Fully developed flavor
Though I didn’t grow up in an Italian family, I can still appreciate the appeal of a bowl of pasta dressed with tomatoey meat sauce. The sauce is rich and savory, clings well to just about any noodle shape, and can be thrown together quickly with basic ingredients such as ground beef, canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, and seasonings. That’s why I make it so often.
The thing is, sometimes I want a meatless version instead, either because I’m hosting vegetarian guests or, increasingly, because I’m trying to eat less meat. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I crave most about a quick meat sauce like this isn’t the flavor of the meat itself, since this type of sauce doesn’t taste particularly beefy. It’s the rich, savory flavor and hearty, unctuous body that I want. Do you really need meat to achieve the look and feel—and even the savoriness—of a good meat sauce? I was about to find out.
Build the Base
The typical Italian American meat sauce gets most of its savory depth from browning the ground beef. As the beef cooks, it releases juices that reduce and form a flavor-packed fond on the bottom of the pot. From there, you remove and reserve the beef and cook the onion, garlic, and seasonings (such as oregano and red pepper flakes) in the rendered fat, which adds to the flavor base. You then add canned tomatoes and the browned beef to the pot and simmer the sauce long enough to tenderize the meat a bit and allow the flavors to meld.
Finding a savory stand-in for the ground beef was an obvious place to start, and mushrooms were my first instinct. They’re a popular meat alternative because they’re an excellent source of both glutamic acid and nucleotides, molecules packed with savory umami flavor. Plus, their cell walls are made of a heat-stable substance called chitin, so instead of breaking down and turning to mush when cooked, they retain some satisfying meat-like chew.
That explained why so many of the vegetarian “meat” sauce recipes I tried called for mushrooms, but in most cases I found their earthy flavor too dominant; I wasn’t trying to make a mushroom sauce, after all. However, a modest amount of mushroom presence would be a good thing as long as I balanced it with other components.
I ruled out more assertively flavored varieties, including porcini and shiitake, in favor of earthy but more neutral-tasting cremini, and I kept the amount to a judicious 10 ounces. To quickly chop them into ground meat–size bits, I blitzed them in a food processor. From there, I sautéed them in extra-virgin olive oil with a bit of salt; the oil would mimic the richness of rendered beef fat, and the salt would both season the mushrooms and pull water from them so that it could evaporate for faster browning. Once the mushrooms had developed some color, I added an onion (also chopped in the food processor) and a healthy scoop of tomato paste, another umami booster. When the onions were translucent and the paste had darkened to a deep rust red (a sign that its sugar had caramelized and its flavor had intensified), I added garlic, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes; stirred in the tomatoes; and simmered the sauce for about 20 minutes.
Tossed with some pasta, this early batch looked thin and tasted one-dimensional, but it was undeniably savory. What I needed was a partner for the mushrooms that would provide the sauce with some bulk and flavor balance.
Fill ’er Up
I began to scour cookbooks and blogs for other ingredient ideas, steering clear of meat fakers such as tempeh and seitan. Instead, I compiled a list of vegetables, grains, and nuts that might mimic the hearty, lush consistency of ground beef without revealing themselves too obviously: cauliflower, eggplant, walnuts, cashews, lentils, and bulgur.
Faked It But Didn’t Make It
We found plenty of ground beef alternatives in the vegetarian “meat” sauces we tried, but most of them were busts.
But the list quickly shortened. The nuts took the better part of an hour to become fully tender, even after I broke them up in the food processor. And the bulgur grains absorbed so much water that the sauce looked and tasted like a wheaty porridge. Lentils didn’t look or taste right in an Italian American–style sauce, eggplant had to be roasted to break down, and chopped cauliflower lost votes for its sulfurous aroma.
Chickpeas were the most promising candidate. Canned ones would be just fine for this quick sauce; they softened nicely after a few pulses in the food processor and just 15 minutes of cooking. The only drawback was that they overthickened the sauce, so I tried rinsing them after chopping to remove as much of their excess starch as possible. When that didn’t help enough, I tried adding another can of crushed tomatoes, but it contained too much pulp and not enough liquid and made the sauce too tomatoey. Ultimately, I added a couple of cups of vegetable broth along with the crushed tomatoes, which loosened the sauce without diluting the flavor. For an authentic finish, I stirred in chopped fresh basil.
The pantry staples made it quick. The food processor made it easy. And when my colleagues asked if they could take home the leftovers, I suspected that this sauce might become just as popular as the meat kind.
Getting to “Meaty” Without Meat
By zeroing in on the specific qualities meat brings to a meat sauce, we were able to replicate them in our meatless version.