DRMacIver's Notebook

Miscellaneous Notes on Vegetarian Cooking

Miscellaneous Notes on Vegetarian Cooking

I'm not a vegetarian any more, but I was during a lot of my formative years learning to cook properly, and I think I'm a much better cook for it.

As a result, I get very bored of omnivores' anti-vegetarian-food takes. Vegetarian food is great. Sure, any individual vegetarian dish may not be, but I've seen some pretty disappointing meat-based dishes too.

The reasons people tend to dislike vegetarian food seem to fall into roughly three categories:

  1. They're stupid and wrong.
  2. There is a very common style of vegetarian cooking that really is strictly worse than meat-based cooking.
  3. They have mostly been exposed to vegetarian food made by people who don't know how to construct decent vegetarian dishes.

What's the common style? It's what tends to get referred to as "fake meat". For example, if you go to UK supermarkets, you may get the impression that vegetarians live mostly off quorn. This does appear to be true of many vegetarians and vegetarianish people that I know. This is unfortunate because Quorn is made by people who hate joy and want your food to be an endless litany of bland suffering. Don't eat Quorn.

(If for whatever reason you feel that Quorn adds something of value to your life, by all means eat Quorn, I'm not the boss of you. I just personally think it's an awful substance, and I feel reasonably confident in saying that it's at the root of a lot of negative opinions about vegetarian food.)

In general my recommendation for dietary restrictions is: Unless you absolutely cannot avoid it, do not make any substitutions that you would not be happy to make if that restriction were not in place.

For example I like tofu, especially smoked, and seitan (though I suspect I can no longer eat seitan) a lot. They are interesting things in their own right which you can build a dish around, and they do not in any way pretend to be meat (yes you can get tofu sausages, but personally I recommend you don't. I will concede an affection for seitan based burgers, but they're a thing in their own right and don't taste especially like they're trying to be meat). You can get quorn that pretends to be meat, and what you will get is a dish that would fundamentally taste better if you had used actual meat instead.

Restrictions are an excuse to try a variety of things that you would not otherwise have tried, and to find new and different points in culinary space. If you make things that are inferior copies of the unrestricted version of the diet then you will be constantly reminded of how much happier you could be without the restriction in place. If instead you make things that use the ingredients available to you in interesting and novel ways, you will eat tastier things which will not suffer by comparison.

Sometimes you have to substitute of course. If you can't or won't consume dairy and can't learn to enjoy your coffee black (which is fair enough - I like coffee both ways, but they're very different drinks), you're going to have to use a non-dairy milk, and unfortunately all non-dairy milks I've encountered work very poorly in coffee. I hear good things about some, but I've never actually encountered it working well myself. Similarly if you don't eat eggs, you will have to substitute in baking in order to get a good binding agent. Substituting isn't a point of shame, and it's not something to avoid religiously, but it shouldn't be a primary basis of your diet - you should do it when you can't avoid it or it produces something interesting and different, not just because it's easy.

One of the reasons why substituting works so poorly for vegetarian food is that meat and cheese based dishes have a fundamentally different character to good vegetarian food, which is that they are built around a single strong primary flavour, with all of the other flavours acting in support of that one. This is rarely the case for good vegetarian dishes. Most vegetarian food is built out of a set of mutually constrasting and supporting flavours, with no single one dominating. Instead of figuring out what goes well with the centerpiece of the dish, you construct a dish out of components that work well together.

This style is why I think learning to cook as a vegetarian greatly improved my skills as a cook, because it forced me to think about flavour combinations to a degree that would have been less obvious as a meat-based cook. It's not that these skills don't matter when cooking with meat, but you can get by with developing them to a significantly lesser degree, and most people do.

It's also why I think most vegetarian food cooked by omnivores is terrible, especially vegan food where the lazy option of piling cheese on it is not available: They still start with a centerpiece, but it's one that is not really suitable as such. For example, you see a lot of dishes that are basically "Help how do I make a cauliflower interesting?" and the result is something that would be fine as a side dish.

A related problem is that because people aren't thinking about the balance of the dish and the multiple ingredients that go into making it work, they also miss out crucial details. Protein is the major failure mode here. It's easy to forget that protein is something you need to explicitly take into account in your dish preparation when the centerpiece of your dish automatically guarantees you have enough of it. Vegetables, rice, etc. have more protein in than than is commonly recognised, but you should still add more in to your dishes on top of that, and omnivore cooks doing vegetarian food rarely realise that this is the case.