Vegetarian cooking should never mean dishes that are bland or boring; there are myriad options for giving dishes rich, savory flavor without the meat. Here are the ingredients we turn to again and again to lend bold flavor to vegetarian recipes.
Oil is essential for most methods of cooking, whether sautéing, pan frying, baking, or broiling, and because many vegetarian recipes are naturally lean, they often need a bit more oil to lend richness. The two we reach for most often are vegetable oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Vegetable oils can be made from any number of “vegetable” sources, but usually they consist of soybean oil. These oils have high smoke points and almost no flavor; we use them for shallow frying, sautéing, and stir-frying, and in dressings with strong flavors. Vegetable oils are also fine for deep frying, but canola oil (a vegetable oil made from rapeseed) can give food an off-flavor when heated for a long time. We reach for flavorful extra-virgin olive oil to dress vegetables, to drizzle over soups and grilled or roasted foods, and in most vinaigrettes. Extra-virgin olive oil’s strong flavors dissipate when exposed to high heat, so we generally use it only in dishes that are cooked relatively quickly.
Vinegar isn’t just for making vinaigrettes; we also use it to perk up sauces, stews, soups, and rice and bean dishes. Much like lemon or lime juice, a drizzle of acidic vinegar before serving can brighten and balance a dish. Different types lend distinct flavors to dishes, and we reach for several varieties in the book to lend nuanced flavor to recipes. Because their more complex flavors can have a big impact on simple vegetarian dishes, we recommend you buy a good red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and sherry vinegar.
3. Vegetable Broth
A good vegetable broth is an essential ingredient in the vegetarian kitchen. It provides a flavorful backbone to a wide range of dishes, from soups and stews to risottos and pasta. But it’s important to be a savvy shopper—we’ve found that many commercial vegetable broths are terrible, with overly sweet, tinny flavors or distinct vegetable flavors that overwhelm dishes. We recommend Orrington Farms Vegan Chicken Flavored Broth Base & Seasoning and Swanson Certified Organic Vegetable Broth, or you can make your own broth or broth concentrate with our recipes in the book.
4. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is an essential ingredient in vegetarian cooking; this salty liquid is made from fermented soybeans and wheat, barley, or rice, and it is rich in glutamates, taste bud stimulators that give food the meaty, savory flavor known as umami. Although it is traditionally an Asian ingredient, we use it in all types of dishes to add great savory flavor. If you cannot eat gluten, be sure to look for gluten-free soy sauce or tamari.
5. Bragg Amino Acids
Bragg Liquid Aminos is made from 16 amino acids derived from soybeans (amino acids are the structural units that make up proteins). It made a great vegetarian stand-in for fish sauce. It gave our Asian recipes the same meaty, savory, fermented flavor of traditional fish sauce. You can also make your own vegetarian fish sauce with our recipe in the book.
Whether crystalline or creamy, sharp or mild, blue or orange, cheese is a great way to add flavor, richness, and protein to vegetarian dishes. We use ricotta, goat cheese, and feta to lend richness and creaminess to dishes ranging from casseroles to salads. We rely on mild cheddar, Monterey Jack, and mozzarella for their smooth flavor and great melting qualities. And we reach for sharp cheddar, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or blue cheese when we want to add bold flavor to a dish. Wrap cheese in parchment paper and then in aluminum foil before refrigerating; the paper allows the cheese to breathe, while the foil keeps out off-flavors and prevents the cheese from drying out.
Add bacteria to whole, low-fat, or nonfat milk and you get yogurt. We add whole-milk yogurt to sauces, soups, and dressings to give them richness and a thick, creamy texture. We especially love Greek yogurt, which is thicker, drier, and tangier than ordinary yogurt. It is made by allowing the watery whey to drain from the yogurt, giving it a smooth, thick texture. Simply stir a few spices or herbs into yogurt to make a creamy spread for sandwiches, a dip for crudités, or a cool accompaniment to dollop on vegetable fritters, soups, or curries. We don’t recommend cooking with nonfat yogurt.
8. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are essential for vegetarian cooking because they are rich in healthy fats and protein. They are also great for adding flavor and crunch; we use them frequently to lend richness and texture to recipes. We also grind nuts in the food processor to give dishes like our Ultimate Vegetarian Chili (in the book) great flavor and body throughout. Because nuts and seeds are high in oil, they will become rancid quickly, so we recommend that you store them in the freezer. Frozen nuts and seeds will keep for months, and there’s no need to defrost them before toasting or chopping.
9. Dried Mushrooms
Mushrooms are particularly high in savory umami flavor, which is the reason they are often used as a stand-in for meat. Dried mushrooms offer that same flavor in a concentrated package, giving recipes a major dose of meatiness. We often use dried porcini or shiitakes to build deep flavor in longer-cooking dishes. When buying dried mushrooms, always inspect them closely. Avoid those with small holes, which indicate the mushroom may have been subjected to pinworms. The mushrooms should also be free of dust and grit.
10. Tomato Paste
Tomato paste is tomato puree that has been cooked to remove almost all moisture. It is our secret ingredient in many recipes where we want lots of savory flavor. Because it’s so concentrated, it’s naturally full of glutamates, which provide the meaty flavor known as umami. When tomato paste is added to dishes, we’ve found that it brings out subtle depths and savory notes.
11. Spice Blends
Blends of spices are a great way to give a dish complex flavor in one fell swoop. They also make it easy to make interesting ethnic dishes with authentic flavor. Garam masala is one of our favorites; it is a potent Indian spice blend that usually includes cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, and dried chiles. Curry powder, a blend of various herbs, spices, and seeds, is essential for making curries with authentic flavor. For dishes with Middle Eastern flavors, we reach for za’atar, a pungent combination of toasted sesame seeds, thyme, marjoram, and sumac. Ras el hanout is a complex Moroccan blend that features warm spices like ginger, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. We also often reach for chili powder to add a bold, multilayered heat to spicy dishes.
12. Citrus Juice
We frequently add lemon or lime juice (depending on the flavor profile of the dish) toward the end of cooking or just before serving to balance dishes with some bright acidity. When purchasing lemons or limes at the supermarket, choose large ones that give to gentle pressure; hard ones have thicker skin and yield less juice. To get the most juice out of a lemon or lime, we recommend rolling it vigorously on a hard surface before slicing it open. This will bruise, break up, and soften the rind’s tissues while it tears the membrane of the juice vesicles (tear-shaped juice sacs), thereby filling the inside of the fruit with juice even before it is squeezed. For juicing, we prefer either a wooden reamer with a sharp tip that can easily pierce the flesh, or a manual citrus juicer. And always juice lemons and limes at the last minute, as their flavor mellows quickly.
13. Fresh Herbs
We often use a sprinkling of minced herbs to give dishes a fresh finish, or whole herb leaves to brighten salads or sandwiches. Parsley, cilantro, and basil are the herbs we use most often and are good to have on hand (or, even better, to grow in small pots in your kitchen). Fresh herbs are highly perishable; to get the most life out of your herbs, gently rinse and dry them (a salad spinner works well), wrap them in a damp paper towel, and place them in a partially open zipper-lock bag in the crisper drawer. Delicate basil is the exception; don’t wash it before you need to use it (the added moisture will shorten its shelf life), but do wrap it in paper towels to shield it from the cold in your refrigerator.
14. Salt and Pepper
Seasoning dishes with salt and pepper is always important, but it’s especially crucial in vegetarian dishes that rely on just a few simple flavors. We use salt to bring out the flavors of vegetables and to brine beans, and we salt the cooking water for pasta, rice, and grains to season them as they cook. We recommend you stock both table salt and kosher salt. Table salt can be used in any application; it dissolves quickly and easily and is best for baking and using in a brine. The large crystals of kosher salt are good for seasoning foods before cooking and for salting vegetables to pull out excess moisture. As for pepper, fresh is always best. Its flavor dissipates quickly once it’s ground, so we recommend buying whole peppercorns and grinding them as needed.