How To/ Make It Meatless/ Tips & Hints

How to Make (Almost) Any Recipe Meatless

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 SauceRoasted 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 RecipeVeggie & 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 RecipeCreamy 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 ChiliVegan 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 SauceCrispy 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 CheddarOverstuffed 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.

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  • Reply
    May 18, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    I like your idea’s, my problem is choices, I am having a hard time sticking with vegan or vegetarian because I can’t eat mushrooms, eggs, soy, gluten tomatoes, and or lentils and almost all vegan or vegetarian meals has one or more of those things in them, is there any meals you can suggest that does not have those items in them?
    Or am I stuck with just rice, and pasta? Thanks for any tips you tell me..

  • Reply
    Peter Piper
    September 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    A super good dead wringer for ground beef is a combination of ground mushrooms and black beans with bouillon added to it. Pulse the mushrooms and cooked black beans in a food processor until it looks like ground beef. DO NOT OVER PULSE. You want it to have pieces of mushroom and beans and not a solid consistency. Add some “beef” (or vegetable) flavored bouillon granules. Spread this chunky mixture around on a dehydrator tray and dry it thoroughly. When you need ground beef, this is your go-to ingredient in any recipe that calls for ground beef.

    • Reply
      Kiersten Frase
      September 5, 2015 at 11:13 am

      Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve done something similar with mushrooms and lentils, but I’ll have to try black beans next time. 🙂

    • Reply
      Bobbie Sue
      December 6, 2015 at 4:30 am

      Thanks for this great suggestion! I fully intend to try it. SOON. I don’t have/need/want a dehydrator, but I found this terrific video on how to dehydrate small batches of veggies in the oven:

      I also found a recipe for homemade veggie powder.
      Oft times store-bought vegetable bullion has a meat byproduct of some kind in it. This veggie powder should work ok as a substitute for the granules you called for. Anyway I’m hoping it does!

      Your suggestion sent me on quite a research trip, but it was actually kind of FUN getting it all put together on ONE recipe document – to file in my computer.

  • Reply
    November 22, 2015 at 12:10 pm


    Great blog! I just found it and think that your entries are very informative. I’m just wondering if you could help me with tofu substitution. How much tofu do you substitute for a meal that calls for meat? For example, I have a recipe that calls for 1 pound of chicken, but it seems like 1 pound of tofu would be a lot more than 1 pound of chicken. What do you think? Should I keep the amount the same or use less tofu?

    Thank you!

    • Reply
      November 25, 2015 at 8:19 am

      I usually substitute ounce-for-ounce, but since tofu is usually sold in 14- or 15-ounce packages, I’d just use one package of tofu.

  • Reply
    Eric Hardee
    March 24, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Pre-vegetarian I used to make chili with ground beef. Simply eliminating the meat didn’t work. I always ate the leftovers with a baked potato, so I had the idea to cube up potato and cook with onions in a frying pan like hash browns! Slice with a french fly slicer then cut into cubes. Cook the potato cubes quickly, if anything err on the side of undercooking. As a side note I use NO salt or chili powder, just cook the diced tomatoes an beans (kidney and/or chili beans) with some sliced open jalapenos for 45 minutes first. Comes out unbearably hot sometimes – awesome!

  • Reply
    Libby Melton
    October 18, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    I ground up Morning Star Veggie Sausage Patties and made the sausage balls that show up during the holidays and NOBODY knew they weren’t the real thing I did tell them after they raved about how good they were! I will be making them again and we aren’t even vegetarians, although I try to eat as little meat as possible!

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