Sunday, January 17, 2021

burgerless burgers: a culinary experience

Early last week, I was doing a Costco run when I saw that Costco was selling Beyond Meat ersatz beef patties.  I've long been curious about the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger as possible meat substitutes, so I snatched a two-pack from Costco's freezer, took it home, and bided my time.  Today, Saturday, I cooked all four patties (only two 4-ounce patties per pack, all for a whopping W15,000, i.e., twice the cost of ground chuck in Korea).  Since the burger buns I had bought came in a three-pack, I decided to prep the four patties this way:  three full-on hamburgers plus one lone patty to be eaten as a "control," i.e., without condiments and trimmings, so that I could have a direct experience of the patty itself, unobscured by bread, vegetables, and sauces.  The images and commentary that follow chronicle my culinary adventure.  Buckle up.  We're going for a ride into the land of ersatz meatdom.

Here's the initial mise en place:

The hamburger buns, when I took them out of their plastic packaging, didn't have their usual pleasant, yeasty smell.  Something was up, and I took this as a bad omen.

Below, a closer look at the Beyond Burger packaging (with ceiling-light glare):

Below, an even closer look at one of the patties before removal from packaging.  Note the white flecks in the burger.  This is probably congealed coconut oil, which is meant to add the fatty component that makes a bona fide beef patty feel filling when you eat it.  Note, too, that the burger's surface looks a bit strange and pasty—in a very un-meat-like way—after thawing for an hour at room temperature:

A closer look at the two patties that come in a single package:

A less glare-y view of the packaging:

I've slapped two burgers onto the skillet.  The cooking instructions are rather precise; you're not to violate certain parameters, or you'll end up ruining the burgers.  The patties must be cooked at medium-high heat, four minutes per side.  Because these are plant-based burgers, you can't expect to use the usual visual cue of watching the brownness creep up the side of the patty.  By the way, the Beyond Burger uses beet juice to simulate beef's red color.  Below, the two burgers look somewhat burger-like as they cook, but there's definitely an uncanny-valley effect going on (note the fat rendering out of the "meat"):

While the patties cooked, I took a shot of the buns, which I had buttered up and pan-fried in advance.  As Sam the Cooking Guy says, never waste an opportunity to add more flavor.  Toasted burger buns tend to be better-tasting than untoasted burger buns:

Below:  here's what the burgers look like when flipped.

They did look kind of, sort of like real burgers.  The problem:  they didn't smell anything like real burgers.  Oh, and I forgot to mention:  one YouTuber described the smell of a raw Beyond Burger patty as "like cat food."  I can now tell you from my own experience that that observation is indeed true.  Beyond Burger patties, when they're thawed and out of the package, do smell exactly like cat food.  And that's gross.  I found myself fervently praying that the cooked patties would smell and taste more palatable:

The plan was to cook all four patties.  With two burgers now done, I transferred the patties (which did smell slightly better after cooking) to the buns, which had been prepped with trimmings and condiments (mayo and BBQ sauce, in this case):

Food-porn angle:

And here's the second pair of patties, one with cheese:

With three complete burgers now prepped, and with one lone, bun-less patty still in the skillet, I indulged my curiosity and used a spoon to slice the "control" patty open for examination.  First observation:  the feel of the patty as I sliced it with my spoon was plausibly meatlike.  In a blind spoon test, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference in texture between a Beyond Burger patty and a regular beef patty.  Score one for the veggie technicians who designed this burger.  After cutting the burger open, I tasted the patty.  Second observation:  I hate to say it, but it tasted nothing like real beef.  I can't even describe the taste.

This is the same problem seen with most vegetarian attempts at producing meat analogues:  you can simulate the look and the texture, but you can't simulate the smell and the taste of real meat.  (Some people claim the Impossible Burger is plausibly meatlike in smell and taste, thanks to its use of plant-based heme, but it's not available in Korean groceries yet, as far as I know.)  This makes me suspicious of the dozens of Beyond Burger videos on YouTube in which people exclaim, "This tastes just like a regular burger!"  No, it doesn't.  It tastes nothing like a regular burger, and in its raw form, it smells like cat food.  (Interestingly, many of the YouTubers who reviewed faux-beef burgers had pets lurking in the background, and in almost every case, these pets—i.e., dogs and cats—came forward to sniff at and try to taste the burgers.  The animals were intensely curious.  Maybe the eggheads making these burgers are aiming at the wrong demographic:  their target market should be pets, not people.)

The cross-section:

Last photo.  Three burgers, prepped:

I was sincerely hoping that, by gussying up the patties with buns, trimmings, and condiments, the whole-burger experience would be better than the patty-only sampling I'd just done.  In the end, I ate my way through all three burgers, and I can say they had one positive quality:  they weren't filling.  Had I tried that same trick with three real-beef burgers, I'd have been flat on my back by the end, halfway into a meat-induced coma.  Veggie burgers, by contrast, lack the heft and oomph of real-meat burgers.  That said, it was still a bit of a struggle to get through all three burgers:  I can't say that I ended up liking the taste of the Beyond Burger.

This got me thinking about veggie "burgers" from years past.  I've eaten veggie burgers that were burgers in name only:  they were puck-shaped, and that's where their burgerness ended.  I remember one particular veggie burger that was a stamped disc of bamboo shoots, peas, mushrooms, and other plants.  That burger was actually good!  It wasn't making any attempt to be a meat analogue; it wasn't trying so desperately to entice carnivores away from the path of meat-eating.  I've also had portobello-mushroom burgers that I thought were fantastic.  To be clear, I don't mind that scientists are trying to create meat analogues that might tempt meat-eaters away from flesh, but it's also obvious—at least from my experience with the Beyond Burger—that science has a long, long way to go before it can produce a veggie burger that will receive a universal seal of approval from us animal-munchers.

My experience of the Beyond Burger in a nutshell:

Initial impression:  the burger's weird pinkness, chunky white specks of fat, and off-puttingly sticky-looking surface were not good signs.  That initial whiff of the patties as they came out of their packaging put me immediately in mind of cat food (remember how I'd blogged that my abortive attempt at creating seitan ended up tasting like dog food? and a whole team of Beyond Meat experts couldn't do better, in their expensive labs, than I had done all by my lonesome in my kitchenette?).

As it fried up:  the Beyond Burger patties looked plausibly burger-ish as they fried up in my pan.  But there was no beefy smell; I had to lean in close to pick up any aroma at all, and the aroma that did come through didn't possess even a whiff of beefy burgerness. 

Texture and mouth-feel:  my spoon cut through a cooked faux-beef patty as if it were real beef, and this may have been the most plausibly beef-like aspect of the patty.  The burger's mouth-feel, i.e., its chew, was also plausibly beef-burger-like.  This positive impression was undermined, however, by the burger's taste.  More on that in a bit.

Color:  color-wise, after four minutes of cooking on both sides, the patties' interior looked a bit like that of a well-done beef patty—which itself isn't reassuring:  ideally, your beef patty ought to be at least a little bit rare.  The patties' exterior looked mostly burger-like, but there was still something strange about the sear, something off about the Maillard reaction.   The twisted science wizards who had assembled the burger had obviously learned much about the feel of meat, but not about its look.

Smell and taste:  smell and taste, alas, were where the Beyond Burger fell down, and to my mind, these are the two most important aspects of the burger-eating experience.  If you get everything right except for the most important things, then you've failed, and the Beyond Burger failed hard.  As I've said several times already, the patties smelled of cat food when they came out of the package.  As the patties cooked, they lost their cat-food aroma and acquired a smell that was more blandly neutral, but that had nothing to do with beef.  Taste-wise, it was the same issue.  While the texture of the burgers was plausibly ground-beefish, the taste was nothing remotely like beef.  For anyone on YouTube to claim otherwise, well, those folks have to be lying, or they have no palate whatsoever.  Proponents of the Beyond Burger are most likely paid shills and/or ideologically committed vegetarians.  Ironically, the best-tasting patty was the one I ate unadorned.  Go figure.

Conclusion:  all in all, I don't mind the idea behind the Beyond Burger and its ilk.  If it's true that such burgers mean a reduction in animal cruelty, land use, and environmental pollution, then assuming scientists can produce a decent burger, I'm all for a change in diet.  But right now, that seems like a huge assumption because, if the Beyond Burger proves anything, it's that it's not "beyond meat" at all.  If anything, it has a long way to go before it draws even with meat.  I'm also hearing that such burgers, which are wildly over-processed creations, may contain their own health hazards, and that, too, makes me cautious about switching over to them.  For now, I'll stick to veggie pucks, portobello burgers, processed tofu, or something unrepentantly vegetarian like falafel.

At the local Costco, regular ground chuck costs a ridiculous W30,000 for a package weighing from 1.8 to 2.0 kilograms.  The Beyond Meat burger patties (to be clear:  the company is called Beyond Meat; the patties are specifically called "the Beyond Burger") cost W15,000 for a two-pack totaling four patties, i.e., exactly a pound of ersatz ground beef.  At the price I quoted above, regular ground beef costs W7,500 per 500 grams, which is slightly more than a pound.  That's roughly a two-to-one difference in cost, with the Beyond Burger being way, way more expensive than regular beef.  Until meat-analogue burgers can be made tastier and priced more cheaply, I don't see how ersatz burgers will ever convince carnivores to make the switch to a supposedly more enlightened way of eating.

Not recommended.  That being said, I don't consider this experience to have been a waste of time at all.  I actually enjoyed not enjoying this food.  At the very least, I satisfied my curiosity regarding one very famous meat substitute, and now I need to focus my attention on the Impossible Burger.  I hope it arrives in Korea very soon.


ADDENDUM:  several hours later, I can attest that it's very unpleasant to be belching this burger back up.  The smell is vaguely nauseating.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Thank you for eating those "burgers" so I don't have to! They look real enough in the pan, but for any meat lover, it's all about the taste. Sounds like an epic fail in that regard.

Did you see any info on the caloric content? Are they supposed to be healthier/less fatty than real meat? I honestly don't understand why a vegetarian would want to eat something that wants to look like meat--either you are committed to not eating animals or you are not. Why pretend? If the purpose is to get the rest of us to give up meat, good luck with that. Do they have a veggie version of a ribeye steak yet?

I thought I read somewhere that Burger King is going to offer up something like this. Good luck with that!