Eating vegetarian or vegan this summer? Don’t miss out on the BBQ mains you love.

By Kelsey Ogletree
May 22, 2020
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You don’t have to be vegan to want to start incorporating more plants in your diet. But even if you’re prepping veggies that taste oh-so-delicious, the smell of real BBQ (think succulent smoked meats like brisket, pulled pork, and ribs) is hard to resist, especially when summer grilling season comes around. You don’t have to give up all the grilled summer foods you love if you’re avoiding animal proteins, however, whether it’s for a meatless Monday or a longer period. We talked with some top vegan BBQ masters to get their best tips for making vegan BBQ so good, you won’t even miss the meat. Try their ideas on how to make meatless grilled mains that taste like your favorite cookout foods.

Drop the Pretenses

The main misconception people have about plant-based BBQ recipes is that they’re only for summer side dishes. But no, “vegans do not only grill limp zucchini slices,” says Jörg Mayer, co-founder of Eat this! vegan food blog and co-author of the cookbook VBQ—The Ultimate Vegan BBQ Cookbook ($19, Better World Books). Grilled vegetables can serve as hearty main dishes, too, when prepared the right way.

Credit: Blaine Moats

Choose Your Non-Meat

Meat substitutes are incredibly versatile and have come a long way in the taste department over the last few years. You can opt to grill easy premade items, such as plant-based Beyond Meat or Impossible burgers, but also experiment with other kinds of plant-based proteins. For example, homemade or store-bought seitan, which is a vegan meat substitute made from hydrated gluten, a wheat protein, can stand in for pork in nearly any grilled ribs recipe, says Mayer. Tofu and tempeh are great on the grill, as well. “Grilled tofu gets crispy on the outside but stays soft on the inside, and fire-kissed tempeh gets this amazing nutty, smoky flavor,” Mayer adds.

Get Our Grilled Tofu Recipe

Don’t forget about fruits and vegetables here, too. Jackfruit, the massive green-skinned tropical fruit, is an excellent swap for pulled pork in sandwiches. Simply smoke one for 3-4 hours, then add sauce all over the exterior during the last hour to add for caramelization, as Jarrett Milton and Courtney Lindsay, cofounders of the vegan BBQ food truck Houston Sauce Pit, recommend. (You can also buy canned or prepackaged jackfruit to skip cutting up a whole one.) Mushrooms, with their meaty texture, are another veggie that stands up well to grilling.

You can even experiment with grilling watermelon, which can come out tasting like a smoked ham. This takes time and can be a little tricky, so it’s best for the griller who has some patience and experience with home brining and smoking, says Parker Howard, sous chef at the vegan Spiral Diner & Bakery in north Texas (which serves up a mean chopped seitan BBQ sandwich).

Add Smoky Flavor

When it comes to making meat substitutes or veggies taste like the real thing, smoke is your friend. “It creates the illusion of meat because that flavor is so strongly associated with traditional BBQ,” says Justin Fox Burks, a vegetarian cookbook author based in Memphis, Tennessee. To get optimum smoky flavor on whatever you’re grilling, use a smoker (or turn your grill into one) and load it up with hickory chips. “That smoke flavor is the delicious sign everyone is looking for,” Burks adds. Just be mindful of how long you’re smoking vegetables, as they’re porous and will soak up more of the smoke flavor faster than meat.

Credit: Blaine Moats

Serve it to Look Like Meat

“It’s true that the eyes eat first, so model your vegetable (or meatless) BBQ creations after familiar forms,” advises Burks. For example, try seasoning and grilling up Japanese eggplant, which already has a shape similar to sausage; or grilled Brussels sprouts tossed in BBQ sauce piled into a bun and topped with slaw.

Get the Vegan Jackfruit Sliders Recipe

The Secret’s in the Sauce

Marinades and BBQ sauces are the secret to incredible BBQ, so don’t forget to flavor any meat substitutes or veggies you’re grilling the same way. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan all benefit from a good marinade and a generous pinch of salt, says Mayer (remember, the first two are quite low in fat, so use enough oil to add flavor, he adds and recommends olive or avocado oil). You can also cover whatever you’re barbecuing in a nice dry rub or seasoning mix, which will not only add a ton of flavor, but will help prevent your items from sticking to the grill, says Burks. You can make your own (check out lots of amazing ideas for BBQ rubs here) or pick up an easy premade rub at your local supermarket.

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