Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!

32 thoughts on “Where’s the Beef?

  1. I was raised vegetarian, and didn’t experience a real burger until I was well into adulthood. I eat a little meat now, but I tend toward veggie burgers because I genuinely enjoy them. However, I’m in agreement with you. Most of my dining experiences with veggie based burgers have been far below par with the exception of a handmade one from a local restaurant that recently closed. The world not only needs a better veggie burger alternative, it needs the knowledge of how to prepare one properly. Meanwhile, I now order a real beef burger given a choice until good vegetarian ones become available. However, my body just feels better eating vegetarian, so I tend to avoid burgers of any variety on the menu most of the time.

    1. It’s true; the best veggie burgers are the ones cooked at home, regardless of the content, simply because you can make it precisely to your tastes, and not have to worry about kitchen staff negligence, too. Hopefully the next step forward will be teaching the average line cook how to respect the vegetable patties just as much as the meat so that they’re served with proper dignity.

      1. Although, I’m struggling with getting any restaurant meal served with dignity lately. I just had a balsamic vinaigrette that was only balsamic vinegar, a cocktail sauce that was pretty much just ketchup, and she-crab soup style sauce that was mostly butter on overcooked southern grits. Time to give up on non-homemade food for a while, lol.

  2. Since Steve became vegan last December I have learned the value of a decent veggie burger or chunk of seitan. With climate change and concern about how our food is being farmed these days we are seeing a decided turn to the veggie side en mass and not everyone is going vegan because of animal ethics. These kinds of vegan analogues give people who want to eat less meat a valid option and if it means less meat is being consumed then I call meat alternatives a definite success. I am sure that there are many hard core vegans out there rolling their eyes but the world isn’t black and white and it’s the many shades of grey that are slowly starting to focus on a meat reduced diet and these are the people that we need to be supporting in their choices. Today’s “meat reduced” might just be tomorrows vegan if they get the support and encouragement that they need and have the opportunity to feel familiar with new foods. Not everyone can jump off the deep end when it comes to food and many people fail in a meat free diet because their brave new world is just too intimidating and difficult to introduce into our hectic modern lives. I give them a tick.

    1. I think this would be the perfect place to insert a slow clap. Exactly what I’m saying here- at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why someone chooses to eat a vegan meal, just the fact that they DO. It takes all types, and one answer is not going to work for everyone. I embrace the menu additional. If it can get more people on board who otherwise wouldn’t touch vegetables with a 10-foot pole!

      1. Steve used to be very fussy and stuck to “peas, potatoes and carrots” (his U.K. heritage) and at one stage (back when he first arrived in Aus) said he hated garlic. I soon fixed that! But now he eats a huge range of veggies and loves his new vegan meals. The real secret is to not think that vegan food is all about plain veggies and to remember that the sauces, spices, herbs and strong use of ethnic cuisines has been part of what has made vegan food so delicious and innovative. No-one has to feel deprived on a vegan diet unless they don’t know how to cook or want to! ;) I just made a vegan lasagne yesterday. I had made a vegan crustless quiche the night before and while it was tasty, it had a strange texture (I didn’t have the right tofu) so the next night I used the leftovers to throw into vegan bechamel as it had a really good cheezy taste, and my lasagne was the best I have ever made. The fact that you don’t use animal products frees you up and liberates you to become a more inventive and interesting cook.

  3. I haven’t tried these, but have you tried the Walnut Burger (http://walnutburger.com/)? I didn’t like them the first time I tried them, but when I went back to the Trempealeau Hotel with a group I loved them. It doesn’t really seem to be trying to taste like meat. I’m not against the idea of veggie burgers if they taste good, whether or not they taste like meat. That said, if it is full of chemicals and other “stuff” that I don’t want to be eating, it doesn’t make sense either.

    1. I hadn’t seen the walnut burger before, but it definitely sounds like a concept I can get behind. I’ve made walnut meatballs and walnut bolognese sauce with great sucess, so I can imagine it working well in patty-format!

  4. Beyond Meat burger is beyond amazing. At home and at Veggie Grill. The Impossible Burger I tried at Umami Burger (you also have to ask for it to be specifically vegan) and it was honestly too realistic for me to enjoy it completely (was I sure they didn’t accidentally switch it with a real burger?) and then I later found out the Impossible Burger was tested on animals. So I agree with you. Beyond Meat is the winner!

    1. I saw that Umami started offering it as well and was tempted to try it out, but it sounds like those burgers are subjected to the same sort of overlooking torture. Besides that,they don’t have any vegan bread at all, which is somewhat shocking. No, I’m much happier sticking with the Beyond Burger for now, but I would like to taste how the prepare it at Veggie Grill for proper comparison.

  5. I agree with narf7 above – if it helps people to eat more plant based food, then fine, though I would imagine a lot of people would not be happy. My husband is a real carnivore, and it would be interesting to test this on him if they ever become available here. Thanks for the post.

  6. Sounds fascinating and tasty, Hannah. My husband LOVES hamburgers, so I might have to test one of these on him. A burger sounds good to me, but most of them (beef) don’t taste the way I imagine. Not sure why. When we were eating vegan, the meat alternative we liked the most was Morningstar breakfast sausage patties. I bought them at Costco even when we were eating meat again, but Costco doesn’t carry them anymore and they’re rather pricey elsewhere. We also liked Gardein quite a lot.


    1. Sometimes, the best veggie burgers are the ones you can simply get your hands on. Before all these fancy meatless options exploded on the scene, I must admit I was pretty satisfied with Amy’s frozen Bistro Burgers. Not bad at all, and they still hit the spot in a pinch.

  7. I’m personally a fan of meatless burgers that are bursting with vegetables and nuts, rather than trying to mimic the animal that meat comes from. My favorite brand right now is Five Star Foodies artichoke burgers.

  8. Hi Hannah, I tried the Impossible Burger and wrote about the experience here: http://www.veganvictuals.com/1015/. The whole pink in the middle thing, the exact thing I hated when I was a child and asked to eat my dinner, was slightly scary. I wound up eating and enjoying it for the most part. But I haven’t tried it again since. It’s how much science and processing, chemical extractions and insertions of protein, that really scares me. This is a burger with a whole team of scientists behind it. The extent of funding, research, etc. I understand that the general public might find it more familiar… and that consequently it may break down a common barrier to more people eating more plant-based. And that’s good. But I think that the more sexy and alluring we can make true plants, whole foods–not these branded, funded, researched franken-foods, the better.

    1. Sounds like your burger was MUCH better cooked than mine! I’m definitely tempted to try it again at a different restaurant that might take more care in the preparation. That said, I don’t feel an urgent need to do so. I’m just glad it exists for those conventional eaters out there who would otherwise never consider a meatless meal.

  9. I’ve tried the beyond burger and once was enough. The smell really got to me, like you I was shocked at how long it lingered. The biggest scent note to me was urea, which, gross, and it has been long enough since I’ve been around raw beer that I had plenty of “does meat actually smell this gross?” moments with my partner. In the end, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, it was slightly too realistic for me. I did however enjoy trying to make my own dupe using tvp and vwg. I also know I’m not the intended audience and love that it exists despite not personally digging it. I’ll stick with the (very good) puck like beast burger and beastly sliders from beyond meat. It has all the flavor I love and none of the weirdness of the beyond burger.

  10. I would love to try this burger for my husband. I have just made the transition from meat (no red meat for 20 years) to vegan, and I am not sure if the beef flavor or aroma would be appetizing for me. I have a recipe for a Pecan Meal Meatloaf that is very delicious. I try different sauces on it with much success. I can’t wait to see what my husband thinks of the vegan burger.

  11. I think it’s a very odd choice of Impossible Foods to only make their burger available at restaurants but not have some sort of quality control over the restaurants they’re using. Like, they marketed heavily to vegans, but so few places offer a vegan-by-default burger! And it sounds like your experience was miserable on top of having to ask for them to change the menu item. It’s a good way to make your brand seem like all talk and no substance.

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