The Food Lab: Hearty Vegan Mushroom Bolognese
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I've got to admit it. As much as I love vegan food, there's one thing I do miss about winter: the smell of a slow-cooked bolognese sauce filling the apartment on a cold day. It's one of my favorite parts of the season. It's not that I love the meatiness per se. It's not necessarily about the contrast between the cold outside and the warmth within. It's not even really about getting to eat the sauce that evening. What it's about is that smell being a constant reminder to you that you are in the middle of a project, the middle of creating something great. It's a good feeling to have, knowing that you're being productive.
Bolognese is one of my favorite sauces to make, and I've been doing it with regularity and precision for the last 12 years. I'm pretty damn good at it. I make it so often that I believe I have a built-in correlation in my mind between the scent of bolognese sauce and that feeling of productivity. It's to the point that even if I smell someone else making it, I feel like I've accomplished something. My goal with this vegan version is to create a 100% meat-free sauce that benefits from a long, slow braise, and produces an end result that is every bit as rich, hearty, a deeply flavorful as my own bolognese recipe.
There were a few big hurdles to tackle here. How would I pack rich flavor into an intense sauce made only with vegetables? What techniques could I use to bump that flavor up? What about nailing the texture of the finished sauce? It must be thick and rich enough to coat pasta, and have a variation of textures ranging from creamy to chewy. I dealt with each problem as it came up, using some of the techniques I've learned from my standard bolognese sauce as the jumping-off point.
My traditional bolognese sauce starts out with a traditional Italian soffritto of carrots, onions, and celery (the equivalent of the French mirepoix), gently cooked in really good olive oil. The goal is to soften the vegetables without actually browning them so that their raw edge goes away but they don't become overly sweet.
While those vegetables soften, I chop my herbs.
Many chefs recommend not adding delicate herbs like basil and parsley until the very end of cooking, because they're at their most flavorful when completely fresh. And those chefs are right, at least about the flavor bit. But here's the thing: cooked herb flavor might not be as intense as fresh herb flavor, but it's different, and desirable in its own way.
That's why I almost always add my herbs in two stages: first during cooking to develop and permeate the dish with cooked herb flavors, and then again towards the end to add some fresh herb flavor.
With hearty herbs like sage, rosemary, or thyme, you can get away with only adding them towards the beginning (they can be overpoweringly strong if added at the end).
Next up: red wine. Wine adds a few things to the sauce. Primarily, it's a source of acidity, giving the sauce brightness and balancing out the richer flavors we're going to add later. It's also a good source of glutamates, the molecules responsible bolstering the savoriness of a dish. With a meaty ragù, it makes the meat taste meatier. In a vegan ragù, it's even more important.
Reducing the wine separately is important for optimal flavor development (read up on that science here). I let the wine reduce along with a few bay leaves until it's nearly dry, creating an intensely flavorful base for the sauce.
The mixture all gets transferred to a large saucepan where it waits for friends to join it.
So far, the method is identical to what I'd do for a standard bolognese sauce. Time to mix things up.
Almost every recipe I've come across for vegan bolognese sauce relies on a product like tempeh, textured vegetable protein, or firm tofu to add texture to the sauce in place of meat. I personally find TVP and tempeh to be lacking in flavor, and tofu's texture doesn't make it the best meat replacement.
Besides, why try and replicate the flavor and texture of meat when there are so many other delicious options out there?
I turned to a technique I've gotten great success with in the past: frying mushrooms until well-browned and chewy.
To chop mushrooms, I start by squeezing them between my fingertips and thumb to break them down into mid-sized chunks.
From there, I take a knife to 'em and chop until the pieces are no larger than 1/4-inch.
Using a blend of mushrooms—in this case buttons and shiitakes—can add complexity to the dish.
A full pan of mushrooms cooked in olive oil should reduce down to about a quarter of its starting volume, once the mushrooms are nice and browned.
Tomato products perform a role very similar to wine in a bolognese sauce, adding acidity and savoriness. Tomato paste is also great for adding body to a sauce. To get the best flavor out of it, you should add it to a hot pan slicked with nothing but oil. Like a Thai curry paste or an Indian spice powder, frying the paste in oil will help you develop sweet, complex flavors that otherwise would never come forward.
I knew that my sauce was going to need all the help it could get in the savory flavor department, so I also added a dollop of miso paste and a drizzle of soy sauce; both ingredients are glutamate bombs.
After adding the mushroom mixture to my cooked down soffritto and adding a can of tomatoes that I crushed by hand, I noticed one major thing: the sauce was still pretty thin. I let the whole thing simmer down for an hour, hoping that it would tighten up. It never really did. The liquid element reduced, but it didn't get much thicker or richer, while the chunks of mushroom stayed completely intact. The sauce was simply not integrated as a whole.
What could I add to produce a binding texture that wouldn't weigh the sauce down or make it blander?
I thought back to a recipe for turkey burgers I developed several years ago. In that recipe, I used the chopped flesh from a roasted eggplant to bind my meat, adding moisture and a tender texture. I figured with my pasta sauce, a similar trick would work.
I roasted an eggplant in a foil pouch until completely tender inside, then scraped out the flesh with a spoon.
I chopped it up into a fine purée, then stirred it into a new batch of sauce, letting it simmer just a bit.
The trick worked like a charm, adding a glossy richness to the sauce while simultaneously giving it a bit of eggplant's signature lightly smoky aroma.
I'm not a big nut milk drinker—they all taste a little too sweet and chalky to me—but a dash of it stirred into the sauce as it reduces was perfect for aiding in good emulsification of the olive oil and liquids, without detracting anything from the flavor department.
After an hour of simmering, this is about what you get:
Now doesn't that look like something worth waiting for? Your kitchen should smell awesome by this point. Breathe that accomplishment in deeply, you deserve it. Now taste the sauce. Feel its texture on your tongue: Creamy, with vegetable pieces of varying degrees of firmness and chewiness rolling across your tongue. Taste the flavors, rich, deep, well-developed, and, above all, balanced. It should taste like a sauce that someone took their time with because, well, it is.
The final key to serving the sauce is to make sure to finish your pasta in it for a few minutes. I like to serve a rich ragù like this with either wide pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle, or with short tubular pasta like rigatoni, penne, or these cute little crestos di gallos (cock's combs). I cook the pasta until it's not quite al dente, then add it to the sauce along with a half cup or so of its starchy cooking liquid before simmering the whole lot over high heat.
As the sauce reduces, the pasta finishes cooking, absorbing its flavor while simultaneously getting fully coated.
When you serve pasta with sauce, it should look integrated, the sauce and the pasta an inseparable unit. If you lift your pasta and the sauce runs off, leaving you with bare noodle, it needs to be reduced a little more!
The journey might already be the destination in this case, but that won't stop you from enjoying your reward. Your rich, lip-smackingly delicious, meat-free reward.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.