In Los Angeles, there’s currently a vegan sandwich frenzy. Restaurants all across town are serving tasty plant-based iterations of meat-stacked classics. There’s an umami-packed mushroom confit French dip, a juicy and crispy faux chicken cutlet on a baguette slathered with vegan mayo, and plenty of downright decadent faux hot chicken sandos. Chefs are putting an immense amount of thought and care into their plant-based food these days, and the result has been an ever widening selection of hoagie alternatives. The goal is no longer to imitate meat, but to upstage it.
This all got me thinking: Why did it take so long for vegan sandwiches to get good? This genre of food, at least in America, has always suffered from a lack of imagination. We’ve all seen our fair share of soggy hummus wraps, dry-ass portobello burgers, poorly constructed tempeh BLTs, and flavorless falafel. But that’s all in the past. Death to the old way of thinking. Get in, meat daddies, and enter a brave new world of vegan sandwiches. Here are some tips for making the best sandwich of your life.
The eggs in a batch of mayonnaise aren’t there for flavor. The eggs’ only purpose is to act as an emulsifier. Eggless mayo is still a creamy, oil-rich spread that lends instant decadence to any sandwich. Think about Lebanese toum, the white garlic sauce served in little plastic condiment cups at most kebab restaurants as a delicious accompaniment to chicken, french fries, lamb, or just some grilled bread. It’s a creamy emulsion of oil, lemon juice, ice water, and garlic—that is to say, garlic is the emulsifier rather than egg yolk, and it’s perfect.
Store-bought vegan mayonnaise is quite good, but if you’re a crafty home cook you can make it yourself by replacing the egg with garlic paste, aquafaba (the froth from a can of chickpeas), or even something like cashews. Take your homemade mayo a step further and fold in some sautéed onions and pickles for a vegan remoulade.
The bottom line is this: Most mayonnaise uses animal products needlessly. You can emulsify anything with oil if you’ve got enough heart and determination. Here, give me your watch. I’ll show you.
Sandwiches are often defined as a “light meal,” but I think we all know that’s not true. Most sandwiches, especially in the age of Instagram food, are show-stopping, eye-popping spectacles: giant, stacked, messy, and often dripping. So it would be a real shame if all that sex appeal didn’t come with an actual punch of flavor behind it. Sandwiches need umami, and you don’t need any animal products to get there.
The mushroom-based French dip at Eszett is one of my favorite sandwiches in Los Angeles, and a great example of all the flavor that can come packed in a plant-based package. But chef Spencer Bezaire didn’t necessarily set out to make a vegan sandwich for the Silver Lake wine bar’s menu.
“I wanted to make a great sandwich, and if it happens to be vegan, great,” says Bezaire. The technique in his French dip is on point: He confits the mushrooms in olive oil, further intensifying the already umami-rich brown beech mushrooms. He makes a vegan demi-glace by “cooking the shit out of” tomato paste, then adding red wine, thyme, mushroom powder, and leek stock. Nutritional yeast helps to create a consistency akin to melted cheese.
Mushrooms, mushroom powder, olive oil, nutritional yeast—all of these are secret weapons for eliciting umami flavor. Wield them properly, and you’ll find yourself realizing that you don’t crave meat, you crave umami.
Japanese cuisine uses mushroom powder often, and Vietnamese cooks figured it out a long time ago. It’s a great addition to unlocking savory umami flavors: incorporate it into your mayonnaise, add it to your stock, snort it, etc. My brother used to work at a vegan Vietnamese restaurant in Youngstown, Ohio, called Ely’s. According to him, Ely’s makes a pâté for the tofu bánh mi that tastes just like the real thing. They achieve this through a lot of mushroom powder (and pistachio, among other things). Spencer over at Eszett folds mushroom powder in to his vegan mayo, which he says “basically makes a vegan cheese.”
Mushroom powder not only enhances the flavor of spreads, it’s also a good thickening agent. If you’re making pâté or vegan mayo, try adding some mushroom powder to get that heavy, cheese-like consistency that’s needed for a self-indulgent sammie. Online recipes for vegan Parmesan also call for mushroom powder and nutritional yeast.
If your plan is to make a vegan sandwich with white bread or some heavy multi-grain nonsense, you’re going to be disappointed.
When you forego meat in a sandwich, then the bread has to make up for some of that loss of substantial flavor. Fortunately, that’s not hard for good bread to do. Sourdough has a pungent, almost wine-like aroma to it. Focaccia has an oily, crispy element that’s quite pleasant. A crusty and chewy baguette is not only satisfying, it can withstand a lot of moisture (mayonnaise, oil, etc) and become a sturdy vessel for rich ingredients.
Soft, chewy breads like Martin’s Potato Rolls are hot right now because, with a burger, it’s all about the meat. Less is more, in that case. But with a vegan sandwich, you’re probably going to need some fancy, artisanal bread to lift up your plant-based products. Think about tomatoes and herbs on focaccia bread. Delicious, right? Okay, now think about tomatoes and herbs on wheat. Gross.
There’s a reason they serve slices of Wonder Bread at barbecue restaurants. Not much else is required to aid brisket. Soft white bread compliments meat well, but it won’t do you any favors with vegan food.
Too often vegan sandwiches are just a bunch of cold vegetables stacked together with vegan cheese on top. If you can be thoughtful about each vegetable individually, it’ll make for a well-rounded, flavorful sandwich. This is cooking 101. Putting onions on your sandwich? First decide whether you want to pickle them or caramelize them. Want beets in your vegan sammie? Roast them with herbs and a little oil in the oven instead of going with raw slices. Remember the mushroom French Dip at Eszett I was raving about? Chef Spencer Bezaire chars his cabbage in a cast iron pan before topping the sandwich with it. That charred cabbage adds a deeper, sweeter flavor that complements the rest of the sandwich well. Find every possible way to squeeze extra flavor out of each ingredient.
“But burgers stack raw vegetables together all the time!” you might be thinking. And that’s true: they can afford to pile on the cold tomato, fresh lettuce, and raw onion because the meat is what does the heavy lifting in a burger. But making a great vegan sandwich is like playing the game on hard mode. You need to be more thoughtful about each item. Ask your vegetables where they see themselves in 15 minutes. Develop a personal relationship with each sandwich component. Hold office hours. Your sandwich will have a greater chance of success this way.
There’s a whole world of vinegars out there that offer a wealth of flavors, and a little often goes a long way. Chinese black vinegar has a particular intensity to it, and tossing it with cabbage and herbs will result in a great coleslaw. Check out coconut vinegar, too, which is big in Filipino cooking. (Truly, our modern society owes a great debt to Asian cultures for teaching us how to make vegan food not suck. They’ve been doing it for a long time.) See what unique flavor combinations you can come up with by combining vinegar, oil, and vegetables.
A good vegan banh mi, which replaces the pork with tofu, is a thing of beauty. But getting there can be a problem if you don’t use the right kind of tofu. Ely’s always uses extra firm tofu for its plant-based sandwiches instead of silken or regular. Why? “Too much water, man,” my brother says of the regular stuff. “Get extra firm. You don’t want a wet sandwich.”
The Ely’s tofu is marinated in lemongrass, soy sauce, and lime. My brother always tosses his tofu in cornstarch to get it extra crispy, and then fries it in coconut oil. The coconut oil has a super high smoke point, so it won’t burn easily, making it optimal for frying at high temperatures. Coconut oil also has a lard-like texture, appearance, and flavor to it. You’ll surely want a bit of that in your vegan sandwiches.
Tofu is a beautiful ingredient that has unfortunately been ruined for many of us through American cooking methods. It’s not meant to be a salad topping. Grilling also rarely brings out tofu’s full flavor. It’s not steak or a burger—you can’t just add salt and pepper to tofu and expect it to be good. Treat it with care. Marinate it, season it, imbue it with flavor any way you can.
I love this video from Yewande Komolafe, in which she prepares tofu two ways. “I was trying to lean into it as itself, and not necessarily present it as a meat alternative, which often it’s presented as that,” Komolafe says. This right here is the starting point in good tofu philosophy, and a basis for cooking good vegan food on the whole. If you treat tofu like meat, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The same can be certainly be said of plant-based sandwiches. The sooner you stop playing meat’s simple game, the more flavorful your sandwiches will be, and the better cook you’ll become.