Plant-Based Meats, Ranked by a Devout Non-Vegetarian
Just because they're made from plants doesn't mean they aren't juicy.
I'll admit feeling a little bad for vegetarians: Not only do they deprive themselves of delicious animal flesh, they also endure constant needling from carnivores about whether they eat bacon, whether they like real meat, and why they made such terrible life decisions. But you never hear vegetarians asking carnivores whether they've tried fake meat substitutes. "What about vegan bacon, you like that, right?" is a question that more or less never leaves a vegetarian's mouth. Probably because that would involve sharing fake bacon.
In an effort to understand and gain empathy for the vegetarian's plight, I, a staunch anti-veggie adult who eats like a toddler, bought a sampling of the most beloved fake meats, served them up to myself, and ranked them all. I sampled each major "meat" and opted for the most basic options of each type; in other words, there are no complex entrees or burritos here. This is how they stacked up.
I'm already a hot dog snob, so these guys weren't gonna do it for me. Most every brand of veggie hot dogs tastes the same, and the casing always bubbles up grotesquely the minute it hits the heat, evoking some horrific '80s Cinemax flick starring Freddy Krueger. The consistency is like somebody made Jell-O out of hot dog water, but cut it with extra water to eliminate most of the flavor. When the bun tastes stronger than the hot dog -- and we're talking a generic, Wonder-style bun -- you might as well eat a mustard sandwich.
These plant-based numbers taste like they'd fit right in on a $5 turkey footlong from Subway. That is not a compliment. I would not recommend this in a sandwich, as a snack on a charcuterie board, or really anywhere -- unless you like bland, cold, and floppy fake meat paper.
These vegan slices have the look, feel, and some of the flavor of America's favorite deli-meat punchline, though there's an overarching blandness that hurts this curiosity in the end. It also poses a deal philosophical question, especially for a bologna apologist like me: If you're going to go to the effort to make something that tastes almost exactly like watered-down bologna, why make it taste like the worst of all store-brand bolognas instead of the good stuff? Where is the salt, the deep savoriness, the kind-of-gross-yet-appealing qualities? Why not emulate some baller artisan brand? Or even Oscar Mayer? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night. That, and an upset stomach for doing this entire story in one sitting.
The pieces are slightly sweet, a little smoky, and actually pretty good, in a generic jerky sort of way. But they also dissolve into strands as you chew, like that gross jerky chew stuff redneck kids eat to emulate their dads' Skoal habit. The flavor is right but the texture is wrong; I guess you can't win them all.
So, the tube makes this product, helpfully subtitled "meatless soy chorizo," look more like sausage than it really is. The casing, you see, is plastic, and the meat gets squeezed out of it like spicy toothpaste, then drops into the pan like a goopy mass of semi-coagulated meat jelly. It's more like ground chorizo than chorizo in sausage form, but that's fine!It tastes OK, like a goopier version of Taco Bell meat, only way spicier. If this made its way into a bag of Doritos, I would be very unlikely to complain. If you're looking for vegetarian-friendly chorizo for scrambled eggs or chilaquiles, this is your best bet.
These meatless breakfast items look like the weird stick Yoda eats in The Empire Strikes Back, but the flavor here is surprisingly robust. The mushrooms add a nice little meatiness, and there's a lot of interesting depth here. Make no mistake, though: This tastes NOTHING like sausage. In all honesty, it tastes like dry stuffing that somebody clumped together in case somebody invited a vegetarian over for Thanksgiving. But tastes sort of good it does, says Yoda (and me).
Billed as "smoked veggie bacon with a crispy bite," these strips taste closer to the real deal than other similar products, thanks to its smokiness and saltiness. And they are, in fact, crispy, even if I suspect that mostly because they're as thin as card stock. Still, on balance, these taste more like real bacon than any other approximation I've had -- including dog treats. They might look a bit off, but if I got these at a continental breakfast in a rural Best Western in North Dakota, I wouldn't be the wiser. Not that they'd serve veggie bacon in rural North Dakota... but if they did, I'd definitely be okay with it.
The texture of these oxymoronic orbs is very dense and dry, with none of the spring or juice that defines great meatballs. But their flavor is oddly right and I'm surprised to say, they're pretty damn delicious. Simmer them in a nice red sauce and toss them into a hoagie bun, and you're not about to fool anyone, but you're not going to piss them off either. It'd also work well with spaghetti or a generous pour of gravy. This should be your meatless meatball of choice.
Unlike the Boca Burger (see No. 2), this thing gets points for being a little extra burger-y, on account of Beyond Meat's scientific approach to producing burgers that "bleed." This doesn't actually bleed, but it's juicy as hell, and the texture's pretty close to the real deal -- a big springy, yet there's still bite. It's even got a little grill flavor, which goes a long way in creating the illusion of meatiness, though it definitely doesn't help the smell (liquid smoke is a fickle mistress). If you're a converted vegetarian who's been craving a burger -- a Burger King one, specifically, given the pre-made grill lines on this baby -- the Beyond Burger should definitely scratch that (very specific) itch. Ironically, Burger King is partnered with Impossible Foods so if you want this specific patty, try Carl's Jr.
Okay, I was terrified of this product from Gardein, purveyors as such unexpected things as beefless tips, meatless meatloaf, and sweet & sour "porkless bites." Who in their right mind would want to approximate fish, and how the hell do you manufacture that fishy scent? It turns out that Gardein has avoided a deadly catch with a good fish-type option not just for people who don't want to kill fish, but also for people who for some reason sit down at a pub and think, "I really like fish and chips, but not the fish part." The breading's good! The "fish" isn't too fishy, and even has a flakiness to it. Basically, it's a brick of thick batter with some fishy stuff in the middle. And batter makes everything better. Even better, there's none of that overpowering fish scent I was dreading. If the Gorton's fisherman ever went granola, this would be his go-to.
There's something weirdly endearing about this weirdly enduring OG of the fake-burger game. No, a Boca burger doesn't really taste like a burger, but its chewiness, crusty exterior, and blast of salt make it stand out, and without the dryness that plagues so many fake meats. This may be why Boca has essentially become the Kleenex of the veggie burger canon despite a taste not unlike the old high-school cafeteria beef puck (which, let's face it, was probably about as much "beef" as this). Bottom line: I ate the whole thing. Then pondered another. Then pondered my whole food philosophy. Such is Boca.
Plant-based beef is miles ahead of other proteins. They've pinned down that meaty recipe, have created "blood" from plant proteins, and even add that signature, smoky flavor that's typical in charbroiled burgers. Chicken is harder, but one brand has really nailed it. Daring Foods' "chicken" tastes like the real deal and even shreds the same way chicken does. Add this to stir fries or bread it for a chicken nugget for a vegetarian-friendly piece of chicken that'll change the way you perceive meat.
Impossible Foods is one of Beyond Meat's largest competitors, but they're both after the same mission: make meaty tasting stuff crafted from plant proteins and save the planet. Impossible is able to edge out Beyond thanks to its texture. The burgers taste juicier, actually do have some plant "bleeding," and just absorb marinades and seasonings like a sponge. Impossible's Burger King partnership produced a vegetarian-friendly Whopper that I think is even better than the original -- which is quite a feat. If you want to eat beef but don't want to kill cows, this is a great option.
Of all the meat-substitute products out there, the British company Quorn (what, you thought they'd be from Nebraska?) has done the best at nailing the flavor and texture of the food it's emulating -- a rare fake meat that can actually stand tall next to the real thing. As a longtime fan of the generic chicken puck sandwich, I can attest that Quorn's disc -- with its thick breading, juiciness, and glorious saline kick -- is spot on. In fact, it's better than 80% of its meat-centric frozen counterparts. That's not exactly a high bar, mind you, but the fact that a non-meat from Britain has managed to out-chicken the likes of Tyson and Banquet -- it's juicier and more flavorful than both -- is a befuddling, delightful surprise.