No-carbers have brought about an unexpected renaissance for the cauliflower as a replacement for flour or rice – while some claim it can be a substitute for meat

You wouldn’t think there was much space to innovate with a cauliflower. It’s such an unarguable thing, unmistakeable in appearance, inimitable in texture – dense and grainy, but with an underlying softness, like a gruff prison officer who secretly teaches people to read. But cauliflower is having its own technological revolution, an unexpected renaissance driven by the people who have excluded all the regular stuff from their diet and now need something to eat.

Low-carb diets – paleo, keto, Dukan, there are even some old timers still doing Atkins – have been around since the late 80s, and enjoy regular surges in popularity every time obsessions reemerge over whether carbs are bad for you. Call carbs the old-fashioned slimmers’ exclusion. Veganism, pescetarianism and everything else in between are ethical exclusions, with perfectly sound and demonstrable foundations in sustainability and animal welfare; indeed, think too hard about it and we would all have to do it. And gluten is the allergy/intolerance exclusion.

Substituting cauliflower for carbs has taken some jiggery pokery, however: it suggests itself because of that solidity, the intricacy of its fractal makeup (each stem of the curd, which is what they call the white, edible bit, is a copy of the whole). You can turn a courgette into a noodle, but it would struggle to cohere if you tried to grind it into a flour. Frankly, though, all vegetables struggle in some way if you try to turn them into something else in a domestic kitchen.

A classic cauliflower pastry involves processing the florets, minus stems, until they have a cornflour consistency, steaming that, squeezing out the water (it has a phenomenally high water content), then binding it with egg, and cheese if you like. For 10 minutes, while it has just been steamed and is too hot to handle, it smells disgusting, school-dinnery with a top-note of fart. Cauliflower fans sell it as a tabula rasa, without flavour of its own, but it really isn’t; it’s probably the most assertive brassica there is, apart from sprouts.

I struggled to roll the cauliflower pastry I was using for a cheese quiche. I was making a gluten-free-flour pastry at the same time for comparison, and that is lovely to work with, like soft clay, although prone to splitting. Cauliflower pastry doesn’t split, but I had to make it into a log, slice discs off it and then squish them into the dish. I can tell you the edges brown quite nicely, and I can tell you that it does hold together, but I cannot tell you it tastes like a carbohydrate. So the end result is not really a pie. Particularly as there’s no real textural contrast between the squashy crust and gloopy filling.

When they use it industrially – you can get cauliflower-flour pizza bases in Waitrose – it has more crunch, but that’s because they tend to mix it with a bit of flour. Cauliflower rice, which you can get in Aldi, is sort of magical yet absurd: it is the shape of rice, though fluffier and less regular. It has almost no calories and plays no havoc on your glycemic index. People went wild for it in the US and Trader Joe’s started rationing it to two bags a customer. But essentially it’s just 100% cauliflower, in funny, tiny bits. It still tastes like cauliflower. You could have made yourself a salad.

The most delicious-looking snacks are VeganRob’s cauliflower puffs, because nothing is not improved by puffing it, and cauliflower crackers, which look like dainty square Ritzs, but you can only get them in the US. The best carb-ish cauliflower snack is to make fritters, binding it with spiced chickpea flour, then deep frying it.

Swapping meat for cauliflower used to be the easiest thing in the world: you didn’t need to make the thing taste like meat, it just had to exist as a centrepiece and arrive on the table as the main event. Marks and Spencer nearly ruined it for everyone, with its £2.50 cauliflower steak, just a slice of cauliflower, in a shop where you could buy a whole one for a quid. It had some lemon and herb butter, but that didn’t allay the baying crowds. It was more than a rip off. It wasn’t really about excess packaging, it was that, once you called it a steak, it reminded everyone that it wasn’t a real steak, and the mask slipped. Inevitably, that was discontinued.

The whole roast cauliflower reigned supreme. But the signature of the vegan wave is to try and replicate meat classics without animals, which is how the cauliflower buffalo wing came into being: battered florets, roasted then slathered in buffalo sauce and roasted again. Korean-popcorn cauliflower follows the same principle: make it smaller, smother it in sauce, roast it. Look, it doesn’t taste like chicken, but these are fine, dirty snacks.

• This article was amended on 21 March 2019 because an earlier version referred to substituting carbs for cauliflower, when it meant to say substituting cauliflower for carbs.