I love meat and was aghast at the prospect of replacing the ground beef in my burgers, skillet mac, or dan dan mian with plant-based meat.
12 Essential Rules for Cooking with Plant-Based Meat
But since we came out with two books that heavily leaned on these products (Cooking with Plant-Based Meat and The Complete Plant-Based Cookbook) I’ve become a full convert.
This is because today’s meat alternatives are more like the “real thing” than ever before. Meat alternatives such as tofu or veggie burgers are nothing new, but truly meaty meat alternatives have only come to market in the last few years.
Whether you’re a full vegan, vegetarian-curious, or someone looking to keep a New Year’s resolution, whatever your reason for choosing a meatless meal, it’s important to know that although it now looks and tastes like meat, plant-based meat has its own set of rules to cook it properly.
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1. Thaw Frozen Meat as Needed
Raw bulk plant-based meat keeps longest if stored in the freezer until just before you’re ready to use it. If you plan ahead, you can move a package to the fridge to thaw the day before you need it.
Or use our quick-thaw method: Seal the frozen meat in a zipper-lock bag (or leave it in its original sealed, watertight packaging) and submerge it in very hot (140-degree) water for 15 to 20 minutes.
2. But Don’t be Afraid to Refreeze it
If you have a few ounces of thawed plant-based meat left over after making a recipe, you can refreeze it with no loss of texture or quality (unlike with regular meat). Just seal the meat in an airtight container and pop it back in the freezer for up to 6 months.
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3. Keep Cool and Handle with Care
Lacking the myosin proteins that help bind animal meat, plant-based meat is softer and more prone to becoming misshapen, especially at room temperature. We work with chilled meat straight from the fridge and, after any shaping, re-chill the meat for 15 minutes to allow it to firm up again before cooking.
Be gentle when handling patties or meatballs as they can crumble more easily than traditional meat, and for beautiful spherical meatballs, turn them frequently as they cook.
4. Keep Your Hands Clean
Plant-based meat is pretty sticky, so you can find yourself coated in the stuff if you’re not careful. Wear food-handling gloves or moisten your hands with water as needed to prevent sticking.
5. Use a Nonstick Skillet
Plant-based meat doesn’t just cling to hands; it also sticks to cooking surfaces, causing patties and meatballs to break apart when you attempt to move them. Avoid this sad state of affairs by using a nonstick skillet as your default pan. Using a nonstick skillet to cook plant-based meat ensures you won’t leave any behind.
6. Grease Your Grill
Likewise, plant-based meat can easily stick to a grill or break apart when flipped, so use a grill brush to clean your grill grate thoroughly and oil it well to prevent sticking.
7. Become Fond of Fond
The Maillard reaction is the browning process by which heat causes proteins and sugars in foods to change their chemical makeup and form hundreds of new flavor compounds. Take advantage of this and deepen the flavor of your plant-based meat by cooking it until it develops a dark, crispy crust, and then scrape up the fond (the browned bits left on the bottom and sides of the pan) with a wooden spoon to incorporate its flavor back into the dish
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8. Reverse the Standard Cooking Order
In recipes using animal meat, we often call for browning the meat before adding the other ingredients. But because plant-based meat cooks through so quickly, it’s better to do the opposite: Start your aromatics and longer-cooking vegetables first, adding the meat only once the aromatics and vegetables are softened. We employ this method often, such as in our Cuban Picadillo made with plant-based meat.
9. Use Less Salt
Salt is added to plant-based meat during processing, making it much saltier than regular ground beef. While the sodium content varies by product, we’ve found that we can use ¼ teaspoon less salt overall in recipes made with plant-based meat than in equivalent recipes made with animal meat.
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10. Add Extra Liquid to Saucy Dishes
Plant-based meat tends to release a smaller amount of fat or liquid than animal meat does when cooked. We compensate for this by adding extra liquid (usually water or broth) to saucy dishes like stroganoff, taco fillings, and casseroles to achieve the ideal consistency.
11. Less Is More
When exposed to heat, the proteins in plant-based meat don’t tighten and shrink as much as animal proteins do. That means plant-based meat loses significantly less volume when cooked compared with beef or pork, so you can use less of it without sacrificing portion size: 12 ounces of cooked plant-based meat is roughly equivalent to 1 pound of cooked animal meat.
12. Cook It to 130 Degrees
Visual cues can help you determine the doneness of plant-based meat just as they do for animal meat, but what you’ll need to look for is different. Don’t rely on the color of the meat, as this varies by brand. Instead, take its temperature.
Plant-based meat cooked to medium-rare (125 degrees) is mushy and pasty. On the flip side, cooking plant-based meat until well done (160 degrees) yields meat with an unpleasantly bouncy, chewy texture. We found medium doneness (130 to 135 degrees) to be the sweet spot for tender, juicy meat.
Because plant-based meat cooks faster than regular ground beef—thick plant-based burger patties, for example, take just 2 to 3 minutes per side compared with 3 to 5 minutes per side for similarly thick beef patties—be sure to begin checking for doneness on the early end of the time range to guard against overcooking.