Meet the Meat Substitutes
Want more plant-powered protein on your plate? From flavor and nutrition to the best ways to use them, here’s how top veggie meat alternatives stack up.
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Jackfruit Pot Roast from Food With Feeling
There are a host of reasons to swap meat for plant-based sources of protein. Promoting personal health, combating climate change, concerns over animal welfare, and the relative expense of animal proteins are all great reasons to move beyond Meatless Mondays and build more meals around meat substitutes.
Chalk it up to innovation, marketing, and a robust specialty food industry, but as faux meat options have expanded in sometimes delicious new directions, it’s also gotten more confusing to weed through the choices. Is that ground beef doppelganger really a healthier choice? Which brand is most likely to satisfy the burger connoisseur at your next cookout? Can you even grill this stuff? Are faux sausages or chickenless tenders worth trying?
Perhaps the (very-outmoded) “4 Basic Food Groups” messaging many grew up on is to blame, but lots of folks don’t realize that the plant world is full of protein. Newer USDA recommendations, including the current My Plate guide, have course-corrected a bit by acknowledging that nuts, seeds, soy products, lentils, beans, and peas fit in the protein group. (Per the guidelines, the latter 3 might also count as vegetables, depending on how much a person consumes. Honestly, this registered dietitian wonders if that’s not unnecessarily confusing; plenty of other foods could fit into more than one category, and varied intake tends to help us cover our nutritional needs.)
In any case, from traditional whole foods with long culinary histories to innovative plant-based meat analogues, meatless is going mainstream. We’ll help you make sense of the options.
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Q&A: Making sense of meat substitutes >>
The best vegetarian meat replacements (and recipes!):
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Q&A: Making sense of meat substitutes
There's a lot of confusing info out there about meat substitutes. Start your research here with these easy explanations.
A variety of plant-based meats
How do I pick a meat substitute?
That depends on your motivation or sense of adventure! Are you looking for an interesting (and possibly unfamiliar) plant-based protein replacement? Then tempeh, seitan, or jackfruit might be your jam.
Or do you crave culinary slight-of-hand and a meat substitute that looks, smells, and tastes as much as possible like the real deal? You’ll probably be happier with one of the newer commercial ground beef replacers like Beyond Beef or the rival Impossible Burger. Veggie sausages or even seitan will likely satisfy, too.
Plant-based meats are always healthier than regular meat, right?
Not always, but context matters. While some meat substitutes are essentially whole foods with few additives, other veggie “meats” are heavily processed, and many contain a lot of saturated fat and/or sodium. So, if you’re swapping a small portion of lean meat for veggie sausages, the former might be the better choice nutritionally. But if those veggie links are standing in for pork sausages — which usually contain potentially carcinogenic additives including nitrates and nitrites — then the meatless versions are often a better choice.
Is it true that plant protein isn’t as well absorbed as meat?
Plant proteins may be less bioavailable than meat, but in the context of a varied diet, that’s not really a concern, especially since most Americans — vegetarians included — tend to consume significantly more protein than they require.
I’m intrigued … but I’m not ready to commit to a whole faux meat meal.
Try the charcuterie approach: Pick up some vegetarian deli slices, pepperoni, sausage, and/or bacon. Set them out with your favorite crackers, breads, veggies, cheeses, dried fruits, nuts, olives, condiments, etc. It’s a low-key way to taste small bites and see what you like. (PSA: Check the packages to see if you need to cook anything first.)
Does going meatless mean eating lots of tofu?
Tofu is a great source of plant protein (and calcium, which isn’t abundant in meat). It’s incredibly versatile, and when treated with respect, it’s delicious. But is it an optimal choice if you’re looking for a stand-in that’ll mimic the texture or flavor of meat? Maybe not. The reason, in part, lies in tofu’s production process, which is very similar to cheesemaking. The resulting bean curd ranges in texture from soft and silky to firm and dense. There are great uses for each type but asking it to masquerade as hamburger is a waste of good tofu.
If you want to do it justice, check out Su-Jit Lin’s roundup of Asian tofu recipes, or take the pressure off busy night cooking with these 30-minute tofu recipes. Enjoy them while mulling over the philosophical question of whether tofu should be regarded as a meat replacer. As you figure it out, try the other contenders for best meat substitute below. (We’ve focused on meatless ingredients meant to get you cooking, rather than heat-and-serve options like chicken-less nuggets, pre-made veggie burgers, or veggie hot dogs. Of course, those are fun to explore, too!)
Tempeh, plant-based meat substitute
Like tofu, tempeh is soy-based, but the similarities end there. Tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is an important part of Indonesian cuisine, where it has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. The cultured, fermented soybean cakes can be cooked many ways, and they're great at taking on seasonings. Sometimes, they're also made with grains or other legumes.
A 3.5-ounce portion of tempeh provides about 20 grams of protein and is a good source of potassium. It’s rumored to be a great source of B12, but vegans — who need to take extra care to get adequate B12 — should be aware that nutrient analysis studies demonstrate that B12 content in tempeh can vary widely, and is negligible in many brands. It is, however, rich in several other B vitamins, iron, and other important nutrients.
Tempeh Vegan Ribs
This super-easy recipe has lots of fans, several of whom note that the sauce is so awesome it turned them into tempeh lovers. The recipe calls for 250 grams of tempeh; an 8-ounce package will do the trick.
Looking for an intro to tempeh but feeling a little shy? Get acquainted via the tempeh crumbles hiding out in this simple, veggie-packed chili. Canned beans minimize prep and cook time, so you can get dinner on the table in under 45 minutes.
Homemade taco seasoning is the star of these quick and easy tempeh tacos. The tortilla wrapper and familiar avocado, red cabbage, and lime accompaniments are surefire ways to get dubious diners to dig in.
Typically made from soy or pea protein, vegetarian sausages come in links, crumbles, and patties. Links are usually heartiest, and a good choice when you want a meat substitute to anchor a meal. Nutrient values vary by style, brand, and serving size, so check the label for specifics.
Kale and Soy Chorizo Hash
Like its pork-based counterpart, soy chorizo is richly seasoned and does the heavy lifting flavor-wise in this otherwise simple dish.
Weeknight Pan-Fried Pierogi and Kielbasa
Yes, this recipe features pork- or beef-based sausage, but creator Tory L. Davis gives the green light to vegetarian links, too. Plus, the pan-frying-pierogi-from-frozen hack is too good to miss.
BBQ-Flavored White Beans with Sausage and Spinach
You can basically raid the pantry to make this satisfyingly hearty one-skillet meal.
Seitan, plant-based meat substitute
Seitan (pronounced say-tahn) has ancient origins and a toothsome, chewy texture that makes it a particularly satisfying substitute for meat. Historians believe the recipe was developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks in China, where written references to the wheat gluten-based “meat” date to the 6th century. The traditional method for making seitan involves mixing flour and water, then kneading and slowing rinsing away the starch several times. The gluten “dough” that remains gets simmered in broth; depending on how it’s seasoned, the resulting seitan can stand in for chicken or beef in a wide range of recipes.
A 3-ounce portion of seitan provides about 21 grams of protein — an amount that’s comparable to that of chicken or beef.
Consider this recipe a 2-for-1: Vegan cooking ace Isa Chandra Moskowitz shares not just a streamlined version of her piquant, lemony piccata, but also a link to her homemade chicken-style seitan. Of course, you can sub in packaged seitan if you prefer.
Crispy Orange Seitan and Broccoli
Looking for a vegetarian version of a Chinese takeout fave? A quick stir-fry crisps up seitan beautifully before it gets cloaked in a savory, slightly sweet orange sauce. Can’t eat wheat or gluten? Try subbing extra-firm tofu or another favorite wheat-free meat replacer for the seitan. (The recipe notes suggest using Gardein, but read labels carefully — most of the Gardein product line is NOT wheat-free or gluten-free)
Vegan Mushroom-Seitan Stroganoff
The umami qualities of both mushrooms and seitan nudge this comfort food classic into satisfyingly beefy territory.
Seitan Banh Mi Sandwich
If you’re into sandwiches for supper this seitan-filled banh mi is a great alternative to the veg versions made with tofu.
Jackfruit, plant-based meat substitute
Although it’s quite nutritious (unlike many vegetarian meat substitutes!), jackfruit isn’t high in protein. That’s actually a boon for folks who need to follow low-protein diets, including those with PKU (since jackfruit is also low in phenylalanine).
Despite its relatively recent popularity on the veggie food scene, jackfruit has a long history as a staple crop in South and Southeast Asia, where it likely originated. The enormous, bumpy-shelled fruit can grow to over 100 pounds and is the largest tree fruit on the planet. Ripe jackfruit is sweet, with a mixed tropical fruit flavor. But unripe jackfruit is edible too, and that’s when it shines as a meat substitute. Neutral on its own, it soaks up savory flavors brilliantly, and boasts a satisfying chew. Texturally, it makes a stellar replacement for pulled beef, pork, or chicken.
Prepping fresh jackfruit is a production, so opt for canned (in brine or water, not syrup) or packaged. Reliable brands include Native Forest, Trader Joe’s, Upton’s Naturals, and The Jackfruit Company.
Barbecue Pulled Jackfruit Sandwiches
Intrigued by jackfruit’s pulled meat replacement powers? This easy recipe is a great way to put them to the test.
Buffalo Jackfruit Vegan Grilled Cheese
If you’re ready to move beyond entry-level jackfruit sandwiches, try this smoky, spicy, totally vegan take on a gussied-up grilled cheese. If you’re not vegan or dairy-free, but like the general vibe, try it with regular cheese.
Jackfruit Pot Roast
Proof of jackfruit’s versatility, this recipe uses larger pieces as a stand in for the fall-apart-tender beef in a classic pot roast.
Ground beef substitutes
Plant-based ground beef substitute
If you’re the type who’d go full-on carnivore if it weren’t for the pesky detail that humans need to eat plants, too, this is probably what you’re thinking when you hear “meat substitute.” Meatless crumbles are nothing new, and there’s a range of products on the market meant to work in tacos, meatloaf, chili, and pasta recipes. These are usually made from concentrated or isolated soy protein and various fillers.
But over the past few years, new contenders have hit the market, and they’ve generated lots of buzz for their food tech-guided innovations and uncanny resemblance to actual ground beef. Unlike crumbles, you can fashion this stuff into burgers or meat-free meatballs. Impossible and Beyond are arguably the most prominent brands, not least because both have landed on major fast food chain and restaurant menus. Now, other companies are following their lead with products that look, feel, and cook like ground beef, so it’s worth taste testing to find your favorite. (Don’t worry about the brand specifications in the recipes below — you can interchange similar products.)
As for their ingredient and nutrition profiles, the brands are unique. Beyond Meat has tweaked its plant-based ground recipe a few times; the latest iteration is pea- and rice protein-based, and has been fortified with vitamins and minerals to give it a nutrient profile similar to that of beef. It’s soy-, gluten-, and GMO-free, and it can go on the grill. One caveat: Though Beyond is peanut- and tree-nut free, yellow peas are legumes (like peanuts), and cross-reactions to their protein are a possibility. If you’re allergic to nuts, proceed with caution (consider consulting your allergist first about how much to try, and have epinephrine on hand just in case).
Impossible dubs its vitamin- and mineral-fortified, grillable product “ground burger.” 4 ounces provide 19 grams of protein (comparable to Beyond’s 20 grams). What really distinguishes Impossible isn’t its soy protein base, but its proprietary soy leghemoglobin. Where Beyond declares itself GMO-free, Impossible embraces genetic engineering to craft a vegetarian version of heme, a vital cell molecule that happens to give meat its distinctive flavor and aroma. And it’s the secret to a meaty, juicy vegetarian burger that’s anything but impossible.
The takeaway? Check labels, take care if you have known allergies or food intolerances, and enjoy whichever brands work for you!
Beyond Burger Patty Melt
Craving old-school diner fare? Topped with caramelized onions and slathered in “special sauce,” this patty melt is the perfect change-up from a regular burger.
Impossible Quinoa Bowl
Lest you think this is just another grain bowl, know that renowned chef Traci Des Jardins created the recipe. In other words, head to the kitchen: You’ve got quinoa, pickled veggies, and garlciky, gingery, plant “meat” to make.
Seasoned with Mediterranean herbs and spices, veggie ground beef makes a great gyro filling. The homemade tzatziki and fresh pita are a must.
Explore more plant-based recipes
If you're looking for more ways to eat a plant-based diet, read on.