From tacos to wings, learning to cook with plant-based meats

It’s that time of year when many people resolve to eat less meat. The “whys” are varied: sustainability and worry for the planet, health considerations, ethical concerns over the treatment of animals.

One increasingly popular option is “plant-based meat,” which can be found from grocery store meat sections to restaurants.

These products aim to imitate meat in taste, texture, appearance and smell, and the likenesses are now pretty impressive. The ingredients usually include a plant-based protein, such as soy or pea, and sometimes other beans, wheat or potato.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the two monster names in this arena, but there are dozens of brands. In grocery fresh food sections, plant-based options center on ground “beef,” burger patties, meatballs and sausages. In the freezer aisles, there’s that and also a lot of products designed to replicate specific dishes, such as “chicken” nuggets, pot pies or stir-fry kits.

So, how to cook with these products at home?

“The veggie meats are an easy substitute,” says Angela Campbell, a pescatarian living in Portland, Maine, who relies on plant-based meats to enhance her cooking. She says she can use the imitation ground beef and sausage 1:1 in recipes.

They can be used in pasta sauces, stir fries, casseroles, fajitas, etc.

Like ground meat, the plant-based crumbles are perishable, so treat them as you would ground beef, using them within a few days and cooking them thoroughly.

Many of them cook more quickly than their meat counterparts, and seem to be more sensitive to precise cooking times; the packages often warn against under- or overcooking. So you might want to add them towards the end of cooking a dish. Most of the brands’ websites offer recipes.

Campbell says she has had more limited success with the “chicken” products.

“Long-simmering chicken dishes or dishes made with whole breasts can’t be replicated,” she says. “The (plant-based) chicken is generally best in a stir fry, or with a sauce prepared separately. The chicken might brown, but nothing crisps up.”

Cheyenne Cohen, a food photographer in Brooklyn, New York, eats vegan at home, and says, “When I use plant-based meat, I’m never trying to perfectly recreate a meat-eating experience. I like to get to know the texture and general taste of each brand/variety and then experiment with preparation and seasonings until I find something that works well.”

She loves using soy crumbles as taco meat or any way you’d normally use ground beef, and says it’s generally easy to make that swap.

Instead of featuring the meat substitutes as the center of the dish, Cohen finds them “a good recipe ingredient,” just one component.

Jade Wong, owner of Red Bamboo in New York City, has run restaurants that specialize in plant-based meat offerings for 20 years. She says their menu is geared towards vegetarians and vegans who are looking for comfort food.

“Do you really want a salad on a cold winter’s day? Or would you rather have a chicken parmesan hero or a burger?” Wong says.

Red Bamboo makes their own plant-based meat products (Absolute Vegetarian and Absolute Vegan) and sells them wholesale to other restaurants. Wong notes that many store-bought, plant-based meats are precooked so they just require heating.

She suggests marinating soy burger patties in your favorite marinade before giving them a quick sear on a griddle. And cooking soy-based meat substitutes on a ridged grill pan offers the eye-appeal of traditional grilled meat dishes.

Crumbled “sausage,” Wong says, makes a great pizza topping or, when sauteed and mixed with vegetables, an addition to pasta dishes, perhaps bound together with sauce and seasonings.

At the restaurant, they get more creative, offering options like barbecued buffalo wings that consist of soy-based “chicken” wrapped in bean curd (they even put a stick in the wings to mimic the bone).

Some plant-based products are like blank slates, meant to be used in your favorite recipes. Others are prepared in a heat-and-eat way.

Gardein is a huge presence in the frozen foods section, known for their “chik’n” products; they also make homestyle beefless tips that you can skewer, saute, or stir fry, and sweet and sour porkless bites. Before the Butcher makes seasoned, ground, plant-based meat products and patties with interesting flavor profiles like roasted turkey burgers. They also make a lower priced line of burgers under the name Mainstream, designed to compete with beef patties not only in flavor but in price.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Ming Tsai recently launched a line of Ming’s Bings, a comfort-food bonanza of ground, plant-based meats, vegetables, cheese, and varied seasonings enclosed in brown rice wrappers that get fantastically crisp when baked.

Some plant-based meat products are vegan, some vegetarian, some gluten-free, some dairy-free; if you have dietary issues, read the packaging carefully.

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