What are some tasty, "umami" vegan foods/recipes?
March 14, 2007 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm a vegetarian looking to cut back on my cheese addiction. What are some vegan foods or ingredients with that lovely umami flavour?

I get the concept of umami, and understand a few of the basics - tomatoes, mushrooms, etc - but beyond that I'm not sure which foods in particular give dishes that rich, full flavour.

Bonus points for tasty recipes that incorporate these foods (tomatoes and mushrooms included). I like cooking, so they don't need to be too basic. And I'd rather not add MSG to dishes.
posted by lindsey.nicole to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not vegetarian, let alone vegan, but I've often wanted to try. In fact, just recently I've been wondering how I can cut back on cheese a little. Is that why I love cheese so? Umami? But I also like the stretchiness and chewiness. Tomatoes and mushrooms aren't chewy.
posted by DU at 11:34 AM on March 14, 2007

I've heard that eating avocado as an appetizer (guacamole) or part of a dish can help distract one from the lack of cheese. The richness quells the cheese cravings, and if you sprinkle on some salt it becomes quite savory.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:35 AM on March 14, 2007

check out some nutritional yeast (also called brewer's yeast) - it's usually available in bulk at health food stores.

when making a vegan lasagna, i'll blend tofu, salt, spices, a touch of vinegar and a good helping of nutritional yeast for a very tasty ricotta substitute. you can use it as a substitute for parmesan - just sprinkle on top of pasta, or popcorn.

also, try keeping some miso paste in your kitchen - you can add a spoonful to any sauce or stirfry to get more complex, earthy saltiness.
posted by gnutron at 11:39 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just had to look up umami, so pardon me if I'm not quite answering your question.

I find that lentil-based soups & stews are really hearty & savory and can be fully satisfying without any dairy. My favorite lentil-based soup is this Dhal Soup - I make it with veg oil instead of butter and it's still totally crave-worthy.
posted by tastybrains at 11:42 AM on March 14, 2007

Few vegetable sources of glutamates (or glutamic acid) are going to be anything like as intense or varied as what you find naturally in animal products, and so if you are moving away from cheeses, and avoiding MSG, you're pretty much stuck with mushrooms, perhaps tomatoes, and maybe nuts as sources of umami. A lady I know who generally eats vegetarian left this cookbook here, to encourage me to cook things she'll eat, too. What dishes I've tried from this turn out pretty bland, but my lack of a ringing endorsement ought not discourage you, as the author is at least honest in her assessment of the results to be obtained, and the food is palatable, for what it is.
posted by paulsc at 11:42 AM on March 14, 2007

If I need savory, I'll usually add kombu to my cooking. MSG is the artificial version of kombu. I also sometimes use liquid smoke, but don't tell anyone I told you that.
posted by chairface at 11:46 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hummus satisfies my meat-and-cheese umami craving. Hummus and pita has replaced bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches as my breakfast of choice, and I'm a hardcore pound-of-flesh-a-day meateater.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:47 AM on March 14, 2007

I often use coconut milk in my cooking for the creamy consistancy and although it is sweet, it can lend a savoriness to certain dishes when seasoned properly (Thai red curry is a great addition).

Check out Bragg Liquid Aminos in place of soy sauce to add a wonderful flavor to dishes.

Spreads such a hummus and those made with nut pastes (ground cashews are common) can take the place of cheese in certain dishes (in soups and sandwiches especially).

Invest in a quality jar of olives. The fat and salt help to stave off cheese cravings.

gnutron, nutritional yeast and brewers yeast are not at all similar. Please do not ever confuse the two. Nutritional yeast lends that cheesy, somewhat nutty flavor to foods but brewers yeast tastes foul.
posted by mezzanayne at 11:53 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

paulsc has it - umami is the taste of glutamate, which occurs naturally in various foods as glutamic acid, or is stabilized with a sodium ion in industrial preparations (that is to say, MSG).

Try seaweed if you really must avoid cheese. Or, use hard cheeses like Parmesan and Romano, which have really high levels of glutamate relatively speaking.
posted by rkent at 11:57 AM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm in the same boat, and I'm having miserable luck, but.

Seconding nutritional yeast. Not as a mix-with-oil disgusting out-and-out cheese replacement, but as something to add to soups and the like for a bit of what scratches my itch. I don't normally need to top a soup with cheese if it's been nutritionally-yeasted.

The best advice I have is to stop eating lousy cheese. A little bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano goes a lot farther than Kraft parmesan. When I was a starving student, I bought little bits of $$ cheese in lieu of big cheap blocks, and thought if it as an ingredient rather than a food in itself, if that follows; getting back to that has been helpful.

Depending on why you want to cut back, cheeses made from goat's milk may be worth looking at. They are noticeably less constipating...

A good mushroom ketchup is worth making and using liberally.
posted by kmennie at 12:11 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Well, do you have any vegan cookbooks? the Now and Zen book has a lot of hearty recipes. Try the Rich Brown Sauce for superduper flavor. the Fit for Life people have some very meaty and cheesy dishes and sauces. Sarah Kramer's books have some very satisfyingly salty, chewy, greasy items, and I don't know why The Farm doesn't list their original cookbook on their site, but this looks like just what you're looking for.
posted by serazin at 12:14 PM on March 14, 2007

It's funny you mention olives, mezzanayne, because when I was vegan I went through green olives like crazy and stopped eating them as soon as I started eating cheese again. I never thought about it before now.

I'll throw in another endorsement for nutritional yeast. I also ate unholy amounts of vegan mayonnaise. And I hate regular mayonnaise. The vegan stuff is good on everything.

I've had good luck with vegan "cream cheese", too. Any other vegan cheese is pretty gross in my opinion.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 12:31 PM on March 14, 2007

Best answer: Cheese does different things in different dishes, and while I haven't really found a vegan equivalent, there are indeed some dairyless ways to satisfy those cravings.

Nutritional yeast (flakes are better than powder) has a "sharp," parmesan-like flavour.

Tofu, when drained and blended with a little lemon juice, soy sauce and oil, makes a great ricotta substitute.

Nuts like cashews or macadamias are good for sweeter cheese cravings.

Usually I end up doing some combination of the above: for example, I make an "alfredo" sauce with tofu, nutritional yeast and soy sauce as the main ingredients.

More broadly, I find good, fresh guacamole or hummus does the trick too (though obviously they don't taste like cheese).

Also, I don't know how you feel about processed cheese substitutes, but here are the ones I find palatable: Tofutti cream cheese (decent substitute for cream cheese, though I mostly use it in recipes rather than spreading it on bagels), Tofutti American slices (taste almost exactly like Kraft Singles -- though even those don't really taste like cheese -- and good for grilled cheese), Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet mozzarella (used somewhat sparingly on pizza, extra good with a little white pizza sauce drizzled on top). Apparently there's this stuff called "Shreese" that's just making its way Stateside and is supposed to be very good, but I haven't had the chance to try it.

I also happen to keep a vegan cooking blog where I actually just did a post on nutritional yeast, if you're interested it's here. Sorry for the plug, no I don't make any money off the blog. Just trying to share the vegan love.
posted by AV at 12:32 PM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm fighting my own cheese addiction, so I'm probably not one to talk . . . but I do find that really good hummus can help. Also, I second the recommendation for miso paste. I adore Bragg's Liquid Aminos, but it does have its enemies (who appear to criticize it for the same reasons we're recommending it -- glutamic acid).

I'm not sure I'm ready to totally cut out cheese, but I'm leaning toward trying to satisfy my craving with smaller portions of higher-quality, richer cheeses.
posted by treepour at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2007

Speaking of nutritional yeast, you may enjoy the fantastic recs I got when I asked what to do with it.

Miso is about the best source of umami ever, in my book, and can be used in marinades, glazes, sauces as well as just as soup.
posted by desuetude at 12:38 PM on March 14, 2007

MSG is umami. The same man, Professor Kidunae Ikeda, is responsible for both. For some reason MSG has gotten a bad rap in the US, and it's based on nothing more than bad science. Glutamate is glutamate, whether it occurs naturally in food or is bound to sodium for convenient delivery. It's the same chemical. It contains less sodium than salt, and does a better job at enhancing flavor. Read this article and then go buy yourself a shaker of Accent.
posted by tjvis at 12:39 PM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another important difference between nutrional yeast and brewers yeast aside from the taste is that nutrional yeast has the important addition of B12 (and other B vitamins), which vegans needs to get from somewhere other than animals. While they start out the same, brewers yeast is not nutritionally fortified in this way. Seems like many well meaning people are unaware of this... including the guy who works at my local health food store who tried to convince me that they are both the same thing. So if you're trying this stuff out to add the cheesy taste to your food, be sure to get the right kind which will actually benefit your health as well as your taste buds. Look for the brand "Red Star" to be sure you're get your B12.
posted by RoseovSharon at 12:46 PM on March 14, 2007

I've been having some luck experimenting with adding powdered/dry soy milk to sauces, bread dough, etc. It's probably not specifically umami, but it does help fill the (very small in my case) cheese need.
posted by amtho at 1:02 PM on March 14, 2007

Beer and wine, both to drink and to cook with. Neither will trick you into thinking it's cheese, but both have the sort of rich, strong flavor that cheese also provides and that's often missing from vegan cooking. Be careful cooking with stronger beers, though — the hops can overwhelm your other ingredients real fast.

(Seconding miso and olives for general umami goodness, and nutritional yeast for actual cheesy flavor. Oh, and if you're eating an avocado as an appetizer skip the salt and sprinkle on some chili powder and lime juice.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2007

You've got plenty of good suggestions here - I especially like avocado/guac to take care of the richness craving - but I must point you to the definitive book on making fake cheese.
posted by clavicle at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2007

Ack, sorry, redundant, serazin got it.
posted by clavicle at 1:09 PM on March 14, 2007

I use white miso paste in a lot of vegan recipes. White miso has a very strong umami flavor but its other flavors are more subtle than dark miso or soy sauce. It is the secret ingredient in my pesto sauce (replacing Parmesan cheese). A tablespoon also goes very well in vegan soups.

For maximum satisfaction of a cheese craving, combine an umami ingredient like white miso paste with something that has a creamy texture and something that has a bit of fat. These don't even have to be all in the same dish.
posted by rhiannon at 1:14 PM on March 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Read this article and then go buy yourself a shaker of Accent.

Or if you've got a decent Asian grocery store nearby, go look for bulk packages of Aji-no-moto, which will probably cost about as much for a one-pound bag as you'd pay for a tiny little shaker jar of Accent...
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 1:14 PM on March 14, 2007

Try baba ganoush made in the 'creamy' style (there are several styles but in this case you're looking for one that appears more off-white than red/purple),
posted by sparrows at 1:25 PM on March 14, 2007

I third the uncheese book, but with the caveat that you should not expect the products to taste like actual cheese. They do fill the umami need for me though (together with olives, never thought about that before now). I want to try this recipe soon. If you like olives, try this hummus recipe.
posted by davar at 1:46 PM on March 14, 2007

tartex (fat + yeast + garlic)
posted by beerbajay at 2:58 PM on March 14, 2007

Mushroom risotto. Learn to make real risotto, it's easy and much better than the all-in-a-box kit at the supermarket. It's the ultimate comfort food for me. Most recipes call for grated hard cheese, but it's still good without that.

Also, miso soup and things that contain miso.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:50 PM on March 14, 2007

Vegemite or Marmite (which are both yeast extracts).
posted by bokinney at 4:29 PM on March 14, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, appreciate all the feedback. Thanks everyone. I'm cutting back on cheese for ethical reasons, so quality isn't really the issue.

Hummus, lentils and the like don't really cut it for me (although I like both). I have nutritional yeast, but haven't really mastered it yet, so I'll try some recipes.

I've never heard of kombu, aji-no-moto or tartex, so I'll look for those. And I've tried dark miso but not the white stuff - so I'll give it a shot.

Thanks for the great ideas, all.
posted by lindsey.nicole at 6:37 PM on March 14, 2007

Ajinomoto is MSG, made from corn, or seaweed (such as kombu). I'd recommend you crinkle your nose up and give it a shot. Once you let go of the irrational fears, you'll come to love it like an old friend. If you try iceberg lettuce fried up with garlic, MSG, and salt just once, you'll never look back.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:50 PM on March 14, 2007

Tofutti better-than-cream-cheese is great, comes in plain and herbed, and the Tofutti brand 'sour cream' is good too. Both can be used as a base to add some of the above mentioned flavourings for a good cheesy replacement. My kids would eat the tofutti cheese slices, but frankly I thought they were disgusting. Please note that if you're going strict vegan that many cheese substitutes still use casein or sodium caseinate (milk-derived protein). Don't ask me why this makes sense. We also enjoyed a product called Nutri-whip, which is a dairy free whipped cream substitute. It's fantastic.
posted by kch at 10:23 PM on March 14, 2007

Nutritional yeast is great on popcorn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:39 PM on March 14, 2007

Also, try curry powder on popcorn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:39 PM on March 14, 2007

More specifically, what tastes amazing on popcorn is first misting it with soy sauce (you have to use a mister, like for houseplants) and then sprinkling on the Brewer's yeast, which will then stick on. YUM.
posted by sparrows at 11:51 PM on March 14, 2007

(If you don't use a mister, it's not really possible to sprinkle on the soy sauce in an even way, so the glops of soy sauce end up tasting nasty since they're too strong. But with a mister it's perfect.)
posted by sparrows at 11:52 PM on March 14, 2007

I totally second the marmite/vegemite rec. Also curry powder on popcorn, which has the advantage of being low sodium.
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:34 AM on March 17, 2007

Best answer: The online Umami Information Center.

Use a few drops of truffle oil with your veggies for a deep, distinctly earthy-musky umami flavor or in salad dressing. Here are some excellent recipes using truffle oil. A tiny bit of the oil goes a long way in adding umami depth to a dish.

Dried porcini mushroom powder is also a potent umami addition to any stir fry or sauteed veggies.

Put a whole clove of garlic in the oven and roast it for an hour. It will turn into an umami packed paste, which can be squeezed out of the clove husk onto anything.

Vegemite, used by some vegans, is rich in umami flavor. So is Chinese or Korean black bean paste.
Such as: 1 teaspoon oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons VEGEMITE
310g can red kidney beans, drained
425g can tomatoes, chopped

Another yummy umami recipe: Browned soya butter, tomatoes, almonds and mango.

The Chinese condiment, Hoisin sauce, is made with soy and sweet potato, both full of umami. It makes a great dipping sauce or can be added while sauteeing veggies or rice.

Green tea is full of umami. An umami fruit cup dessert idea: brew a strong jasmine green tea, throw in golden raisins, cinnamon sticks and cloves. Add pineapple and raspberries, orange segments and mango.

I like fresh zucchini or pumpkin, sliced and put on a baking tray in the oven, slow roasted and basted with a mix of tamari mixed with grated ginger. mmmm.

The West African spice, dawadawa (fermented locust beans), is rich in umami and can be purchased cheaply online at AfriProducts. Suggested use: saute assorted vegetables in a tomato base with black pepper, tofu and Dawadawa.

Although nut pastes aren't listed as being of the umami category, I find that adding cashew or peanut butter to sauteed veggies gives the dish umami depth. Replace tofu for the paneer, Sautéed Arugula and Spinach
with Paneer and Roasted Cashews

Kalustyans (which has an online catalog of products), one of my favorite places to go on the planet (intoxicatingly delectable aromas as one walks in the door and fascinating delicacies from around the world) has many Thai and Asian condiments, sauces and ingredients that add umami, such as Bangkok Padang Peanut Sauce.
posted by nickyskye at 1:22 PM on March 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

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