The 20 Essential Ingredients for Better Plant-Based Cooking
When it comes to plant-based cooking, the ingredients are often more important than the actual recipes themselves. That’s because foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, tofu, and whole grains are incredibly versatile, lending themselves to limitless meal ideas, ranging from nuggets, soups, and sauces to casseroles, risottos, and even desserts.
For example, take an ordinary head of cauliflower. With a little bit of know-how, you can transform this humble cruciferous vegetable into fragrant fried rice, bold Buffalo wings, seared steaks, and an all-purpose faux Alfredo sauce.
By keeping a few special ingredients in your pantry, cupboard, and fridge, you can create hundreds of meatless meals for any occasion. But which ingredients are members of this very exclusive club? For Meatless Monday’s twentieth birthday celebration, we’re highlighting the twenty plant-based ingredients that will completely change the way you cook. From bananas and oats to miso paste and cornmeal, these foods will help add flavor, texture, richness, and pop to all your Meatless Monday meals.
No ingredient is as iconic as the banana. You can eat it raw, blend it into smoothies, or mash it up into pancakes or muffins. Its subtle sweetness can add a nice balance to both savory dishes and baked goods, like this coconut pineapple banana bread. Another fun quality of the banana is that it emits ethylene gas, a natural plant hormone that can accelerate the ripening of other fruits and vegetables, which is why it’s common to put a banana in a paper bag with an unripe peach, mango, or pear to speed up the process.
Typically costing less than a dollar per can, beans should be a staple of any pantry. Canned beans can be used in everything: vegetarian chili, veggie burgers, Tex-Mex burritos, tacos…the list is endless. Try experimenting with different varieties, like chickpeas, pinto beans, and pigeon peas, because each bean has its own unique flavor and texture. From a nutritional standpoint, beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein and fiber. For more bean-focused recipes and information, check out our Meatless Monday Beans Resource Center.
A great alternative to meat, a head of cauliflower can be the main meal, like a cauliflower steak, or a tasty side dish, like this purple cauliflower hummus. One advantage to cauliflower is that it’s easy to cook using a variety of methods. You can steam it, roast it, boil it, pan fry it, blend it, add it to stews or curries, or turn it into fried rice or vegan Alfredo sauce. Since it can be chopped up into convenient, bite-sized pieces, cauliflower is also a good nugget or Buffalo wing substitute.
We’re big supporters of cabbage here at Meatless Monday. Why? Well, it’s the ultimate ingredient. You can braise it, grill it, shred it for coleslaw, or slice it up and add it to a veggie stir-fry. It’s also one of the longer-lasting vegetables out there. For inspiration, try making these braised cabbage rolls, farro cabbage salad, or a tangy side dish of cabbage with orange and apple.
A staple of Southern cooking, cornmeal can be transformed into a number of comforting dishes, from deep dish polenta pizza (polenta is a coarse grind of cornmeal) to smoky grits and greens to maple cornbread biscuits. The stuff is really cheap: a 2 lb. bag typically costs only a couple of bucks and will last you at least a month.
Dried lentils and split peas are a terrific value, costing only a few cents per serving and have an incredibly long shelf life. They’re also a plentiful source of plant-based protein and other nutrients. Cook a big split pea soup or batch of lentils, which can then be added to tacos, burritos, baked lentil empanadas, or a lentil and mushroom Bolognese sauce.
Frozen edamame adds a boost of protein to stir-frys, sesame noodles, and plant-based patties. You can easily pop the whole pods in the microwave for a quick snack or you can use the shelled variety in an Asian-inspired salad, stir-fry, hummus, or edamame succotash. Their firm texture and hearty chew make edamame a great meat alternative.
A staple across cuisines, the humble garlic clove is bursting with flavor and versatility. Dice the garlic fine and cook it slowly in olive oil for a simple-yet-delicious pasta sauce, or wrap the whole garlic bulb in aluminum foil and bake in the oven, which mellow the flavor and makes the garlic soft and squeezable. Garlic is also the perfect thing to throw into veggie meatballs, burgers, or lentil Bolognese.
Using a glob of miso paste is the easiest way to infuse anything—dips, stews, soups, marinades, salad dressings, sauces—with the rich and complex flavor of umami. Miso paste is made by salting and fermenting soybeans, but the resulting flavor is actually pretty mellow, especially the blonde and lighter-colored varieties.
Mushrooms have an unctuous, meaty texture and deep umami flavor, making them the ideal alternatives to beef, lamb, or chicken. There are so many varieties of mushrooms (literally thousands), but white button, cremini, shiitake, Portobello, enoki, and oyster mushrooms are some of the most popular. You can add mushrooms to your morning tofu scramble, toss them into tacos, or fry ‘em up until crispy.
Here at Meatless Monday we really dig nutritional yeast. If you’re trying to stick with only plant-based ingredients, the umami flavor of nutritional yeast is a great alternative to aged cheeses like Parmesan. It’s also good for you. Try it in this mouth-watering mushroom tofu scramble or this completely plant-based spicy jalapeno cashew cheese dip.
Think of oatmeal as a blank canvas. You can mix peanut butter, jam, nuts, and seeds for a filling and fiber-rich breakfast, or you can mix in savory spices and serve as a side with dinner. It’s also great in dessert, like when added to oatmeal cookies or this apple cranberry oatmeal bread.
Whether you like it creamy or crunchy, peanut is the ideal pantry staple. A serving of peanut butter is packed with protein and healthy fats, both of which will keep you feeling full and satiated. Peanut butter has a shelf life of more than a year (unopened), and many brands can be purchased for less than $2.00 a jar. Try adding a scoop of peanut butter to granola bars, chili, or spicy sesame noodles.
Potatoes have a lot going for them: they’re nutritious, inexpensive, versatile, and they keep for months when stored in a cool, dark space. And when you have potatoes in your pantry, you’re never too far away from dozens of meals. You can go simple, like these roasted potatoes with chimichurri or a side dish of potato salad with coconut bacon. But you can also go a little more elaborate, and try cooking a bubbling Caribbean lentil and potato bake. Check out our catalog of potato recipes for more inspiring spuds.
Rice has been the foundation of meals across the globe for centuries. You can store it in your pantry for months and transform it into pretty much anything. Brown rice is a healthier alternative than white, but basmati and jasmine rice are also good options. You can top rice with anything: stew, beans, curries, slaw, cooked vegetables, etc., but you can also make rice the centerpiece of the meal with a fried rice, pilaf, Thai rice salad, or leftover-rice veggie burger.
It’s easy to forget about the importance of vegetable stock, but this pantry staple can serve as the foundation of vegetarian soups, pilafs, sauces, ragout, grits, and even pot pies. Vegetable stock has a long shelf-life, so it’s a good idea to stock up on a few boxes so you never run out unexpectedly. Some particularly tasty recipes that use vegetable stock include, vegan khao suey, peanut stew with chickpeas and kale, and this lemony spring risotto.
The sweet potato is nature’s candy; slice it down the middle and heat in the microwave for five minutes and it comes out tasting reminiscent of a sugary soufflé. If you want to try making a dish that requires a little more technique, cook up this spicy and aromatic sweet potato chana or a coconut milk sweet potato white bean soup.
Tahini paste is made entirely from pulverized sesame seeds, giving it a nutty flavor and decadent texture. It’s most commonly blended with chickpeas to make hummus, but it can also be used as a rub, sauce, or savory element of dessert. Combine a tablespoon of tahini with a dash of water, a sprinkle of cumin, and some salt for a quick and creamy dressing for salad or roasted vegetables.
Inexpensive, packed with protein, and easy to store, tofu is an indispensable wonder food that you simply must have in your refrigerator at all times. Tofu is sold in different levels of firmness, which can range from silken (pillowy and custard-like) to extra firm (spongy). The less-firm varieties have higher water content, making them better for cream and dairy replacements. You can use tofu to make all of your favorite comfort foods, from plant-based Caesar dressing to “chicken fried” tofu steaks to Jamaican jerk tofu. The possibilities are endless. Just remember to properly press tofu to remove all the moisture and ensure a crispy end product.
Canned tomatoes can add depth and flavor to a number of different types of meatless meals. Tortilla soup, minestrone, vegetarian chili, pasta arrabiata, lasagna, sloppy joe’s, stuffed peppers, and creamy curries all benefit from the addition of a canned tomato product. And since they’re canned, you can store them in your pantry for months without risk of them spoiling.