8 Ways to Add a Meaty Taste to Plant-Based Dishes

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Wondering how to create umami flavor without using any meat? Here's how to take your plant-based dishes to the next level.

If you browse through the Taste of Home archives, you’ll find that I’ve written a lot of articles about meat. I share tips for cooking the perfect burger, breaking down chicken and a ton of advice about working with steak. I love meat because of its rich, savory flavor, but I’ve found myself eating less and less of it over the years.

Because sustainable, pasture-raised or grass-fed meat is more expensive than conventional options, I started making vegetables a larger component on the plate. Then, I began cooking meals with (gasp!) no meat at all.

What did I find? Plant-based meals are incredibly satisfying, especially if you focus on building meaty flavors into each dish. That’s where umami comes in. Umami is one of the five tastes (along with salty, sour, bitter and sweet), and it’s most concisely summed up as savory flavor. It’s what makes a grill-marked steak, a rich tomato sauce or a Parmesan cheese-topped portobello mushroom taste extra yummy.

Umami is found in meat, but knowing how to create umami flavor with veggie-friendly ingredients will make it easier to build meaty flavor into plant-based meals. Vegan umami is possible!

How to Create Umami Flavor

Coaxing maximum flavor out of plant-based ingredients is all about building layers of flavors. Start with beans, vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, peas or corn, or soy-based ingredients like tofu or tempeh. Then, add one or more of the following ingredients as you cook.

The ingredients will all work together to create a complexity that takes your dish from fine to fantastic without a ton of extra effort.

Premade Spice Blends

Since creating plant-based umami is all about layering several umami-rich ingredients into a dish, using spice blends is a great way to get started. Mushroom-based blends like this Porcini Mushroom Powder or Umami Mushroom Seasoning Blend will add woodsy, earthy flavors.

If mushrooms aren’t your thing, look to blends that contain black garlic, an aged garlic that’s simultaneously sweet and earthy. Alternatively, smoky ingredients—like smoked salt, chipotle powder, smoked paprika or ground cumin—are good options, too. Their rich flavor and smoky aroma go a long way to transform a simple meal.

MSG

MSG is a bit of a taboo ingredient. For years, many people feared MSG sensitivity, worrying it might cause everything from itching to headaches and other symptoms. So why would we suggest using it to create umami flavor? Because it’s incredible at making anything umami taste more umami.

Short for monosodium glutamate, MSG is an FDA-approved food additive that’s derived from glutamic acid (one of the essential amino acids found in complete proteins). It enhances meaty flavors, making plant-based ingredients like tomatoes, mushrooms and soy taste more savory. You’ll only need a small amount (about 1/8 teaspoon) if using it as a finishing seasoning, or you can add as much as 1/2 teaspoon to sauces or soups while they simmer to amp up the flavors.

Liquid Smoke

Before we get started, we must caution you: It is really easy to overdo it with liquid smoke, so be sure you know how to use liquid smoke without going overboard. In small quantities, liquid smoke makes anything taste like it came straight off the charcoal grill. (Wondering what is liquid smoke? We’ve got you covered.) In larger quantities, though, it creates extremely bitter flavors and carries an unpleasant aftertaste. We like adding it to marinades for roasted or grilled vegetables or adding a little bit to homemade sauces. About a teaspoon per cup of sauce should do the trick nicely.

Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is grown specifically to be used as a food product. These yellow flakes are naturally high in glutamic acid, and they work well as both a finishing and cooking ingredient. Add nutritional yeast to hot soups, puree it into cashew creams or mix it with grains, and the nutty flavor will melt in and permeate every bite. Alternatively, a finishing sprinkle adds a Parmesan cheese-like finish to popcorn, toast or roasted vegetables.

Black Vinegar

Black vinegar is made from fermented rice, wheat, barley and sorghum. It has a distinctly sweet-tart flavor that doesn’t taste great on its own—but combine it with other umami-rich ingredients and it boosts the richness of the entire dish.

If you don’t have black vinegar in the pantry, balsamic vinegar will work in a pinch. It’s sweeter and less funky than black vinegar, but it still works to pull together the other flavors.

Miso Paste

This fermented soybean paste is perfect when you want to add vegan umami flavor while also increasing the body of a saucy dish. There are several different kinds of miso paste, and each adds a unique flavor to your cooking. We love using miso as a finishing ingredient in soups or sauces, swirling a tablespoon into the sauce until it’s well combined. It can also be used to glaze vegetables, make a stellar salad dressing or as a substitute for butter in carbonara pasta.

Keep in mind that miso paste is pretty salty, so you’ll want to reduce the amount of salt in the dish when using it.

Seaweed

The most effective way to create an umami-rich vegetable broth is to add kombu to the mix. This seaweed is an edible kelp that’s used to make dashi, the broth used in miso soup. Combining kombu and mushrooms creates a liquid that’s almost as rich as meat-based broths.

Roasted seaweed snacks are another great way to add extra flavor to veggie dishes. Look for sheets roasted with olive oil or sesame oil and sprinkled with a little finishing salt. Add them as a garnish to rice and pasta bowls for a salty, savory finish.

Tamari or Soy Sauce

When in doubt, a splash of soy sauce, gluten-free tamari or vegan Worcestershire sauce usually does the trick. These ingredients are umami bombs, full of salty and savory flavors that can really elevate the other layers you’ve created. Most Worcestershire contains anchovies, so seek out a vegan Worcestershire (like Annie’s Naturals) if you’re concerned.

Tips for Adding Meaty Texture

In addition to using umami-rich ingredients, you’ll want to consider the texture of your dish. The right ingredients will help enhance the vegan umami flavor.

  • Tempeh, seitan or pressed extra-firm tofu work well as substitutes for steak, pork, chicken or fish. You can also look to vegetables that can be cut into “steak” shapes, like cauliflower, sweet potatoes, zucchini, winter squash or beets.
  • Mushrooms have a naturally meaty texture, so they’re excellent options as the star of vegetarian dishes. Try using whole portobello mushroom caps to create plant-based burgers, or sautee the strips for a vegetarian-friendly Philly cheesesteak. Smaller mushrooms are ideal for skewers, rice, pasta or stir-fry dishes.
  • Beans are incredible, no matter how you cook them. They’ll add a dense, chewy texture to soups and stews, and they can be combined with oats to create vegetarian burgers.
  • Quinoa has a delightfully nutty texture, and it tastes almost exactly like ground beef when mixed with cooked lentils. Try adding the combination to a taco salad,
  • For a dish that requires shredded meat texture (like tacos or sandwiches), look to jackfruit. This mild-flavored fruit usually comes prepared in a can or pouch, and all you’ll need to do is toss it with your sauce.
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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.