A Stanford biochemist has created the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that has the aroma and texture of a cow-based patty. Bon Appétit's Kurt Soller sampled it, and he tells Francis Lam what he learned and how it tastes.
Francis Lam: I think most people know what a veggie burger is, and most people know what a fake meat kind of veggie burger is, the kind of thing where it's ground up soy protein or whatever. Frankly, I think it tastes pretty good because I had a vegetarian mom growing up, but I think most people don't think of it as actually being meat, and they call it "fake meat."
But this -- “the Impossible Burger” -- is not really the same thing, I don't think, right? It's not exactly that. It is meat, but it's made of vegetables. Can you explain what “the Impossible Burger” is?
Kurt Soller: Gladly. So, the Impossible Burger was developed by Pat Brown, who's a biochemist out in Stanford. He's basically reverse engineering things that you would find in nature to make something that resembles a burger.
There's protein. That comes from wheat. There's fat. That comes from coconut -- that sort of coconut oil fat seizes up. And then, the real breakthrough is this thing called "heme." That comes from the roots of legumes, things like soybeans, but what it does is it works as a catalyst. It sort of gives flavor to these things in the same way that myoglobin gives flavor in regular cow meat. Heme, essentially, approximates what blood is to a real burger.
FL: When people talk about, "Oh, this burger bleeds. It's a burger that bleeds!" I'm like, “Real meat doesn't bleed.”
FL: But there's blood in it. That's what we mean.
KS: Exactly. It has that red quality. In fact, I went up to the lab, and I saw them put this together in every step. If they cut into some of these legumes on the root level, you can see a little red dot.
It's that thing that they're taking, and they're fermenting yeast and getting that at a large enough level to put into a burger and sell it.
FL: And the idea is they have found a way to take plants, extract things from plants, and recombine them in a way that they are creating, essentially, meat.
KS: Exactly. At what point is meat from a cow only or from a cow exclusively? Because that's the thing they're going after. The reason for doing all of this is that cows are terrible for the environment, terrible for our food supply in a lot of ways, at least according to Pat Brown at Stanford, who's developing all this.
FL: Yeah. "Terrible" meaning you have to feed a cow so much feed, and you give a cow so much water, and then you produce meat at the end. I think there's a great line you have in the story where he says, "Cows are a very inefficient technology."
KS: Yeah, and also, they release a lot of methane gas, which is bad for our ozone layer. From every level, whether it's putting things into them or getting meat out of them, it's not great for our environment. I think even carnivores like me can admit that.
FL: Do you think people who are meat eaters are going to look at this and say, "Hey, looks like it tastes good enough for me?” Or are they going to be wigged out, like, "I wanted a cow?”
KS: I went out to California when I wrote this story, and I spent some time in the lab. They ended up cooking a burger for me, and I went in really skeptical. I did not think that it was going to taste good. I love a burger. Who doesn't love a burger?
And it tasted pretty similar to a burger. The thing is, it doesn't have that same sort of carnal satisfaction of eating a burger. There's something about a burger that, when you want a burger, it's a burger. They're going to have to get past that.
I think people are not going to eat something just because they know it's good for the environment. That's not enough of a selling point. They will eat something because they think it's delicious and because they think it's as good as the burger that they already have.
FL: But what's missing? Because they have scientifically engineered this to have the aroma of sizzled meat, and they managed to make it so it will produce the aroma of sizzled meat. In your mind, what was missing when you ate it?
KS: It's just not as beefy. It's shockingly beefy compared to any other vegetarian option that you've had, and it sizzles, as you were saying, when you cook it. It sort of tenses up and those fats seize when you cook it.
It sort of looks and feels and sounds like a burger, but when you bite into it, it has a sort of cereal-y note to it. It just doesn't have that depth and richness that I think we associate with middle-of-the-road, 80/20 supermarket ground beef.
FL: Is it a recipe thing? Do you think they can get there?
KS: I think it'll get there. When I had it in San Francisco, there were a lot of condiments on it. The way that she's preparing it in the restaurant is with pickles and dijonnaise and a bunch of other stuff.
I actually had it here in New York when David Chang made it, and it was much simpler. He used non-vegan cheese. He used actual dairy cheese. He used a Martin's Potato Roll bun. It tasted more like a burger in that instance. I think they're constantly refining it, and because they're set up in a lab, they can keep tweaking it and changing it. So, I think it'll get there.
FL: But I wonder, do you think it's because you knew what you were eating?
KS: That's definitely part of it. Going into any of this, I think that we know too much. I spent a lot of time researching this, and I saw it coming together in a lab. I saw it coming from these giant metal vats that look nothing like a cow.
But if I were a consumer, and I was discovering this in the butcher aisle of my supermarket -- which is where they hope that it lands -- I might take it home, I might try it, I might be pleasantly satisfied. I think the less you know, in this instance, the more appealing it would be.
FL: It's like seeing the sausage get made, so to speak.
KS: Yeah. You don't necessarily want to know. It's like when you go to a restaurant; you really don't want to know how most things come together. You just want to enjoy them.
FL: It's funny, though, because hearing you say that, it also makes me wonder, is it weirder and maybe grosser as a consumer to know, “Wow, this came out of a scientist's lab,” versus, “Wow, this came out of a factory farm?”
KS: Yeah. We turn a blind eye to the fact that a lot of our food comes from these really disgusting places, but it's because most consumers never have to see them.
FL: Right, right. I want to get back to this idea of it tasting almost like beef, but not quite. I think there's this idea of the uncanny valley. If you're watching a movie with real actors, that's fine, and if you're watching a movie and it's animated, that's fine. But if you watch a movie that's animated and they look almost like real people, but not quite, it makes you really uncomfortable.
KS: Totally. As I mention in the piece, the closer it gets to being a real burger, the more you can see the slight flaws in it. Who knows how much of that cereal note I would've picked up if I had just gotten this at a restaurant and enjoyed it, and taken it at face value? But because I'm comparing it to this thing that I've had thousands of times, it's really easy to tell the difference between the two things.
FL: You spent a lot of time with these people for this story, and the CEO of the company sounds like a fascinating dude. He's a biochemist. His father worked for the CIA. They have over $180 million of investment. There's a lot riding on this. There's an expectation that this is really going to be the future of meat. I think that's what they're thinking. I'm sure that's their elevator pitch. Do you think this is the future of meat?
KS: I do. I think this is a huge problem that the great minds of Silicon Valley and everyone else knows we need to solve, and I think that this is definitely the leading company in that field. There are a number of other companies who are doing this as well.
There's Just Mayo, which is trying to help our egg supply. There's Beyond Meat, which is doing a very similar thing. I think all of these companies working together -- and some of those companies have huge investors like Bill Gates behind them -- are solving more or less the same problem. One of them will have a breakthrough that really hits with consumers, and that will be the true test. Like any other consumer product, whichever one wins that market share is the one that's going to take off.
FL: Right on. So, I'll come see you in a year, and we'll have a barbecue, and we'll talk about what goes on the grill.
KS: I'll make some. They didn't let me cook one myself, and I would love to actually get one in my hands, cook it at home, and see how I feel about it, because certain things cannot be done with it right now. It can be made into a burger really well, but it's not necessarily going to be the right beef for meatloaf or something like that.
FL: Oh, interesting. So, in a year from now, we'll try the Impossible Meatloaf.
KS: Yeah. I'll have you over.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.