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.
I use organic non-GMO firm tofu from House Food, but if you're really worried about the safety of your food, grow your own soy beans and make your own tofu.
Here are some ideas about ways to use this vegan ground "meat":
Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wraps
- 400 grams tofu - firm
- 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.
Steph TC Michele says
FYI, the meaty flavour you're craving is just that; spices. if spices didn't exist, i'm certain more people would have become vegan decades ago.
Marc Matsumoto says
Hi Steph TC Michele, while everyone's going to have their own interpretation of words, have a look at the dictionary definition of the word "diet" (https://dictionary.reference.com/browse/diet?s=t) particularly definitions 1,4, and 5. It may also be a lifestyle for some, but it is also a diet.
Marc Matsumoto says
Actually, the "meaty" flavor in meat comes from amino acids such as guanosine monophosphate and inosine monophosphate which meat and fish possess in abundance. It's these compounds that create the taste of umami and what most meat-eaters crave. They also occur in vegetables to a lesser degree, but spices alone are not going to give you the level of these compounds particularly in the quantities in which they're added to food. This frozen tofu comes close to replicating the texture of meat but it does not replicate the taste. To do that you need to add ingredients high in glutamic acids such as caramelized onions, soy sauce, caramelized tomatoes, caramelized red bell peppers, etc.
Used this in place of beef for sloppy joes-- worked great!
a good way to get that umami flavor is to add some msg
I tried this recipe, and if you add some ground beef or pork to it it tastes a lot like meat! The texture is better too. If you leave the tofu out, it is indistinguishable from real meat!
Deborrah Cooper says
Eating a plant based diet, a plant centered diet, or vegan - is a diet. It's the food selections you make that qualify your diet as being vegan. Not every person who eats a plant centered vegan diet is living a lifestyle. Some people do it for their health and still wear leather shoes, leather coats, silk blouses and shirts and wool coats in winter. I'm one of them. But my DIET is vegan. So Marc is right.
Thanks for this step by step tip Marc because I want to make some dishes from back home but without beef. 🙂
Open heart surgery, bypass surgery and amputations are complicated procedures. This seems a breeze. And like beauty is in the eye of the beholder; bland is according to the taste bud. All things concerning diet are relative to our desire for health and longevity. "Live Long And Prosper"
I've discovered your website two years ago and I wanted to say doomo arigatoo gozaimasu for the wonderful recipes! I am working on lowering my consumption of meats; mostly because I don't usually have a taste for meat and I could lose a few pounds on my small frame. My body is not a fan of soy; would you happen to have ideas for other plant sources for a ground meat-replacement?
Marc Matsumoto says
Hi Cinesra84, have you tried konnyaku? It's made with voodoo lily yam starch, and in the US it's sold in noodle form (often mixed with soy milk), but in Japan it comes in blocks (you should be able to find it in Asian markets in the US). It's typically grey in color and has the consistency of really firm jello, but if you freeze it and then defrost and wash it (like with the tofu above), it can be crumbled to make for a ground meat-like consistency. It tends to have a fishy odor when raw(there's no fish in it), but the odor goes away when cooked. I hope that helps.
Awesome! I happened upon this site looking for a ground beef substitute for an Armenian pumpkin moussaka I was making. The recipe looked so good, but it was labor-intensive and had lots of expensive ingredients. So I didn't want to screw it up. Well, I followed your directions, added the crumbled tofu instead of the meat, threw in a little extra olive oil and crossed my fingers. The result was amazing. My carnivore husband is coming home in a few minutes. I can't imagine he won't be pleased. And if not... Well--more for me!
Marc Matsumoto says
Sounds delicious and glad I could help!
I know this is an old topic but I have a question. Is the Tofu used "firm" or "soft" variety? I have had trouble deciding between the two. I'm trying to convert a "greek turkey burger" recipe to meatless and NOTHING has worked for the turkey substitute. (chickpea patties don't work since I need a "ground meat' substance) This looks perfect but I don't want to mess it up using the wrong kind of tofu.
Marc Matsumoto says
Hi Moon.talker, use firm or extra-firm tofu. Soft tofu has too much water content and will not work for this (though it's delicious for other purposes). Also, you're going to need to find something to bind the tofu crumbles together as it will not stick together like ground turkey. You could use something like rice flour or potato starch, but adding too much will probably make it a little gummy, so you may want to use a little in combination with something else such as chick peas, grated taro, grated lotus root, etc. Hope that helps.
Julie Grant says
i have frozen both moon talker. i buy several and throw them in the freezer as is. they have a little different texture but both are fine
Seraphina Chew says
Thanks Marc! I just made this today, added some soy sauce, sake and sesame seeds for crunch. So good on top soba and beansprouts! Definitely keeping packets in my freezer from now on (:
All I need for a good steak is salt and pepper. Obviously there's more to it than spices and glutamates otherwise I could just put salt and pepper on a piece of fish and call it a ribeye.
vegan mom says
After sqeezing and crumbling it, dry it. Then it is ready when you need it. I keep some on hand and just throw it into soups. Or let it soak in some type of liquid, then use.
Hi Marc, I wouldn't go by dictionaries, or Wikipedia or the mainstream media, or even large animal charities to find out what veganism is. They are all speciesist. Veganism is an ethical position. Vegans reject using animals for food, clothing, entertainment or other reasons. It's not a diet. It's not a "personal choice". It's not even a "lifestyle". It's certainly not "extreme" as many misinformed folks claim it to be, and if anyone does their homework not only is being vegan mean rejecting violence towards nonhumans but it's better for us (healthwise), it's delicious, and it's better for the planet (51% of GHG are from animal industry).
So after doing this method to get the 'ground meat' likeness, I would like to make a bolognese for two or our 20 guests.
Can I then freeze the resulting bolognese and thaw as I would with a meat bolognese when we come to need it??
(I am pre cooking for a celebration that I will not be able to do much for as I will be recovering from hospital and don't want the old 'I've had a procedure' excuse to stop me from being a fully functioning adult).
Marc Matsumoto says
Hi Jo, it should freeze just fine. But when making the bolognese keep in mind that the tofu has very little flavor, so I'd recommend adding more aromatics (garlic, onions, celery, etc), browning them for longer, as well as using umami boosters such as powdered porcini or shiitake mushrooms.
Try young green jackfruit for the turkey like texture. Google recipes for jackfruit meat substitute. But canned jackfruit in an international grocery store. Wash it really well, cut off the core (ends of the triangles) and smash it until you see it get stringy. Saute with onions, garlic, whatever..and then spread on a baking sheet and dry it out in the oven, about 20 minutes. Season it with whatever you want, then back in the oven for another 10 min or so. It looks so much like meat it's crazy! We just tried this yesterday for a BBQ sandwich.
If you don't eat any animal products, you are following a vegan diet.
Even if you are a circus trainer, wear leather shoes, skin cats for a living or whatever - you are a vegan in terms of diet.
Veganism is an ethical position, so if someone is eating a plant-based diet but using animals in other ways, then they are a plant-based dieter, not a vegan. Cheers.
Mille Merci Marc! I deeply appreciate your recipes in general and cannot thank you enough for also including vegan recipes! Who says vegan foods have to taste bland and boring?! Ah, but you have concretely made this possible. Your explanations like this one above convince me that you would also be a great chemistry professor! Thanks again!
Nicole- NB, CA says
Wow thanks! Going to try this!
This would describe someone following a plant-based diet. This person you are describing would not be vegan. Veganism is not a diet.