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Vegetarian Ground Beef Substitute

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

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Do you have a family recipe you’d like to make vegetarian? For instance, tacos, spaghetti bolognese, chili, or meatloaf. But how would you go about this? Many times simply eliminating the meat isn’t enough.

The meal won’t feel complete and you’ll be missing out on some nutrients, mainly iron and protein, though you could potentially lose out on satiating fat as well!

So when you’re planning on a recipe that traditionally contains ground beef, you need to first think about what that dish brings to the table (ba dum-tsh).

A dish that is solely to satisfy an occasional craving or honor a memory needs less nutritional attention than a dish that will be a part of your regular rotation. So consider your needs, what you liked about the dish, and how often you will eat it. 

Different options have different benefits and shortcomings.  My list of ideas is below.  Do you have anything to add?

Black Beans or Lentils

I usually opt for ease and use canned, but many people prefer the texture of these prepared from dried.

Pros:

  • Beans contain iron and protein
  • They also contain a large amount of fiber that is great for gut and heart health that is missing from meat. 
  • Canned beans and lentils require almost no prep time, just rinse them and add to your dish.
  • Beans and lentils can take on a lot of flavors.
  • Legumes are generally cheaper than beef.

Cons:

  • The iron in beans is less bioavailable than the iron found in beef.
  • Dried beans (more so than lentils) have a lot of prep time involved.
  • Beans and lentils don’t have much fat. Meaning that while they are great at getting you full, you’ll get hungry again soon if you don’t add another source of fat.

Textured Soy Protein

Textured soy protein, sometimes called textured vegetable protein, is essentially defatted soy flour.   This is generally bought as flakes that you then rehydrate and use as any other ground protein source.

You’ll need to season heavily, but again, it’s a blank slate to take on a lot of flavors. Consider using vegetable or mushroom broth to rehydrate instead of water.

Pros:

  • Again, textured soy protein is pretty cheap.
  • You’ll have a bit more prep time than canned beans, but still less than browning ground beef, the first step in many recipes.

Cons:

  • Textured soy (or vegetable) protein may be difficult to find, depending on your location.

Tempeh

Tempeh is fermented soybeans, usually found in an unflavored block.  You can slice tempeh and use on a sandwich or crumble it to resemble ground beef.

Pros: 

  • Tempeh has some flavor on its own so you may not have to season it as heavily or find ways to add umami
  • Tempeh has more protein than tofu
  • Because tempeh is fermented, it has some additional benefits to the gut. However, because you generally cook it, there is very little, if any, probiotic benefit. Pre- and postbiotic activity is likely.

Cons:

  • Tempeh is generally found with tofu but can be harder to find in smaller grocery stores or in rural areas.

Seitan

Seitan is a relatively little-known protein source for vegetarians. It is made from wheat protein or gluten. Usually found in unflavored chunks (think beef tips) or strips, but you can also find it sliced like deli meat or flavored. Those that are feeling experimental can actually make this from scratch at home.

Pros:

  • Seitan has an umami flavor all on its own, potentially making it easier to prep.
  • Seitan is high in protein 

Cons:

  • Seitan is not appropriate for individuals with Celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities.
  • Seitan can be difficult to find
  • Seitan is likely more expensive per oz than beef or the other vegetarian options.

Faux “beef” crumbles

Several brands make vegetarian substitutes for ground beef.  They are generally sold in packages that equate to 1 lb of ground beef.  You’ll find options from Boca, MorningStar, Impossible, Beyond, Gardein, and more.

Pros:

  • These products are ready to go and require no prep. They just need to be heated.
  • Depending on your chosen brand, these products will most realistically mimic real ground beef.

Cons:

  • Depending on your chosen brand, these products will most realistically mimic real ground beef. (haha, realistic meat substitutes aren’t a plus for many vegetarians, but in a multivore household, it can be appreciated)
  • Some of these products are very lean, meaning some fat may be needed to add to your dish.

Crumbled tofu

This is probably the least “beef-like” of the options.  Many people think tofu more closely resembles chicken in texture and fairly bland taste.

Pros:

  • Tofu is cheap and easy to find
  • Tofu readily takes on any flavor you want to add to it

Cons:

  • Unless you buy super-firm (aka high protein) versions, tofu must be pressed to achieve a good texture, vastly increasing your prep time.
  • Again, you’ll need to add a source of fat when replacing beef with tofu.

Walnut “meat”

Walnut meat is a relatively new concept to me and one I’m interested in experimenting with (stay tuned).

Pros:

  • It can be fun to experiment with new recipes!
  • Walnuts have a great nutrient profile, with protein, fiber, healthy fats, and phytochemicals.

Cons:

  • Nuts and seeds can run kind of expensive.
  • This is likely a lot of prep time that won’t work for quick weeknight dinners.

If you want to try walnut meat, I’ve published my own recipe here!

Mushrooms

I love mushrooms so much on their own and as a method for adding the much-needed umami flavor to my meals. as an honorable mention?  Other vegetables that are often used to mimic ground beef are eggplant, jackfruit, and cauliflower.

Pros:

  • Mushrooms and other veggies are cheap.
  • Mushrooms are a good way to sneak in some fiber and other nutrients that may otherwise be missed.

Cons:

  • These vegetables have lots of things going for them, but protein is not one of them. You’ll have to find somewhere else to get protein when a vegetable is used as a beef substitute.
  • The texture of vegetables may be softer than you want for a beef substitute.

Vegetarian Ground Beef Substitute – How to add umami

Umami is a flavor that many of us don’t think about. It’s not talked about as often as sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. 

However, it is a super rich and comforting flavor and is often what is missing when your vegetarian dish just doesn’t compare to the meat-filled original. I particularly miss umami in foods that are “winter foods,” such as stews, chili, and shepherd’s pie.

Umami seems more abstract to us and has been described as complex, meaty, savory, or just delicious.  Meat, particularly beef, is the most commonly cited source of umami, but many vegetarian foods give us that complex flavor, such as:

  • Seaweed
  • Soy (soy sauce, natto, miso)
  • Aged cheeses (such as parmesan, gouda, cheddar – though assess the ingredients for vegetarian friendliness)
  • Other fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh)
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Marmite
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes

Consider adding these foods to your “ground beef” substitute to increase missing umami. 

You could use beans and mushrooms for taco meat, for instance.  

Mushroom broth can be used in place of water or vegetable broth.

I add tomato paste, red wine, and/or soy sauce to many sauces to add the richness and comfort of a winter dish.

Adding sun-dried tomatoes, miso paste, toasted nuts, nutritional yeast, and/or cheese can also add richness to your recipe.

Let me know in the comments if you have any other ideas!

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