How to Make (Almost) Any Recipe Meatless

How to Make (Almost) Any Recipe Meatless
If you’re a vegetarian that doesn’t eat meat substitutes, remaking meat-based recipes can be a little bit daunting. But don’t let that stop you! There are several different options for omitting the meat and replacing it with whole food alternatives. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses and I’ve done my best to outline them in the list below.

Most of the time, I substitute these cup-for-cup or ounce-for-ounce for meat, but occasionally, I’ll substitute based on serving size. For example, if a recipe that serves four calls for 4 chicken breasts, I’ll sub in a whole block of tofu cut into 4 thick slices. Cooking times and methods often need a little bit of tweaking too, but this really has to be done on a recipe-by-recipe basis.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are my favorite ways to make almost any recipe meatless:

Just Omit the Meat

Clearly this is the easiest option and it requires the least reworking of the original recipe. This really only works when meat is a component of the dish, rather than the main ingredient.

I did this with:

Roasted Vegetarian Puttanesca Sauce Roasted Vegetarian Puttanesca Sauce

Add (More) Vegetables

This works well with recipes that include meat and vegetables–casseroles, pasta dishes, and other things like that. Simply take out the meat and up the vegetables. Milder vegetables work best–you don’t want to double the amount of onions or leeks! So, for example, if a recipe calls for a large zucchini and a half pound of chicken, I’d omit the chicken and use two zucchinis instead. This usually doesn’t require too much adaptation for the recipe; depending on how the dish is made, you may need a bigger pan or skillet to accommodate the extra vegetables and they could take longer to cook; however, usually omitting the meat will save you some cook time, so in the end it should even out.

This method also works with recipes that don’t have vegetables in them to begin with, although this usually requires much more adaptation of the original recipe.

I did this with:

Veggie & Tempeh Sloppy Joes Recipe Veggie & Tempeh Sloppy Joes (Bonus: It also uses tempeh as a meat sub!)
Bourbon Mango Pulled Summer Squash Sandwiches

Mushrooms as a Meat Substitute

Although it’s usually portabellas that are thought of as a substitute for meat, just about any kind of mushroom will work. You can pulse them in a food processor to give them a ground beef-like texture, thinly slice portabellas for a steak strip alternative, or use regular sliced mushrooms simply to bulk up a recipe where you’ve taken out the meat. This works in casseroles, stir fries, sandwiches, pasta dishes–anything, really.

I did this with:

Creamy Wild Rice & Mushroom Soup Recipe Creamy Wild Rice & Mushroom Soup
Baby Bella and Kale Casserole
Portabella Mushroom Cheesesteaks
Loaded Veggie Nachos with Portabella Mushroom Meat

Lentils and Beans

Lentils and beans make a perfect substitute for meat in broth-based soups, chills and stews. Be sure to soak beans in advance and adjust cooking times accordingly–you’ll want to either cook the beans in the broth first and then proceed with the rest of the recipe or cook the beans separately (or use canned beans!) and stir them in with the other vegetables. Same goes for lentils, although they don’t need soaking.

Beans and lentils can be used in a lot of other dishes too. Beans are used as a base for many (if not most!) veggie burger recipes. They’re great in Mexican food and they do well in some casseroles. They’re a little less versatile than other meat substitutes, though–I don’t know that I’d want to throw a few cups of lentils into my next stir fry or add black beans to pasta. Slightly undercooked lentils also make a good substitute for ground beef–cook them in broth to make them flavorful, then pulse them in your food processor until they’re crumbly. They’ll get mushy in casseroles or anything where they’re cooking in liquid for a while, but I love using them to make meatballs.

I did this with:

Vegan Cincinnati Chili Vegan Cincinnati Chili
Lentil Mushroom Meatballs
Lazy Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan

Tofu and tempeh can be swapped in for a lot of different meats. Crumbled tempeh is by far my favorite substitute for ground beef. Although I haven’t tried it myself, you can also use it in place of sausage. It soaks up any flavors you add to it and it stands up to most kinds of cooking, unlike lentils and mushrooms. For this reason, crumbled tempeh is fabulous in casseroles. Cubes of tempeh can be used in place of chicken or beef, although it’s important to give them some time to marinate, otherwise the flavor will be bland. Any dish that isn’t saucy or heavily seasoned probably isn’t good for tempeh, since it doesn’t have much flavor on its own.

Like tempeh, tofu needs to be paired with sauces or assertive flavors, otherwise it just kind of tastes like nothing. Always press tofu first. I like using a tofu press (yes, that is an affiliate link!), but using a plate or bowl and paper towels works too. By pressing tofu first, you’re getting the water out, which will let it really soak in the flavors you add to it. Tofu can be crumbled like tempeh, although I like it best cut into cubes or slabs. When a recipe calls for a big hunk of meat, I’m likely to use slabs of tofu instead.

I wrote a little bit about seitan in this post–it is the perfect substitute for chicken or turkey, although it can be harder to find if you don’t live near a Whole Foods or other natural grocery store. It has a little more flavor than tofu and tempeh, so it doesn’t need that time to marinate.

I did this with:

Crispy Tofu Sandwiches with Ginger Peanut Sauce Crispy Tofu Sandwiches with Ginger Peanut Sauce
Pineapple Jerk Tofu
Seitan Cacciatore
Thai Red Curry with Asparagus and Tofu
Vegetarian Shipwreck Casserole

Add Strong Flavors

If you’re replacing a strongly-flavored meat, like bacon, using any of the above substitutes just won’t cut it. Bacon is added to a dish for flavor so you need to replace it with something just as flavorful. Tempeh bacon is a good bacon substitute, but I don’t always have it on hand, so I usually rely upon hickory smoked salt or smoked paprika instead. For recipes that lend themselves to a little spiciness, chipotle pepper (either the canned kind of the ground powder) is a nice addition for smokiness. A little goes a long way with any of these–start with a small amount, taste, and add more if needed. For a recipe that calls for cheese too, using a smoked variety works amazingly well as an alternative to bacon. There’s also liquid smoke–this works well in soups and stews and it can also be used to make coconut bacon.

I did this with:

Over Stuffed Twice Baked Potatoes with Smoked Cheddar Overstuffed Twice-Baked Potatoes with Smoked Cheddar
Chocolate Coconut Bacon Doughnuts

For more ideas on how to make recipes vegetarian, check out our Make It Meatless archives.

Originally published on March 8, 2013.

Kiersten Frase

About Kiersten

Kiersten is the founder and editor of Oh My Veggies. She loves cooking, trashy reality shows, and Hello Kitty. Kiersten also blogs about blogging at   Read more from Kiersten →

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  1. says

    What a great post, I often run out of ideas when cooking vegetarian recipes so it’s great to have some new ideas as to what I can include to give our meals a bit of vareity, thank you!

  2. says

    Great post!! This would have been so helpful for me when I first transitioned to a vegetarian diet. My favorite “meat substitutes” are definitely lentils, beans, tofu, and tempeh. I literally do not think that I could ever get sick of any of these. Oh, and I just added mushrooms to soup as a “meat substitute” for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it turned out amazing. I do not miss meat one bit, and it is all thanks to these great (and healthier) options.

  3. says

    Great suggestions. I always try to make sure there is a protein component when I remove meat from a recipe… legumes are my preferred sub but they don’t always work. Otherwise, tofu/tempeh, nuts, seeds and grains bulk up meals, too. :)

  4. says

    This is such a helpful post, especially for people who need to serve a group of people with different diets – you can still serve the same meal to everyone, but try it with a vegetarian adaptation. It’s also a good reminder that I don’t need to ignore or rule out all recipes I see that include meat – I should make more of an effort to think about how I can still try those recipes, but adapt them appropriately with a vegetarian substitute!

    • Kiersten Frase says

      Lately when I go through all my cooking magazines, I find myself saving more meat recipes than the vegetarian ones! I think it’s because so many of the vegetarian recipes are ones that I’ve already done before–veggie lasagna, black bean burgers, chili, etc.

  5. says

    What a great post! I’m not a vegetarian, but I do try to eat vegetarian a few times a week and it’s not always that easy. This has helped a lot! Thanks!

  6. says

    Great tips. My husband is a total meat man so he would not be on board with cutting it out. But when he is out to town, the kids and I skip it often.

  7. Circusdiva says

    Thank you , thank you, thank you for providing my family with new meals! My husband is a meat eater and has no interest in converting. I have been veg for over 20 yrs adn I raisingmy boys to be veggies as well. From time to I need something new to serve up to the family. I have yet to find a recipe that I haven’t liked. My 4 and2 yr old’s appetites have been satisfied as well.
    Please keep up the great work on the “nommy nums”!

  8. histmedphd says

    What about cooked buckwheat as a substitute for ground beef? I just made a batch of kasha with a clove of garlic in the slow cooker and I was hoping to turn it into pasta sauce or chili.

  9. Denise Wilson says

    Why not just use Quorn or nut meat as a substitute for a bolognese type meat sauce. You can then use it for ravioli, lasagne etc. my grandsons didn’t know they were eating a vegan spaghetti bolognese.

  10. says

    Very helpful post! Just like you said, it’s all about the flavour. Veggy dishes can become very dull, especially, if it’s the same dish “just without meat.” Once you find ways to add some good flavour, you won’t miss the meat anymore

  11. says

    I will try some of this recipes because I would like to try eat less meat but I’m not strong enough to leave it immediately. This is some way to prepare myself for that moment.

  12. says

    This is SUCH a great resource!! Seitan has a little bit too much of a meaty texture for me, so I usually stick with tofu, beans, and tempeh for meat substitutions!

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