A Guide to Swapping Out the Meat in your Favorite Recipes

Almost any dish can be successfully made vegan if you know how to make the right swaps.

Spring minestrone
Elise Bauer

You might think that going without animal products means saying goodbye to your favorite recipes. Good news: this could not be further from the truth. During my time as a plant-based recipe developer and eater, I’ve found that almost any dish can be successfully vegan-ized when you know how to make the right swaps. 

Here’s a guide to the MVP ingredients you’ll need for taking any recipe in a plant-based direction.

Baked Potatoes with Chickpeas cook the chickpeas
Erin Alderson

Instead of Tuna, Try Chickpeas

Just like lentils, chickpeas are a great way to up the nutritional quotient of a meal by swapping out meat. When coarsely mashed, they make a surprisingly good stand-in for tuna in the classic tuna salad sandwich. 

They also provide a convenient option for veganizing saucy chicken dishes. For example, in this cacciatore, start with step 2. When you get to step 4, add two 16-ounce cans of chickpeas instead of the chicken. Voila. 

Instead of Beef, Try Mushrooms

With their rich umami flavor and meaty texture, mushrooms can often replace beef, especially if you think beyond the button. Large mushrooms or those that grow in dense clusters (think: maitake, lion’s mane, chicken of the woods) can transform into steaks when you sear them on a well-oiled hot skillet and weigh them down. As the water cooks out and they compress, mushrooms become flat, dense, and distinctly steak-like. 

Smaller mushrooms, like cremini and shiitake, can be minced and used to replace ground beef. And a grilled or roasted portabella mushroom is the original stand-in for a beef patty in a burger. 

Instead of Braised Beef, Try Braised Seitan

Seitan is the chewiest, meatiest plant-based protein. It’s made from wheat protein after all the starch has been rinsed away. You’ll typically find it in the refrigerated case in the form of chunks or slabs sealed in plastic. It’s the perfect substitute for beef in braises and stews. Sliced thin, it makes a great replacement for lunch meat.  

Instead of Chicken Breast, Try Tofu

Like chicken breast, the world’s most versatile plant-based protein provides a blank canvas for flavor. Bread and fry pieces to recreate fish tacos. Stir fry it with vegetables and serve it over rice. Crumble it up and cook it like scrambled eggs to recreate brunch classics. You can spend a lifetime learning all the things you can do with tofu.

Instead of Ground Beef, Try Lentils

Low in fat, high in fiber, and a good source of protein, lentils are every dietician’s first choice for swapping out meat in your recipes. And they make a surprisingly good sub, especially for ground beef dishes like tacos, lettuce wraps, and “meat” sauces. 

If you want to up your game, you can blend your cooked lentils with minced mushrooms and walnuts to really mimic the flavor of meat; mushrooms add a savory depth of flavor while walnuts contribute mouthfeel and fat. 

Jackfruit tacos
BBQ Pulled Jackfruit Tacos. Megan Gordon

Instead of Shredded Pork or Chicken, Try Jackfruit

In recent years, jackfruit has become a plant-based go-to thanks to its neutral flavor and unusual texture. It shreds like pork or chicken, making it a good choice for vegan barbecue. You want to buy the green fruit in a can (such as the one available at Trader Joe’s). Rinsing it and then searing it until you drive the moisture off before dousing in it sauce or spices helps ensure the best texture. 

It makes a good filling for tacos and barbecue sandwiches.

Instead of Ground Chicken or Pork, Try Soy Curls

Butler Soy Curls should be more popular and well known than they are. They can be a bit tough to track down. I bulk order them online from Butler. They have one ingredient: non-GMO soybeans. When properly prepared, they bear an uncanny visual and textural resemblance to chicken. 

Sold dry, you’ll want to soak them in a flavorful liquid (such as vegetarian chicken broth) and squeeze them dry before use. Soy curls make outstanding vegan fajitas and stir-fries. They can be coated with bread crumbs and fried like chicken fingers. Pulse them in a food processor, and they make a perfect stand-in for ground chicken or pork.

Instead of Ground Beef, Try Plant-Based Ground Beef

This category has boomed in recent years with high-tech newcomers including Beyond Meat. These products have been engineered to look, taste, and cook just like the real thing and they do an incredible job. They are on the pricey side and typically contain almost as much saturated fat as regular beef, so there are reasons to look beyond Beyond and Impossible. I reach for Hungry Planet, Lightlife, and Trader Joe’s versions. They are terrific tasting ground meat subs with zero grams of saturated fat.  

Instead of Sausage, Try Plant-Based Sausage

There is a lot of top-notch plant-based sausage out there. Field Roast is my favorite--I have it in the freezer at all times. These products make it easy to veganize dishes like sausage sandwiches, sausage and kale soup, and sausage-y pasta dishes. It’s as simple as using a plant-based version instead. 

Thanks to the vibrant spices, Soyrizo is especially good at standing in for chorizo wherever it’s called for.