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Vegan Umami: How to Rescue Bland Meatless Meals

Have you ever made a vegetarian meal by removing the meat from a family-favorite… only to find it bland and sad? Yep. We’ve all been there!

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter… and umami. The Japanese word umami (“oo-mah-me”) means savoriness. Any food that makes you salivate over the deep, savory flavor is umami. You can replace the protein in a favorite dish, but umami is your secret weapon for rescuing the flavor!

Vegan Umami Video

There is a huge range of umami flavors, textures and depths. Many are pantry staples that you may cook with every day, and not even realize! Some can be easily found in health food stores and online. Whatever meal or cuisine you’re craving, there are BIG ways to boost the flavor… even without meat.

Deeply Flavored Broth

I cook almost all grains and small pasta, like couscous, in vegetable broth. Any vegetable broth (homemade, carton, bouillon cubes, etc) has more flavor than water, right? Give your rice or quinoa a boost of savory flavor by cooking it in broth! Also, try sautéing vegetables in broth.

Vegan Creole Jambalaya

This is 100% not a paid endorsement: Here in the US, I am devoted to Better Than Bouillon. They are small jars of broth concentrate paste with EPIC flavor. Just smelling the contents of the jar makes my mouth water! What makes the umami so rich – in my opinion – is the yeast extract. Sounds weird, tastes amazing. My grocer only carries the vegetarian jar, but soon I’m going to order their “no beef”, “no chicken” and “roasted garlic” flavors. I use this epic broth concentrate in my vegan jambalaya recipe, which requires deep, complex flavors.

Mushrooms

Where are my mushroom lovers at?! If you already love mushrooms, you know what flavor depth they bring to a dish.

I love mushroom and wild rice soup, which uses both shiitake mushrooms and vegetable broth concentrate.

We had a dinner party recently, and our friend made an amazing risotto with dried porcini mushrooms and truffle oil. They are omnivores, but were awesome and made an amazing dish that I could enjoy also. Lemme tell ya, EVERYONE at the table raved about the risotto and mushrooms!

Tomatoes

Sun-dried tomatoes and tomato paste are delicious ways to add umami to a dish. To develop the flavor of tomato paste, I add it to onions while they’re sautéing. Sun-dried tomatoes can be added to dishes like pasta, casseroles, salads, paninis and more.

Fermented Foods

There are MANY fermented foods that you may cook with already! They may not taste “meaty”, but they are definitely gonna bring that umami back into a dish you’ve removed the meat from.

Mediterranean Salad Pizza
  • Olives
  • Worcestershire sauce – Typically made with anchovies, but health food stores carry vegan worcestershire sauce
  • Soy sauce – I mix soy sauce with nut butter for a crave-worthy satay sauce for dipping and pouring over salads.
  • Miso paste – You may know miso from the Japanese miso soup with small cubes of tofu. But, miso can be used in salad dressings, glazes and more.
  • Vinegar –red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, balsamic glaze, etc.

Caramelizing & Roasting

After 45 minutes

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love caramelized onions! These slow-cooked beauties make any savory dish a million times more delicious. Just cook sliced onions in a little olive oil on the lowest heat setting. Stir occasionally. Let them cook for 30-60 minutes. … I know, I get it. Cooking one pot of onions for an hour sounds ridiculous! Make a lot, and freeze them in small portions. Then you’ve got umami for months. MAGIC!

Roasting vegetables brings out their flavors and creates those crispy, caramelized edges. They have more umami! Roasted carrots beat raw carrots any day (in my opinion)!

Peak of Ripeness Produce

August peaches. July watermelon. Summer corn. A cantaloupe so perfectly ripe that you just cut it in half and eat it with a spoon. Going to a u-pick strawberry or blueberry farm, and eating them by the handful.

Fruits that are just-picked fresh and perfectly ripe have their own kind of umami. Grilling peaches for a salad is another way to explode the umami!

Nutritional Yeast

Some say nutritional yeast – sold in a shaker can like cheap parmesan – has a cheesy flavor. I don’t really taste “cheese”, but it does have a depth of umami flavor. It can be cooked in dishes like casseroles, blended with soaked cashews to make a spreadable vegan cheese, and sprinkled on pasta and salads.

Sea Vegetables

The green wrapper around sushi rolls is called nori, and it’s made from seaweed. Some grocery stores also carry seaweed “snacks”. These are small, seasoned sheets of seaweed that are a little crunchy and a lot of flavor. My daughter probably eats a packet every day. She loves them SO much.

You can crumble them over an Asian salad, noodle dish, rice dish, etc. I buy the nori sheets and roll up raw, sliced veggies in them… then dunk dunk dunk in that soy sauce & nut butter mixture I mentioned earlier!

More Vegan Umami Resources

  • The Kitchn article: Umami for Vegans
  • Splendid Table recipe: Vegan Fish Sauce. “Fish sauce” sounds weird, but it’s the umami-packed sauce in many of your favorite Thai recipes, like pad thai and curries. This vegan version uses dried shiitake mushrooms, salt and soy sauce.

Life is too short for boring food… be sweet to yourself! Happy cooking!

I'm a tacotarian, a mom and pun-maker. Feeding people is my love language, and I'm passionate about helping people feel confident in being their own kind of vegan/vegetarian. I'm commonly found in the school pick-up lane, bulk buying tortilla chips and in front of the fireplace.

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