Like many of you, I am a classically-trained chef and plant-based food wasn’t a focus for me. And now I eat plant-based around 80% of the time. As a chef I find it more exciting, creative and personally, I feel better; I have more energy and I am doing my bit to combat climate change.
When I started cooking more plant-based, many of my chef friends shared how the vegan or vegetarian options they had eaten felt a bit flat or thin and left them wanting more. To get a really delicious plant-based dish you need to work a bit harder to create a balanced flavour profile.
We know that one of the things that gets our pallet tingling is umami, that real savoury depth of flavour that signals to our brains that we are getting protein; fats, which help to deliver flavour; and of course our love for sugar and salt.
My work with Humane Society International as culinary lead for Forward Food delivers in-person, virtual and hybrid plant-based culinary workshops to help chefs feel excited about creating plant-based dishes. It’s important work because chefs can often feel rather restricted by the challenge of creating plant-based dishes and a bit out of their comfort zone when formulating menus.
It’s a big topic to tackle so we break this down into four toolkits: umami, texture, pulses and whole grains. Chefs are often surprised by just how good the dishes taste and realise that they are able to delight the majority of their customers, not just the vegans or vegetarians. I have outlined some of my top tips from our sessions to help inspire you to get plant curious and deliver delicious dishes. And before you know it, it will be second nature.
Just by caramelising a piece of meat you immediately intensify the flavour, creating umami. In a plant-based dish you need to think about where you are going to get umami. There are so many store cupboard staples that boost umami and it’s not just the ingredients you use, it’s what you do to them. For example, slow cooking, drying, salting or brining any ingredient intensifies the flavour.
Here is a quick list of our favourites for imparting umami into dishes: Tomatoes, especially cooked and in tomato purée; the allium family with onion, garlic, celery etc. forming the basis of so many dishes for exactly this reason; mushrooms; truffles; olives; capers; preserved lemons; aubergine, particularly when slightly charred or smoked; asparagus; celery; carrots; broccoli and peas.
Citrus is a staple in so many cuisines as it adds both bitterness and umami with both fresh and dried citrus packing a punch, dried citrus peel is routinely used in middle eastern cuisine and whole dried limes are often added to cooking grains to deliver a deeper background flavour and fresh citrus juice helps absorption of iron from plant-based sources.
Seaweed is increasingly available in different blends and can really add different aspects to a dish, such as dulse delivering a flavour of the sea and a smoked blend adding even more nuances. Seaweed seasoning can really lift something like a tomato salad to a new level, or added to a plant-based mayo as a tartare sauce providing the depth that a small amount of anchovy may have done.
One minor note of caution, thinking of serious shellfish allergen reactions, you may need to declare this or use a brand of guarantee shellfish-free seaweed.
Fermentation is increasingly popular and great for gut health, delivers another layer of flavour and adds some complexity, just think of a dash of Worcester sauce to liven up a cottage pie.
A number of these are easy store cupboard staples such as: soy sauce and tamari (thicker, less salty and wheat free); miso in its different forms, including soybean miso the most classic and intense flavour, distinctly Asian, barley miso (mugi) not too sweet or powerful, a westerners favourite, great in stews and sauces, and rice miso (shiro) the sweetest and mildest great for salad dressings and lighter dishes; vegetarian Worcester sauce and HP Sauce; vinegars, especially balsamic and apple cider vinegar; wines and beers; toasted nuts and seeds; marmite.
There is also nutritional yeast, which has a savoury ‘cheesy flavour’ and is great in soups and sauces or mixed with some breadcrumbs. It can be a great topping for veggies or pasta.
Other options include smoked paprika, smoke-dried chipotle, while sauerkraut and kimchi can add a real boost, are inexpensive to make, and add some street food interest.
Tempeh is also an interesting alternative to tofu, offering great texture and double the protein - a little goes a long way. A few strips over the top of a dish give umami, texture and it can be crumbled over the top of dishes.
So often I am working with chefs and as soon as I give them some vegetables and I turn around and they have been peeled and chopped into tiny pieces. Whilst that’s fine for some dishes the downside can be that everything can become quite indistinct. Meat, even when tender, still provides something to chew on and without that we can feel lacking so we need to give our diners something to get their teeth into.
You also need some height, structure and visual centre point on your dish to mimic the trophy piece of fish or meat to keep the sculptural shape and colour.
To create a more interesting bite or crunch, leave the skin on your vegetables as long as it’s soft enough to eat, such as on a roasted celeriac, potatoes or squash. It provides nutrition, saves a job in the kitchen and provides a contrast in texture.
Adding crunch with toasted seeds, nuts, croutons, herbed breadcrumbs or crusty bread provides a contrast in texture as well some additional flavour. Some crisped vegetable skins, grains and seeds can add interesting texture and reduce food waste.
Wholegrains such as brown rice or red rice mixed with white rice provide a bit of bite. Other grain berries or freekeh, bulgur, quinoa all work well too. A small amount of lightly-fried or crisped vegetables or grain sprinkled on top of a dish can provide a nice contrast.
Raw vegetables or certain roasted vegetables such as cauliflower, sprouts, celeriac and beetroot.
We often rely on dairy to give us both creaminess and as fat literally makes the flavours stick around in your mouth for longer. My favourites for giving creamy texture are below (please note they all need some fat adding usually in the form of an oil except for the dairy alternatives, coconut milk and nuts and seeds).
Roasted vegetables that breakdown easily such as aubergine, sweet potato and squash deliver a soft creamy texture and avocado can also provide creaminess.
Pulses are a great low cost and nutritious alternative with such extraordinary versatility. Think hummus with lentils, chickpeas, butter beans with roasted left over veg.
Silken tofu is also a great texture and is a great vehicle that you can add flavour to. Sweet or savoury, it works well with herbs, capers and garlic for a mayo alternative or maple syrup, chocolate and vanilla for a quick mousse. As with all of these alternatives to dairy they need some fat added to give flavour and mouthfeel so you need to add some oil be it rapeseed or olive oil.
Nuts and seeds, when soaked and blended, can be used as a creamy sauce. Sunflower seeds can be a quick and inexpensive alternative - just remember to add some herbs to avoid a rather unappetising grey colour.
Coconut milk or cream and tahini deliver fat creaminess, while there are dairy alternatives available with a huge range from soy, oat, coconut and many more that are becoming increasingly accessible, though there is still a cost disparity.
Pulses are utilised all over the world due to their versatility, long shelf life, and the bonus that they are packed with protein and other important nutrients such as iron, calcium and fibre. To get the best out of them add acidity, fat and good seasoning to make them sing.
Tinned pulses need warming, if only briefly, to add flavour otherwise they can feel a bit bland. Soaking is not always necessary but does speed up the cooking process and make them cook more evenly.
Boil red kidney beans to deactivate the toxin before cooking at a simmer and to make them easier to digest and reduce the wind factor (which disappears once your gut flora has got used to them) change the water when soaking, cook adequately and add certain ingredients such as kombu seaweed, cumin, turmeric or ginger.
Choosing the right pulse for the dish
Firmer beans such as fava beans, chickpeas or Carlin peas add bite and texture; soft butter beans in contrast to wholegrains in a salad; hulled pulses such as red lentils or chana dal to break down into curries and stews; and mashed beans in patties, falafel, burgers or burritos.
Well-cooked lentils or partially collapsed beans bind a moussaka or shepherd’s pie, while Old World beans like mung, urad or moth beans do well here, are non-soakers and cook in about half an hour.
Pulse flours are great for batters, pancakes and perfect for binding and thickening. In gluten-free baking try pea or fava bean flour.
Whole grains keep you full for longer and are a great source of nutrients including protein and fibre. We often use the same staples again and again, so try something new to liven up your plates.
You have the Scandinavian trends of porridge and rye and the ongoing Ottolenghi effect with Middle Eastern grains and a really huge range to choose from to make dishes a bit more varied and interesting.
Rinsing is only really needed with quinoa to get rid of the bitter saponins and toasting grains can really enhance the flavour and works well with millet, barley and quinoa.
Liven up your rice by mixing in brown or red rice into white rice to create a different colour and texture or add nuts seeds or fried onion for some interest. This is best done after cooking as the white rice will cook faster.
Millet is a versatile alternative that can be creamy like polenta when cooked with lots of liquid or light and fluffy with a small amount of water or stock.
Finally I like to add some zing to a dish with a quick twist of citrus, chilli, herbs and spices. Create a quick pesto made from left over herbs nuts and seeds, just switch out your parmesan for some nutritional yeast.
A quick sauce, salsa or tapenade are great go to options to add some acidity and interest to a dish and pickle from carrots, radishes, cabbages and other root vegetables can be a great way to use up scraps or left over veg and, like sauerkraut and kimchi, can provide a whole new dimension to a meal.
When you combine these elements it creates a rounded dish where you don’t miss the meat or diary. My advice would be just try adding something different next time you are creating a plant-based dish, start with a bit of extra umami and go from there - and enjoy the journey.