Demystifying Common Vegetarian Ingredients

With vegetarian and vegan diets becoming more popular, you’re quite likely to come across protein-rich meat alternatives that you might not have met before; either mentioned in recipes, or stocking supermarket shelves. Quinoa, tempeh, and seitan are ingredients that are commonly used in plant-based recipes, but what are they exactly, and what do we use them for?



Photo by SweetOnVeg

This starchy, grain-like seed has been a staple food in the Andean region (Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru) for thousands of years, and with good cause: not only is it a rather tasty pseudo-grain, it’s almost unbelievably nutritious. These unassuming little seeds are packed with protein, essential amino acids, iron,  vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and dietary fibre. Some have claimed that it’s such a complete food, people could live on it alone and suffer no nutritional deficiency.

Since quinoa isn’t an actual grain, it has no gluten in it, and is ideal for people with Celiac disease or gluten allergies and sensitivities. It’s also cholesterol free and Kosher, and is versatile as a substitution for countless other ingredients. You can use it in lieu of bulgur wheat for tabbouleh, it makes a great stand-in for couscous, and can be used to boost the protein quotient in rice dishes, stews, sauces, and even oatmeal.

Most of the pre-packaged quinoa you’ll be able to find at supermarkets and health-food stores has already been rinsed thoroughly to eliminate the rather bitter saponins within their coatings, but it’s a good idea to give the seeds an additional rinse before using them. It’s generally simmered for about 15 min in a 1:1.5 quinoa to water ratio (be sure to salt the water), and then left to sit for a few minutes before being fluffed with a fork.



Photo by Digiyesica

Made by compressing fermented soybeans, this Indonesian specialty is a protein-rich “cake” that’s flavourful, versatile, and high in vitamins. It has very little flavour on its own, but it holds marinades and seasonings remarkably well, and its firm texture maintains integrity even when being handled roughly. Don’t throw it at your sous-chef or anything, but don’t be afraid to chop it and toss it around as needed.

Tempeh is an ideal gluten-free, vegan protein that can be substituted in a variety of different dishes. It generally comes in compressed patties, and those can either be used whole or sliced into various shapes to suit the dish that you’re cooking. Be forewarned that it has a unique, slightly bitter “earthiness” right out of the package, so it’s important to season it well to get rid of that.  It can be sliced thinly or thickly and then fried or baked to create a chewy, slightly crispy addition (or accompaniment) to any dish. Tempeh bacon is actually quite popular, as it can achieve a blackened crunch similar to the pork product, and the addition of a bit of liquid smoke or hickory can add to the effect. Crumbled up, its texture is very similar to ground beef, so it works well in chili, Bolognese sauce, and curries.



Photo by Lorenia

If you’ve never tried working with this stuff before, you must try it: it’s absolutely brilliant to play with. Basically, it’s pure wheat gluten protein, and it’s commonly used in Chinese vegetarian recipes: if you’ve ever eaten mock duck, chicken, beef, or pork, and wondered what on earth it was made out of, it’s this. It’s also the primary ingredient in Tofurkey, if you’ve ever tried that. Seitan marinates beautifully and soaks up all the gorgeous flavours of any liquid it’s immersed in, and is wonderfully versatile—you can steam it, bake it, or fry it, and though its texture will be different depending on the cooking technique you use, you can be sure that it will maintain its shape and not crumble to pieces with a bit of abuse.

You can make your own seitan, but the process of doing so is very time-consuming: you basically create a simple dough of wheat flour and water, and then spend half an hour or so kneading it under running water to wash all the starch away. If you use 8 cups of flour, the end result will be a little short of 2 cups of gluten, and very sore hands. Most people just buy it pre-made at health food stores.

Seitan has a wonderful chewiness that emulates meat a little too well for some vegans, but for those who miss the taste and texture of animal products, this is a great stand-in. It’s perfect for faux chicken strips (marinate in vegetable/onion stock with poultry seasoning), and can be used as a spectacular meat substitute in rib recipes: try buffalo seitan “ribs” and try not to love them.


Being able to tweak dishes to make them veg-friendly is a great skill to have in your repertoire, and these simple ingredients can add far more diversity to a meat-free menu than the standard, ubiquitous vegetarian lasagna.  Consider picking up a couple of these ingredients the next time you’re feeling experimental, and see what you can come up with—you might actually like them.

- Lana Winter-Hébert

Lana Winter-Hébert fell in love with cooking while still in primary school. The various dietary needs of her extended family (i.e. gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, and paleo diets) have helped her to learn a fair bit about substitutions and meal plan modifications, and though her first love will always be the Scandinavian/Eastern European cuisine she grew up with, she has a penchant for Mexican food and can be bribed heartily with the offer of good huevos rancheros.

Lana currently resides in rural Quebec with her husband and family, where she divides her time between writing, editing, design, and tending her permaculture garden. She cans and preserves whatever’s in season, and is having some fantastic adventures with home cheese-making and mead-brewing.

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