A Recipe for Disaster: Vegan Meatballs
Author & Photographer: Jane Fraipont
Over the past year, I’ve tried to eat mainly vegan when cooking for myself. Doing so has had its benefits, as I’ve started eating more vegetables and less processed foods and saved money on groceries. I have, however, missed some of the foods I’ve grown up eating, including homemade pizza, pasta bakes, and spaghetti and meatballs. While meat substitutes of all shapes and sizes can now be quite easily found in health food stores and higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods, they can be expensive and contain ingredients like refined sugar, canola oil, modified vegetable gum, and various colorants that you may be trying to avoid.
There are a few recipes from vegan food bloggers and recipe developers for homemade meat substitutes, including many for vegan “meatballs.” Many are made predominantly of beans or quinoa, and seem more like meatball-shaped bean burgers than real meat substitutes. The recipe for “The Meatiest Vegan Meatballs” by Gaz Oakley from Avant Garde Vegan, however, promised a shockingly meat-like look, texture, and flavor from relatively simple ingredients. Essentially, the recipe is for homemade seitan (a dough made from gluten) with tofu, vegetables, and red wine mixed in, formed into meatball shapes. The process is a bit labor-intensive, but quite similar to making regular meatballs – cooking a vegetable base, mixing it with protein, forming balls, searing them, then braising them before serving.
Is this recipe actually as simple as promised? How close to a meaty texture can it actually get, and — most importantly — is it worth the effort? I set out to find out.
To start, I had to find vital wheat gluten, the main source of protein and binding agent in the meatballs. While the recipe calls for tofu crumbled into the base of the dough, it’s really just for extra body and texture, and doesn’t help bind the balls. Vital wheat gluten is just purified gluten, the same type found in flour that gives bread its structure and elasticity, and can be found online and in some grocery stores. I found mine at Whole Foods, where it cost about $6 for 600g. This and the red wine were the most expensive ingredients, and for a recipe that makes enough meatballs to feed a crowd (probably 12 people, if each person gets three), the total cost isn’t very high!
The recipe starts by sautéing onions, garlic, celery, and mushrooms that had been minced in a food processor. Mine were chopped quite fine, nearly to a paste, and were not visible in the final product. A rougher chop would lead to a more textured meatball, if desired.
After being stewed with tomato paste, miso, vegetable stock, red wine, and crumbled firm tofu, the vegetable mixture was added to the vital wheat gluten in a mixer and mixed for about ten minutes. The recipe says to mix the dough for at least ten minutes in a mixture to ensure that it is not spongy in the end, but as mine still seemed quite loose after ten minutes, I mixed it for an extra five . At this point, the dough looked quite a bit like cooked ground beef (not in a particularly pleasant way), but tasted lovely! The numerous dried herbs added along with the red wine and miso imparted a deep savory flavor evocative of rich red sauces in which meat had been braised.
After mixing, I formed the dough into balls and fried them in olive oil to brown their outsides and solidify their shape. At this point, they looked uncannily like real meatballs! Their texture remained a bit gummy and sticky, but this was because they had not been cooked all the way through.
Then came the 90-minute braise in a mixture of red wine, chopped tomatoes, dried herbs, and vegetable stock. During this time, nearly all of the braising liquid evaporated or was absorbed by the balls, which emerged smelling wonderful and looking like the real thing. They were quite soft, so I decided to sauté them once more to crisp them up again, as is recommended in the recipe. After this, I tossed them with spaghetti and the accompanying red wine tomato sauce, topped them with basil, pepper, and flaky salt, and then ate them!
These vegan meatballs were shockingly good for something that can be easily made at home. I’m confident that they could fool nearly anyone that they were beef, both by their appearance and their a rich, nuanced flavor. My meatballs did end up being a bit spongy, perhaps because I did not simmer the vegetable mixture long enough or at a high enough heat, resulting in a mixture that was too wet. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, as the double-fry of the balls before and after braising gave them a crisp outside. Compared to the many dry and tough, overcooked meatballs I’ve eaten before, these soft and moist imitations were quite pleasant!
If I had to change anything about this recipe, I’d probably add the vital wheat gluten gradually to the wet ingredients, instead of all at once. A few dry pockets were left over for me, which--as they gradually hydrated--formed dense masses that had to be removed. This may have caused some of the sponginess I experienced, as there was less gluten to bind the vegetables and soak up the liquid.
Value-wise, none of the ingredients were extraordinarily expensive, so the total cost is likely similar to that of regular meatballs. While the braising time is rather long, contributing to the total preparation and cook-time of three hours, this isn’t vastly different from traditional meatballs, either. As a student, I rarely have enough time to make a long recipe like this, but it makes a ton of meatballs that can easily be frozen and eaten later. All in all, I think that this is a great recipe that doesn’t require a ton of hard-to-find ingredients, is relatively cheap, and makes a large batch that can easily be saved.
Recipe sourced from: :https://www.avantgardevegan.com/recipes/meatiest-vegan-meatballs/