How to Make Vegan Chorizo That Even a Carnivore Will Relish

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A vegan chorizo that cooks just like the real thing. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you've been following along on The Vegan Experience, you've probably noticed I've been getting more and more relaxed about my original hard-line No Faux Meats! approach to vegan recipe development. And while I've already tackled vegan cheese sauce, a vegan replacement for Parmesan, and even a bowl of vegan ramen as rich and creamy as any meat-based version, I've yet to go full-faux and attempt to make anything that is meant to fully emulate meat.

Today all that changes.

Mexican chorizo is an outlier in the sausage world in many ways. It's nothing like its raw, dry-cured counterpart in Spain or its coarse, lightly fermented brothers in South America. It's unique in that it's eaten pretty much invariably without a casing. It's a sausage that is meant to be crumbled and broken up. A sausage that's so moist and has such a high proportion of flavorings to meat that it wouldn't hold its shape in a casing even if you wanted it to.

This makes it a pretty much ideal candidate for vegan-ification. Without the need for a meat or other protein-based binder, you don't have to deal with the common pitfall of vegan sausages or burgers being too mushy or wet. A very large amount of seasoning and spices dominate the flavor profile—even in pork chorizo, the pork itself is hard to taste through the chilies—which means that it shouldn't be too hard to get a good taste-alike going on.

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The ideal meat-based chorizo must:

  1. have a boldly flavored but balanced blend of chilies and spices.
  2. have the ability to be cooked either very moist and rich or crumbled and deeply browned.
  3. have textural contrast ranging from tender and meaty to crisp.
  4. taste great on its own, but also be a good flavoring agent for other ingredients like potatoes, eggs, or queso dip.
  5. have a distinct vinegary tang.

On the other hand the ideal vegan chorizo must:

  1. be made solely of non-animal-derived products.
  2. See 1 through 5 above.

See what I'm getting at? I wanted to make a vegan chorizo recipe that doesn't just come close to regular chorizo in the flavor department, but outright nails it. I wanted a meat-free chorizo with textural contrast up the wazoo, and a chorizo that changes texture as you cook it just like its meat-based counterpart. I wanted a chorizo that is tangy, rich, and complex. In short, I wanted nothing less than the best darned meat-free chorizo imaginable.

Chilies and Spices

I started my quest by heading to three different supermarkets and picking up every variety of vegan chorizo on the shelves. Though most had a few redeeming qualities here and there, they were all, without exception, not even close to the ideal I was looking for. Flavors that didn't pop and textures that were too mushy or pasty. In fact, the closest thing I could find to a good vegan chorizo substitute is the Sofritas mixture they serve at Chipotle,* though even that mixture I find to be a little bit too wet rather than simply moist and succulent.

* And god bless Chipotle for being the only fast food chain where a vegan and an omnivore can pig out together without either feeling like they're being left out!

Still, I could glean a few things from scanning the ingredients lists: Those that made use of tofu were texturally superior to those that used actual faux meats like TVP or wheat derivatives. I made a mental note to return to this when it was time to work on texture. For now, I focused on flavor.

I've already worked on a traditional pork chorizo recipe, so I had a good place to start. In that recipe, I used garlic, oregano, cumin, black pepper, ground cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, a splash of red wine vinegar, and dried ancho chili powder. I made a very quick batch of vegan chorizo using some shredded tofu and some vegetable oil in place of the pork in my original recipe—this is the approach most existing vegan chorizo recipes take. As expected, it was pretty abysmal. A pale imitation of the real thing.

To make a satisfying vegan chorizo, I was going to need to pull out the big guns. Chili powder is an OK place to start for a quick recipe like that one, but for this vegan version, I was prepared to go all-out, which meant ditching the ancho powder in place of actual whole dried chilies.

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The chilies

Using my basic chili paste to replace chili powder as a guide, I started by microwaving three chilies—a guajillo (for its sweet, fresh flavor), an ancho (for its deeper, raisin-y notes), and a couple of arbols (for their heat)—on a plate in order to toast them (you can also use a skillet or the toaster oven). I then placed them in a microwave-safe measuring cup, added some water and a handful of raisins (to boost that richer ancho flavor), and microwaved them until the water was simmering. Once adequately softened, I could blend them along with a canned chipotle chili into a flavorful paste that would form the backbone of the flavor in my chorizo.

On to the fresh aromatics. Onions and garlic were a given. To add more chili flavor, some moisture, and a smoky background to complement the chipotle chilies, I also decided to add a roasted poblano pepper to the mix. The easiest way to deal with a single pepper is to either hold it directly over the flame of a gas burner until it's charred on all sides, or to place it under the broiler, turning it every few minutes until completely blackened. Once you let it rest in foil, the blackened skin peels right off and the tender flesh underneath gets infused with smoky flavor.

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Oregano is one of those herbs that does quite well in dried form, taking on a distinct aroma and flavor from its fresh counterpart, but to really get the best of both worlds, I decided to use fresh oregano in addition to the dried. The remaining spices: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and cloves (has anyone else noticed how many spices start with the letter C?) were invited to the party as well.

Chorizo's distinctly bright, acidic flavor comes from the addition of vinegar—more than in any other sausage that I know of. I used a full 1/4 cup in my 1 1/2 pound batch to get the requisite flavor. While I was at it, I wondered if there were more ways I could punch up the umami factor. With meat, that savoriness is built in. Tofu or other vegetable-based products can use a bit of a boost. Soy sauce was an easy win (and is not at all uncommon in Mexican cuisine anyway), but I also added a big dab of miso paste.

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Miso and vinegar

I've been using miso paste a lot in vegan (and non-vegan) foods recently, like in this Kale and Polenta Soup or in this vegan Parmesan substitute. It has a much rounder, more savory flavor profile than straight-up soy sauce and has the added benefit of providing a bit of binding texture, keeping sauces tighter. Combined with the chili puree I was using, I could kiss goodbye to the watery, tortilla-destroying liquid that many vegan chorizos give off.

I had the flavor of the seasonings nailed where I wanted them, but the plain old shredded tofu wasn't going to cut it in terms of texture. I refocused my attention on that arena.

Frozen Assets

I was looking for three distinct textural elements in my mixture: chewy and bouncy, meaty and tender, and crisp. It's what I'd look for in a good meat-based chorizo, and I wasn't about to lower my standards here.

Having recently moved from New York where winter days rarely rise above 40°F to San Francisco where I occasionally think about reaching for a light jacket before heading outdoors in my t-shirt, I know how much of an effect temperature can have on a person's mood. Tofu is pretty similar in that way. If you've ever put a block of tofu in the freezer to save for later, you'll know that after defrosting, it has a completely different texture than when it went in, with a porous, almost spongy structure.

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Fresh tofu on the left, frozen on the right

It's a pretty common trick: freezing tofu causes ice crystals to form. As the tofu thaws, the ice melts, draining out and creating large pits and crevices within the tofu block. The result is tofu that is lower in water with a chewier, meatier texture. I knew that in this recipe I'd be finely chopping my tofu, but I wondered it a bit of freezing would help anyway.

I tested three batches side by side. The first was tofu I simply ground in a food processor. The second was tofu that I froze first, then ground. The third was tofu that I froze then allowed to defrost while sitting in a plate full of my chili mixture, the idea being that the chili flavor would get absorbed as the water left it.

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Marinate while thawing

The third method was the least successful: marinating tofu as it thaws does indeed draw in a bit of flavoring, but it also dilutes the rest of the puree with the water that comes draining out from inside. Much better is to defrost plain on a bed of paper towels, then add the flavorings separately once the excess water has been removed.

Freezing was a definite improvement in terms of texture—the chewy and bouncy texture was there even after a mere fifteen minutes in the freezer—but it was still lacking in tender, meaty and crisp elements.

For the meatiness, I turned to a second soy-based product: tempeh.

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Soy products

Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian product made from whole soy beans that are fermented and pressed into a block. Because the beans are left whole, it has a much meatier, nuttier texture than tofu does, though its flavor can be a bit off-putting to some people. Combining the two products together gave me a good mixture of two out of three of my textural elements. Now to address the last one: crunchiness.

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Lentils ready for the oven

My wife and I have been eating a lot of lentils recently in the form of a big batch of lentil soup I made a few weeks back. My favorite preparation so far? I took the lentil soup and cooked it down in a skillet until the lentils were almost dry then stuffed them into tacos. Treated this way, they take an intense flavor and a nearly crisp texture. What if I could maximize this effect by really dehydrating them?

I drained and rinsed a can of lentils then spread it out over a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet which I then transferred to a 325°F oven, letting the lentils cook until they were dense, crisp, and cracked. Not quite so dry that they'd hurt your teeth, but dry enough that even after re-absorbing some moisture from the rest of the ingredients that they'd retain their crispness.

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Dried lentils

I folded the lentils in along with the tofu and tempeh, letting everything cook down until browned and reduced, seasoning it with salt and pepper along the way. This has got to be it, I said to myself as I dipped a spoon into the mixture which looked and smelled almost exactly like Mexican chorizo.

Close, I thought, but not quite there. It had the flavor and texture I was looking for, but the mouthfeel, the way it spreads across the palate, was not quite right. It's got to be the fat.

See, animal fat like pork, beef, or chicken, is highly saturated. On a molecular level this means that its fatty acid chains are less kinked and can stack together in a more stable formation. This is why highly saturated fats are solid at room temperature and fats low in saturated fat (like vegetable oil) are liquid. Think of them as a bucket of legos. With saturated fats, those legos are all stacked and stuck together, forming a sold. With unsaturated fats, a few of the bricks may be stuck together here and there, but they mostly flow past each other when you tip the bucket out.

In my vegan nacho cheese sauce, the real key to good mouthfeel was replacing vegetable oil with highly saturated vegetable shortening. Shortening is essentially vegetable oil to which extra hydrogen atoms have been added in a process called hydrogenation. It results in a vegetable-based fat that is saturated enough to behave more like an animal fat, giving you richer texture and more creaminess. It's what makes vegan pie crusts rich and the center of Oreos creamy.

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Shortening

It was also the missing piece of the puzzle in my vegan chorizo. With the shortening in place, I finally had everything on lock.

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How did I celebrate? With an inaugural taco, of course.

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The best part is that you can treat the mixture exactly like regular chorizo. Want it soft, tender and moist with a few crisp bits here and there like in the taco above? Throw it in the pan, heat it up, and you're good to go.

Want it dry, fatty, and crumbled? No problem: cook it down until the fat separates and it crisps up in the skillet, giving you plenty of flavorful fat to coat whatever you toss it with, whether it's eggs or fried potatoes.

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Now how's that for flavor?

The recipe isn't the easiest—there are a few steps to take beyond your standard vegan chorizo recipe—but I guarantee you the end results will be better than any store-bought chorizo on the market, vegan or not. Don't believe me? I dare you to make this recipe and deny it. I double dog dare you.