It’s not easy to take that big step into giving up meat, fish, dairy or all three. For some, it’s even a health risk. So, we shouldn’t punish ourselves for eating it, even if we feel strongly about the ethics of it all. When my partner went vegetarian 3 and a half years ago, I worried it would drive a wedge between us as I was already a fussy eater. Luckily, she was very accommodating, not judging me for our difference of opinion. I have however tried to reduce my meat consumption to live a little more ethically and be a little kinder to the planet.
The most common complaint about veggie alternatives is that they don’t taste the same; they just exist to fill a gap for veggies craving another bite of the glorious chicken nugget. And that can be broadly correct, a lot of them do taste bad, even though they are doing an admirable job of helping the planet and people make more ethical decisions. But it needn’t be the rule, more so the exception.
So which ones pass the taste and texture tests for someone who hasn’t felt confident enough to make the leap away from meat, fish or dairy yet? Someone who has tasted meat and fish recently, so the contrast is blindingly apparent? Fasten your seatbelts, for I am about to regale you with the story of which ones are good and which ones aren’t.
Let me start with a basic vegan alternative that gets used a lot in our household; soya single cream (usually the Alpro one though we are just about to try Elmlea.) We eat a lot of pasta dishes hat usually enjoy a splash of cream in the sauce and honestly, I can’t fathom any difference at all. I might be a little biased because I’ve never particularly liked dairy products, so if there was a milky/cheesy taste before, I don’t really miss it. However even with things you thought dairy might be essential to, like a carbonara, I really find dairy-free alternatives work just as well. We’ve also been using plant-based spreads in place of butter for years, and this is probably another one of the few areas where I can genuinely say I prefer it to before. Sunflower spreads like Flora taste fine on sandwiches and in bakes, though I sometimes do add a bit of salt if we’re eating something like crackers. I have to say though, olive oil spreads like Bertolli really do the trick for me and I’ve found myself adding olive oil to sandwiches with dairy butter when there’s no alternative.
Next it’s time to address alternatives for the humble beef burger. It’s come on in leaps and bounds since the first one I tried in 2017, a Quorn vegan beef burger, which probably ranks amongst the worst things I’ve ever eaten. In fairness, it’s virtually impossible to replicate such a meaty taste, and probably better to focus on the texture and add some nice seasoning. Case in point, I tried a Quorn steak once, it was like eating one of those erasers you had at school with black pepper on top. I’ve found making it yourself, using plant-based minced beef from companies like The Meatless Farm Co. is slightly better as you get the satisfaction of having made it and can add ingredients to improve the taste like onions, garlic and the odd sauce while it’s cooking. It isn’t perfect but it’s better than damage limitation through disguising the terrible taste with mountains of sauce. It isn’t really possible with Quorn mince in my experience but you’re welcome to try! Honourable mentions are deserved by Linda McCartney’s 1/4-lb Mozzarella beef burgers, which aren’t bad but I usually add garlic while cooking in the oven and add a hash brown or two if to mix up the texture if I’m not in a super ravenous mood. The Beyond Meat patty, available in Sainsbury’s, is supposedly really good but I will have to do a review once I’ve eaten it as it’s always sold out! The same company makes the meatballs for Subway’s ‘Meatless Marinara,’ which aren’t bad but really depend on what toppings you get on them. Burger King probably did the best with their ‘Impossible Whopper’ in terms of takeaway taste, though they did cheat slightly by using the same griddle as the standard Whopper to give it a flame-grilled taste which makes it unsuitable for a lot of vegans and vegetarians.
What about the more classic junk food, when you’ve come back from a night out and just want to veg out on the sofa watching rubbish TV? Luckily, processed meat doesn’t really have much of a distinct taste, so Quorn chicken nuggets taste virtually the same to me as normal ones. Most major companies make vegetarian chicken nuggets these days; Quorn does have that strange aftertaste to a lot of its’ products (particularly their chicken-style pieces) if you concentrate hard enough but the breaded products are usually okay. If you’re particularly squeamish about getting that strange not-meat taste I recommend getting the southern-fried nuggets, which have a bit more seasoning to distract you from the lack of meatiness. When it comes to things like sliced chicken and ham, you won’t get that deli-counter taste like you do with fancy joints of meat, but if you’re just a student (like me) looking to fill up a sandwich then alternatives do the job just fine. Quorn’s vegan ham slices taste pretty much identical to the kind of wafer-thin ham you get at supermarkets and again can be disguised a bit with salad and sauce if you really hate the taste. One thing I will warn you about though, with their recent ad campaign popping up again and again on the TV – Bird’s Eye’s new vegetarian range neither tastes like meat or tastes nice to me, though you might feel differently, so you can always give it a go.
And if you’re missing that smoky smell of bacon or a hearty breakfast sausage when everyone else seems to be having a fry-up, help is at hand. Summer 2020 was the era of homemade barbecues and picnics without friends most of the time, so there was little point in my partner and I buying much meat. Usually I would opt for the occasional ‘real’ beef burger or pack of 4 sausages as the bulk of the meal, but we saw little point in picking up kebabs, chicken wings, hot dogs and the like. This meant we experimented with a lot of different meat alternatives, like vegan ‘shroomdogs’ or ‘chorizo’ (usually some kind of veggie/vegan patty with paprika on the side.) The former were fine for me, as despite being an annoyingly fussy eater, I really like mushrooms. Though that’s a bone of contention for a lot of my friends so they might not be for everyone! Linda McCartney brand sausages slipped a little at this point as their paprika ‘chorizo’ just taste overwhelmingly, and strangely, of coriander. However our one little holiday – a camping trip to the banks of Loch Ness in summer – revealed the holy grail of vegetarian foods from a meat eater’s perspective. It’s the humble Richmond sausage.
I’ve tried a lot of different veggie sausages in an effort to let me and my partner eat the same meal instead of having to prepare alternative options, with varying degrees of success. Quorn and Bird’s Eye are at the bottom of the pile in the sausage race, with an unpleasant texture and an overwhelmingly plastic-y taste faintly disguised with maybe one or two herbs. Linda McCartney brand is a little above with a taste more like a standard pork sausage, their rosemary and red onion one just about winning out for a bit more depth of flavour but they do have a tendency to dry out very quickly if left to cook for just a minute or two too long. Frankfurter-style sausages are a little easier to replicate as, like the processed ham, their true ingredients probably don’t bear thinking about. It’s Moving Mountains who win in that category with their veggie frankfurters, with the tofu ones from Waitrose unfortunately tasting of nothing apart from a slightly synthetic smokiness. However they are irritatingly expensive when the main reason anyone buys hot dogs is that they’re usually £1 a tin or thereabouts. When it comes to a hearty sausage butty though, none of these really cut it.
When we got to Loch Ness and needed a couple of bits for our asthmatic little camping stove, Richmonds were the first things we saw. So we picked up some onions and hot dog buns and zipped back to the camp site. I have to say they are by far the most convincing looking sausages that aren’t actually sausages, the skin even fries up and spits like a real one. I guess if you eat them completely on their own, you might notice a slight difference if you eat a meat sausage immediately afterwards, but our hot dogs tasted genuinely really brilliant. I’d say if you’re wanting to make the switch then they are a great place to start as they really make the transition seem a lot more realistic than it used to seem.