfruit that’s on menus in this world, the better. Jackfruit goes especially well in a traditional gudeg and also gets an accolade for being one of the few entries on this list (along with tofu) that we’d happily have in a dessert.
Textured Vegetable Protein
Textured vegetable protein (or TVP for short) is a plant-based meat substitute that’s made by isolating and extracting the protein element of a soybean. No, we’re not entirely sure what any of that means either but it seems like there’s literally nothing that the plucky little soybean can’t do. TVP is high in protein and, as a result, often finds itself used as a meat replacement in products like meat-free chicken nuggets, burgers, and bacon. You’re most likely to find it already incorporated into a ready-to-cook food product but you can still buy TVP in its dehydrated form as well. While it doesn’t have a huge amount of flavour on its own, TVP can make a nice mincemeat alternative in chilli and pairs nicely with most seasonings you throw its way.
A close relative of tempeh, oncom is a fermented meat substitute that’s made from a mixture of the byproducts and secondary products derived from the production process of other foodstuffs. The main byproducts used to make oncom include: the soy pulp left from making soymilk; the peanut press cake you get after making peanut oil; the coconut press cake formed after making coconut milk; and the cassava tailings produced from making tapioca. All of these byproducts are given a new lease of life in this dense and nutritious cake which is a major component in the popular rice-based dish of nasi tutug oncom. Getting your hands on some real deal oncom might be difficult, depending on where you’re located, but you can always try and make it yourself at home. Just make sure you’re clued up with fermentation and be careful with the mould, MOB. By which we mean consult an expert before even attempting to make your own oncom, OK?