Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taste Testing Store Bought Vegan Gravy: Gravy Knowledge For The Masses

Day 30, in my Month of Vegan Gravy, and I have to admit I'm a little sad, this has been a LOT of work, but such great fun too. Who knew I could talk about gravy for 30 days?! Certainly not me, but thank you Jess, for throwing down the gravy challenge!

But, the thing is, now I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. There's still a whole world of gravy-based dishes out there I haven't touched! Cranberry-Sage Gravy, Sweet-Potato Gravy, Potato Gravy, SpƤtzle with gravy, Swedish meatballs and gravy, poutine with gravy... {{sigh}}.

Not to fear, I have several more recipes I'll be posting (just not EVERY DAY!) in December, because I just couldn't get everything in. (Like my epic gravy-eating trip to Portland. I want to tell you all about that - but time, time time!!)

However - for today's post I wanted to do something just a little different. Crazy different.

I realize if you're reading through all these gravy posts, you're likely somewhat interested in cooking or making your own foods.
But what about those of you vegans or potential vegans who may NOT cook?
Or those "instant-from-a-package", last-minute, sorts of situations? This is where STORE BOUGHT GRAVY comes in. (*gulp*). Yes. Store bought, instant, pre-made.
While many of us may not cook this way, you and I both know many people who do. And there's nothing wrong with it in so many situations; those newly vegan or vegetarian, college students, single people who don't want to whip up a 6-cup pot of gravy, busy Moms with 15 minutes (literally!) to get food on the table before Cub Scouts or Little League (been there!), folks who grew up on "out-of-the-box" cooking and have a decided taste for it, the lazy among us, or those who just don't trust their cooking skills yet.
We may not admit it, but it's nice to have a back-up - all of us rely on packaged and pre-made once in a while. And thankfully there are a lot of vegan options out there, even if you don't shop the health-food aisle.

So, taking my cue from an idea posted over at Serious Eats where they rated 5 (NON-vegan) store-bought gravies right before Thanksgiving, I decided I would embark on an epic adventure in taste-testing store-bought (pre-packaged) vegan gravies. (But I waited until after T-day because many of these products went on sale. So save this review for next year.)
Forgive me if this is a WORDY, long-winded post, there's a lot I want to cover here:

Little did I know how many packaged vegan gravy mixes there were to choose from; though I doubt most of you will be lucky enough to find these all in one location (and if you do, I hate you).

I shopped at Seattle's Sidecar All-Vegan Grocery, Portland's Food Fight All-Vegan Grocery and Whole Foods. None of these stores are close or convenient, I just happened to be in their neighborhoods during Gravy Month!! Oh, I also shopped at my local Albertson's. From these stores, I chose 10 gravies to test. yes, 10. Crazy, I know.

I tried to be as "scientific" and unbiased as possible. I cooked each gravy exactly according to the package instructions and then had my daughter dish them out into bowls she had color-coded so I didn't know which was which. Then I put just a taste of each gravy on a little, tiny teaspoonful of bland, basic mashed potatoes (also color-coded with toothpicks to match - see picture - potatoes are smaller than they appear).

And then I tasted. And took notes. And had my 'Sprouts' taste too. And took more notes. And grabbed an unsuspecting very-meat-loving teenage tree-delivery boy to taste test too. Those marked (GF) are ones that the packet indicated are gluten-free. Sorry, I don't know enough about gluten-free ingredients to make any further recommendations there.
Even with teeny bites, that's a lot of gravy. And salt. And flavors. Though, I think I've recovered. All in the name of gravy knowledge for the masses. You can thank me later.

My Criteria: (here again, I stole ideas from the "Serious Eats" taste-test)
Texture: rich and smooth, not gluey and goopy, starchy, grainy or floury; not thin or broth-like. Chunks or bits of vegetables (i.e. mushrooms, onion) are OK.
Flavor: I hoped it might taste like real, homemade vegan brown gravy; not too salty, bland or starchy, not just nondescript savory "flavoring", though I may have run out of adjectives because many were just "savory" and not much else. Vegetable, nutritional yeast and herbal notes are nice, but they should complement, not overwhelm. I did not read the ingredients (except in the store to verify they were vegan) so only guessed at the underlying flavors (such as soy sauce, nutritional yeast, garlic, etc...)

I'm not going to trash the worst contenders, or select anyone specifically a "winner" because your tastes are different than mine. I'm a huge fan of homemade and don't typically eat pre-made, packaged items, and frankly most ALL of these had a bit of that "packaged-instant" taste to me, though I admit I was surprised at how tasty some were as well. I will try to describe our taste-testing adventures though, so if you DO have a choice, you can figure out what may work best for you. Granted, I'd probably doctor most of these up with white wine, herbs, mushrooms and whatnot, and after all that, might as well have made my own.

The dry packets all made 1 cup, which isn't a lot when serving dinner, the liquid (or pre-made) gravies varied in amounts.

Here we go, in NO particular order.

Tofurky Savory 'Giblet' Gravy

Tofurky's gravy comes fully made, but frozen; You thaw and then heat on the stove or in the microwave. I heated it on the stove and even with my trusty whisk, it still wasn't as smooth as I would have liked. It started out VERY gloppy but thinned considerably as it heated - could have been slightly thicker in the end, but then, I like a gravy that doesn't run all over everything, either. The predominant flavors here seem to be a fairly strong nutritional yeast flavor with onion, celery and a savory, mildly "turkey(?)-like" flavor. I didn't notice any sage or herb flavors and thought it could have benefited from those, and definitely less salt. I've heard many people rave over this gravy, saying it was "just like they remember turkey gravy", I can't vouch for that, but I know it is very popular in the vegan Holiday Meal world; Since all you do is heat and eat, I can see why it's popular with non-cooking types too. Although the package says "giblets", I don't know what vegan giblets are, nor did I find any in the gravy. I would definitely serve this to omni-type friends if they were open minded or not terribly picky about gravy; you're going to know it's not "turkey" but probably won't hate it either.

Whole Foods Fresh-Made Vegan Mushroom Gravy (from the deli)
I realize including this in my taste test may be a bit unfair. Whole Foods recipes may differ from store to store. And this gravy is fresh made in their deli, not a dry package you mix up, or frozen blob you have to defrost.
That said, this was a most delicious, herby, mushroom gravy with loads of real mushroom chunks and bits of fresh sage. If someone, (like my child) doesn't like mushroom flavors, or any "chunks" in their gravy, this one won't do, otherwise, it's very good!! Personally I LOVED all the mushrooms and herbs, but then, I'm a huge mushroom fan. Other testers liked the flavor, some didn't like the chunky-ness or the "green bits", but that's 17-year-olds for you.
I could have drunk this stuff! The gravy had a rich mushroom flavor with plenty of sage and some onion. It was a bit thin (again, depending on your tastes) but tasted almost like you whipped it up yourself. I think the flavors would have deepened and the gravy thickened if I'd simmered it longer. The mushrooms had a somewhat rubbery texture, and there's a lot of them, but honestly didn't detract (for me) from the final, very delicious, product. I would serve this to anyone, any time, with no apologies.

Loma Linda Fat Free Vegetarian Brown Gravy Quick

This little packet of brown powder surprised me. I thought it was going to be too watery when I started out, but upon simmering, it cooked up quickly and smoothly and the final product was of the perfect thickness, a very dark brown, savory with a good, yet basic "gravy" flavor (sorry I don't have a better adjective) without any strong vegetable, yeast, soy sauce or herb flavors. If you can find it, it's a really nice, very basic (and easy) gravy mix to have on hand, though sodium levels are deceptively high. All the dry packages I tested were high in sodium, but fat-free, whether the main part of the labels stated so or not. This would be a good, basic, brown-gravy fall-back. (Did I say "basic" enough there?)

Leahey Golden Gravy
This product also comes in gluten-free, though the one I tested wasn't. This was a a "chicken" style flavor and lighter color than the "brown" and "mushroom" gravies, so maybe that makes this comparison unfair, but I'll include it just the same. I didn't think this had a particularly strong "chicken" flavor, but was still rich and did taste nicely of mild onions and maybe the slightest bit of something that didn't seem quite "gravy" like... curry? turmeric? (I wish I knew my flavors better). I also think there may be a bit of mushroom flavors in this, possibly to make it more "meaty"; I didn't mind at all, but my mushroom-hater chose this as one of her least favorites. This was one of the less salty dry mixes as well. It's pretty basic, I think with a little sage and black pepper, this would be a really tasty "chicken" gravy. OK, maybe I thought that about all of them.

Hain Vegetarian Brown Gravy
This little package was about the most basic of the gravies. My daughter said it tasted "brown". And that's a fairly good adjective. The stuff you got on your cafeteria tray in fourth grade. But in a comfort-food, vegan way. Our not-vegan teenage boy chose this as a favorite. Go figure. It mixed up nice and smooth, it's not gluten-free, just a basic gravy with a slight "soy-sauce" after-taste.

Road's End Shiitake Gravy
Road's End seems to be the go-to instant gravy of choice among vegans, and it is definitely a palatable and tasty gravy. After testing some of the others, I almost thought it needed more salt, but when tasted later, on it's own, the flavors came through nicely - no more salt needed. It comes in several flavors, I chose the Shiitake mushroom variety (because I like mushrooms).
I thought the mushroom flavors came through well (who knows if they're actually shiitake, right?), though it was a just a bit "flour-y" tasting to me (even though it's gluten free). Definitely a nutritional-yeast flavor, and maybe a little garlic(?) and no herbs. It certainly smelled good while mixing it up, that's a plus, as some of the gravies did not. There was the slightest "grainy" texture to this gravy, possibly whatever thickener was used would have benefited from a slower, longer cooking time. You won't really notice that texture if it's over potatoes, rice, etc. (GF)

Redwood Meat-Free Cheatin' Gravy
I really liked this gravy, good luck finding it if you live in the US though. It comes powdered, in a tub and you mix up the amount you want - that may be more difficult for some than just opening an envelope (not meaning to be sarcastic at all, some people want things that require NO measuring, so I thought I'd mention it). It had a rich, roasty onion and vegetable flavor with a slight "malty-yeasty" undertone, but in a good, flavorful way (please don't be skeptical if you're not sure of my description), PLUS it definitely had that elusive sage flavor that I so love in gravies, and so many of the dry mixes seemed to be lacking. This mixed up a little thinner than some of the mixes, but nice and smooth, and not so thin as to be watery.

Chef Bonneau Gravy Mix
This gravy was quite bland and needed some serious flavor boosts; from what, I'm not sure. It was salty enough, but also slightly, weirdly sweet, like too many caramelized onions (even though there were no onions listed in the ingredients). If you wanted to play with it, add mushrooms and wine and garlic, I think the basic flavor was good, but it just needed "more" of it.

Campbells Canned Mushroom Gravy
OK, this actually surprised me. Not that it was something I'd run out and buy again tomorrow, but since it's available in your (larger) corner grocery store, I could buy it most anywhere if I wanted - and, if you're craving gravy, stuck with NO vegan gravy options and you can't cook to save your life (and you don't live within a hundred-mile radius of ME so I can MAKE you some gravy!) then opening this can of accidentally vegan gravy just might be a life-saver.
It's not bad at all, for what it is. But I don't expect Spaghetti-O's to taste like spaghetti either. The texture was silky smooth almost too smooth, as you'd expect for something from a can. No chunks or green bits of herbs. My kids and our "forced-to-help" non-vegan teen liked it's "basic-ness" (is that a word?) though I thought it was (obviously) quite processed tasting. It has a mildly canned-mushroom flavor and is savory and not-overly-salty and just slightly herb-y enough to make it palatable though, yes, even from a CAN!
*This is the Campbells canned Mushroom GRAVY, NOT the cream-of-mushroom soup. Make sure you read the label.

This was one of the saltier gravy mixes; it had a good, savory soy-sauce" and "vegetable-y" flavor, but I just felt it needed to be "watered down" to be less salty. It smelled a lot like the pot roast gravy I remember my mother-in-law making, though not in a bad "cooking meat" sort-of way, just an "old-fashioned" way (if that makes sense?). The texture was somewhat gummy and starchy and the taste was savory and seemed like it might have a bit of tomatoes in it, as well as other vegetables, but it wasn't at all "mushroom-y" (which my non-mushroom child liked). This is a nice, basic gravy if the texture isn't an issue. (GF)

Imagine Foods Wild Mushroom Gravy
This liquid (already mixed-up) gravy was sold in the aseptic pack, like the company's broths and such. It had a lovely silky-smooth texture and very good "mushroom-y" flavor but it was still very "blah" - like someone forgot an essential ingredient. Which is too bad, because it seems like a great idea. I really wanted to like this one too, it smelled good, had great texture and you got a lot in the little carton for the price. Sadly this was towards the bottom of most everyone's list. Again, if you want to play around with it, I think it has a lot of potential, and might even make the base for a killer mushroom soup, but good gravy, it's not.


And THAT, my friends, concludes this month of Vegan Mofo, my personal challenge of blogging a month of vegan gravies, and my daily gravy posts on this blog. Stay tuned, as I said before, there is definitely more to come, I hope you've enjoyed this journey as much as I have. Happy gravy making!!


Matt (Our Veggie Kitchen) said...

I knew you could talk about gravy for thirty days. The last month just proves my sentiment that gravy should be its own food group.

froggythefrog said...

The Tofurky gravy actually is a bit more work than it should be. You really have to heat it and whisk the heck out of it or you're going to end up with a chunky gelatinous gravy. Thanks for posting these! I love product reviews and I really had no idea how many vegan packaged gravies there actually are!

The Shenandoah Vegan said...

I didn't know there were so many vegan packaged gravies either. What a comprehensive study. Very impressive and I totally agree w/your assessment of the gravies that I've tasted.

Jeni Treehugger said...

Well done for all your gravy MoFo'ing. Gravy should definitely be it's own food group.

Lauren said...

woo! that's a WHOLE lot of gravy-talk!
all sounds so good though, can't believe I went through thanksgiving without any gravy! Guess for Christmas dinner I'll have to make some, thanks for all the gravy help and recommendations!

dolmadez said...

What a great (and fun!) research project! I like your little mashed potato gravy holders.

Great job!

Astra Libris said...

I just discovered your blog from a comment you so kindly left on my blog about vegan doughnuts two years ago! :-) Apologies for visiting so belatedly! I'm so glad I finally arrived, though - I have much happy reading and catching up on archives to do! I'm also so thankful for this post, which couldn't have come into my life at a better time - my parents travel quite a bit, and my mother was asking me just last week if I knew of a decent store bought vegan gravy that would be tasty for cooking on the road, and I was at a loss, having always fixed gravy from scratch... Now, you've provided us with a wealth of information! Thank you so much!