A growing number of people are adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet because of the health and environmental benefits that go along with them. As the number of non-meat eaters rise, the processed food industry has been quick to adapt their products and create new brands to cater to this burgeoning multi-billion dollar market. But despite claims of being “all natural”, many of these products have been heavily processed.
Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP) is a great example. It’s a convincing meat substitute found in many read-to-eat foods that’s often made from denatured soy proteins. The soy protein is a byproduct of producing soybean oil and in many commercial operations, the process of extracting soybean oil (and many other oils such as canola and corn) involves introducing a solvent called hexane.
Hexane is a petroleum byproduct of gasoline production and is a cheap industrial solvent that the EPA classifies as a neurotoxin. In fact you may remember hearing about a rash of mystery illnesses amongst Chinese factory workers assembling iPhones, which was eventually linked to the hexane used to clean the devices’ screens.
So why would the FDA allow such a dangerous chemical to be used in food products? Because in theory it’s all supposed to evaporate. In reality, not all of the hexane evaporates as shown in Cornucopia Institute’s report on Hexane in soy products. Since the FDA does not require companies to test for Hexane residues in their products, there could be a lot of Hexane residue in your food and you wouldn’t know it until you got sick.
That’s why it’s so important to cook using whole ingredients and to limit your intake of processed foods. The less processed a food is, the fewer chances it has of some dangerous contaminent being introduced.
In Asia, where Buddhists have been following a vegan diet long before frankenfoods such as TVP and mycoprotein were invented, they’ve found creative ways of making mock meats without dousing them with chemicals. Today I want to share with you a technique I’ve refined to turn tofu into a convincing alternative to ground meat.
At a very simplistic level, ground meat is just meat proteins, water and fat. Similarly tofu is just soy proteins, water and fat. The biggest difference is that tofu has much more water and less fat than meat. By changing this balance you can create a crumbly vegan ground meat that tastes and looks like the real thing after being sautéed and seasoned. The trick is to take advantage of the slow chilling that makes home freezers a poor device for freezing produce.
If you’ve ever frozen fresh fruits or vegetables, you’ve probably noticed they lose a significant amount of water when defrosted. This is because home freezers are only cold enough to freeze food over a period of several hours. This slow-freezing causes water molecules to arrange themselves into a crystalline structure. When the food is defrosted, the water melts and flows out of the pores created by the formation of the ice.
By freezing tofu in your freezer and defrosting it, you are left with a spongy matrix of soy protein. This is a meat substitute called koridofu (ice tofu) that Japanese monks have used for centuries. The problem is that the resulting tofu has a spongy texture that doesn’t have much resemblance to the fibrous texture of whole cuts of meat. It also retains the soy flavor that many negatively associate with tofu.
To reduce the soy flavor I decided to wash the tofu. It worked. Not only does the washed tofu have a much milder soy aroma, squeezing the water out of the tofu causes it to crumble giving it a texture that closely resembles ground meat. Sautéing the crumbled tofu in vegetable oil firms up the texture and introduces additional fat which gives it a mouthfeel just like real ground meat.
While you’re never going to be able to give it a flavor exactly like beef, chicken or pork, in many dishes it doesn’t matter. The meat does however contribute glutamic acids that stimulates umami taste receptors on your tongue. This is what gives meat its savory taste. In order to ensure your dish doesn’t fall flat because of a lack of umami, make sure you’re including other ingredients high in glutamic acids such as onions, mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes, or soy sauce to name a few.
Here are some ideas about ways to use this vegan ground “meat”:
- Freeze the tofu in its packaging for at least 24 hours. I usually keep several frozen packs in the freezer at it will last for months.
- Let it defrost. If you want to speed up the process, just soak the whole package in a bowl of water for an hour.
- Open the package and drain the water. The tofu will have a spongy texture and squeezing it will release a yellow liquid.
- Over a colander (to catch any errant pieces), squeeze out as much liquid as you can using he palms of your hand, then rehydrate it under fresh running water. Try to retain it's original shape when squeezing or it will have a tendency to crumble apart. Repeat this washing process 6-8 times until the water coming out of the tofu is clear. The more you wash it the less soy smell it will have.
- When you're done washing the tofu, use your hands to squeeze the tofu into a ball, squeezing out as much liquid as you can.
- Crumble the tofu until it resembled cooked ground meat.
- Your tofu is now ready to use just as you would ground chicken, pork or beef. Keep in mind, you'll probably want to increase the amount of oil in whatever dish you use it in to make up for the lower fat content.