Beyond Meat is the most hyped fake meat product to arrive in years, and only partially due to its list of investors, which include Biz Stone of Twitter, Bill Gates, and the Humane Society. Its list of ingredients — pea protein, oils, soy fiber, and natural flavorings like yeast and dehydrated vegetables, mostly — is comparatively simple compared to well-established competitors like Morningstar’s Chik offerings, which include about eight different kinds of sugar and hydrolyzed starch along with compounds like disodium guanylate (an additive you shouldn’t feed your baby). Beyond Meat’s products, which include fake chicken and fake beef that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has described as tasting “freakishly similar” to real meat, has about half the fat of the chicken breast or ground beef it’s trying to replace. It’s also cheap compared to real meat: Each of my two bags of Beyond Meat (one “Beefy Crumble” and one “Lightly Seasoned Strips”) cost only six dollars for about three servings’ worth of highly engineered plant protein.
Yet I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to eat this stuff.
I am not a vegetarian. I mostly eat vegetables (and eggs and cheese) at home because it’s healthier, because it’s cheaper, and because I treat most meals like a reality television cooking challenge. Preparing vegetables is harder than cooking with meat; vegetables are delicate and tend to be low in fat, which means the margin for error is basically non-existent. Meat, meanwhile, tends to dominate any dish; too often you end up with meat and some side dishes meant to enhance the meat. This is not very interesting! Way more interesting is playing with different vegetables, figuring out how to bring out their best flavors and then combining them in a way that creates a balance of all the essential flavors and textures: crisp, soft, sweet, sour, spicy, fatty, acidic, bitter, umami. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a good lengua taco or a curry goat, but it’s just not what I like to cook at home; I love vegetables and I love cooking them.
Given that my vegetable-heavy diet isn’t due, really, to dietary concerns, meat analogues — the industry-preferred term for fake meat — do not really interest me very much. If can you happily eat beef, why would you eat beef-flavored soy protein? I like soy and I like beef; I’m not interested in a pale version of both. But what if Beyond Meat is the one that finally breaks through and makes something great? “This has a very realistic, meaty, delicious quality,” Biz Stone told Farhad Manjoo, who was then writing for Slate. Farhad agreed that Beyond Meat is “so good it will freak you out.” So I bought some.
Beyond Meat is a strange combination of really forward-thinking ideas and cutting-edge science combined with pedestrian, mass-market ambitions. The “chicken” strips are the closest in texture to actual chicken of any fake meat I’ve ever tried, with that particular stringiness you find especially in chicken breast muscle fiber. Yet because pre-cooked white meat chicken breasts are familiar and popular to the American public, Beyond Meat’s chicken is only offered as pre-cooked, frozen strips, and in bland flavors like “southwest style.” Similarly, the “beef” is ground and frozen, in flavors like “feisty crumble.” Beyond Meat also makes veggie burgers — by far the most popular meat analogue, because Americans love burgers — though I didn’t try any, opting for the “lightly seasoned” “chicken” and the “beefy crumble” “beef.” (Good lord, there are a lot of quotation marks in this.)
The packaging on both recommends cooking them in a skillet, the “beef” in a little oil and the “chicken,” I suppose, just in a dry pan, because it doesn’t say anything about oil. What it wants you to do, essentially, is thaw and reheat the product, preferably with dry heat to get a little crispiness. What happens is that, because these products are so, so low in fat, they both stick. Normally with ground meat like sausage, you’d cook it in a dry-ish pan to render out the fat, which is delicious to saute, say, garlic and onion and chile pepper in. But when I made a very simple saute, just the “beefy crumble” plus a little scallion and garlic with a bit of salt and pepper, it was totally bland: Beyond Meat has no fat and little flavor beyond a sort of mild, mushroom-y taste, so it contributes basically nothing to the party besides a dose of protein. The “chicken” strips stuck horribly to a skillet, leaving behind patches of beige soy product like wallpaper on the back of a poster affixed to the wall with sticky-tack. It tastes, weirdly enough, kind of like those Calbee Snap Pea Crisps, which I really love, but the texture is uncannily close to a rubbery boiled chicken breast.
I tried again to make the Beyond Meat products taste good, punching up the “beef” by turning it into a sort of picadillo with raisins and olives, thinking that the most flavorful ground meat dish I know might be able to make use of it. But the “beef” just sits there, inert and alone, refusing to meld any flavors with any other ingredient. In that way it’s much worse than just using, say, cubed tofu, because tofu will at least absorb flavors. The “beef” did not, retaining its bland, mostly unappealing flavor, neither absorbing any other flavors nor gifting its own to the rest of the ingredients.
Beyond Meat’s goal is a good one: to take your everyday meat eater and convince them, with low-impact, low-fat, and low-cost fake meat, to eventually cripple the livestock industry, which destroys the land, requires massive amounts of water and power, creates tons and tons of greenhouse gases, and encourages factory farming of monoculture crops. I am, generally, on the same team as Beyond Meat. But Beyond Meat also doesn’t taste good, and ends up, for me, in the same childish zone where Soylent, the meal-replacement shake, resides. Do you guys really hate vegetables that much? Does anyone really, genuinely prefer pea-tasting chewy fake chicken over, like, chick peas? Is the quest to reduce our reliance on animal protein really best accomplished by striving this hard to convince people to eat something that tastes almost, but not quite, like animals?
A more logical approach, I think, is not to make plants that taste like meats, but plants that taste better than meats. There are some pioneers in the veggie burger arena who are working on this. Forget making a burger that tastes like beef: We have the entire, incredibly varied world of plants to work with, and a canvas of a patty and a roll to enhance it. Chef Brooks Headley’s Superiority Burger, based around quinoa, has a significant following, and tastes nothing at all like beef. Made By Lukas, a line of brightly-colored burgers available in tubs at some grocery stores, makes zero effort to taste like charred beef, instead boosting its flavors of carrot, parsnip, beet, and kale. Even David Chang, the modern-day king of pork fat, is turning to vegetables for his next generation of flavors.
Making vegetable-based substitutes for meat, just like cooking vegetables, can be hard, and does not reward laziness, either in conception or in execution. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be great — we just have to stop thinking about meat entirely, rather than how to move beyond it.