A meatier burger. A perfect burger. A meat lover’s burger. This doesn’t sound like marketing for vegetarian burgers, but it is. There’s a seismic shift happening in the world of vegetarian, or plant-based, “meat.” Companies are shaking their health-store reputations and targeting consumers who like meat but who, for any number of reasons, want to eat less of it. More products than ever before are intended to mimic the taste, texture, and experience of eating meat. Some of these burgers even claim to stay red and juicy at the center when cooked, much like real meat that’s been cooked rare or medium-rare. The meat eater–friendly approach is working: Americans spent $801 million on plant-based meat last year, according to research from the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute. That’s an increase of 10 percent over the previous year. As a testament to the success of plant-based meat—and the threat it poses to conventional meat producers—many meat producers are now urging lawmakers to pass laws preventing meat-free products from containing words such as “meat” or “burger” on their packaging.
The plant-based meat companies getting the biggest press are the relative newcomers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Each was inspired by an ambitious goal: combating climate change by lessening, or even completely stopping, human dependence on livestock. Both companies acknowledge that they can only accomplish that sky-high goal if their products are delicious and satisfying enough to win over meat eaters. They’ve had the most success so far with burgers, which Americans first got to taste in restaurants as varied as Burger King, Applebee’s, and David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products are now available in supermarkets, with Beyond Meat offering burger patties and both companies offering packages of coarsely ground plant-based meat that resembles bulk ground beef. The companies say that these bulk products can be formed into burgers or incorporated into any recipe that calls for ground beef. Increasingly, these meat-free options are found right next to the regular ground beef in supermarket meat sections instead of with the tofu and other vegetarian proteins. However, they tend to cost more, sometimes up to about $18 per pound compared with about $6 per pound for ground beef.
As curious as we were about the implications the rising popularity of plant-based meat will have on the climate, animal agriculture, and America’s meat-eating habits, we wanted to know the answers to much simpler questions. Does the next generation of meat-free burgers taste good? Can they really appeal to both vegetarians and meat eaters? To find out, we purchased eight products that were clearly positioned as meat-like. Six were sold as preformed burger patties, and two were “ground” products that we shaped into burgers ourselves. (For consistency, we’ll refer to all the products in our lineup as “burgers” because that’s how we ate them.) We cooked the burgers on the stovetop and held two blind tastings: plain, and on buns with ketchup and lettuce.
Beef burgers, for the most part, are simple: just ground beef, probably seasoned with salt and pepper, that’s pressed into patties. Raw beef has very little flavor, but when it’s cooked, a complicated series of chemical reactions—collectively known as the Maillard reaction—occurs to create an intensely flavorful, crusty, browned exterior. Meanwhile, the beef fat that’s dispersed throughout the patty melts, helping distribute the burger’s aroma and flavor and moistening the ground meat so that it’s tender.
Everything about plant-based burgers is different, starting with the ingredient (or combination of ingredients) used to make up the bulk of each burger. For the products in our lineup, it was pea protein, soy protein, mycoprotein, or wheat gluten. The general process for making pea and soy proteins goes like this: The legume is dried, cracked, and ground into flakes. Next, the oil is removed, the defatted flakes are ground into flour, and the protein is isolated from the flour and combined with other ingredients. Mycoprotein, an ingredient in one of the burgers we tasted, is harvested from a vat-grown fungus. The harvested mycoprotein is then seasoned, steamed, chilled, shaped, and frozen to meld its fibers together. The base protein of the two remaining burgers was wheat gluten, a sticky, elastic mass that’s left behind after a wheat dough is formed, kneaded to develop gluten, and then rinsed to remove its starch.
Other essential ingredients in meat-free burgers are fats (usually one or more kinds of oil) intended to add richness and flavor, as well as thickeners and binders that make the patties moist and hold them together. Finally, many contain vegetable purees or juices, spices, seasonings, and flavorings that make the burgers taste meaty and savory. All told, each of the burgers in our lineup had at least a dozen ingredients and sometimes more than 20. For some, that complex combination of ingredients added up to something remarkable. Many closely matched the protein level, fat content, and calorie count of a real beef burger (see “Comparing the Burgers”).
Many products looked like beef, too. As we formed the bulk meat into 4-ounce patties, we were floored by how realistic they looked. They held together really well. Two of the preformed burgers looked quite convincing, too. We grew even more impressed by some of the burgers as they cooked. They started off a familiar reddish pink and gradually turned brown, their exteriors became crispy, and they let off smoke and sizzled in much the same way that ground beef does. They even remained slightly red and juicy at the center. But not all of them were very convincing or appetizing. Some of the patties were very flat and uniform and the same brownish-gray color as the meatless burgers of yesteryear. When cooked, the exterior of one got oddly sticky and did not develop a good sear. The takeaway? The next generation of meat-free burgers may have arrived, but the old guard has yet to depart.
In terms of flavor, the burgers fell into three groups: bland, intensely seasoned, and impressively beefy. Bland burgers were disappointing but not objectionable. Burgers that were too sweet, overwhelmingly savory, or supersmoky, on the other hand, were off-putting. The sweetness came from either added sugar or vegetable purees. The intense savoriness—which often reminded tasters of soy sauce, barbecue sauce, or Worcestershire sauce—was likely due to an excess of umami-boosting ingredients, such as yeast extract and malt extract, or smoke flavor. When we calculated the nutrition information for a 4-ounce serving of each product, we noticed that those overly seasoned burgers contained a considerable amount of sodium (upwards of 400 milligrams) and sugar (a gram or more).
Our favorites had a truly savory quality that tasted “meaty” and “beefy.” The best, from Impossible Foods, achieved its distinctly “iron-y” and “mineral-y” flavor through its unique use of an important ingredient called heme protein. Heme is a type of iron-containing molecule; the most familiar example is hemoglobin, which makes blood red. The scientists at Impossible Foods made two key discoveries about it. First, the heme naturally present in meat influences the Maillard reaction when that meat is cooked, playing an essential role in developing its unique flavor. And second, a vegan version made from legumes could do the same thing. In fact, says Celeste Holz-Schietinger, director of research at Impossible Foods, heme from cows and heme from legumes “are identical molecule to molecule” and “create the exact same flavor profile.” Today, the company uses soy leghemoglobin, which it produces by inserting DNA from soy plants into yeast cells, which produce their own copies of the protein. Heme protein, which is blood red in color, also gives the burgers from Impossible Foods a reddish color that darkens as it cooks, much like ground beef. It also helps the burgers stay juicy, moist, and slightly red at the center. The company holds a patent for the use of heme protein in food, preventing other manufacturers from using the technology. Other companies use fruit or vegetable juice for color, which tinted the burgers very vibrant shades of red. Some products made with them did darken as they cooked and were much more beef-like than other meat-free burgers we had seen before, but even the best weren’t quite as convincingly beef-like in appearance as the burger made with heme.
Burger texture was just as important as flavor. Many of the preformed burgers were much too smooth and uniform in texture. Some were “mushy,” “spongy,” or “squishy.” One preformed patty, which weighed about 3 ounces and was less than ½ inch thick, felt small and insubstantial. Another had an oddly “feathered,” “wispy” texture that reminded tasters of a crab cake. Our favorites developed satisfyingly crunchy, crispy crusts and firmed up on the inside as they cooked. The best weighed roughly 4 ounces per portion and were thicker, about ¾ inch on average. Best of all, they had coarse, somewhat irregular textures. Biting through them felt a lot like biting through a beef burger, especially when we sampled them on buns with toppings.
The type of protein used to form the base of the burgers certainly played a role in their texture, but it wasn’t the sole factor. Although our favorites were made with soy protein and pea protein, respectively, so were two of our least favorite burgers. The difference between a meaty, beef-like texture and a smoother, softer texture likely came down to processing. Animal muscle protein is formed into bundles of long fibers, which give beef burgers their satisfying chew. To achieve a comparable bite from plant-based protein, the companies need to tweak it. For starters, companies can choose the size and shape of the ingredients. Impossible Foods, for example, cooks its soybeans and dries them using a process that Holz-Schietinger says elongates their fibers so that they’re more meat-like. Companies can also control how the ingredients are combined, which usually involves mixing them all together in something resembling a giant stand mixer or extruding the product through tubes, and how the mixtures are formed into patties or bulk ground products. The mixing and shaping methods will both affect the texture of the final product.
Our three favorite products contained another set of ingredients that proved essential for creating meat-like texture: coconut oil used in combination with canola or sunflower oil. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature (it melts at 76 degrees), so the little flecks of it embedded in these products looked and felt very similar to the bits of fat visible in uncooked ground beef. As the burgers cook, the coconut oil flecks melt and help distribute the burger’s aroma and flavor in much the same way beef fat does in beef burgers.
We’ve eaten a lot of remarkable food in the test kitchen, but these tastings stood out as some of the most memorable. Tasters were surprised by how completely some products mimicked beef burgers and described them accordingly: Comments included “I can’t tell this isn’t meat,” “It tastes like a normal burger,” and “This blew me away!” Our favorite, the Impossible Burger, lived up to the hype that has surrounded it since Impossible Foods was founded in 2011. Sold in 12-ounce vacuum-packed squares of coarsely ground plant-based meat, it looks remarkably like ground beef, both in its package and after we formed it into patties and cooked them. We were also impressed by its realistic mineral-y taste. Although Impossible Burger was our clear favorite, we did like both of the plant-based products from Beyond Meat. Their exteriors didn’t brown quite as impressively as the Impossible Burger and their interiors retained a slightly purple tint, but their textures were very similar to real beef. All three products are excellent meat-free choices for anyone who wants to eat less meat or offer a high-quality option to vegetarian family or friends.