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Pro Tips for Cooking with Plant-Based Proteins

Incorporating plant-based protein into your diet isn’t just for Meatless Mondays. Making a move to a plant-based diet is easier than you think. Use these tips and cooking pointers to incorporate more plant-based protein into your cooking.

Tofu

When someone says “plant-based protein” most likely a firm block of tofu comes to mind. It’s the gold standard stand-in for beef, chicken, or seafood in many recipes. The main drawback of tofu is how to make it taste like something you look forward to eating.

The first step in the flavor quest is to press out the liquid. To do this, surround a drained tofu block with paper towels, place on a baking sheet, and top with a heavy pot or skillet. Gravity will do the rest.  

Next, cube the tofu and toss with an assertive marinade for about 10 minutes.

Finally, embrace the high heat of the oven or stovetop to give it a crisp exterior.  

Give these tips a test drive in a couple of my favorite recipes like this Baked Tofu Stir-Fry with Cabbage & Shiitakes or this fiery Szechuan Tofu & Green Bean Stir-Fry.

Beans

Dried or canned beans are the affordable pantry protein staple. When it comes to cooking dried beans, an overnight soak in salted water will result in the most tender, evenly cooked beans.

To flavor the beans while they’re cooking, add a quartered onion, bay leaf, herbs, or even sliced ginger. Let the dish be your guide. Are you making Chole Masala? Cook the beans with garlic, ginger, and onion. The beans in this Spring Beans and Greens Soup would benefit from some fresh parsley and a bay leaf during their stovetop simmer.  

One last tip:  always save some of the bean cooking liquid.  You can use it to add flavor and body to soups, stews, and braises, and for storing any leftover beans.

Lentils

Unlike beans, lentils don’t need to soak before cooking, but they flavored with herbs, onion, salt and pepper while simmering.  

When choosing a variety, you need to think about the purpose they will serve in the recipe.  Are they going to fall apart to add richness and body, like in this Moroccan Lentil Soup? Choose red lentils.

Need a hearty lentil that retains its shape for a salad? Opt for black beluga or French green lentils.

Brown lentils, the all-purpose variety of the family, works for any recipe in between, like these crispy Lentil & Almond Burgers.  

Quinoa

Technically a seed, quinoa is a versatile protein-rich swap for grains in soups and vegetable bowls like this Broccoli Quinoa Salad. Give it a rinse to wash off the earthy, natural coating (called saponin) that can give it a soapy flavor. Then transfer the quinoa to a saucepan, cover with plenty of water, and cook until the germ separates from the seed and curls around it, about 20 minutes. Drain, rinse and serve with your favorite meal. Looking for an alternative to oats in the morning? Give this Spiced Breakfast Quinoa a try.

Nuts

Heart-healthy nuts can flavor sauces like the walnuts in this Avocado Mint Pesto Pasta or the coconut-peanut sauce in this Pork & Spaghetti Squash Noodle Bowl.

The easiest way to incorporate nuts into your meal plan is to toast them and store in an airtight container for topping soups, salads, and bowls. Buy smaller amounts and keep raw nuts in the freezer until you’re ready to toast.  

And if you’ve ever burned an entire sheet of pricey pine nuts (I have), low and slow is the rule. Spread the nuts into an even layer on a baking sheet and cook in the oven at 325F until fragrant and golden brown. At this moderate temperature, the nuts will toast all the way through, and you won’t get in trouble if you lose track of them for a moment.  

Seeds

Give almost any recipe a protein bump by sneaking in some versatile seeds. Most need no cooking at all.

Ground flax virtually disappears into this peachy “Get Your Orange” Flax Smoothie.

Chia seeds provide a tapioca-like chew to this vegan pudding with just an overnight soak.

We sprinkle hemp seeds on this tangy salad. The office loves it so much we named it after us.

Hemp seeds can also act as an emulsifier.  Add a tablespoon to any homemade dressing to thicken it without adding more oil.  Try this tip when you’re blending the dressing for this Spinach Salad with Shrimp and Balsamic Vinaigrette. And if you’re feeling ambitious, buzz up a batch of  Homemade Sunflower Seed Butter for a sandwich spread that passes the nut allergy test.

Nutritional Yeast

This flaky seasoning comes from heating and drying out brewer’s yeast which deactivates the yeast and gives it a nutty, cheesy flavor. Think of it as a low calorie, dairy-free alternative to seasoning food with cheese.

Reach for it to sprinkle on popcorn, salads or scrambled eggs, stir it into risotto, or add to the crunchy breadcrumb topping on this Sweet Potato Mac & Cheese.

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