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Your guide to meat substitutes & plant-based protein sources

Skipping the meat? Luckily, there’s no shortage of delicious and readily available meat substitutes —but it wasn’t always this way! 

In fact, the introduction of the first frozen veggie burgers was in the 1980s. Since then, the quality and creativity in meat substitutes have grown tremendously. Now, there is a diverse and interesting variety of products to choose from – all of which are generally available in the frozen and refrigerated areas of your grocery stores.

First, what are meat substitutes? 

Most meat analogues are made from soy, wheat, or pea proteins. For example, tofu is made of condensed soy milk and tempeh is made from soybeans. While both tofu and tempeh can be made from scratch, you can also purchase them at most grocery stores, including large chain stores. 

These meat substitutes allow the plant-based cook to create new, exciting, and realistically “meaty” menu options. Especially for those transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, these options give you flexibility to work with recipes you already love. You can often simply swap the chicken (or other animal-based protein) with tempeh, seitan, or tofu —depending on your preference. Once you know how to prepare each meat alternative to your liking, you may be surprised by how delicious they taste. You may even like them more than the meat they’re replacing!

What are plant-based protein sources? 

Remember that using a plant-based protein product —like tofu and tempeh — is a choice. If you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, the vegetables and legumes that you consume should satisfy your protein needs for the day! Chia seeds, nuts, quinoa, potatoes, leafy greens, broccoli, and kale are just some of the many rich plant sources of protein.

5 plant-based proteins that are great substitutes for meat  

  1. Beans 

Refried black beans recipe from Swich

Beans offer the least processed plant-based protein available. From chickpeas to lentils to black beans, beans and legumes have tons of health benefits, such as reducing cholesterol and increasing healthy gut bacteria.

Here are some recipes to try if you want to incorporate more beans in your diet:

2. Tempeh

Braised tempeh recipe from Swich

Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food. It’s made by controlled fermentation of partially cooked whole soybeans with a Rhizopus mold or tempeh starter. The soybeans, and occasionally other soaked beans or grains, are then pressed into cakes that are fermented and transformed with a binding matrix of edible mold to create a very dense, meat-like texture. 

It’s a very versatile product that can be prepared in many ways —such as stir fry dishes and burrito bowls. While it does have a uniquely nutty flavor in itself, tempeh tends to take on additional flavors when marinated and during the cooking process. 

Swich tip for cooking tempeh: Because it’s so dense and protein rich, tempeh benefits from some initial softening. This can be as basic as steaming the tofu or simmering the tempeh in a flavorful liquid such as simple seasoned water or vegetable stock to help the dry center of the tempeh become more succulent. Thirty minutes is generally enough!

3. Seitan 

Seitan plant-based protein

Seitan has been featured on Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese menus for hundreds of years, and has traditionally been used as a meat substitute in the Buddhist diet. Recently, it has become a staple protein in macrobiotic eating. It’s made from gluten, the main protein found in wheat. Not surprisingly, it is sometimes called “wheat meat.”

4. Tofu

Tofu plant-based protein

Today, tofu is a huge part of mainstream plant-based cuisine. The two most commonly used types of tofu are extra-firm and silken. Extra-firm tofu is appropriate for grilling and pan-frying applications, while silken tofu works well in creamy sauces, dressings, and desserts (like this Chocolate Cream Pie).

Swich tip for cooking with tofu: Before using tofu, press out as much liquid as possible. This allows the tofu to better absorb the flavors of marinades or sauces. There are three ways to dry tofu:

  1. Wrap the tofu in a towel and place it in a colander. Lay something heavy, such as a plate on top and leave it for 20 minutes to remove any excess water. 
  2. Freeze and defrost it. This method results in a more porous “meat-like” texture, which is good if you want to use tofu as cutlets or like a chewy texture.
  3. Dy tofu on a towel after slicing or cutting it. 

Tofu acts like a sponge and readily absorbs other flavors when marinated. Once marinated, it can then be grilled, pan-fried or baked. You can also bake tofu in a marinade to really boost the flavor by concentrating the marinade into a sauce or glaze as it cooks.

Final thoughts on plant-based protein & meat substitutes on the market

There’s no doubt about it: there are many great meat substitutions and plant-based protein options on the market. But it is important to note that all of these foods are processed—some more than others. 

For this reason, we think of them as “transitional foods” for those shifting to a plant-based diet. We don’t recommend that they form the basis or foundation of a diet. That said, they can be a wonderful way to begin making the shift to a plant-based diet. So if you or a partner are hesitant to make the transition – give these a try! Just be sure to read the labels and check for ingredientes that you might be sensitive towards. 

Looking to transition to a plant-based diet? Check out our 5 simple tips

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Tags: Cooking Tips Plant Based Cooking Plant Based Protein
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Howard A. ( 11d ) – Nice simple and easy to understand lesson.

Swich C. ( 11d ) – Hi Howard! Happy to hear that! Which of these meat substitutes is your favorite?