How to Flavor-Boost Your Vegetables to Dinner Stardom

January 10, 2018

This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.

Making vegetables meaty—without, mind you, any meat—builds their confidence and boosts their starpower. Disclaimer: This is not about vegetables dressing up as meat. We aren’t talking tofurkeys or I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-beef veggie burgers. We’re talking umami. This Japanese word for the fifth taste—in addition to salty, sweet, bitter, sour—signifies savoriness or meatiness. In other words, we’re stealing meat’s secret sauce to make vegetables sing.

“Umami flavor is triggered by glutamates,” writes J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in his debut cookbook, The Food Lab. So more glutamates, more meaty flavor. Got it! Glutamates are amino acids, naturally found in many foods—vegetarian ones included. Which means we can use plants to empower plants.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Accordingly, consider describing a food with another food—plus a y—the sincerest flattery, the ultimate compliment. Think creamy tofu, nutty brown butter, briny oysters. Meaty vegetables are living their best life. Seasoned with bold, no-holds-barred, umami-rich ingredients, they can hold their own at any meal.

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Let us introduce you to your vegetables’ new best friends:


Consider parmigiano-reggiano—a hard, granular, nutty cow’s milk cheese—an umami goddess. Which is just the best news because now we have another excuse to eat more cheese. Parmesan is a close cousin but, as any Italian would tell you, assolutamente not the same thing. Like champagne, parmigiano-reggiano’s name is legally protected and only able to be produced in a certain region—in this case, Emilia-Romagna. So use the real deal if you can swing it. Or, opt for an aged parmesan instead. How to befriend either:

  • Use a food processor to grind parm into a meal. Turn into a cheesy vinaigrette.
  • Bake grated parm piles into crispy, lacy, one-ingredient crackers—fricos!—for vegetable-based dips, like lemony white bean spread. Or, crumble into a crunchy garnish for boiled, olive oil-drowned vegetables.
  • Give eggplant a break and treat other vegetables to the parm treatment: cauliflower, broccoli, artichoke hearts.
  • Fry cauliflower or Brussels sprouts in parm batter. (I feel giddy just writing it!)


What sounds better sprinkled on salad: shaved, raw mushrooms or crispy, oven-roasted, bacon-like mushroom bits? Like tomatoes, mushrooms are all about umami—and even more so the more they’re concentrated. So, if you’re cashing in mushrooms for umami points, opt for intensely cooked—say, roasted at a high-temperature or fried—or dried. How to befriend either:

  • Use a coffee grinder to turn dried porcinis or shiitakes into a fine powder. Sprinkle on sauteed greens. Stir into garlicky breadcrumbs, to rain over grilled zucchini. Mix with salt and black pepper as a rub for pan-seared cauliflower steaks.
  • Turn portobellos into jerky. Layer onto a BMLT. Chop up and scatter over salads, or stuff inside spinach-feta omelettes.


Tomatoes get a lot of credit for being acidic—but they’re umami-laden, too. And the more you reduce them, the more you intensify their umami flavor. Enter, wrinkly sun-dried tomatoes and concentrated tomato paste. How to befriend both:

  • Add tomato paste to marinara. Put that toward the dreamiest eggplant parm.
  • Make a sun-dried tomato (and parmesan!) pesto. Dollop onto buttery spaghetti squash.
  • Add minced sun-dried tomatoes to mayo. Slather onto raw or roasted veggie sandwiches.

Soy sauce and miso

Both fermented soy products, the former a liquid, the latter a paste. Soy sauce options include: light (super salty, not to be confused with low-sodium); dark (richer color, milder flavor); and tamari (wheat-free, malty). Miso comes in various colors, from white to yellow to brown to crimson—the darker the hue, the longer the fermentation and the intenser the flavor. For our purposes, soy sauce lends itself to being all-purpose, so whatever is already in your fridge is fine. For miso, you’ll want to coordinate the type with the application. How to befriend all:

  • Mix soy sauce with unsalted butter. Toss with boiled or steamed broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or green beans.
  • Whisk white miso into a dijon vinaigrette.
  • Stir white miso into creamed greens, from kale to collards to spinach.
  • Fold red miso and maple syrup into caramelized, collapsed eggplant, then pile on yogurty toast.

Nutritional yeast

Also goes by nooch. Find this “dead” yeast hanging out at health food stores because, as its name suggests, it’s good for you. Protein, fiber, and folic acid, oh my. It’s made from Saccharomyces cerevisae—the same yeast strain you used to make Saltie’s focaccia—just deactivated until it looks like, well, fish food. But it tastes like the neon orange powder you lick from your fingertips after eating a bag of cheesy popcorn. Sold? How to befriend:

  • Stir into buttery corn or buttered peas.
  • Sprinkle on just lettuce or shaved root vegetable salads.
  • Toss with roasted cauliflower or broccoli florets, still hot from the oven.
  • Turn into sneaky vegan pesto and toss with zucchini noodles.
  • Put toward a new-classic Caesar salad.

Oil-cured olives

Most olives live in water—the jumbo black ones that you stuck on your fingertips as a kid (just me?)—or brine—the colossal, pimiento-stuffed, green ones that you drop into your post-work martini like the end of Titanic when Rose drops the Heart of the Ocean into the sea (uh, just me?). Anyway, oil-cured olives live in neither water, nor brine, nor oil as the name implies. They’re usually dry-cured with salt, then plumped up in olive oil. Shiny, slightly wrinkly, and meaty, like teeny-tiny prunes. How to befriend:

  • Mince, then mix into lemon vinaigrette.
  • Mash into unsalted butter. Toss with boiled or steamed broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or green beans.
  • Tear into pieces and add to Greek-style salads with tomato, cucumber, and feta.
  • Play around with this minimalist Umbrian black olive panino—add roasted peppers, charred eggplant, or broccoli rabe.


Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the most powerful—and arguably most controversial—umami bomb. It derives from kombu, or oversized sea kelp, so it’ll come as no surprise that seaweed is also an umami MVP. How to befriend:

  • Add torn sheets of nori to your granola mixture a la Heidi Swanson. Sprinkle on everything from green salads to roast squash.
  • Make your own (almost) furikake. This Japanese seasoning blend traditionally includes bonito (dried, fermented fish flakes), nori, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sugar. Just skip the bonito.
  • Shake onto avocado toast, kale fried rice, or baked sweet potatoes.
  • Any time you’re making a vegetable broth—or a brothy vegetable soup—add some kombu to the party. Simmer away and remove before serving.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • witloof
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


AntoniaJames January 11, 2018
Try garlic from garlic confit (especially one made with herbs - my favorite combo is thyme and bay leaf ) plus red wine vinegar plus chopped parsley with any roasted vegetable -- one of many useful ideas from the Gjelina cookbook by Travis Lett. ;o)
witloof January 10, 2018
Instead of tossing your vegetables with nutritional yeast after they come out of the oven, I recommend roasting them with a coating of yeast and plenty of olive oil, The yeast turns brown and caramelizes and is even more delicious.