fake meat taste test
Cheapism

Can't Get Ground Beef? This Meatless Burger Fooled Our Tasters

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fake meat taste test
Cheapism

Where's the Beef?

Plant-based meat alternatives are having a moment. Brands like Beyond Meat are enjoying a surge in demand as coronavirus outbreaks close down meat-processing plants, according to MarketWatch. With faux-meat patties, sausages, and grinds popping up in grocery stores, and actual meat often in short supply (or more expensive than usual), we put some of the leading brands to a blind taste test against 100% genuine beef. Could one of the plant-based products actually fool us into thinking it's the real thing?

Related: 17 Places to Order Pork, Steaks, and Other Meats Online

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The Contenders

In one corner, three common brands of plant-based meat alternative: Beyond Meat Plant-Based Ground Beef, Lightlife Plant-Based Ground, and Pure Farmland Plant-Based Simply Seasoned Protein Starters. In the other corner: organic grass-fed 90% lean ground beef. All were purchased at Target and HEB stores in the Austin, Texas, area for between $7 and $8.

How They Looked
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How They Looked

Unlike old-school veggie burgers that lurk in the freezer section, these plant-based meat substitutes live in the refrigerated meat case, cheek by jowl with the real thing. From a distance, it's difficult to distinguish them; closer up, not so much. The ground beef, although prepackaged, retained that bright, deep, shiny red color that only real meat has. The brick-red Pure was nearly identical to the beef, flecked with convincing bits of "fat" — in faux meats, these are usually sourced from coconut or canola oils. Lightlife's "meat" was duller in color, more salmon than red. Beyond Beef most closely resembled a dull-colored, chunky pâté; you'd be hard-pressed to think it was real meat, according to our testers.

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How They Felt Raw

For test purposes, we shaped our samples into 2-ounce sliders. The ground beef retained that crumbly, springy quality of real meat, with a slightly earthy, tangy scent. It was easy to shape into patties or meatballs, or crumble into a pan. Lightlife's faux meat felt a little mushier by comparison, though it still shaped easily. By comparison, Pure had the texture and pliability of ground turkey, which made it more difficult to work with. From a sensory perspective, Beyond Beef was our least favorite: It had the texture of grainy, wet clay — almost slimy — and the bits of pale white "fat" scattered about looked unnatural.

onion and garlic
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How They Smelled

As we worked the Lightlife product into patties, the scent of what one tester described as "soy burger" wafted through the kitchen. Pure, too, had a noticeable aroma of added seasoning, mostly onion and garlic powder. As we struggled to shape the Beyond Beef into sliders, we got a strong whiff of what we could only describe as "veggie burger" (and vaguely unpleasant at that).

How They Cooked
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How They Cooked

Would the faux meats cook, spatter, and sizzle like ground beef? Well, no. Only ground beef gave us that familiar pop and sizzle the minute it hit the hot pan. Lightlife browned very quickly — almost too quickly — but didn't release much "grease." It cooked much the way a traditional frozen veggie burger would, in our opinion. The Pure and Beyond Beef samples both released meat-like liquid as they cooked, and the cooking process amplified their strongly seasoned aromas. But whereas the grayish cast of the Beyond Beef actually looked more realistic the more it cooked, the Pure "meat" never lost its ruddy cast. "All I could think of as I cooked it was Spam," one tester noted.

How They Tasted Plain
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How They Tasted Plain

There's no mistaking cooked ground beef, even unseasoned, as we served it — a little greasy, a slightly crumbly but toothsome mouthfeel, with the unmistakably subtle tang of meat. The Lightlife patty was moist, with a hint of onion powder as we bit in and a slightly nutty finish, but mouth feel was unpleasantly spongy and rather mushy. The patty made with Pure was denser, but it also had a spongy texture that tasted overly seasoned. Beyond Beef didn't taste beefy, exactly, but it tasted close enough that one tester said it could "maybe" pass for a burger "flame-broiled in a fast-food way."

How They Tasted in a Burger
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How They Tasted in a Burger

In most kitchens, that ground beef or "ground beef" is going to end up part of something larger — a cheeseburger with onions or a hearty pasta sauce, for instance. For round two of our taste test, we served each 2-ounce patty on a Pepperidge Farm slider bun with dollops of ketchup, Dijon mustard, and mayo. Neither the Lightlife nor the Pure patties impressed us much. The Lightlife burger receded into a veggie-burger-like mush of indistinguishable flavors, mostly the condiments. Even the denser Pure patty disappeared into a flavor jumble of bun, condiment, and seasoning. Then we reached for the Beyond Beef burger ...

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The Winner

Much to our collective surprise, it was Beyond Beef (shown above, on the right) — the very same plant-based meat substitute that we found so unlike actual ground beef upon first inspection — that tasted the most like the real thing. One tester, who grabbed a Beyond Beef burger by mistake, insisted he was eating the hamburger until we showed him the uneaten beef slider still on his plate. Beyond Beef lacks the depth and richness of ground beef, with a slightly more crumbly texture and perhaps a hint of artificial smoke flavoring. But if you served them as burgers, with plenty of condiments, cheese, and a hearty bun, you may be hard-pressed to tell the difference.