Everyone in my family loves a grilled, juicy, craggy-edged beef burger (potato roll, ketchup, yellow mustard, extra pickles please), so once we started dialing back the meat a few years ago, it was challenging to fill that void. The few experiences we’d had with additive-laden veggie burgers from the freezer section were unsatisfying. But the arrival of Impossible Burgers and their refrigerator-section cohorts a few years ago have upped the ante, so we thought it was time to conduct an official Cup of Jo taste test…
Who better to enlist as our expert panelist than Cara Nicoletti, fourth-generation, NYC-based butcher and co-founder of the vegetable-forward Seemore sausages, which are loaded with fresh vegetables along with humanely raised meat. We asked Cara, who is quarantining in Boston with her family, to track down five of the most popular nationally-available brands in her neighborhood.
Here’s what she came up with: Impossible, Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, Sweet Earth’s Awesome Grounds, Gardein’s Ultimate Plant Burger, and Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger. Whenever possible, she tried to find the pre-made patties, but wound up shaping two of the five herself. Because of quarantine, the rules were not quite as rigorous as they have been in the past. Unlike the other tests, her veggie burger tasting wasn’t blind, and there was no stenographer (read: me) scribbling notes in the corner. This time it was just Cara, her considerable expertise, and her notepad.
OK, maybe she had a little help from her adorable nephew, Noah. (Here, he enjoys the winning burger.) And it wasn’t completely lawless. To make sure the playing field was even, each patty was prepared the same way: Grilled then served in a potato roll with ketchup, mustard and pickles. They were graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most satisfying experience for a meat eater. This last factor is important given that the new generation of plant-based burgers (the ones you’ll usually find near the ground beef in the refrigerated section) is geared towards meat-eaters, not vegetarians and vegans. The thinking goes, if plant-based alternatives caught on with meat-eaters, even if they ate one just some of the time, it would have an enormously positive impact on the environment, dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water, energy, and land use. (Though some say the research is still young on their total environmental impact.) The brands are highly processed and loaded with ingredients that are not necessarily natural, or even pronounceable, but their goal is higher-level, i.e. to provide a sustainable option for meat eaters who want a burger that mimics beef.
While tasting, we asked Cara to address the following questions about each burger: Was the taste natural or artificial? What was the meatiness factor? Did it taste like beef? Vegetables? Chemicals? How about the consistency? Was it mushy? Did it get a good cragginess on the edges? And since, again, summer, did it do well on the grill? Lastly, of course: Which one was the winner? Here’s where she came down on each…
Beyond Burger/Beyond Grounds (Beyond Meat)
Price: About $6 for two 4-ounce patties
General Notes: I really like Beyond Sausage patties, so I had high hopes for these. I was surprised when I opened the package that it had the a sweet chemical smell that I think was made worse by the reduced oxygen packaging. I tried looking at the ingredients of both to see what that smell could be, maybe it’s the pea protein? Giant flakes of what looks like coconut in there, which was kind of weird. I love coconut! But not in my burger.
Grilling Notes: Held together well on the grill and took on good char marks, but the pink color really bloomed while cooking, it almost looked like a salmon burger. I was really shocked by the taste when I bit into it, it let off a burst of chemical smell and flavor that I was not expecting — sort of like sweet acetone. Not a trace of beef flavor to be found. The texture was like a super hefty bistro burger that had been over-molded, bouncy and chewy, with no moisture. I’m sad about this one.
Awesome Grounds/Awesome Burger (Sweet Earth)
Price: About $6 for two 8-ounce patties or about $8 for 12-ounce grind
Tasting Notes: I had a really hard time getting this grind to mold into a patty, it was super sticky but dry at the same time, which seems like an impossible combination. The smell was really unpleasant when raw, sort of sweet and chemically, and I hoped it would go away once it was cooked, but it didn’t. Once it was cooked it was very dry, might be better as a crumble. Really very little flavor at all except for being super sweet and having a faint plastic aftertaste.
Grilling Notes: Stuck to the grill a little but got good grill marks and held together well. Would do well in a griddle and as a crumble. As far as mimicking beef flavor it’s a 0/5, I didn’t get even a hint of beef, but texture-wise could have been a very lean, very overcooked patty. I think this would do better as something like taco meat, with lots and lots of seasoning to hide the flavor.
Perfect Burger (Dr. Praeger’s)
Price: About $5 for two 4-ounce patties
Grilling Notes: This one stayed super compact and solid throughout the grilling process, no craggy edges but it did take on grill marks. When I cut it open it was very dry, which surprised me, it looked like it was going to be juicy, and it had more pink pockets on the inside.
Tasting Notes: When I opened up the package, it had the same burst of sweet chemical smell as Beyond and Sweet Earth. Really compact and solid and heavy like a hockey puck, and really pink. It also had little bursts and pockets of what looked like beet juice dotted throughout, which added to the fake meat vibe. Reader, this was the worst of the bunch. When I bit into it, actual alarm bells rang in my head and told me this was not something that belonged in my body. It was the taste of danger, like a burst of formaldehyde on my taste buds, I had to spit it out. I’m sorry, Dr. Praeger.
Impossible Burger (Impossible)
Price: About $9 for 12 ounces ground
Tasting Notes: I was doubtful about this one when I went to form it into a patty. The texture of the grind is so so soft, almost dogfood-like, which worried me, but if I put this aside, it did look the most like ground beef of the bunch. There were striations of fiber and fat throughout, and the color was the most believable. The smell of the raw grind was also the most believable, umami and a slight coppery blood smell (I can’t think of a more appealing way to say this).
Grilling Notes: Once formed into a patty, it was very sticky and soft, and immediately stuck to the grill grates pretty badly even though they were oiled. BUT! It sizzled so beautifully! And took on the color of actual cooking ground beef—a sort of grey-brown. The edges got beautifully craggy like a real smash burger. The taste of this one is the closest to beef I’ve ever had. It almost tastes like straight MSG, and I mean that as a compliment. Really deep mushroomy beefy umami taste, and texturally very believable too. It wouldn’t be able to fool me, but I can understand why people are so excited about it! Believe the hype.
Ultimate Plant-Based Burger (Gardein)
Price: About $4 for 2 4-ounce patties
Tasting Notes: This one smelled good when I opened it, which was a nice relief! Kind of garlicky, so not like ground beef exactly, but savory in a familiar way. This one had a more realistic brown-ish pink color, and striations of white fat throughout that might have been solidified coconut oil, but looked kind of realistic.
Grilling Notes: Held together really nicely on the grill and took on good char marks and kind of craggy edges, which is the best part of a real burger. When cooked and cut in half it let out some nice juice and had a fibrous-looking inside that mimicked real beef. I really liked this one! Had a nice umami beefy flavor that mimicked a real burger. Texture-wise, it was definitely the bounciest of the bunch, felt very much like seitan, which makes sense since there is vital wheat gluten in there. Would eat again!