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8 Meat Substitutes for Vegetarian and Vegan Dishes

Try these meat alternatives to add some protein to your plate.

A common question posed to many vegetarians and vegans is “how do you get your protein?” or “what do you eat to stay full?” Of course, any seasoned vegetarian knows there’s a world of filling options that are just as satisfying in taste, texture, and nutrients as the finest cut of steak.

Beyond Burger, Beyond Sausage and Beyond Beef packages

Now that vegetarianism and veganism have become popular lifestyles, many restaurants have vegan and vegetarian menu options. I

n addition, there are also fully vegan and vegetarian restaurants debuting stunning dishes of plant-based culinary art.

Many vegetarian dishes are plant-based takes on meat dishes, while others focus on the delicious flavor profiles of vegetables themselves.

If you’re new to vegetarianism or just want a healthier, cheaper option for your favorite meat dish, you’ll be happy to know there are plenty of amazing meat substitutes that taste like the real thing.

Best Meat Substitutes 

Whether you’re looking for a juicy burger or a hearty bowl of Texas-style chili, the following list of the best meat substitutes has key ingredients to satisfy your craving while staying meat-free. 

Jackfruit

Jackfruit is the latest trend in meat substitutes but has existed as a key ingredient in India and Southeast Asia for centuries.

Jackfruit is a giant tropical fruit with a hard spiky shell and dense pinkish-orange innards surrounding giant seeds.

While you might think that its designation as a fruit means it’s sweet, jackfruit has a neutral flavor that absorbs marinades perfectly. It’s also prized for its texture which remarkably resembles shredded meat.

You can buy jackfruit pre-shredded and marinated at most local grocery stores.

It tastes great as a substitute for a pulled pork barbecue sandwich or seasoned with lime juice and chili powder for a shredded chicken taco.


Tofu

Perhaps the most widely known meat substitute on my list, tofu, is another Asian-born food that you might also know as soybean curd.

It is rich in fat and protein with a completely neutral flavor that works well with any sauce, seasoning, or marinade.

Tofu comes in various textures that range from a super soft, almost jello-like consistency to firm and dense.

They come submerged in water that you must drain, and using a heavy plate or towels to extrude all water is optimal. The drier you can get tofu, the easier it will absorb any flavor you put it with.

Tofu tastes amazing in Asian stir-fries, as a cheese curd substitute in Saag Paneer, or battered and fried with your favorite dipping sauce.


Seitan

A mainstay in Chinese and South Asian cooking, seitan is a favorite textured vegetable protein made from wheat gluten that has been processed to remove all starch.

What you’re left with is a super dense, chewy mass that feels like biting into a chicken nugget. 

It is considerably higher in protein and lower in fat than tofu but higher in carbohydrates. Many mock ham or chicken dishes use seitan for its uncanny texture similarities. 

Seitan has a more distinct flavor than tofu or jackfruit, but it absorbs marinades well.

It tastes especially delicious with a soy-sauce marinade or sauce like Teriyaki or Kung Pao.


Tempeh 

Originating in Indonesia, tempeh is another soybean product. It’s made from fermented soybeans that have been processed and packed into a much denser, thicker, and chewier mass than tofu. 

You can find tempeh in most grocery stores in vacuum-packed packaging as asymmetrical rectangular masses that you usually break up into crumbled lumps that feel exactly like ground hamburger meat in your mouth.

Tempeh has a completely neutral flavor and tastes great sauteed like hamburger meat with chopped onion, garlic, and spices.

Perhaps the best use of tempeh is as a ground meat substitute in Texas-style chilis. Even meat-eaters won’t be able to tell the difference.


Beyond Meat 

If you don’t like soy products and are looking for plant-based meat that both feels and tastes like meat, look no further than Beyond Meat.

Beyond Meat is a 100% plant-based meat product line that uses a myriad of vegetables, legumes, and even fruit extracts to create everything from burgers to chicken cutlets.

Their product line includes burger patties, beef steaks, meatballs, breakfast sausage, chicken cutlets, ground beef, and bratwurst.

They look exactly like their meat counterparts, with just as much protein and a fraction of the fat.

They’re sold at most grocery stores, and while they may be pricier than tofu or tempeh, they’re a more authentic meat substitute.


Impossible Meat

Despite its name, this brand of plant-based meat proves that nothing is impossible by bringing you the juiciest, most succulent meat without slaughtering a living animal. 

Impossible meat is similar to Beyond Meat, and it offers a variety of plant-based beef, pork, and chicken products that taste so much like meat that it’s impossible to tell the difference.

Impossible burgers are all the rage, with global franchises like The Cheesecake Factory adding vegan options and Burger King adding vegan burgers.

KFC’s vegan menu also recently added Impossible fried chicken meals. You can also buy Impossible Meat at select grocery stores. Impossible meat is as close to the real thing as you can get. 


Lentils

On the other end of the meat substitute spectrum are the trusty legumes that may not taste like meat but have meat-like qualities.

Lentils come in countless variations and are a beloved ingredient in culinary cultures worldwide. There are thousands of lentil recipes, from hearty lentil soups to lentil burgers to Indian Dal.

Lentils may not taste like meat, but they have just as much protein and heft. They’re also the cheapest and most widely available meat substitute on the list.

You can find them at grocery stores, convenience stores, and markets whether you’re in North America, Asia, Europe, or beyond.


Beans and Chickpeas 

Beans and chickpeas are another wildly diverse and versatile category of protein and fiber-packed meat substitutes.

Popular beans that are as ubiquitous as lentils include black beans, kidney beans, white beans, and pinto beans.

You can buy them dry or cooked, and they encompass an entire universe of side dishes, main courses, and snacks.

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, have wide uses, including hummus, Moroccan tagines, or dry roasted and spiced Mexican street snacks. 

To create a complete protein, it is best to pair beans with grains. Classic examples include hummus and pita, red beans and rice, or black beans and corn tortillas.


Best Meat Substitutes 

  1. Jackfruit
  2. Tofu
  3. Seitan
  4. Tempeh 
  5. Beyond Meat 
  6. Impossible Meat
  7. Lentils
  8. Beans and Chickpeas 

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re looking to cut back on meat intake for environmental, economic, or health reasons, you’ll be happy to know that there are many delicious alternatives.

Some meat substitutes imitate meat so accurately that even the most stubborn carnivores will have to tip their hats. Others have a meaty texture and a neutral taste, acting as an exciting culinary blank slate. 

The above list of the best meat substitutes allows you the opportunity to either you want to imitate meat’s taste or compensate for its nutrients. 

If you’re looking for vegan food, there are more and more options coming out at fast food restaurants! Check out Taco Bell’s vegan menu for some great options, or P.F. Chang’s vegan options!

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.