Chef Sean Baker is known for mixing well-sourced meat dishes with vegan courses on the menu at his Berkeley, California restaurant Gather. The trick to making cooking vegan food with complex flavors, he explains, is incorporating ingredients that lend umami, that particular savory, rich taste. To take vegetable-based dishes to the next level at home, Baker recommends experimenting with these five ingredients, all completely vegan and all full of flavor.
“Nutritional yeast has a cheesy quality, which has that characteristic of age,” says Baker. “When you walk into a room of cured pork, it has a certain smell, and this taste of age is similar.” It’s sold as a powder, so it’s easy to add to all kinds of dishes; Baker adds nutritional yeast to broths, nut purees, vegan cheeses and soups. “All of our soups are vegan, and this helps them fill out the middle of the palate.”
A type of soy sauce, tamari contains no wheat, so it’s great for gluten-free cooking. “Tamari is a flavor builder,” Baker explains. “If you look through vegan recipes, you’ll find a lot of tamari — it’s there for salinity, umami, and the fermentation flavor.” Use tamari in broths, sauces, vinaigrettes and marinades to layer flavor.
Another soybean product, miso is a thick paste used often in Japanese cooking. Gather makes its own miso in house from fresh beans. Right now, it’s fava bean miso, which Baker likes to serve with fresh fava beans to layer flavors and show different expressions of the ingredient. “Miso is sweet, salty and delicious,” he says. He uses it in vinaigrettes, and also to marinate and cure vegetables, such as carrots. “The salt content of the miso helps break vegetables down.”
“I use a lot of seaweed,” says Baker. “It has umami and complex oceanic flavors.” Seaweeds like kombu (a popular Asian variety) can be braised to create a savory broth; fried into chips; or chopped and added to vinaigrettes. In the restaurant, Baker also roasts whole root vegetables such as celery root, beets and carrots in seaweed at low temperatures to lend an umami taste.
“Dried mushrooms add a certain level of meatiness to a dish,” says Baker. Dried porcinis — which Baker calls the “king of mushrooms” — lend a beefy flavor to broths, while other varieties add different characteristics. He uses dried shiitakes and matsutake for broths and stocks. He also makes a savory butter from whipped mushroom stock, nutritional yeast, and pureed nuts.