Vegan burgers sit on a wooden cutting board

Tips from Vegan Chefs for Grilling Meat Alternatives

You don’t have to commit to a fully vegan BBQ to put these plant-based grilling tips to work.

Chances are you’ll put something plant-based on the grill this summer, regardless of whether you eat vegan, vegetarian or run-of-the-mill omnivore, and whether you’ve dabbled in the Impossible and Beyond, or even if you just threw on some ears of corn on the grates to accompany your conventional burgers or steaks.

Vegetables and alternative proteins can absolutely shine on the grill, but they don’t behave the same way meat does, and deserve special treatment to maximize their flavor and texture. I consulted two vegan chefs featured in the mini-documentary “A Better Plant-Based Future,” Lemmel Durrah, who brings a plant-based soul food approach with his Compton Vegan, and Kale Walch, who operates Minneapolis’s The Herbivorous Butcher, along with his sister Aubry. Between them, they offered these six tips for upping your vegetable and meat-alternative grilling game.

Well Done Isn’t Necessarily Well Done

When it comes to meat alternatives like Impossible or Beyond burgers, or even homemade veggie patties designed to be eaten between the buns, the number one mistake people make is simply treating them like they are beef burgers. Texture and flavor are still the goals, but these can often be achieved with less time and heat.

“I think people cook plant-based foods for too long on the grill,” says Durrah. “[They] don’t have to be on the grill as long as meat.”

“It's a common mistake to cook it like animal meat,” concurs Walch. “You assume you have to heat it in order to kill bacteria, but you can eat vegan meat right out of the package. I cook it low and slow or very fast on high heat just for the sear flavor.” For lower and slower grill cooking, use the upper grate that’s further from the heat source.

Take Risks with Marinades

Marinades are typically made with a combination of liquids like soy sauce, juice or oil, and seasonings such as aromatics, herbs and spices. Marinades are a great way to infuse your foods with flavor by seasoning them and/or tenderizing them ahead of time before they ever hit the grill.

Related Reading: The Key Component to Any Marinade

Grilled veggies take on a lot of flavor from the grilling treatment alone, but this doesn’t mean they can’t also benefit from additional flavoring. Walch is adamant that such marinades aren’t only useful for meats, and can help get the most out of vegetables: “I'm of the opinion that people don't take enough risks with marinade,” he says. “They can get stuck doing the same thing, so branching out and trying a new sauce for vegetables can elevate the grilling experience.”

Related Recipe: Mushroom Tacos with Balsamic Lime Marinade

Same goes for alternative proteins such as tempeh, tofu or seitan. When treated accordingly these can achieve texture and flavor that can convert even your most carnivorous friends: “I've also been grilling tofu cutlets that have been marinated for a long time after pressing them,” says Walch. “They're like a sponge and retain the flavor of the marinade really well, and the char from the grill accentuates that.”

Try Dry Rubs Also

Dry rubs aren’t just for chicken and ribs either. A concentrated mix of spices, salt, sugar and zest can bring big barbecue energy to plants and plant proteins alike, and can create the kind of crust or bark that is associated with the best executed barbecue.

Related Reading: How to Amplify the Flavor of Plants

There are endless variations on dry rubs and Walch encourages experimentation, but hints that his signature dry rub has two necessary ingredients: “It always has brown sugar and orange zest. From there, you can do just about anything, but that's a good base. It gives it a fresh citrus kick and some sweetness.” Smoked paprika can also help tease out additional smokiness from the grill proceedings, or even give a grilled vibe if your barbecue gets rained out.

Oil the Grates

If you are working with a dry rub over a marinade, however, it’s important to recognize a procedural point of order. “When it comes to grilling vegetables make sure you oil the grates prior to cooking your vegetables or they’ll stick to the grill,” says Durrah.

Vegetables don’t have the natural fat content of certain cuts of meat, so you have to give them a helping hand in that department. And the slightly sticky texture of plant-based meat alternatives, conventional or homemade, makes them susceptible to sticking also.

Whether you are starting with a cold or hot grill, the best practice for greasing your grates is to use paper towel dipped in a high-heat, neutral oil and apply using tongs. 

Think Inside the (Farm Share) Box

There are usual suspects when it comes to grilled vegetables, and it doesn’t take a vegetarian sorcerer to get those right. “Corn on the cob and portobello mushrooms are perfect for grilling,” says Durrah. But he also recommends eggplant, which can even be done whole to develop complex flavor and texture perfect for turning into a smoky dip or spread.

“People often make the mistake of grilling asparagus. It's not very good...I'm just kidding,” says Walch. Vegetarians and carnivores alike agree, grilled asparagus is all that.

Take that asparagus confidence into just about any vegetable. Even whole heads of sturdy lettuces like romaine can be grilled for a warm, smoky salad. Basically if it’s in the farm share box, it’s fair game for the grilling treatment. See what you can get into with things like kohlrabi, beets and artichokes.

Don’t Forget the Fruit

According to both vegan chefs, fruit belongs on the grill as much as its other plant-based counterparts, and can offer grilled character to many components to a meal.

“The best thing I can think of that can get overlooked for grilling is fruit,” says Walch. “Grilled peaches are the epitome of summer food, but you can play around with all sorts of [others].”

Take the fruits of your grill and make sauces, salsas, side dishes or to really put a (grilled) cherry on top of your summer plant grilling game, dessert.

Related Reading: 7 Surprising Ingredients You Can Grill

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