People who are new to veganism or those who are simply curious about what a plant-based diet entails, might well wonder what vegan-friendly alternatives to meat exist. The good news is that there are so many options that there are almost no products made from animal meat for which there aren’t decent vegan alternatives. Whether you want to buy burgers that look and even taste like real beef burgers, or you would rather opt for some kind of nut-based or mushroom burger, there are plenty of choices available.
We’ve covered Vegan Meat elsewhere (i.e. things like Beyond Burgers or Richmond Vegan Sausages) and we’ve also added an article about Lab-Grown Meat, also known as “cultured meat” and “no-kill meat” among other names, which isn’t actually vegan as things stand.
But, in this article, we are focussing on the kind of more traditional vegan meat alternatives that haven’t been processed to resemble real meat. For good or bad, much vegan food is highly processed, but of course it doesn’t need to be and indeed the basic building blocks of a healthy vegan diet are essentially just vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and other plants. Long before brands like Beyond and Impossible were trying to recreate meat products, canny vegans were making delicious dishes that simply replaced animal products with plant-based alternatives.
We’ll give you some ideas of what you might use as an alternative to steaks made from beef, burgers and even meatballs. And, we’ll also explain why many of these non-processed vegan substitutes tend to be much healthier than animal meat products and usually healthier than vegan meat products too.
What Exactly Do We Mean By Vegan Meat Alternatives or Substitutes?
You could be forgiven for getting confused between the various terms that are bandied about in relation to vegan meat products and vegan-friendly meat substitutes. Quite often they are used interchangeably and there are not always set definitions about which category a particular product fits into. So, that you know exactly what we are talking about in this article (and what we’ve included in other related articles) we’ll run through some of the terms used and how we apply them on our site.
As mentioned, this is the term we use for vegan-friendly products that are designed to resemble real meat products (though some do a better job of that than others). This would include vegan burgers, vegan bacon and vegan mince, among other things.
Also known as cultured meat, clean meat, synthetic meat and a host of other terms, this refers to the kind of meat that is literally grown from animal cells (usually taken from a live animal) under controlled conditions to produce meat that is chemically the same as real meat on a cellular level, but without the need to farm and slaughter animals. This is an emerging and fast-developing technology that could have big implications for the meat industry and even the environment.
Vegan Substitutes/Alternatives to Meat
Here we are referring to products that can be used instead of meat in various situations, for example in a burger bun instead of a beef pattie; but the difference between these and vegan meat products (for the purposes of this article and the VeganFriendly.org.uk site in general) is that these products are not designed to especially resemble meat.
In fact, in many cases – as we shall see – they haven’t been “designed” at all and they are not really even “products” in that they often comprise of simply prepared vegetables or similar. So, we’re talking about things like celeriac steaks or Portobello mushrooms in burger buns.
Having established what we’re talking about, let’s go through some examples of our favourite vegan alternatives to meat products and dishes. Most of the vegan substitutes for meat we mention in this article are essentially unprocessed and might involve simply peeling and slicing a celeriac or perhaps opening and draining a tin of chickpeas.
Some, however, have undergone a little processing, albeit not usually with the addition of other ingredients. They have also not been produced specifically to imitate real meat products. Hence we have classified the likes of tofu, tempeh and seitan as vegan substitutes for meat rather than vegan meat.
Vegan Alternatives to Burgers
The are many vegan burgers to be found in supermarkets that have been made from things like pea protein, rice protein or soy protein, mixed with a range of other ingredients. These are good options as they are typically high in protein, for those who do not want to supplement with vegan protein powders. But for those seeking to keep things simple, the following options are healthy, quick and hassle-free ways to make a vegan-friendly burger that should really hit the mark.
As with any burger, you can add your favourite salad, sauce and vegan cheese options as you see fit. Check out the following ideas for the “beef” of the burger and take your pick.
Of the easiest and healthiest options for a vegan burger is to use a whole Portobello mushroom as the key ingredient. You simply need to drizzle the mushrooms with your preferred vegan cooking oil, season and bake them in the oven for around 10 minutes or until they have softened a little.
If it takes your fancy, you can even add a slice or two of vegan mozzarella while the mushroom is baking. Portobello mushrooms also contain virtually no fat, have a little bit of protein and are packed with B vitamins and – if exposed to sunlight – vitamin D too.
Boiling up a tin or two of jackfruit and adding your favourite vegan-friendly barbecue sauce or spices can give you an excellent alternative to pulled pork to put in a bun. Not quite as vitamin and mineral-packed as some vegetables, jackfruit nonetheless contains very little fat and does offer a wide range of vitamins.
Slicing aubergines widthways into thick (approximately 2cm) slices and then roasting them is a simple way to create a “burger” … of sorts.
Make Your Own Veg Burgers
There are so many great vegan burger recipes out there that you are almost spoiled for choice. While making your burger might slightly contravene our notion of these alternatives been non-processed, if all you are doing is slicing/mashing/blending a few vegetables or other ingredients, we think it’s fine to include them here.
For instance, you could combine sweet potato mash, finely chopped onions, carrots and chillies, sweetcorn, a few herbs and spices and perhaps some finely chopped nuts to create vegan burger patties that are ready to bake in hardly any time.
Simply cut across the squash to make burger-size slices, brush with oil, season and roast until soft and starting to brown and blister. Add to the bun with salad and your favourite spicy sauce.
Vegan Alternatives to Steaks
Steaks are one of the foods that many new (and even many long-time) vegans miss. They also happen to be one of the foods for which vegan meat hasn’t really found an imitation that really hits the mark (unlike vegan burgers, mince and sausages).
One of the simplest and surprisingly tasty vegan steak alternatives is to use celeriac. Simply peel it and cut it into thick slices (about 2cm). Brush the slices with your chosen oil (sesame oil gives a nice nutty flavour and is perfect if you want an Asian twist), season and roast for around 20 minutes on each side or until brown and starting to crisp a little round the edges. Then serve with the sauce of your choice and whatever sides you fancy.
A great source of vitamin C and vitamin K, with a bit of fibre and protein thrown in for good measure, red cabbage can make a nutritious and eye-catching alternative to meat steaks. Just cut the cabbage through the core into slices of approximately 1.5cm thickness, place them on greaseproof paper in a baking tray, add a little water or fruit juice to each “steak” to keep them moist, season with salt and pepper (and a sprinkle of your favourite spices if you like) and bake for 20 minutes covered in foil, then a further 10 minutes or so after removing the foil. Serve with a spoon or two of your favourite plain vegan yoghurt and your chosen sides.
An aubergine can act as a very easy and healthy alternative to a steak. You can slice an aubergine in half lengthways and either roast it in the oven (after drizzling with olive oil and seasoning) or cooking in a covered non-stick frying pan with about half a pint of water, and then frying in oil once the water has boiled off. Add your favourite sauce (teriyaki or similar works well) and you’ve got a low-fat, low-calorie dish to serve with your favourite sides.
Vegan Alternatives to Mince
As we discuss in our vegan mince article, there are lots of good quality, protein-rich vegan-friendly mince products out there. From the Meatless Farm to Linda McCartney to Vivera, there should be at least one vegan mince option available in your local supermarket.
Most vegan mince products are made from soya (or rehydrated textured soya protein), though they tend to have a few other ingredients thrown in such as preservatives, emulsifiers, starches, maltodextrin or other bits and pieces. If you would prefer your vegan alternative to beef (or other meat) mince to be somewhat purer, less processed and “cleaner”, here are a couple of options.
A fine source of B vitamins and various minerals and packing a reasonable protein punch, lentils are a cheap and simple option if you are seeking to add texture and nutrients to your spag bol, lasagne or chilli. They are also very high in fibre.
Chickpeas have an excellent nutritional profile but are particularly strong on B vitamins and certain minerals (especially manganese, which the body uses to produce enzymes that help in various metabolic functions). Chickpeas can be used instead of mince in various dishes and they are particularly good in cottage pies in our experience.
Beans (Kidney, Black, Mung, etc.)
Adding beans of almost any kind can add extra vegan protein, bulk and texture to any dish that would ordinarily utilise mincemeat. The “three-bean chilli” is a common vegan option on pub menus, and though it is not the most imaginative vegan alternative, if done well it can be very tasty and very nutritious.
Vegan Alternatives to Use in Stir Frys, Curries or Fajitas
When making vegan curries, a stir fry, fajitas or any other multi-ingredient dish that often includes chicken or other types of meat, there is no real reason to include anything other than vegetables. But sometimes adding something that adds a meat-like texture can enhance such dishes, especially for those new to veganism or when non-vegans come around for dinner.
Made from soy milk that is allowed to coagulate, tofu is a vegan staple and one that has been consumed for over 2,000 years in East Asia where it originated. As well as being a great source of vegan protein, tofu also contains some calcium and iron. It is a versatile ingredient that can be cut into slices or cubes and used in curries or a stir fry as it is, or after being coated in cornflour or similar and fired to give more of a crispy texture.
Similar to tofu in that it is made from soybeans, in the case of tempeh the beans have been fermented first. Also like tofu, tempeh is very versatile and can be grilled or fried and shaped as you see fit.
Seitan is wheat gluten and is an excellent source of vegan protein that can be sliced into whatever shapes you like and used in dishes like stir fry or fajitas instead of something like chicken. It is one of the firmer, chewier meat substitutes out there and definitely has a more meat-like texture than some of the other options listed here.
Of course, there’s no real need to add a “meat” to your curries or stir fry as some of the best are packed with just veg, whether diced or sliced. Cauliflower works well in curries (especially if it’s been roasted before being added to the main dish), as we suggest in our Easy Vegan Curry recipe. Things like diced and roasted butternut squash, aubergine or sweet potato can also work well, as can baby corn, mangetout and tender stem broccoli.
Why Use Vegan Alternatives to Meat?
If you have any ethical concerns about the incarceration and slaughter of animals for meat, the obvious benefit of using a mushroom or slice of butternut squash in your burger bun instead of a beef pattie is obvious. The same goes when it comes to the massive environmental impact of meat farming (as we discuss in our article on the environmental reasons to go vegan).
Add in the fact that the options we mentioned above are considerably healthier than almost all meat products, especially in terms of their much lower fat and particularly saturated fat content, and the prevalence of vitamins and minerals, and the benefits of eating vegetables and mushrooms and legumes instead of meat are plentiful.
But how about comparing something like a Portobello mushroom burger to something like a Beyond Burger or a Linda McCartney burger? Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference, whether you prefer something that resembles the taste and texture of meat or you would rather have something that is unprocessed and doesn’t contain lots of extra ingredients.
The simplicity and purity of using something like a slice of butternut squash instead of a vegan meat burger will certainly appeal to some people. That’s not to say a vegan meat burger contains anything particularly bad in almost all cases. But knowing that you are consuming just a slice of veg with a bit of seasoning instead of various preservatives, emulsifiers and other additions can be reassuring for some people.
Conclusions: Vegan Alternatives Are Simple, Healthy & Better for the Environment
When it comes to vegan alternatives to meat, we have shown that there are numerous options for foods that require very little processing or preparation but which can take the place of meat in a variety of dishes. While we include tofu, tempeh and seitan here, there are loads of vegetables, legumes and mushrooms that can be used instead. With a little imagination when it comes to the sauces (or vegan condiments) you use and the side dishes you serve with the mains, you can easily rustle up a healthy and tasty meal without the need to resort to animal meat products or even vegan meat products for that matter.
Ultimately though, the biggest benefits – to your health, the environment and of course to the animals themselves – will come from eradicating meat from your diet in favour of whatever vegan alternatives you prefer. Whether that be the many vegan meat products out there, the more natural options mentioned above or – as many people opt for – a mixture of the two.