Loafing Around

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

In the early 1960s, when my mother and father went out for the evening, mom always let me select one of the four varieties of frozen TV dinners that Swanson's offered at that time. I always chose meatloaf with mashed potatoes. A guilty pleasure, I always looked forward to this mass-produced frozen dinner. But I often picked the loaf apart with my fork and wondered about the ingredients. What were they? And what held them together?

I'm sure those frozen dinners sparked my quest for the perfect loaf, but I found few vegetarian loaf recipes until the late '60s. By the end of the 1970s, however, there was at least one veggie loaf recipe in every natural foods cookbook. By 1980, I'd baked countless loaves — soy, millet, carrot, rye, buckwheat, and endless variations of the ubiquitous lentil loaf featured in many '70s cookbooks.

Over the years, though, vegetarian loaves gained a bad reputation. Sadly, many early recipes came out of the oven resembling bricks and were just about as appetizing. If you followed a typical recipe as it was written, you wouldn't have to worry about not having enough food to go around. No one wanted a second helping.

But daydreams of creating a savory, sliceable loaf transport me back to a dinner with my best friend's family in 1972. They were vegetarians, and her mother had an almost instinctive ability to analyze ingredients and combine them to make memorable dishes. She once baked a loaf composed of cooked red beans and rice mashed with sweet caramelized onions, chopped jalapeños, sage, and toasted pecans. Each plain white dinner plate cradled warm, savory loaf slices and mashed potatoes topped with homemade gravy. On the side were steamed green beans and sliced fresh tomatoes gathered from the garden. It looked like a styled food picture from a magazine. And the amazing flavors and texture of that loaf remained with me for years.

I was excited about the prospect of creating and eating a number of vegetarian loaves for a month, but when I told my husband, he groaned. I shouldn't have been surprised because not every loaf I'd made over the years turned out like the loaf my friend's mother made. I admit, there is a certain mystique about creating a loaf that slices with good texture and a balance of flavors. But skill at loaf perfection comes from practice at selecting ingredients and allowing yourself to play with food possibilities. Add too much liquid or too many beans, and the loaf is moist and heavy. Not enough holding power (wheat gluten or egg replacers), and each slice crumbles into pieces. For years, making adjustments with various recipe ideas, I found it was trial and many errors. Family and friends were often reluctant loaf tasters, enduring more than one failure. At least the dogs rejoiced over loser loafs.

But each dud was a stepping stone, spurring me to make loaves that impressed even my biggest critic — me. When the month was over and the recreated recipes complete, I realized no leftovers had gone to the dogs. The Southwestern Polenta Loaf disappeared in one day, and my husband and I wanted more. And my husband took Chickpea Loaf topped with Smooth Adobo Sauce in tortillas for lunch for days. He combined Fire-Roasted Tomato Bread Loaf with black beans and added Chipotle Barbecue Sauce to make unique burritos. I reheated loaf slices and topped them with sauce, gravy, or vegetables. Or I put a slice on toasted whole wheat bread with all the fixings — mustard, vegan mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes.

Thank goodness we've moved beyond frozen mystery meat dinners, and I don't have to feel guilty about ingredients. Nowadays, a loaf is a pleasure. These are my favorite versions.

10 Loaf Tips

  1. Use a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan, smaller loaf pans for individual servings, or a square baking pan.
  2. Oil or parchment paper lining a loaf pan insures easy removal.
  3. Balance heavy ingredients with light cooked whole grain components, such as rice, quinoa or millet, or bread crumbs. Beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tofu add moisture and heaviness.
  4. Bread crumbs and ground flaxseeds blended with water help create a more sliceable loaf. Grind your own flaxseeds in a spice or clean coffee grinder.
  5. To replace salt, try adding chopped dulse (a sea vegetable), chopped olives, or capers.
  6. To impart a smoky flavor, add adobo sauce or chipotle chili powder.
  7. For crunch, lightly toast various nuts or sunflower or sesame seeds. Blend in right before baking.
  8. Caramelized onions add sweet tones. If you don't like onions, lightly sauté carrots or red peppers, or add some sweet potatoes. You can also squeeze in a tiny amount of agave nectar to balance the other flavors.
  9. If you're not sure whether a loaf is done, it's best to bake it for 5 more minutes. Wait 10 minutes before removing from pan.
  10. Loaves are dry by nature and call for a topping, whether gravy, pasta sauce, salsa, barbecue sauce, or even sautéed vegetables.

Quick Fix Burger Tips

The recipes in this article yield delicious veggie loaves, but some make incredible vegetable burgers as well. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to make an impressive burger from these recipes:

  • Of the recipes in this article, Pecan-Lentil Loaf or Chickpea Loaf are the best bets for making patties or burgers.
  • Thoroughly mix ingredients. Blending the ingredients as smoothly as possible is essential to make burgers. A food processor helps but isn't essential. I used a potato masher and got good results.
  • Measure out approximately a third of a cup of the mixture. Flatten into a patty not more than a ½-inch thick. The thinner the patty, the faster it will cook.
  • Vegetarian burgers are more delicate than meat-based burgers. It's easier to fry in a little oil. A non-stick pan will work, but you won't get a nice crispy crust. You can also broil or grill the patty. Cook until browned on one side, then turn carefully.
  • To grill, use a vegetable grid so pieces don't fall into the fire.
  • Cook for approximately 5 to 7 minutes on each side or until the bottoms are crispy.
  • Set out a variety of condiments. Mustards, chutneys, salsas, barbecue sauce or ketchup, pickles, chopped onions, avocados, and lettuce are just a few examples.
  • You can prepare the burger mixture a day ahead and refrigerate until ready to use, if desired.


(Makes one 9 x 5-inch loaf or 8 servings)

This recipe is inspired by the "Walnut Cheddar Loaf" recipe in the classic vegetarian book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. If you don't like walnuts, use another variety, such as pecans or hazelnuts.

  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • Water, if needed
  • 1 ¼ cups cooked brown rice (any variety)
  • 1 ½ cups dried bread crumbs
  • ½ cup lightly toasted, chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup silken tofu, beaten
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions and sauté the onions until soft. Stir in carrots, cover, and cook until carrots are soft. Add a small amount of water, if necessary. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the sautéed vegetables and cooked rice with the bread crumbs, walnuts, tofu, oregano, pepper, and garlic powder. Mix well. Place mixture in the prepared loaf pan and bake for 40 minutes or until done.

Total calories per serving: 199 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 26 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 155 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Makes one 9 x 5-inch loaf or 8 servings)

Sun-dried tomatoes are available in jars in the salad dressing aisle of most any grocery store. Look for adobo sauce on the international aisle of the grocery store or, better yet, make your own with the Smooth Adobo Sauce recipe.

Leftover slices of this loaf are good sautéed for breakfast with smoky tempeh strips.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 3 cups water
  • ¾ cup polenta (coarse cornmeal)
  • 2-3 Tablespoons adobo sauce or salsa
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup frozen corn or corn scraped fresh from the cob
  • ½ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • Smooth Adobo Sauce to finish

Lightly oil a loaf pan. Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. When mixture is very thick and cornmeal is cooked, scoop it out into the loaf pan. Spread to smooth. Let sit for half an hour before slicing. Drizzle Smooth Adobo Sauce over each slice.

Note: You can alter the flavors in this recipe by adding any of the following to the saucepan while cooking:

  • One-half cup of chopped olives, nuts, or dried cranberries
  • One cup of diced steamed sweet potatoes or carrots
  • Chopped raw parsley or cilantro
Total calories per serving: 78 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 194 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Makes one 9 x 5-inch loaf or 8 servings)

To cook the buckwheat, bring 1 cup of water to a boil and add ½ cup buckwheat. Simmer until grains are soft. I like to use shiitake mushrooms, but button or cremini mushrooms also work well in this recipe. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and lightly toast the nuts for 10 minutes.

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1 ½ teaspoons oil
  • ½ cup finely chopped onions
  • 6 mushrooms, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8-¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup cooked raw buckwheat
  • 2-3 Tablespoons tomato paste or Smooth Adobo Sauce
  • Vegetable oil spray, if needed
  • 2 Tablespoons ground flaxseeds
  • 6 Tablespoons water
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • ½ cup lightly toasted chopped pecans or walnuts

Combine lentils and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are soft and water is absorbed. Add a little more water as lentils cook, if needed.

While the lentils cook, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, and mushrooms. Cover with a lid that fits directly over the onions and mushrooms and sweat the onions until soft. Remove lid and add garlic powder, cayenne, and salt. Continue to stir and cook until mushrooms are soft and have released their juices.

When lentils are done and the water has been absorbed, remove from heat, stir, and mash. Stir in cooked vegetables, buckwheat, and tomato paste or Smooth Adobo Sauce (page 10). Blend well.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper or lightly oil the pan.

Blend flaxseeds and water in a blender or with a hand blender until frothy and thick. Stir this mixture into the loaf with the bread crumbs and nuts. Press mixture into the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes.

Top this loaf with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce or with ketchup.

Total calories per serving: 240 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 34 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 249 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams


(Makes one 9 x 5-inch loaf or 8 servings)

Inspired by the "Chickpea Loaf" recipe in The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, chickpeas — also called garbanzo beans — contribute a nutty flavor and great texture to this loaf. If you can't find a large cans of chickpeas, use two 15-ounce cans. Potato starch helps hold this loaf together.

  • 3 Tablespoons ground flaxseeds
  • ½ cup cold water
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • Vegetable oil spray, if needed
  • One 25-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzos), drained and rinsed
  • ¼ cup Chipotle Barbecue Sauce or Smooth Adobo Sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons potato starch
  • 1 cup crushed crackers, such as saltines
  • ¼ cup chopped black olives
  • ½ cup lightly toasted walnuts or pecans

Mix the flaxseeds and cold water in a blender or with a hand blender. Blend on high until the texture is very thick.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions and stir. Place a lid directly over the onions and sweat until onions are transparent. Remove lid and continue to cook until onions brown.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a loaf pan or line it with parchment paper. Combine the chickpeas and sauce in a large bowl. Thoroughly mash chickpeas with a potato masher. Sprinkle potato starch and crackers over chickpeas. Stir in, and then add olives and nuts. When everything is blended, stir in the flaxseed-water mixture.

Press the mixture into the loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour or until browned on top. Remove loaf from oven and then from the pan. If the loaf needs further cooking, you can set it on a pizza screen and put it back in the oven for a few minutes. When done, let it sit for 15-20 minutes before slicing. Top with your favorite gravy, tomato sauce, or adobo sauce.

Total calories per serving: 246 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 423 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams


(Makes one 9 x 5-inch loaf or 8 servings)

This layered loaf crumbles a little when warm but becomes more solid as it cools. I like to make it a day ahead, then slice and fry it with a little oil. Served with mashed potatoes and gravy, this recipe is great comfort food.

To cook millet, simmer 1 cup of millet in 1 ¾ cups water for 20 minutes. Use the remainder of the millet to reheat as a hot breakfast cereal in the morning.

  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 cup diced sweet potatoes
  • Water, if needed
  • ½ cup silken tofu
  • 2 Tablespoons salsa (optional)
  • 2 Tablespoons potato starch
  • One 15-ounce can red beans, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup cooked millet
  • 1 cup rye bread, cut into small cubes
  • ½ cup thawed frozen corn or corn scraped fresh from the cob
  • 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup toasted, finely chopped nuts, any variety (optional)

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and dry fry until they release their juices. Reduce heat. Add oil and sweet potatoes, cover, and cook until sweet potatoes are soft.

Add a little water, if necessary, to keep potatoes from sticking. When potatoes and mushrooms are done, remove approximately a ½-cup and combine with tofu, salsa, and potato starch. Mix well. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the baking pan with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl, combine the red beans, millet, and rye bread and mash together until blended. Stir in the tofu mixture, corn, rosemary, salt, and nuts. Mix well. Spread half of this mixture into the loaf pan. Place the remaining mushrooms and sweet potatoes over the layer, and then spread the remaining beans and millet mixture on top. Pat down. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and invert on cooling rack to cool.

Total calories per serving: 141 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 380 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Makes one 8 x 8-inch baking dish or 8 servings)

I loved my grandmother's no-frills, Depression-era, bread and tomatoes dish so much I created a stuffing-like loaf out of her main ingredients. Artisan bread works best for this recipe because the dense texture holds up when it is saturated with the tomato juice. (Regular sandwich bread falls apart.) Look for agave nectar in natural foods stores. If you can't find it, use maple syrup.

  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed, or ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Dash of hot sauce
  • One 28-ounce can fire-roasted or plain diced tomatoes
  • 4 heaping cups cubed artisan bread
  • ½ Tablespoon agave nectar or maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil spray to prepare pan

Heat oil and sauté onions until soft. Add mushrooms. Continue cooking until mushrooms are soft and have released their juices.

In a large mixing bowl, combine onion-mushroom mixture with the remaining ingredients. Blend well. Let ingredients sit for half an hour before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place mixture in a lightly oiled 8 x 8-inch baking pan and bake for 30 minutes or until firm.

Total calories per serving: 135 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 514 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Makes approximately 1¼ cups or ten 2-Tablespoon servings)

This sauce is hot and spicy. A little goes a long way. Look for dried chipotle chilies in natural foods or specialty grocery stores.

This sauce will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator. For long-term storage, freeze in an ice cube tray so you have small useable portions. Thaw a cube or two in the refrigerator when ready to use.

  • 5 dried chipotle chilies
  • ½ red or yellow onion, minced
  • ¼ cup rice or cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½-3 cups water

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours or until the sauce is reduced by half. Remove chilies from the sauce, remove stems, and add chilies back to the sauce. Purée all sauce ingredients in a blender. Place sauce in a glass container, cover, and refrigerate. The sauce is hot and spicy, so add sparingly.

Total calories per serving: 12 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 131 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Makes approximately 1¼ cups or ten 2-Tablespoon servings)

A chipotle chili is a smoked jalapeño. It imparts smoky tones to any dish. You can find dried chipotle chilies in natural foods and specialty stores. You can also get a can of smoked jalapeños in adobo sauce at a grocery store. Look for those in the same aisle as tortillas, refried beans, and salsa. These are difficult to remove from the sauce, so use only one smoked jalapeño.

Freeze the remainder of these canned chilies for future use. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread the chilies out in a single layer to freeze. When the chilies are frozen, slip them into a plastic bag and store until you need them.

Liquid smoke is available at many grocery stores, but its inclusion isn't vital to the recipe.

  • One 15-ounce can unsalted diced tomatoes
  • 2 dried chipotle chilies
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup finely diced onions
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Dash of liquid smoke (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue to simmer to desired consistency. Remove chipotle chilies before serving. Serve this sauce as is for a chunky texture, or purée it to create a smoother consistency.

Total calories per serving: 16 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 71 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal. Her most recent article, Thickeners, appeared in Issue 1, 2007. A resident of Washington State, she has authored Local Vegetarian Cooking: Inspired Recipes Celebrating Northwest Farms.