If you love spaghetti and meatballs but you're trying to cut down on meat, you need to try our vegan meatballs recipe, which swaps traditional ground beef, other meats (such as pork and lamb) and eggs for a plant-based blend of hearty chickpeas and quinoa. While we've skipped the meat, we're not skimping on any of those Italian flavors that you look for in a classic meatball. In addition to being free of meat and dairy, our vegan meatballs also nix the breadcrumbs that are used as a binder in many meatball recipes, so they're also gluten-free. Serve them over your favorite pasta or swap in vegetable noodles for a lower-carb meal and an extra serving of veggies.
Watch our IGTV series, Veganize It, to see how to make this dish and more vegan versions of your favorite dishes.
Tips for Making Vegan Meatballs
Pictured recipe: Vegan Meatballs
1. Make the Plant-Based Meatball Mixture
To make these meatballs, start by pulsing cauliflower, mushrooms, onion and garlic in a food processor—which is much faster and easier than chopping the ingredients by hand. The veggies are sautéed with Italian seasonings, just like regular meatballs. Next, pureed chickpeas are added—they add protein and also help bind the mixture in place of the traditional egg. Cooked quinoa adds additional protein and heartiness to our meatball mixture. Together, all of these ingredients create a vegan meatball with a satisfying texture and plenty of flavor.
2. Add Some Umami
The secret to the meatlike flavor of our vegan meatballs is umami. Called the fifth taste (the other four are sweet, sour, salty and bitter), umami is essentially a savory flavor that comes from the amino acid glutamate. Meat and Parmesan cheese, which are used in traditional meatballs, have a lot of naturally occurring glutamates. To get umami in our vegan meatballs, we use vegan ingredients that have glutamates, including tomato paste, tamari (which is gluten-free soy sauce) and mushrooms. When you combine all of these ingredients, you end up with an amazing vegan meatball that would make even the biggest carnivores' mouths water. Try using these umami-rich ingredients to give a meaty flavor to other vegan dishes, such as soups and stews.
3. Shape and Bake the Meatballs
Once you've stirred together the meatball mixture, use your hands to form it into balls. (You can also shape the mixture into a loaf, for a vegan meatloaf.) Place the meatballs on a baking sheet and bake until heated through and firm.
4. Serve with a Simple Sauce
While the meatballs are baking, whip up a simple sauce: Simply sauté canned tomatoes, crushed red pepper and Italian seasonings, then simmer for a few minutes for an easy tomato sauce that's way tastier than jarred.
Check Your Wallet: Traditional Meatballs vs. Vegan Meatballs
For a price comparison on vegan versus traditional meatballs, we turned to vegan celebrity chef Chloe Coscarelli (aka Chef Chloe on Instagram and YouTube). Coscarelli notes that the vegan version costs $9.26 to make the recipe, compared to a traditional meatball made with beef, lamb, veal and eggs, which clocks in at $13.88 per recipe. That's a savings of almost $5 for the recipe, or almost $1 per serving.
Environmental Impact: Traditional Meatballs vs. Vegan Meatballs
In terms of environmental impact, using chickpeas and quinoa instead of beef helps make these "meatballs" better for the environment. Beef creates an estimated 34 times more climate pollution than beans and lentils, pound for pound, according to research from the NRDC.
Nutritional Comparison: Traditional Meatballs vs. Vegan Meatballs
When it comes to nutritional differences, you'll save 341 calories by choosing our vegan meatballs over traditional meatballs. They also provide 6 more grams of fiber and they're 11 grams lower in saturated fat than typical meatballs. This recipe also saves more than 1,200 mg sodium by bumping up those umami flavors so less salt is needed.
Veganize It in Your Kitchen Today!
Serve your vegan meatballs simply with sauce or add some regular or veggie noodles. They're also great over grain bowls or salads. And they freeze well, so make a big batch to have on hand for easy meals.
Check back in with Veganize It soon—we'll be rolling out a new vegan version of a favorite dish every week on IGTV. In the meantime, browse our other Veganize It episodes, including vegan takes on mac & cheese, tacos, cheesecake and more.
Culinary nutritionist and EatingWell Test Kitchen manager Breana Killeen is a Le Cordon Bleu–trained cook, dietitian and sommelier who loves dogs, classic cars and a cool glass of rosé.