[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!
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. Today, I'm beating the bacon.*
*There's surely a euphemism in there somewhere.
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 sates 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.
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 produce the best crisp-and-chewy texture
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 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
So far, the little 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 mushroom chips with salt, black pepper, a little bit of sugar (make sure to use organic sugar if you want to ensure that your sugar is 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 chips are positively addictive. 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 (stay tuned for the recipe):
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.
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