Kitchen Confidence

All About Vegetarian Proteins

By • October 1, 2013 • 14 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: With so many choices for vegetarian proteins, it's up to you which way you choose to use them. 

Whoever said vegetarians can't get enough protein was just plain wrong. With beans and lentils, nuts, eggs, and protein-packed whole grains like quinoa all as options, there's no reason that a vegetarian -- or vegan -- diet has to be protein deficient.

Sometimes, though, we need that extra boost -- and that's where these vegetarian proteins come in. Edamame, tofu, tempeh, and textured soy protein are all high protein soy bean-based foods, while seitan is a chewy meat-like product made from wheat protein.

With such a wide array of culinary properties, these proteins are ready to be used in whatever way you want. Maybe you'll start adding edamame to salads or adding crumbled tempeh to your burritos and you'll leave textured soy protein for others to experiment with. It's up to you. 

Here's how the vegetarian proteins compare in terms of protein content per 100 grams:

Edamame: 11 grams
Tofu: 8 grams
Tempeh: 19 grams
Textured Soy Protein: 50 grams
Seitan: 75 grams

Edamame

What is it?
This is the least processed form of soy protein around. The shiny, green edamame are soy beans that have been harvested at 80% of their growth. They're available fresh or frozen, in their pods or already shucked. 

What it's good for?
Edamame are plump, sweet, and buttery, with a high protein content to boot. 

What should you do with it?
In pod, edamame make the perfect finger-food appetizer, as you've probably noticed at every sushi restaurant. Boil in salted water for about a minute, then drain, or steam in a microwave. Substitute edamame for lima or lava beans in any recipe. Roast the beans in the oven until they're crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Add edamame to salads or go wild and process it into hummus.

Tofu

Start experimenting with tofu, which is made by coagulating soy milk, and you'll open up a whole culinary world of tofu burgers, tofu chocolate mousse, and tofu stir-fries. Everything you need to know about tofu has been consolidated into one handy post


Tempeh

What is it?
Tempeh is a fermented soy product that originated in Indonesia several hundred years ago. It's made through a culture and fermentation process that binds whole soybeans into a thin cake of beans. 

What's it good for?
Tempeh has a strong umami flavor, a firm texture, and is high in protein (about 19% protein by weight). It is a whole soybean food, which means it's also rich in fiber, B vitamins, and many amino acids. 

What should you do with it?
Unlike tofu, tempeh has a distinctly nutty flavor. Prepare tempeh by marinating it in soy sauce, ginger, and vinegar and baking or pan-frying until crispy. Chop up cubes and add them to stir fries. Throw tempeh on the grill. Crumble tempeh into hot oil and cook it until golden, then use it as a topping on salads and pizzas or add it to soups and chili. 

Textured Soy Protein (a.k.a. TSP or TVP)

What is it?
After soybean oil has been extracted from soy flour (the flour's been "defatted"), the flour is cooked under pressure, extruded, and dried to make TSP, otherwise known as soy protein isolate. TSP comes in granules, flakes, and chunks. 

What's it good for?
High in protein and fiber, TSP is often used as a meat substitute, mostly in commercial food products like frozen entrées, energy bars, and protein drinks. 

What should you do with it?
Before it can be eaten, TSP needs to be reconstituted in hot water for about 10 minutes or during the cooking process. Soak in water or vegetable stock until soft, then add it to casseroles, soups, and chili as a replacement for ground meat.

Seitan

What is it?
You may have heard seitan (pronounced like say-tan, not satan) also called wheat meat or gluten meat. Whatever you call it, seitan is basically a dough made from gluten, the main wheat protein. When vital gluten flour is washed with water, the starches dissolve and what's left behind is a mass of insoluble gluten with a meaty texture. 

What's it good for?
If you've ever had mock duck or mock chicken, you've had seitan. It's chewy, flavor-absorbent, and can be grilled, broiled, roasted, panfried, or breaded. When cooked, seitan takes on the look and texture of meat, which makes it a common meat substitute. 

What should you do with it?
The first thing you should know is that you can make your own seitan at home; homemade seitan is cheaper and can be seasoned however you want. Once you've got seitan (homemade or store-bought), give it a nice crisp by pan-searing, grilling, roasting, or broiling. Try using it as a substitute for tofu in stir-fries and braises.

How do you use vegetarian proteins? Tell us in the comments below.

Photos by James Ransom

Jump to Comments (14)

Tags: kitchen confidence, vegetarian, protein, soy, soy beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, special diets, how-to & diy

Comments (14)

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11 months ago tingroo

My favorite of the list is tofu. There are endless possibilities. Currently I'm obsessed with a soup that requires forcing a block of firm tofu through a sieve and adding it to a pot of miso soup, simmering with onions, seaweed, sesame seeds, tamari, and mirin. It's a simple version of Kenchinjiru (Japanese temple food).

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12 months ago Mbeksie

this is great info. I've been trying to make meatless meals at home because they sell very expensively in Port Elizabeth, RSA where I live. I wonder how convenient it would be to source seitan though... Thanks once more - the additional info by Valentina was quite insightful too.

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12 months ago savorthis

I usually steer clear of making vegetarian dishes with meat-like substitutes, but during a Meatless March a few years ago I made some tempeh tacos that I really liked and still make: http://food52.com/recipes.... Otherwise I like a sweet sticky glaze on tempeh (roughly based on Heidi Swanson's recipe: http://www.101cookbooks...) and love caramelized or agedashi tofu. Seitan, though, I can do without. The texture is just too weird for me.

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12 months ago Panfusine

It almost seems like the article highlights on Soy as the main Vegetarian protein source (except for the wheat gluten of course) and also views it from a Meat texture perspective. (in terms of texture or substitutions). As a person who has NO clue about what meat tastes or feels like (other than an anatomy lab perspective) Why is it so crucial to focus on foods from a Meat eating Frame of reference?

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12 months ago Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's assistant editor.

Hi Panfusine, Thank you for your comment! Soy and wheat gluten are obviously not the only source of vegetarian protein and some vegetarians may get all of their protein from other sources. We just wanted to have a reference on the site for those cooks who do want to learn more about these forms of proteins (and who might be looking for a more meat-like substitute than beans, nuts, eggs, or quinoa!). That being said, as a lifelong vegetarian myself, I almost never eat meat analogues or substitutes BECAUSE they are meat substitutes -- only because I think that, when cooked well, they can taste great!

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12 months ago Panfusine

:-)

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12 months ago Valentina Solfrini

If you can figure out the amino-acids content in the protein in each food, you can easily make up for deficiencies by mixing stuff up. If we know that beans lack Methionine and Cystine, we can make up for it with grains, which in turn lack Lysine. A diet which includes grains, legumes, seeds, rice, and nuts daily will surely provide a complete and high-quality protein intake. I wouldn't even trust soy to be a 100% high quality protein source.

Let us not forget split peas, which pack a whopping 25g of protein per 100g. I'd like to try pea protein to add to shakes...if Frank Medrano is vegan and ripped, he must be doing something right.

Managing a healthy vegan diet and getting info on all the nutritional values of food does take a bit of work. But then again, all properly done things do.

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12 months ago Almyra Pangestu

I found that living in Asia, especially Jakarta, makes it waay easier to eat plant based food.The tofu and tempe are simply the best. Do try sweet soy sauce (Indonesian). It is soy cooked with palm sugar until it has a somewhat caramel taste. Great for stew, condiments, and even stir fries because you will be mixing it it with chilies, ginger, etc. Oh the possibilities!

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12 months ago Emily

Thanks for this list! It's a great resource even for non-vegetarians who like to branch out in their protein sources every now and then.

~Emily
http://www.theorangeslate...
@emilyamccord

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12 months ago Trees

I really like making nut-based pestos to get my protein. I'm vegan, so making pestos with nutritional yeast instead of cheese works well and makes dishes richer and gives a punch of umami flavor.

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12 months ago Lost_in_NYC

What about quinoa? Eggs is debated as a protein depending on how hard core of a vegetarian one is.

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12 months ago Girlfromipanema

Agreed, would like to know how these soy-based proteins stack up against quinoa and other grains, nuts, beans, etc.

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12 months ago Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's assistant editor.

For this article, we were focusing on soy- and wheat-based proteins, but quinoa and beans are also great protein sources. 100 grams of quinoa contains 14 grams of proteins; black bean: 22 grams of protein; almonds: 21 grams of protein.

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12 months ago Girlfromipanema

Thanks for the info. Sarah!