I'm not vegetarian or vegan, but I'm a big fan of veggie burgers, particularly those that taste like, well, vegetables. I've even written a couple of recipes of my own. But veggie burgers that try to imitate the taste and texture of meat? No thanks, I'll pass.
At least, that's what I used to say. The last few years have been exciting times for veggie burgers, with two extraordinarily well-funded companies—Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—releasing plant-based burgers that they claim not only smell and taste like meat but look, handle, and cook like meat as well.
If you shop in the vegan section of your supermarket, Beyond Meat is a familiar brand name. They seem to be leading the industry in currently available faux-meat products, with a line of chicken strips, crumbles, burger patties, and frozen meals. Though not widely available across the country just yet, their Beyond Burger, a pea protein–based patty, was the first consumer-market-ready vegan burger patty to "bleed" like real meat,* thanks to the magic color of beet juice.
*Okay, smarty-pants, we all know that real ground beef doesn't technically bleed, and that what you're really looking at is myoglobin, the red muscle pigment, as opposed to hemoglobin, the blood pigment. Got that out of your system? Let's move on.
When Beyond Meat first hit the market, Eater posted a summary of the reactions from various other food websites that had gotten their hands on a box of patties and tasted them. From their report, it sounded almost too good to be true. "Nobody could believe how good it was." "It was tasty and juicy, unlike most veggie burgers which can often taste closer to cardboard than beef." "Undeniably fresh." The Impossible Burger received similarly positive reviews.
I'm always skeptical of these kinds of early reviews; it's easy to be wowed by a first-of-its-kind product, and, to be frank, I tend to want to taste something for myself before I believe the hype. Over the last couple of weeks, I've managed to have both of them multiple times.
Let me say this right off the bat: These things are a big step up from previous faux-meat burgers, though they still have a way to go before they're going to fool anyone who eats meat critically on a regular basis. Tasted on their own, they have their problems, but served the right way—cooked and topped—they become more successful.
Why Plant-Based Meat?
The question comes up frequently in vegan message boards and conversations: Why plant-based "fake" meat? If you like vegetables, shouldn't you just eat vegetables? Five years ago, when I first started exploring and writing about vegan food, I even said the same thing, in my article "Say No to Faux." But over the years I've changed my mind, and have come to realize that there are plenty of convincing arguments in favor of plant-based products mimicking meat.
Many vegans, for instance, are vegan for ethical or environmental reasons: They believe that killing animals for food is wrong or bad for the environment, therefore they choose to eat plants. But many ethical vegans still enjoy the taste of meat and crave it. Plant-based alternatives are a good way to satisfy those desires while still staying true to basic principles.
The world population is also expanding, and as the economies and middle classes of mega-populated countries, like China and India, continue to grow, so does their taste for meat. Livestock farming is an inherently inefficient form of production, using massive amounts of energy and land and producing waste (cattle are one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases**). Feeding that hunger for meat is going to be impossible without some major technological or logistical breakthrough. Many, including Bill Gates (who has invested in both companies) and food writer Harold McGee (who advises for Impossible Foods), believe that plant-based meat substitutes are going to cover at least part of the growing meat gap.
** Note: This article previously stated that cattle are the largest producers. Among livestock, they are the largest producers, but this is not true when other industries are factored in.
The math is convincing. According to Impossible Foods, an Impossible Burger uses 95% less land and 74% less water, and creates 87% less in greenhouse gas emissions, than a beef burger of equal size. And, of course, most important for vegans, it uses 100% fewer cows.
My sister happens to live in Boulder, Colorado, one of the test markets for the Beyond Burger patties, so I had her send me a few boxes of them on dry ice—they cost $5.99 for two patties, with an insane amount of cardboard and plastic packaging. I defrosted them and cooked them in a number of different ways, including as thick patties, smashed on a griddle, and grilled outdoors.
Until recently, you could find the Impossible Burger at only a single location: Momofuku Nishi, in New York City. Recently, its availability was expanded to three new West Coast locations: Jardinière and Cockscomb in San Francisco, and Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. I was invited to attend an opening-night tasting event with all three West Coast chefs present, which included a multicourse Impossible Burger meal consisting of sliders, tostadas made with crumbled Impossible Burger, meatballs, and an Impossible Burger tartare made by Chris Cosentino. Company-sponsored events are not the best way to get a fair taste of a new product, so I also ordered a couple of burgers at the bar at Jardinière the following night.
Here's what I thought.
Aroma and Flavor
With both burgers, it's important to note that doneness seems to have a major effect on flavor, even more so than with real beef. I initially made the mistake of following the package instructions and cooking a Beyond Burger all the way to 165°F. The flavor and fat got cooked out of it, and I ended up with a veggie burger patty that tasted not much different from the dry, insipid vegetable protein–based patties that have been on the market for ages. Cooking to medium-rare, though, produced much better results. The same was true of the Impossible Burger.
My theory is that when you cook one of these burgers rare, the flavorful juices stay inside, covering up the flavor of the wheat or pea protein the patty is based on. Cook it too long and those juices run out, leaving you with only the textured proteins, the flavor wrung out of them like water out of a dish sponge.
There are no two ways about it: In its raw state, the Beyond Burger does not smell good. The phrase "smells like dog/cat food" is often thrown around as a dysphemism, but in this case, it is literally true. Raw, the Beyond Burger smells like cat food. Thankfully, most of the more offensive aromas dissipate as it cooks, leaving behind only a faint meatiness, with the underlying pea protein peeking through. The Beyond Burger is similar to Beyond Meat's previous pea protein–based burger, the Beast Burger, which makes sense: Aside from a bit of extra fat in the Beyond Burger (in the form of coconut oil—an important addition, on which more later), the ingredients are quite similar. The flavor of pea protein is a little tough to describe if you've never had it. Not unpleasant, but not particularly beef-like. The burger packs an umami punch from yeast extract, and also has that faint, inescapable aroma of coconut.
The Impossible Burger does a much better job of imitating the aroma of beef, thanks in part to heme, an iron-based cofactor that's found in all sorts of living organisms but is particularly common in animals. It's abundant in myoglobin, the pigment found in red meat. Researchers at Impossible Foods discovered that by adding heme to their plant-based burgers, they could capture a lot of the aromas we associate with meat. They call it their "magic ingredient," and, combined with yeast extract, it does seem to do a pretty good job. Sniff an Impossible Burger patty and you'll find it smells remarkably like beef. (Or, at least, it smells like beef raised on a steady diet of coconut.)
When cooked, it fares better, too, with a mineral, meaty flavor—so long as you keep it medium-rare, as it was served at the launch event. The second time I tried it, at Jardinière, the burgers came cooked gray through and through, and tasted unmistakably and overwhelmingly like wheat, with barely any beefiness.
In both cases, adding flavorful toppings, like cheese, pickles, and condiments, helps a great deal, distracting from the subtle background flavors that whisper "This isn't real beef" to you as you chew.
One other factor affected both burgers. There's a critical difference between beef fat and the refined vegetable fats used in these patties. Both burgers are packed with fat—20% for the Beyond, 15% for the Impossible. That's about the same amount as what you'd find in a good beef patty. But not all fat is created equal. Beef fat is highly saturated, which means that it tends to be solid at room temperature, melting only as you cook or chew it. Most vegetable fats—including the canola oil used in the Beyond Burger—are liquid at room temperature. The coconut fat used in both burgers melts at a much higher temperature, though not quite as high as the fat in beef.
And it gets more complicated. Real beef fat is actually a blend of many different fats that melt at different points, which means that as you chew a real burger, some of the fat is completely liquefied, some is soft and tender, and some is still firm and waxy. This is an important feature, and critical to the way we perceive juiciness and meatiness. Refined vegetable fats have a single melting point. They go from solid to liquid pretty much all at once. Rather than the true juiciness of beef, you get more of a greasy feel.
Again, proper cooking is key to keeping that fat semisolid and the burger feeling juicy. The fat in the Impossible Burger is better distributed than the fat in the Beyond Burger. It's incorporated in discrete chunks that melt into pockets of juice as the burger cooks, very much like in a real beef hamburger. It still has the same problem of single-melting-temperature fat, but the distribution (and a higher proportion of solid coconut oil) makes this much less noticeable.
The Beyond Burger is made of a pea protein isolate, canola oil, and coconut fat, bound with starch, gum arabic, cellulose, and methylcellulose. In its raw form, it has the texture of lean, very finely ground beef, though it's a little greasier and slicker-feeling. When it's cooked, the exterior crisps and browns in a way that isn't particularly beef-like, but is pretty tasty nonetheless. The pea protein has a chewy, meaty texture that's a little bouncy and elastic compared to real beef. Thankfully, the patties hold together very much like real beef, avoiding the mushiness that plagues many veggie burgers.
While the Beyond Burger errs on the side of being too elastic, the Impossible Burger's wheat protein–based patties go in the opposite direction. They bind together better than most veggie patties, but are a little bit looser than true ground beef. Like loosely packed beef burgers, Impossible Burger patties run the risk of falling apart and out of the bun as you eat. I'd recommend ordering them with cheese (or vegan cheese) as a mortar to hold them together. That said, the wheat protein pieces have a more realistically beef-like texture than the pea protein. In the context of a medium-rare slider, if I pinched my nose to avoid any slightly off aromas, I could convince myself that I'm chewing ground beef. That's more than can be said of the Beyond Burger.
How They Cook
The Beyond Burger cooks pretty much like any ground meat. You can form it into patties of any shape and size, you can fry it, you can grill it, you can smash it, you could probably even cook it sous vide (though I didn't try). It doesn't brown in quite the same way that real beef does—the patties come out much crisper and crunchier on the exterior—but if you have your favorite burger technique down, the Beyond Burger should work for it. (I did not try crumbling it.)
Impossible Burger meat is not available to the public, and I didn't have the forethought to try pocketing some of the raw tartare that was served at the dinner I attended, so unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to work with it. But by chefs' accounts, it behaves just like beef.
Well, see for yourself. This is the Beyond Burger:
And this is the Impossible Burger:
The latter looks more like real beef than the former, though both are pretty convincing if you aren't looking too hard.
Nutrition-wise, both burgers are comparable to a beef patty. The Beyond Burger has 22 grams of total fat and five grams of saturated fat per quarter pound, while the Impossible Burger has 17 grams of total fat but a whopping 15 grams of saturated fat! That's a full 72% of your daily allowance. No wonder it tastes so juicy. The Beyond Burger also has 20 grams of protein, while the Impossible Burger has 28 grams.
This high fat content translates to a familiar feeling of burger bloat after you've finished eating. I wanted to do nothing more than sit on the couch and faux-meat veg out after eating them, though that feeling was stronger with the Beyond Burger. These kinds of effects are very hard to measure in an objective way, so take all that with a grain of salt.
Beef has one ingredient: beef. To achieve similar texture and flavor, these veg-based patties need quite a few more. But bear in mind that while the labeling system here in the US is designed to be very informative, one consequence of it is that ingredient lists can also be frightening. There are a lot of words on the faux-meat-burger labels, and many of them are probably unfamiliar to you, but it's not particularly useful to ponder them too much. For what it's worth, they are all found in nature.
The Beyond Burger: pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.
The Impossible Burger: water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.
Beyond the Impossible
I'm incredibly impressed with both of these burgers. They're marvels of modern science that make me optimistic about the future of our food system and our ability to sustain our growing demand for meat. But given the shortcomings of current technology, they both fall, to a greater or lesser degree, within the uncanny valley. That is, they are similar enough to real beef to make you think, "Oh, I'm eating beef!", but just far enough away from it to make you think, "Hmm, something is not quite right here, but darned if that isn't delicious."
If you're a vegan or vegetarian who hasn't eaten meat in years but misses it, your cravings will be easily satisfied. If you're an omnivore who has been considering cutting down on your meat intake (yay!), then either one will help get you there. And even if you're a hardcore meathead who simply can't live without the taste of real meat, well, these might just fool you from time to time.