Decades of stigma and misunderstanding are finally giving way to a more tolerant, open-minded approach to the murky waters of “fake meat.” Even NPR has taken note that more omnivores are willingly eschewing meat in favor of vegan alternatives these days. Though I’d like to believe that this shift can be attributed to a better understanding of factory farms and generally being able to access greater compassion to our feathered, furry, and scaled friends, I know that it all boils down to one thing at the end of the day: Taste. Innovations in the field have brought forth tastier creations than ever before, and suddenly, meat alternatives have become a painless way to eat healthier, without sacrificing flavor. Whatever the reason, convincing those outside of the vegan and vegetarian community to eat more cruelty-free foods can only be a good thing for everyone involved. Since my own approach to cooking puts flavor first, I’ve benefited greatly from the latest and greatest plant-based proteins, too.
A real game-changer in the industry is Beyond Meat, a company that’s made headlines numerous times for winning over Bittman, garnering support from Twitter’s Biz Stone, and unnerving longtime vegetarians for their similarity to actual poultry products. Serving up only chicken-style alternatives, this stuff is the real deal, at least as far as “fake” meat goes.
Right from my first encounter, it was abundantly clear that Beyond Meat was in a category all its own, creating an entirely different protein experience than one would find in traditional meatless mains, such as tofu, tempeh, or seitan. For one, it smells crazily, disturbingly, genuinely like cooked chicken. Even though I haven’t eaten meat in years now, I’m still exposed to those preparing and consuming it, and that previously inimitable scent really threw me through a loop. Firm but easily yielding to the tooth, the texture is where it really shines. Far from the rubbery, chewy, or latex-y consistency of previous faux meat options, the strips shred in a very authentic way, mimicking the grain of cooked chicken. Though this may put off staunch vegans who don’t miss the experience of eating meat one bit, it’s a big selling point for everyone else.
Lightly Seasoned is like a blank canvas; borderline bland, like plain roasted or broiled chicken breast. Ideal for soaking up any sauce or marinade, there are no competing or off flavors that would giveaway the soy base. Lean, non-fatty (“skinless”), the pieces are reminiscent of a light, white meat sort of taste. This was perfect for fulfilling my longtime craving for a bowlful of soothing chicken soup with rice. Tenderizing in the hot broth and soaking in the deeply savory bouillon, it was so unbelievably meaty, I wouldn’t have trusted its vegan label if I hadn’t prepared it myself.
Grilled is very similar to the prior option, now sporting attractive black grill marks that only a practiced hand would be able to achieve at home. Subtly smoky, woodsy, and bearing a charred essence on a lightly peppered backdrop, the hassle of pulling out your own grill is taken out of the picture. Sturdy enough to stay firmly in place on skewers, I was delighted to turn my seared strips into yakitori, a savory delight that hasn’t passed my lips in nearly a decade now. Too simple to consider as a true recipe, all you need is a batch of sauce to dip the “chicken” into, which goes something like this:
1/4 Cup Mirin
1/4 Cup Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Grated Fresh Ginger
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot
Vigorously whisk all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, breaking up any clumps of starch should they form. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes up to a full boil. Remove from the heat and enjoy immediately.
Finally, Southwestern spices up Beyond Meat’s offerings with a chipotle and lime-spiked base. Defined by a gentle but discernible kick, the subtle burn grows with each successive bite. By the end of the meal, you may very well find your lips tingling, and not in an unpleasant way. Unfortunately, this heat doesn’t add much in the way of nuanced flavor, and overpowers the inherently chicken-like flavor that one might be craving from such a product. Though perfectly tasty, it strikes me as a waste to cover up the masterfully crafted taste of this unique protein base. I probably wouldn’t buy it again, simply because a sough a purer “chicken” experience, but it was undeniably delicious in a layered chicken taco salad. Composed of pico de gallo, shredded romaine, sliced olives, tortilla strips, and of course, Southwestern chicken-free strips chopped into cubes all packed into glass jars, this meal became an ideal impromptu picnic.
A radical departure from the crunchy-granola “hippy” foods of only a decade or two ago, Beyond Meat is making meatless living more possible for those who may not have even considered the option before. Anyone even moderately curious about trying another protein alternative would be doing themselves a disservice not to check these chicken-less strips out- I have yet to hear any negative feedback, from professional food reviewers and my own omnivorous dinner mates alike.