If there’s one thing that discourages people from adopting meatless meals is the lack of the rich umami flavor that’s unique to meat and dairy foods like cheese. Plant protein foods just don’t have that flavor kick. Foods like legumes, quinoa, chia, whole grains and tofu are pretty bland on their own.
But don’t feel like a meatless diet dooms you to a life of bland low-flavor foods. There are several plant foods that add a rich umami flavor punch to your favorite recipes.
Plant-based umami flavor boosters
Sun dried tomatoes: Dried tomatoes are super-concentrated sources of tomato flavor. Mince a few up and add to casseroles, or toss with a salad dressing. Works on everything, from beans to greens. Tomato paste is another option for some dishes, but it also adds a note of sweetness,while the dried tomatoes still have the acidic tomato taste.
Mushrooms: With the most flavor-power per calorie, mushrooms are a great choice for a wide range of foods. They’re great in vegetable-based stocks, sautéed in sauces or casseroles, in wraps, pizza and sandwiches, or skewered and grilled or roasted whole. Portobello mushroom “burgers” are famously meat-like, although they are not high protein, so nutritionally they’re quite different. Boost the protein content of your mushroom burger by adding a thin slice of grilled or sautéed tofu, or garnishing with melted cheese if you’re vegetarian.
Soy sauce: Soy sauce, or tamari, aren’t just for Asian style recipes. Use small amounts to give character to soups, grain dishes and bean-based recipes. Miso is another option. Other Asian sauces can have the same effect, but if you’re following a meatless diet, you may want to avoid fish sauce, as it really is made from fish.
Miso: This fermented soy paste is available in different varieties. White is mild; red has a stronger flavor. Speciality varieties have unique flavors depending on what they’re made of. Miso can be added to soups, salad dressings, sauces and marinades.
Nuts: Nuts add rich flavor to lots of foods. Try ground walnuts in spaghetti sauce. Add toasted* nuts to grain casseroles, grain bowls and grain or pasta salads. Sprinkle nuts on tossed salad. Add them to baked items like muffins, or to made-from-scratch pancakes. Add chopped nuts to wraps.
Nuts butters: They aren’t just for sandwiches. Add nut butter to sauces, wraps or dressings. Nut butters are essential ingredients for foods like hummus or Asian peanut sauce.
Nut oils: Oils pressed from edible nuts or seeds have intense nutty flavors, which enhances lots of dishes. Asian recipes frequently call for toasted sesame oil; just a little adds depth to the flavor of vegetable, rice and noodle dishes. The key is just a little; you don’t want the nut flavor to overwhelm your dish. Nut butters can also boost the umami taste, but their use may be more limited to certain sauces or spreads. Spicy Southeast Asian peanut sauce is one example; it goes really well with vegetables, rice and noodles.
Garlic: You can use garlic in different ways to take advantage of flavor differences.
- Add sautéed minced garlic to grain and bean casseroles or tomato-based sauces.
- Add chopped or sliced raw garlic to bean or grain salads
- Roast garlic, which mellows the flavor, and add to sauces, soups and casseroles. Or spread onto bread or mix into dips like hummus.
- Smash garlic cloves and add to vegetable soup stock. Remove before serving.
Pesto: Traditional pesto is based on fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan and garlic. But you can make pesto from other fresh herbs like cilantro or flat leaf parsley or fresh oregano, or mix it up with greens like arugula. If you’re vegan, you can omit the Parmesan cheese, but you may need to add some extra salt to make up for the lack of cheese. To deepen the flavor, used toasted* nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and pine nuts are good choices). Use the pesto as a garnish for suitable dishes, such as grilled vegetables, bruschetta, fresh tomato slices, noodles or even corn on the cob.
Olives: Another plant food with umami characteristics, olives can be added to salads, sandwiches, wraps and dishes made with grains, noodles and legumes.
Salt: It’s not umami, strictly speaking, but it brings out the natural flavors of all those lovely plant foods you’re adding to your diet. Using flavored boutique salts can help by adding unusual flavors to your food. You don’t need a lot of salt. You just need enough to brighten up the taste. Keep the phrase “to taste” in mind: start by adding small amounts of salt; taste the food and add a little more if necessary. It helps to drink some plain water between tastes. You can always add salt at the table; you cannot remove salt once it’s in the food.
Caramelized vegetables: A lot of the flavor in meats comes from the browning effect of cooking, such as grilling, roasting and broiling. You can get that effect in vegetables too, which can help to boost flavor in any vegetable-containing dish. Think about it this way: if you were making a soup and just threw raw onions, celery and carrots into the stock, it would taste very mild and bland. But if you first sauté the vegetables before adding to the soup, the flavor deepens. Cook the vegetables in oil over moderately high heat, so that they brown evenly, without charring or burning. Then add to your dish.
Make a flavorful vegan pizza:
Spread a very thin layer of pesto or roasted garlic on the pizza crust, and top with marinara sauce, olives, sautéed mushrooms and greens like arugula or fresh spinach. Add other sautéed vegetables or a sprinkling or toasted chopped walnuts or pine nuts if you like.
Tapenade is another strong-flavored spread, similar to pesto but based on olives and tomatoes. Mince together olives, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, capers and fresh herbs like thyme, parsley, basil and oregano with olive oil. Spread on bruschetta, wraps or sandwiches. Use as a garnish on noodle or rice dishes. Spread on grilled eggplant, onions or zucchini.
*Toasting raw nuts
Toasting brings out the flavor of nuts. It’s easy but you have to pay attention. Heat the oven to 350º and put the nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan or pizza pan. Roast for 8-10 minutes, paying attention to how they smell and look. They should not be getting visibly dark, and you should notice a lovely nutty aroma, not a burnt smell. But the degree of doneness depends on your preferences and your oven, so you may find it takes more or less time. Also different nuts roast differently. 10 minutes for pecans might be too much for pine nuts.
Remove from the oven and cool before using. The nuts will continue to roast and brown for a few minutes after you take them out of the oven, which is why it’s best to under-roast at first.