Best Plant-Based Foods for Grilling
Grilling is upon us, which means that many of us are getting excited for burgers, hot dogs, and perfectly cooked steaks. That's all well and good, but it's high time we expanded our views on grilling to include plant-based foods.
"Really, almost anything goes when grilling," says Amy Gorin, M.S., RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian. "I use it as an opportunity to empty out my produce drawer, as most produce tastes delicious when grilled." And of course, meatless proteins like tofu and tempeh are super easy to marinate and throw on a hot grill grate.
Not sure how your kids will respond to plant-based grilled foods? Whitney English, M.S., RDN, author of The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler, says that the best thing you can do is set an example. "If they see you happily noshing on a hunk of grilled eggplant, they're going to be interested too," she says. And if they're not interested? Don't force it. "It may take several exposures before they'll actually take a bite, but when it happens of their own accord, it's much more likely to happen again and again."
Truthfully, there are so many plant-based foods out there that you're bound to find a few that make the whole family happy. Some make for great side dishes that omnivores might want to serve up alongside grilled meat dishes. Others make for quick, budget-friendly main dishes that are a great alternative to traditional grilled classics like burgers and chicken breasts.
Here, we asked four registered dietitians to share their best plant-based grill picks, and a bit about how they cook each one.
"I love grilling summer sweet corn," says Marisa Moore, M.B.A., RDN, LD, a culinary dietitian. While corn on the cob is a summer staple, you may not have thought to add the grilled kernels to other dishes. "With its smoky flavor, the grilled corn is perfect right off the cob or cut off to add a pop of color and sweetness to salads or side dishes."
Grill the cobs over medium-high heat, rotating them a few times so that the corn gets soft and charred all over. Try our 20+ Grilled Corn Recipes for inspiration.
2. Plant-Based Burgers
Of course, no plant-based barbecue would be complete without a veggie burger or two. You can find a wide variety of plant-based burgers at the store or make your own. If you go the homemade route, just know that not all homemade veggie burgers hold up well to grilling so you may need to use foil or bring a cast iron pan out to your grill (or just use the oven or stove).
"Tofu is delicious when grilled," Gorin says. "I use extra-firm tofu and make sure to drain out as much water as possible." You actually press excess water out of each block of tofu by wrapping it with paper towels or clean kitchen towels, then setting it on a sheet pan and topping it with heavy books for a couple of hours. Or, if you eat tofu regularly, you can invest in a tofu press. (Try our healthy tofu recipes.)
Extra-firm tofu that's been pressed will be relatively sturdy, so you can slice it about a half-inch thick and grill it over high heat to get the grill marks and warm it throughout. You can marinate the tofu before hand for extra flavor, although Gorin often just grills it plain and adds flavor later.
Portobello mushrooms are perfect for the grill. You can toss the entire mushroom cap in a bit of oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, then grill it over medium heat until it's super soft. Serve up a whole cooked portobello mushroom cap on a bun like a burger, or slice it like a steak and drizzle it with sauce. These Grilled Portobellos with Chopped Salad is another great option.
Don't stop with portobellos. "Another favorite plant-based food to grill is maitake mushrooms," Gorin says. Maitakes have dozens of little mushroom caps that flower from its base, which makes them look a bit like feather dusters. Coat them with a neutral oil and then cook them over medium-low heat on the grill—they'll flatten out quite a bit, and take on a dense, meaty texture. Gorin loves pairing hers with a creamy sauce.
Raw pineapple is a great summer snack, but throwing pineapple slices on the grill makes them dessert-worthy. "Heating fruit helps bring out the sweetness in fruit, and so a naturally sweet treat becomes even more enjoyable," Gorin says. "You can grill pineapple rings and enjoy them on their own, or you can cut up the pieces after grilling and toss them into a salad!" Throw the slices onto a very hot grill, then reduce the heat to medium. This way, you'll get grill marks but your fruit won't turn to mush. This Grilled Pineapple with Coconut Black Sticky Rice is an impressive option for dessert.
"Grilled eggplant makes an excellent side dish for your summer BBQs," English says. You can cut extra thick slices of eggplant (about two inches) and grill them over medium low-heat until they get soft and slightly charred. "I like to use a good garlic olive oil blend to add rich flavor to the silky eggplant 'meat'" English says. Salt your eggplant after slicing it, then let it sit for at least 30 minutes before drying with a paper towel or clean kitchen towel. The salt will draw out excess moisture and overly bitter flavor. This Grilled Eggplant (pictured above) is delicious and simple or get a little fancier with our Grilled Eggplant Parmesan.
If you want an impressive-looking steak alternative, try cauliflower. Jennifer Rodriguez Jaramillo, MS, RDN, LD, likes to halve a cauliflower head from top to bottom, so that each half still has its stem and stays together on the grill. She often marinates hers with a thin layer of chopped canned chipotle peppers, then adds olive oil, salt, and pepper before grilling. Place the halves cut-side down on the grill to cook them, and use medium-low heat so that the cauliflower has time to soften without burning. These Grilled Cauliflower Steaks with Almond Pesto & Butter Beans are another impressive option.
Tofu isn't the only soy protein worth grilling. Tempeh, made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed together, is a nutty, slightly funky option that just gets better on the grill. You can buy pre-marinated tempeh "bacon," which has been cut into long slices and coated with smoky flavoring, and throw that straight on the grill. Or, you can make your own marinade and slice the tempeh yourself before grilling it until it's slightly charred on both sides. Try this Grilled Tempeh Salad with Sesame-Ginger Dressing for a quick and flavorful plant-based dinner.
"I like to grill watermelon or cantaloupe to heighten the sweet flavor. Grilled melon with a splash of lime juice and sometimes a drizzle of honey makes for a simple dessert or refreshing appetizer," Moore says. "You can also use the grilled fruit as a base for a mocktail or cocktail for an extra layer of flavor." Cut thick slices (at least one inch) of your melon of choice then grill the slices on both sides until you have dark grill marks. Our Grilled Watermelon is a nice option on a hot day.