Why It Works
- Dehydrating thin sliced mushrooms in the oven gives them a tender-crisp texture very much like real bacon.
- A balanced sweet and savory marinade and a quick trip to a jerry-rigged stovetop smoker gives them smoky, bacon-like flavor.
A while back, I created a graph that represented the cravings I get as a vegan. At the upper end of that scale are two things: cheese and bacon. I was able to kick the cheese craving with this Vegan Nacho Sauce recipe.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Just as my goal with that nacho sauce was not to create something that tastes identical to a cheese sauce, but rather to create something that's delicious in its own right, my goal here is not to try and recreate bacon out of vegetables. Rather, my aim is to create something that satisfies my cravings, hitting the right texture and flavor notes: crispy, a little greasy, a nice balance of sweet and salty, intensely savory, and smoky.
There's this thing known in the world of human aesthetics known as the Uncanny Valley. It's a theory that states that as a figure becomes more and more human-looking, our acceptance of it becomes greater and greater, until the point that it becomes so human-like that it is almost—but not perfectly—human in appearance. At this point, many people experience a sense of revulsion when looking at it.
Now whether or not the Uncanny Valley is a real effect is up for debate, but that doesn't change its usefulness in explaining similar phenomena in other fields. Adam proposed that a similar effect occurs in the world of pizza. The same thing happens with me and faux meats: It's why a vegetable-based vegan burger patty tastes great to me, but even the best brand of veggie burger designed to taste and look like meat really turns me off.
I tried to keep it in mind when working on this recipe.
Crispin' Lover: Finding the Best Mushroom for Crisping
The starting point for the recipe was obvious: mushrooms.
A couple weeks back I published a recipe for a Vegan Cream of Mushroom Soup topped with crispy shiitake chips made by frying thinly sliced shiitake caps until browned and moisture-free. The end result is simultaneously crisp and juicy; The chips burst with little bits of fat in a surprisingly bacon-like way.
For that recipe, I cooked my mushrooms in a skillet, but I found that roasting them in the oven makes it easier to produce a large volume of chips. I also made chips with portobellos, cremini (baby portobello), regular button mushrooms, and shiitake. All of them work, but the cremini produced the best crisp-and-chewy texture.
The only real downside to them is that they're small. Made with cremini mushrooms that are cooked until crisp, they end up less than an inch long, which means that you can't pick them up with two fingers and bite off the end with that satisfying CRUNCH the way you can with a standard bacon strip.
When I was developing the recipe, I tried a half dozen varieties of mushroom and found that while portobellos were nice and large, they lacked the concentrated flavor of smaller cremini. Since that time, a reader suggested I try king oyster mushrooms, a variety that at one point was mostly relegated to the restaurant kitchen, but is now widely cultivated (I found them at Whole Foods).
It was a wise suggestion. King Oysters are large—a few inches long apiece—which means that with some halfway decent knife skills, you can slice off planks of mushroom that are about the same size as a half-strip of bacon. Perfect for topping that sandwich and eating with your fingers! They also have a much more bacon-y appearance, if looks are important to you. Finally, they're less fiddly, which means less slicing, less flipping, less tedium in general, and all that means FASTER BACON.
Roasting temperature can affect the final outcome. At very low temperatures, you can dehydrate the mushrooms, turning them crisp with very minimal browning. Get too hot, and your mushrooms get too dark before they finish crisping. Cooking them at 350°F (180°C) was a happy compromise.
I lay them out on a greased foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, flipping them once about halfway through roasting. Most home ovens are extraordinarily unreliable, and these mushrooms tend to go from just-right to burnt-to-a-crisp relatively quickly, so you have to keep a close eye on them. They should be deep brown, with just a touch of sizzling bubbles remaining when you pull them out.
Where There's Smoke: How to Add a Smoky Flavor
So far, the mushroom chips have got great texture and a nice savoriness to them, but they're missing the key flavor elements of bacon: sweetness, saltiness, and smoke.
The first two are pretty easy to get: I toss the mushrooms with salt, black pepper, a little bit of sugar (make sure to use organic sugar if you want to ensure it’s vegan), and a touch of powdered garlic and paprika. For the smoke, I use a method I often employ for cold-smoking things like vegetables and cheeses indoors without filling my apartment with smoke.
You start with regular wood chunks—I'm using applewood here—and ignite them over the direct heat of a gas flame (you can also use a blowtorch if you prefer a more badass approach). It'll give off a bit of smoke, but the smoke doesn't really start until the flames die out, so your kitchen should be safe.
Next, transfer that wood chunk to a pot. Now is where you have to start working a little fast, as the wood will begin to produce lots of smoke.
Set the mushrooms (which you've conveniently loaded into a metal steamer insert before lighting your wood on fire) directly into the pot, then slam down the lid, trapping the smoke in there and let it sit. The longer you go, the smokier the shrooms will get.
I let mine smoke for about ten minutes before cracking the lid and tasting. Want them smokier? Just re-ignite that chunk and let it go for longer.
The finished smoked mushroom strips are positively delectable. I meant to save some to use as a salad topping or in a nice M.L.T.,* but wouldn't you know it, my hands and mouth colluded to eat them all before my brain even had a chance to interject!
*That's a mushroom, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, not to be confused with a mutton, lettuce, and tomato.
No worries. I made another batch and ended up with this bad boy.
February 26, 2014
We've updated this recipe to use a different type of mushroom, the king oyster.
8 ounces King Oyster (also sold as Trumpet Royale) mushrooms, cut lengthwise into 1/8- to 1/6-inch slices
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon paprika
1 chunk applewood, hickory, or mesquite
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Add 2 tablespoons oil and brush with a pastry brush to coat evenly. Lay sliced mushrooms on sheet in a single layer (you may have to work in batches or on 2 trays). Season with salt and pepper. Flip slices and season with more salt and pepper. Transfer to oven and cook for 20 minutes. Turn mushroom slices carefully with a thin metal spatula. Return to oven and continue cooking until well-browned and crisp, about 20 minutes longer. (Mushrooms will quickly overcook, so monitor them carefully.) Remove from oven and transfer mushrooms to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Transfer mushrooms to a bowl and toss with maple syrup, sugar, garlic powder, paprika, and remaining oil. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Transfer mushrooms to the basket of a steamer insert and space evenly over bottom.
Ignite wood chunk over a burner or with a torch. Transfer to a large pot. Add steamer insert and cover pot with a tight-fitting lid. Let mushrooms smoke for 10 minutes. Remove from pot. For crisper mushrooms, return to lined baking sheet and continue baking until sugars start to caramelize gently, about 5 minutes longer. Allow to cool completely before transferring to an air-tight container and storing at room temperature for up to 5 days.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 2 to 3|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 14g||18%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||5%|
|Total Carbohydrate 8g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||6%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|