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11 Tips for Making Tastier Plant-Based Meals, According to Professional Chefs

·7 min read

Switching to a plant-based diet (even part of the time) is no easy feat, especially if you've been eating meat, dairy, and other animal products for most of your life. However, there's no doubt that meat-free meals are here to stay.

According to data recently released by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association, vegan food sales are growing twice as fast as overall food sales, increasing by 27 percent in 2020, and 43 percent in the last two years. In fact, between 2018 and 2020, plant-based sales increased by 250 percent overall. Additionally, Whole Foods (yes that Whole Foods) released its first plant-based trends report in May 2021 and predicted a rise in vegan foods for kids—yet another indication that consumers want to cut back on the amount of meat and animal products they (and their families) consume.

RELATED: 9 Plant-Based Foods You Should Be Eating More Of

As the demand for plant-based food grows, and traditions like Meatless Monday—the practice of not eating meat on Mondays—pick up steam, more chefs and culinary professionals are cooking meals made exclusively with vegan and vegetarian ingredients. We consulted a team of chefs and food experts (who also happen to be Meatless Monday Culinary Ambassadors) and picked their brains for easy ways you can take your own plant-based meals and snacks to the next level. Keep reading for advice directly from the pros!

Have a broth or umami seasoning on hand

For plant-based chef Ivan Castro, who owns La Bartola in Toronto, Canada, properly flavoring vegan food with a broth or a combination of seasonings is key. "My favorite is a blend of dried mushrooms with salt, garlic powder, and kelp seaweed, which is optional," he explains. "Use your favorite broth or seasoning blend to make soups, stews, or anything. It will help give your dishes a delicious umami flavor. You will love it!!"

RELATED: 22 Vegan Soup Recipes Using Your Favorite Seasonal Vegetables

Use those dried beans

Remember when everyone inexplicably stocked up on beans at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? Apparently those legumes may really come in handy now. According to Dan Churchill, executive chef at Charley St. in New York City, a can of dried beans can serve as the base for an excellent vegan dish, or can be transformed into a meal in its own right. When cooking beans, the author and fitness expert suggests you start by soaking them overnight. "This will make your life so much easier," he shares. "Larger beans like chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans especially will need to be made a bit more tender by soaking overnight."

To do it right, Churchill suggests you soak your beans in at least quadruple the amount of water, which translates to 4 cups of water per one cup of beans. "Give them a good rinse under cold running water, then add them to a pot with fresh water. Whenever you're ready to cook them, look over the beans and remove any that look broken or off-color," he adds. "Use at least double the volume of liquid compared to beans (so at least 2 cups of water to every 1 cup of soaked beans) and add lots of salt and any aromatics you like."

For an especially flavorful dish, Churchill loves to toss in peppercorns, leeks, onion, bay leaves, sage, or garlic. "Cook the beans until they feel completely fork tender with no resistance or grittiness. This can take anywhere from one to three hours, so check the beans every so often after the one-hour mark. Then drain, store, and you're done!" he says. "Serve [the beans] with rice and your favorite sauce for a protein rich meal."

And for pressure cooker/ Instant Pot owners, Churchill notes the cooking process is especially easy. "You can simply use the cook function and make your beans according to the instructions," he shares.

RELATED: 5 Delicious Recipes That Start With a Can of Beans

Don't be afraid to get smoky

"I love adding a smoky element to my meals to give them an extra meaty punch. Adding a dash of smoked paprika, chipotle powder, or smoked sea salt to mushrooms takes them up another level," says Eddie Garza—plant-based chef, cookbook author, and host of Global Bites with Eddie Garza on OzTube. "Liquid smoke is also great for turning plant-based proteins, like tofu, tempeh, and seitan, into vegan bacon!"

Get creative with your vegetable prep

As many longtime vegans will tell you, there's more than one way to prepare your veggies. Robert Graham, MD, the chef and founder of FRESH Med in New York City, agrees. "In culinary school, we learn that the difference between a professional chef and a cook is learning to choose the best ingredients to cook with and using different cooking techniques to maximize flavors," he shares. "For far too long, we thought healthy vegetables should be steamed, but in fact braising and caramelizing vegetables are excellent ways to infuse flavors into 'boring' veggies."

Stock up on black salt

"Just a pinch of Himalayan black salt (aka 'kala namak') will give any dish a yolky flavor. I add it to my tofu scramble, tofu 'egg' patties, and cashew-based Hollandaise sauce to mimic the flavor and aroma of eggs," says Garza. "You can find this wonder salt online or at your local Indian grocer."

RELATED: 9 Smart, Surprising, and So-Helpful Ways to Use Salt

Make your own plant-based pesto

Sure, you can find vegan pesto at the grocery store, but whipping up your own homemade version can elevate your meatless meals in a pinch. "Sub miso paste in for Parmesan to get that umami flavor and creaminess," says Ayindé Howell, a lifelong vegan, chef, food activist, and owner of iEatGrass—a chef-run, taste focused, certified minority-owned, plant-based food manufacturing company.

Don't waste that chickpea water

If you frequently use canned chickpeas while prepping meals, Indian vegan chef, Food Network champion, and TV host Priyanka Naik strongly encourages you not to spill out the water that comes in the can. "Chickpea water—aka aquafaba—is liquid gold," she stresses. "This can be whipped up with a hand mixer/whisk and folded into chocolate to make a mousse, folded into a pancake batter for light and fluffy pancakes, used to make meringues, and SO much more!"

RELATED: 10 Healthy Pantry Essentials You Should Always Have on Hand, According to RDs

Find vegan counterparts for your favorite meat and dairy products

Gone are the days when adopting a vegan diet meant you needed to live off of grilled tofu on a bed of lettuce. Currently, there are dozens of successful brands that produce plant-based versions of some of the most beloved foods. Finding these items, says Sara Tercero—a chef and author featured on Food Network—is a great way to ensure you won't miss meat too much.

"There are some amazing 'meaty' burgers and meatless grounds that would fool even the most fervent meat lover. They seamlessly replace meat in almost any recipe," Tercero shares. "Plant-based butters, milks, and mayo are also a no-brainer, as they are barely perceptible as different in most dishes. All these products make reducing or eliminating animals from our diet much easier than in the past."

Save those leftover veggie scraps to make stock

"Put your veggie ends and scraps in a freezer bag or container and keep them in the freezer until it's full," says Howell. "Once it's full, put all the scraps in a stock pot and fill with water." According to the culinary pro, this is a great way to make your own vegetable stock and cut down on your food waste. "Add whole peppercorns, dried mushrooms, dried kombu, dried herbs, and more for extra flavor," she continues.

RELATED: 10 Major Mistakes You're Making That Are Causing Food Waste

Keep legumes, grains, and dry goods in your pantry

"Grains, legumes, and dry goods are your friends!" says Naik. "Keeping legume-based pastas, (like Banza) dried legumes (such as lentils and kidney beans), and grains (like pearl couscous, quinoa, and rice) on hand is a super easy way to make protein-packed and easy meals. Plus, these items are not perishable! It's a great way to make meal prep easier as well."

Don't forget ground flaxseed and chia seeds

"This is an easy way to make super filling and nutritious meals," Naik shares. "Flaxseed is high in nutrients, like omega−3 fatty acids, and chia seeds are high in nutrients such as fiber and calcium. Sprinkle them onto toast, into smoothies, sauté them directly into vegetables, and more! Plus, both can be used as an egg substitute when you're baking."

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