How does plant mince compare to real meat in a cottage pie face off?

We pitch a dish made with meat-free Future Mince against one made with beef using the same recipe

21 October 2021 - 06:00
Do you know the difference between cottage and shepherd's pie? The first is traditionally made with beef mince and the second with lamb mince. File photo.
Do you know the difference between cottage and shepherd's pie? The first is traditionally made with beef mince and the second with lamb mince. File photo.
Image: 123RF/elvinphoto

Good old cottage pie. It’s one of those recipes  that just has a knack of hitting the right spot, no matter what season you serve it in.

Another reason it tends to be a family favourite is that it's easy to make: a tasty beef mince base is topped with creamy mash before being baked in the oven. 

It's a wholesome helping of comfort food — and one of the meaty meals that those who've adopted a plant-based lifestyle often tend to miss.

So what better dish to make to test out Future Farm Future Mince, a relatively new plant-based mince that's available exclusively through Checkers?

Future Farm's Future Mince is a soy, pea and chickpea-based product.
Future Farm's Future Mince is a soy, pea and chickpea-based product.
Image: Supplied

To see how Future Mince compares with the real deal, I made a pair of cottage pies following the same recipe: a traditional one and a vegetarian version using plant-based mince and vegetable stock.

Would my dinner guests be able to tell which was which?

THE COTTAGE PIE RECIPE

Serves: 4-6

Ingredients:

45ml (3 tbsp) olive oil

500g beef or plant-based mince 

1 large onion, finely chopped

1-2 large carrots, peeled and chopped

1 celery stick, sliced

1 -2 cloves of garlic, crushed

15ml (1 tbsp) flour

15ml (1 tbsp) tomato purée

125ml (½ cup) red wine or use extra stock

600ml beef or vegetable stock

15ml (1 tbsp) soya sauce or 5ml (1 tsp) vegetable extract dissolved in 15ml (1 tbsp) water

A few sprigs of fresh thyme or 5ml (1 tsp) dried thyme

2 bay leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mash:

1kg boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

125ml (½ cup) milk 

15ml (1 tbsp) butter

Dash of ground nutmeg

125g cheddar cheese, grated

Method:

  1. Preheat 15ml (1 tbsp) oil in a large pan and brown the mince*. Remove the mince from the pan and set aside.
  2. Add the remaining oil to the pan and fry the onion, carrots, celery and garlic together. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes to allow the carrots to soften and the mixture to caramelise.
  3. Sprinkle over the flour and stir through before adding the tomato purée.
  4. Pour over the wine, if using, then add the stock, soya sauce, thyme and bay leaves.
  5. Return the mince to the pan, then bring to a simmer and cook until liquid has reduced almost completely. Season to taste. Remove the thyme stalks and bay leaves and discard. Set the mixture aside.
  6. While the mince is cooking, make the mash. Place the potatoes in a large pan and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to the boil and boil until tender.
  7. Drain off the liquid and return the pan of potatoes to the stove to steam off any excess liquid.
  8. Mash the potatoes either by hand or using a hand mixer adding the milk and butter. Don't overmix or the mash will become gloopy. Add ¾ of the cheese to the mash and mix through.
  9. Pour the mince filling into a greased ovenproof dish (I used a 2-litre Pyrex-style dish). Spoon or pipe the mashed potato on top, spread evenly and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
  10. Bake in a preheated 190°C oven for 40 minutes. Serve with a salad.

Cook's notes:

  • *The packaging of the Future Mince suggested seasoning it before frying, which I did and probably added a little too much salt and pepper given the other ingredients going in the dish. If I was making the dish again, I wouldn't season it at this point.
  • To make a vegan version of this cottage pie replace the milk and butter in the mash with plant milk and olive oil. Omit the cheddar cheese.

COOKING WITH PLANT VS BEEF MINCE

COST

Future Mince comes in 270g packs priced at R64.99. I had to use two packs to make up the 500g needed to make a cottage pie bringing the total cost of the protein for the plant-based version to R129.98.

At Checkers, the beef mince was priced at R92.99 per kilogram. The cost for 500g was R46.50.

COMPOSITION

Future Mince is a vegetable mince based on soy, pea and chickpea. The package indicates it contains no genetically modified organisms, gluten or antibiotics. It contains coconut and canola oil, methycellulose (a thickener), salt and beet powder for colour.

Beef mince is a combination of beef and fat. The fat content may vary depending on whether the mince is regular, lean or extra lean.

APPEARANCE WHEN RAW

The Future Mince had a similar look to beef mince as it was crumbly and coloured red with beetroot. The lack of fat content meant it didn't have that mottled look that regular raw mince has.

BROWNING

I used a splash of olive when browning both types of mince.

Cottage pie filling made with plant-based mince.
Cottage pie filling made with plant-based mince.
Image: Hilary Biller
Cottage pie filling made with beef mince.
Cottage pie filling made with beef mince.
Image: Hilary Biller

The plant-based mince browned with difficulty and required constant stirring. The strange thing, as a meat eater, is that there was no aroma whereas thanks to its fat content, the beef mince both browned easily and released an appealing aroma.

VOLUME

As the fat in the beef mince cooks down, once it's browned you're left with a smaller volume of meat — anywhere from ½ — ¾  of the amount what you started out with depending on the fat content of the mince.

Whereas as the plant-based mince has no added fat, once it's browned the volume is almost the same as the raw product.

When adding the stock, the beef mince takes way longer to reduce than the plant-based mince, which absorbs the stock quickly, making the grains swell.

THE TASTE TEST

Once baked, the two dishes looked identical. The plant-based mince was almost the same colour as the beef, however the beef filling had a glisten from the fat in the meat whereas the vegetarian version did not.

My dinner party guests — my husband and a friend — didn't know which cottage pie was which. They had difficulty in identifying the one made with plant mince by aroma, but could tell immediately from the flavour.

Beef cottage pie.
Beef cottage pie.
Image: Hilary Biller
Plant-based cottage pie.
Plant-based cottage pie.
Image: Hilary Biller

As meat eaters, the beef cottage pie got the thumbs up from all three of us. That said, we agreed that the plant mince version has its place in today's climate-conscious world.

The plant mince absorbed the flavour of the other ingredients well, giving it all the characteristics of a traditional cottage pie. However, as it's a soy-, pea- and chickpea-based product the texture was slightly spongy.

The flavour was not unappealing, but it definitely has a taste that a former meat eater would have to get used to. My husband described it as “a bit cardboardy tasting” though I'm not sure he's ever eaten cardboard.

THE VERDICT

The plant-based mince made a very comparable cottage pie, but for meat eaters it would take some getting used to — the fat in beef mince adds a lot to the dish's classic flavour profile.

We were surprised at the cost of the plant mince, which made cooking the plant-based cottage pie far more expensive than the beef one. That said, according to the packaging Future Mince is imported from Brazil.

This gave us some food for thought. While the toll the production of beef has on the environment is one of the factors driving the global move towards a more plant-based lifestyle, one needs to consider the impact that importing products has on climate change too.


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