As a Serious Eater who has more than dipped my toes into veganism, I figure it's time to start down the road of coming up with fully satisfying, 100% plant-based versions of some of my favorite holiday dishes. And what better place to start than the king of Thanksgiving? No, I'm not talking about the turkey. I'm talking stuffing. It's by far my favorite part of the meal, and something that I look forward to every November.
As someone who's spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with dishes like Vegan Cheesy Baked Potatoes, Fully Loaded Vegan Nachos, Vegan Chili, and even Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck, I've only ever had one requirement for my vegan recipes (beyond the whole plant-based thing, that is): They must be good enough that even an avowed meathead would gladly down them.
The standards for this stuffing were no different. I wanted a stuffing with deep, complex, savory flavors that bakes up with a moist texture, almost like a savory bread pudding. I wanted stuffing so good that it would be the first side dish to disappear from the table. A stuffing so good that my meat-eating family would attack and devour it with reckless abandon.
My Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing is one I've been making for years, and to me, it's the quintessential Thanksgiving stuffing. So that seemed as good a point as any to start my vegetarian version. I sliced up enough loaves of bread to make a half dozen batches of stuffing (the minimum number I figured I'd need to really nail this recipe), tossed them in a low-temperature oven to dehydrate,* then got to work on the rest of my ingredients.
*As I've discovered, the key to great texture in stuffing is dry bread, not necessarily stale bread. The two are not the same thing!
The Flavor Base
Obviously, the sage sausage that the meaty recipe calls for was out of the question, so what could I use instead? This ain't my first vegan rodeo, and I know what kinds of things I like in my foods. The first thing to get out of the way: This is a vegetable-based stuffing, not a faux-meat stuffing. You want textured vegetable protein or seitan in your mix? Look elsewhere.
From working on a recipe for vegan mapo tofu and a vegan Bolognese sauce in the past, I knew that if treated right, mushrooms can make an excellent stand-in for the tender-chewy texture and rich umami flavor of ground meat.
To get the mushrooms the right texture, you can either pinch the caps between your fingers to break them up into rough, uneven chunks, or you can give them a rough chop and then pulse them a few times in a food processor.
This is one of those times when all the fancy restaurant knife skills are actually worse for the finished product than the rough chop you get from a processor. Those unevenly shaped nubs will give the finished dish plenty of nice texture.
Into a hot Dutch oven with olive oil they go.
Cooking mushrooms is often a waiting game. The little buggers are so damned porous and spongy that it takes a looooooong time before they've expelled all of their moisture.
But wait, what's wrong with moisture? you might ask. Don't we want our stuffing to be moist?
Indeed we do, but we also want it to be flavorful, and the process of browning chopped mushrooms follows the exact same laws of physics that browning ground meat or sausage does. So long as there is moisture left in the mushrooms or the pan, all of the energy you're putting into that pan is going toward evaporating that water, which effectively limits the temperature of its contents to at or around the boiling point of water: 212°F (100°C). On the other hand, the Maillard reactions—the set of heat-triggered chemical reactions that create complex flavors in browned foods—don't take place until over 300°F (150°C) or so. It's only after the mushrooms have expelled all of their moisture that they can start to take on complex flavor.
Moral of the story? Good things come to those who wait. Use your ears and your eyes. You should hear a distinct change in sound as the mushrooms transition from steaming to sizzling and slowly turn brown.
The aromatics I use for this version of stuffing are no different from those in my classic stuffing. An onion (along with a leek, if you'd like), some celery, garlic, and chopped sage are where it's at.
Add 'em to the pot. Just as with the mushrooms, no browning can take place until the vegetables have broken down and released their moisture. Unlike with the mushrooms, however, browning is not what we're after in this case.
See, alliums like onions, leeks, and garlic contain many more natural sugars than mushrooms. As these complex sugars begin to caramelize, they break down into smaller, sweeter simple sugars. This is what creates the intense sweetness of caramelized onions or slow-roasted garlic. It's good in some situations, but sweetness is not on the menu for this stuffing (we get enough of that with our extra-sweet roasted sweet potatoes). And, since there's no browning without caramelization in a high-sugar situation, we don't want to take the vegetables anywhere beyond simply softened.
The next item in the great stuffing equation? The stock. In a traditional stuffing, that would be a rich poultry stock. For our vegan version, I wanted a stock every bit as richly flavored. Before we go any further, take this word of warning: Don't even think about using store-bought vegetable stock. It's all universally terrible, with overly sweet flavors and no richness or depth.
In fact, leading up to this recipe, I even toyed with the idea of doing a full-on store-bought vegetable stock. Not a single brand would have made it past the initial qualifying rounds. You want a good vegetable stock? You gotta make it yourself.
Fortunately, I happen to have a recipe already.
The keys to that recipe? Well, there's a pretty classic mix of aromatics—alliums, carrots, celery, herbs, and whole spices—but on top of that, I use a combination of dried mushrooms (porcini or morels work well) as well as Japanese kombu, a giant sea kelp that's packed with glutamates, which are responsible for triggering our sensation of savoriness.
To bulk up the flavor even further, I gave the stock (which I keep a supply of in my freezer) a quick simmer with the scraps from my mushrooms and vegetables. If you're making the stock from scratch just for this recipe, you can go ahead and add your trimmings as the base stock simmers. The results will be the same.
With the mushroom/sage mixture and an excellent stock base, I had all of my base flavors right, but the stuffing was still missing something. Even with a crisp baked top, I longed for a bit of texture inside of it. Crunchy vegetables weren't quite right. Dried fruits were better, but they added their own distinct flavor—I wanted something more neutral. (Sorry, sis. I know you like your stuffing filled with junk.)
The answer? Nuts.
Pecans or walnuts were the best, with classic Thanksgiving flavor and a nice meaty, porous texture that absorbed plenty of flavor from the other ingredients.
They were a little bit too crunchy when I folded them in straight after toasting, but when I toasted them first, then added them to the simmering stock, they softened nicely.
The final step in the process was to add some fat. If you're okay with a vegetarian version, the classic addition of melted butter and eggs works out well. For a fully vegan version, I went with olive oil.
I folded it all together and gave it a taste, seasoning it with salt and pepper. I then gave it another taste, and another, before finally holding back my right hand with my left before it had a chance to feed me the whole thing straight out of the pot.
I packed the stuffing into a greased casserole dish, tossed it in a hot oven, and waited until it was golden brown and crisp along the top.
Now that's the stuff!
With deep flavors and a rich, moist texture, there's really nothing more you could wish for in a good stuffing—whether it has meat in it or not is not even an issue here. It's just damned tasty, period.
Next projects: a full-on vegan holiday roast (stay tuned!) and, oh, okay. How about vegan stuffing waffles the day after?