Impossible Foods, a California-based startup that creates new ingredients from nature, seems to have cracked the code for a tasty and realistic meatless burger. The Impossible Burger took nearly seven years to develop—there’s a great deal of science behind it—but the final product is a plant-based alternative that rivals real hamburger meat in just about every way.
As it turns out, to make a good hamburger, you don’t actually need a cow.
As someone who strives to reconfigure my plate to include less meat, I was curious when Cleveland native and celebrity chef Michael Symon presented his Impossible Burger creations at a recent tasting event for food media at B Spot in Strongsville. So many of the meatless products currently available in the marketplace miss the mark on taste, texture, or both. I wondered, was a delicious meatless hamburger really possible?
The Impossible Burger is so convincing that Symon added it to the menu at his B Spot locations throughout the Midwest. He’s confident the product measures up to any other burger on his menu. Symon, arguably one of meat’s most ardent cheerleaders, has dedicated entire cookbooks to carnivorous culinary pursuits. If Symon was willing to get behind it, maybe there was something to the concept.
Admitting his initial skepticism, Symon revealed the Impossible Burger satisfied him unlike any other meatless product he had tried. “It smells like a burger, it tastes like a burger, and it bleeds like a burger, and it’s doing it in a natural way,” he said.
Symon demonstrated how the patty sizzles, even emitting a convincing beefy aroma when cooked. “It makes me happy when I eat it,” he said, adding the appearance and aroma reminded him of grilling in the backyard with his dad.
As our hungry (and increasingly less doubtful) crowd watched, Symon placed an Impossible Burger on a toasted brioche bun, dressed it with a handful of crispy seasoned fries, coleslaw, and a B Spot signature sauce.
Symon serves the Thin Lizzy (cheddar cheese, grilled onions, mayo, dill pickles) at all B Spot locations. He’s developed a few other signature sandwiches for his Ohio B Spot outlets (burgers vary by location) including the Buckeye Burger (barbecue sauce, coleslaw, Tony Packo’s sweet hot pickles); Patty Melt (Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye); Salisbury Steak (open-faced, with mushroom gravy, crispy onions, and Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard); and a Polish Boy (rosemary fries, coleslaw, and spicy barbecue sauce).
Symon emphasized that his personal love affair with meat runs deep, and he knows what people are looking for when they come to B Spot. Symon’s wife and business partner, Liz, is vegan, and their son is a vegetarian. He says their interests contributed to his willingness to try it.
“I am not going to go out and open vegetarian restaurants, but I know that I need to be responsible when I can,” Symon said. “And to see the reaction on someone’s face who made a lifestyle choice and still get to enjoy something that they really love is a cool thing.”
Making an Impossible Burger imparts few effects on the environment. Producing this meat alternative requires 95% less land and 74% less water, and the process cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 87%. Calorically, it closely mimics 80/20 ground beef (80% lean meat, 20% fat) but as it is made from plants, it has no cholesterol. It’s free of artificial flavorings, antibiotics, and hormones.
The secret to the product is a substance called heme, a natural, iron-containing molecule that is found in all living things. Abundant in animal muscle, heme gives meat its distinct color, flavor, and aroma. The Impossible Foods team developed a way to create heme from the roots of soy plants through a fermentation process similar to that used in beer making. Textured wheat protein, potato protein, coconut oil, and other ingredients present qualities that, when combined through the wizardry of food scientists, replicate the qualities of a real burger.
The company is transparent about the genetic engineering that is required to change the soy’s leghemoglobin (a protein) into heme during fermentation. While controversial to some, this method allows the heme to be produced at a volume that could, eventually, impact animal agriculture in a significant way.
So, how does it taste, really?
I didn’t expect to be impressed, but I was. The Impossible Burger delivers a nearly complete sensory experience and is similar to a typical meat hamburger in most every way. I specifically ordered a Thin Lizzy, fresh and hot off the grill. Served up at an ideal (for me) “medium” temperature, it delivered a nicely charred outside and a juicy, pinkish interior. I would not have known I was eating a meat substitute had it not been told to me. Dissecting the sandwich after a few bites, I noted that the patty, while not particularly seasoned, could stand alone fairly well, and it felt like regular cooked hamburger between my fingers. The last bite was as good as the first.
The product can also be used for meatloaf, tacos, and pretty much anything that would contain beef. Raw or cooked, its color and texture is similar to real meat.
The Impossible Burger is not necessarily designed to unseat veggie or bean burger products. The Impossible Burger could appeal to meat eaters who are looking for a different experience or who are watching their cholesterol. An added bonus, unlike many meatless burgers, is that it does not contain tree nuts, an increasingly problematic allergen.
—Lisa Sands, Photos by Shane Wynn