Have you ever stood brewing despondently over some vegan dish you were cooking? You just couldn't get it right? You felt it was missing something? Then these five tips about how to make vegan food pop have come to your rescue!
Step 1: Something Completely Unique
When you are cooking vegan food, you must realize that you are not an omnivore cook bound by extra chains. You are a vegan cook, you cook with fruit and vegetables, and you are free to use those ingredients to your best advantage. Do not think that you must follow the same traditions followed when cooking with meat. Do not feel that you must necessarily substitute meat with fake meat. Fruit and vegetables have their own good sides, so focus on utilizing those instead of thinking of substituting for meat and dairy all the time.
When cooking vegan, there is no meat to steal the spotlight, so give the veggies their due place and let them be the star. Most of the omnivore cooking relies on meat and dairy to add flavor to the food. While vegans cannot do that, there are other ways to build flavor. Onions and garlic are excellent for building a subtle base. Herbs and spices are good for more pungent flavors. However, do not over-season the food, as the delicate vegetable flavors should not be overpowered.
Sometimes, vegan food can seem tasteless to the unconverted tastebuds, but if the principle of a little, well-directed seasoning is followed, the tastebuds will become more sensitive and appreciative of the subtle, yet delicious flavors of vegan food.
Step 2: The Basics of Flavor Combining
Contrasting flavors trigger all the different tastebud areas all over the tongue at the same time. The three basic flavors that really make a dish pop are salty, sweet, and sour. Add to that fat and cayenne, and you should be closing up on a balanced and unique flavor experience.
So if you think your dish is missing something, first check to see that it has salt enough if it is a savory dish. If the saltiness is ok, perhaps it needs a few drops or a splash of lemon juice to freshen it up a bit, or perhaps it needs a pinch or sprinkle of sugar to balance the natural acidic flavor (think tomato sauce) of the dish.
Some fat, such as a little healthy oil, will round off the flavor and carry the different aromas of the dish in a pleasant way. Fat is also great to salvage a dish if you accidentally added too much seasoning, as it softens the flavors, especially hot flavors.
Lastly, a dash of cayenne is a great addition to almost any dish. You should not be able to taste any heat, but the unnoticeable seasoning just makes the flavors pop. My theory behind this is that since cayenne stimulates the blood flow to the area where it is applied, it will stimulate the blood flow to the mouth when ingested through the food, and in turn, that extra blood flow will enhance the taste experience. But no matter what the science is, fact is, it works!
These same flavor components can be used for sweet food, albeit in a different combination. First, check to see that there is sugar enough. Often, a pinch of salt will balance the flavor (yes, salt works wonders in sweet dishes too!), and you might also consider adding something acidic, such as fruit. Fat is also – as is well known – crucial to fantastic desserts, and it need not necessarily be butter or oil, as nuts and coconut cream often are sufficient. Cayenne might just be the only thing you would not use in sweet dishes – although it is some times added to chocolate!
Step 3: The Fifth Taste
Perhaps you have heard that there is a fifth taste in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It is called umami. The umami flavor is caused by the amino acid glutamate, which is especially concentrated in protein-rich animal foods but not as abundant in plant-based foods.
That is why umami is blamed as one of the reasons it is so hard to give up animal foods. Knowing which plant-based foods contain glutamate helps when creating wonderful vegan dishes that even meat eaters will enjoy. Following are some of the vegan foods that contain large amounts of glutamate:
- Fermented foods, including soy sauce (no wonder it is so common in mock meat!), miso, and sauerkraut
- Nutritional yeast (widely used in vegan cheese) and marmite
- Ripe tomatoes, including dried tomatoes and ketchup
- Mushrooms, including mushroom seasoning (which is actually dried mushroom powder – it's a truly magic ingredient!)
- Seaweed, including nori and sushi
- Browned and caramelized foods
- MSG powder (although best to avoid, as it is taken out of its natural context)
Step 4: The Basics of Color and Texture Combining
It is not only the flavor but also the mouthfeel of the food that affects the taste experience. A good rule of thumb that is often used in Asian cooking is to combine several contrasting textures in the same dish. Just to use a simple salad as an example: You can add CRISP (e.g. cucumber, peppers, onion), CRUNCHY (broccoli, nuts, seeds), JUICY (tomatoes, melon, pineapple), CREAMY (avocado, olives), MEALY (beans, peas), SOFT (cooked vegetables, pasta), CHEWY (mushrooms, mock meat), and perhaps even other textures. You can also combine different sizes and shapes, as tiny, round peas, big chunky broccoli, perfectly diced carrots, etc.
Another very important thing to keep in mind is how the food looks, as that is how we judge whether we would even like to taste a certain dish or not. Here, it is important to learn a little bit of simple color combining, namely the following color pairs:
GREEN (leafy vegetables, broccoli, zucchini, peas, green apple, kiwi, etc.) – RED (tomatoes, red pepper, strawberries, red apple)
PURPLE (purple sweet potato, red cabbage, purple carrot, blackberries, blueberries, grapes) – YELLOW (corn, yellow squash, lemon, mango, nectarines, peaches)
BLUE (use same as for purple) – ORANGE (orange sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, orange bell pepper, oranges, nectarines)
These three color pairs are just the best of buddies and can really make a dish appealing when used together!
Step 5: The Power of Perfect Presentation
Now when we are talking about how the food looks, I want to bring up the subject of presentation. When introducing new food or touching sensitive areas of eating habit, first impressions are crucial. If you are serving the family's favorite steak, it does not matter so much if it is served plain from the oven, splattered dish and all, but if you are introducing a new veggie meat or nutloaf, why not show that this is something special by putting a few rings of sweet pepper and a sprig of parsley on top and wiping the dish? It will show that what you are serving is something you thought through and that you really care about making the vegan food taste delicious.
This comes all the way down to preparation. Do you take the time to smooth the top of the vegan meatloaf, so it does not look as if you accidentally dumped the mixture in the dish instead of in the trashcan? What about removing those browned spots on the lettuce before making a salad? Or adding that pinch of turmeric to the vegan cheese so it does not look so sickly gray?
Small things and some extra thoughtfulness really matter!
Step 6: Printable Checklist
If you follow these five tips, you should be well on your way to some really amazing vegan food! Here is a handy checklist for you to print. Consult it every time you think the dish you are cooking is missing something.
Do you have any other secrets to making your vegan food pop?