Vegan

The 15 Meatiest Vegan Meats—From Impossible to Beyond

The bloody truth, and nothing but.

May  7, 2020

The New Veganism is a Food52 column by our favorite expert-on-all-things-produce: Gena Hamshaw. A writer, cookbook author, vegan recipe developer, and registered dietitian, Gena will be reporting on what's up-and-coming in the plant-based world, sharing with us all the new and wonderful ways we can work with vegetables.


Whenever I tell people I'm vegan, the first question I'm always asked is: “What is your stance on vegan meats that taste like, well, meat?”

Honestly? I’m a fan. I like that these products push the boundaries of the plant kingdom. I like that they’re rich in protein. As a vegan dietitian, I’m the first to acknowledge that most Americans eat more protein than is needed. But there’s a reason we’re drawn to it: We associate protein with sustenance, strength, and satiety—and vegan meats are not only a convenient, but an outstanding source.

I like that vegan meats taste (or try to, at least) like meat. There’s value in the resemblance, the familiar comfort it provides—especially as it can make the transition for vegan- or veggie-curious folks a bit easier.

Though, I’ve actually had the opposite experience: I crave, enjoy, and use vegan meats more in my cooking now, than I did when I first went vegan. I had a tangled relationship with food for most of my adolescence and young adulthood, and didn't start cooking until well into my adulthood. As a result, many simple, common ingredients felt new and exciting to me as a new home cook. I fell in love with legumes, whole grains, and fresh (rather than frozen) vegetables. My entry to veganism—let alone cooking for myself—was revelatory, marked by discovery after discovery of colorful, earthy ingredients.

Over time though, I’ve started to crave the comfort foods I grew up with: my Greek grandmother’s lamb or beef-laden dishes, my mom’s turkey meatloaf, or the breaded chicken cutlets we used to eat weekly. Perhaps my food nostalgia is a natural extension of getting older, and learning to look back on the past with compassion and fondness. My need to be comforted by food—especially my family’s food—is especially true right now, in the midst of crisis and uncertainty.

All this to say: vegan meats are more important to me now than they used to be. I always appreciated their convenience, but I now crave their similarity to real meat in a way that I didn’t a decade ago. Lucky for me, in addition to some old favorites (Tofurky, I’m looking at you!), there are some new guys in town. In the past month, I tasted and tested 15 different vegan meats. Here’s the low-down on the best vegan meats for searing and sautéing, crumbling and layering, grilling and sandwiching (and of course, a recipe for the ultimate vegan burger).


The 15 Best Vegan Meats

For Breakfast

1. Field Roast’s apple maple breakfast sausages

I’ve always loved sweet and salty together, and Field Roast’s apple maple breakfast sausages do not disappoint. The apple and maple syrup shine sweetly through, along with an unexpected kick of ginger and nutmeg.

For Sandwiches, Wraps & Salads

2. Tofurky’s deli slices

I’ve now been stocking my kitchen with Tofurky’s deli slices (made from vital wheat gluten and tofu) for the past nine years. I use vegan slices in, admittedly, predictable ways—layered with tomato and lettuce, hummus or vegan mayonnaise, and vegan cheddar—and when I do, I’m happy to be reunited with the same sack lunch I had growing up.

3. Upton’s Naturals bacon seitan

When craving a BLT instead of a turkey sandwich, I reach for Upton’s Naturals bacon seitan. It’s cut into thick slabs, with a texture that’s more like a lunch meat than bacon, but the flavor is plenty salty, smoky, and sweet.

4. Gardein’s crispy tenders

My favorite chick’n for salads are Gardein’s crispy tenders, which truly turn crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside when baked. I love serving them on a bed of romaine with some cherry tomatoes, croutons, and a creamy vegan ranch on top.

for pasta & chili

5. Impossible Foods & 6. Beyond Meat Vegan Ground Beef

The new vegan ground beefs, namely those offered by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, aim to look, smell, taste, and—in the case of the Impossible Burger—even “bleed” like meat in the pan.

How can something so plant-based be so meat-like? While Beyond's ground beef is merely dyed red with beet extract, Impossible Foods's contains soy-derived heme—the oxygen-transporting protein responsible for giving meat its characteristic flavor. It's been revealed that the heme underwent lab testing on rats in order to gain FDA approval, for which founder Patrick Brown, has expressed regret. Because of the tests (and the meat's likeness to, well, meat), there are vegans who don’t consider Brown's "beef" to be a vegan product.

If, however, these vegan ground beefs get more vegan-curious people eating more meatless meats, more often (they do)—then I'm all for them. An easy application for new, beef-like vegan ground beefs and “crumbles” is to—you guessed it—crumble and brown the meat before adding it to chili or a plant-based “bolognese.” While lentils and mushrooms have long been my favorites for hearty sauces, Impossible Foods’s vegan beef provided the closest flavor, texture, and nutritional makeup to a traditional bolognese.

Unlike vegan ground beef, “crumbles” are typically aggressively pre-seasoned, and can’t be easily shaped or molded into patties or balls. Beyond Meat’s “beefy” crumbles kept their chew after plenty of simmering, and were seasoned just enough— not so much that my own spices and adjustments were overkill. (Their feisty crumbles also made for very good burrito filling.)

7. Gardein's Meatless Meatballs

I’m a huge fan of Gardein’s garlicky and surprisingly spicy meatballs. Unlike every homespun meatball I've made, these can simmer in marinara sauce without falling apart.

For Searing, Sautéing, and Braising

8. Ray’s Wheat Meat

When it comes to vegan meats that can be seared and sautéd, the best are usually seitan-based vegan chick’n or sausage products. Seitan, a springy glutenous mass, can take on aggressive seasoning, searing, sautéing, and simmering.

The seitan I first fell in love with is Ray’s Wheat Meat, which is sold mostly to restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. It’s tricky to find; a few health food stores in New York carry it, but it tends to be stocked inconsistently, so I grab a few whenever I see it. The seitan comes packaged in a savory broth, and once drained, it crisps, shreds, simmers, stir-fries beautifully.

9. Gardein’s Chick’n Scallopini

I’m a longtime lover of Gardein’s chick’n scallopini, which are soy-based, hearty enough to slice or sear, but more tender than seitan. I double down on their inherently salty, garlicky, and slightly vinegary flavor with a squeeze of lemon and smattering of chopped capers.

10. Field Roast Sausages

Field Roast’s sausages come in four flavors—chipotle, Italian, smoked apple sage, and bratwurst—and are made with seitan and potato. They're herby and well-spiced, hearty and filling and tender. I’m always impressed by the coloring and caramelly sweetness they acquire after a quick sear in the pan (I’ve wondered if it’s the potato that helps with the Maillard reaction).

For Grilling

11. Beyond Meat Brat

Wait, another sausage? I know—hear me out. What makes Beyond’s version uniquely grill-friendly all comes down to its texture.

The first time I bit into a Beyond brat, I encountered tiny pockets of fat that burst into my mouth. They’re not just hearty, protein-rich, and seasoned to taste like meat; they actually recreate—with great success—the experience of snapping into a casing.

You can use the Beyond sausages in any of the above vegan sausage preparations, but I think they really shine when cooked on a grill. I don’t have access to an outdoor one here in N.Y.C., but I do have a grill pan with which I’ve made summery dinners with the sausages, grilled vegetables, and a slice of cornbread. I’ve also used them in vegan kebabs. When I’ve got leftover ingredients for most of a vegan dinner—say, some leftover rice and greens—it’s easy to grill a brat and suddenly have a more complete plate.

12. The Herbivorous Butcher’s Korean BBQ

I’ve also had success grilling Minneapolis-based Herbivorous Butcher’s seitan meats. Their Korean BBQ ribs are rubbed in tapioca and brown sugar, so they acquire a crispy char as you grill or bake them.

For Burgers

12. Gardein Ultimate Meatless Burger

For those who love a vegan burger that’s not brimming with beans and grains (nor one that “bleeds”), the Gardein Ultimate meatless burger is a good choice. Crafted from wheat, soy protein, and a blend of ancient grains (kamut, amaranth, millet and quinoa), its chew and appearance was beef-like, but its flavor (rich in umami, thanks to the barley extract and yeast) was not.

13. The Tofurky burger

These patties' pale color and mild flavor are reminiscent of turkey burgers, which I ate often as a non-red-meat-eater growing up. I’m not sure the Tofurky burger will satisfy beef lovers in the way that the Impossible Burger seems to, but the texture and flavor is right: toothsome and a little fatty, thanks to the vegetable oils.

14. The Impossible Burger & vs. 15. Beyond Burger

I've long been on the sidelines of this debate, but no longer! After tasting both, I can definitively say: Each has its own merits.

Both are nicely chewy and hold up to shaping, flipping, and pressing with a spatula. Both have higher fat contents than other vegan burgers (14 to 18 grams, to the typical five to eight), and contain specific oils and binders (methylcellulose and potato starch) that make for a firm but unctuous patty.

But the flavor of the two patties is different: the Beyond Burger tasted most strongly of its seasonings, while the Impossible Burger had a very faint but detectable, beef-like iron flavor (courtesy of the heme).

Thick.
Smash.

I thought it would be fun to try a version of Food Editor Emma Laperruque’s Cheesiest Cheeseburgers using both meats. Both were delicious (I like vegan cheese, so it was hard not to like a burger studded with it), but I did prefer the Beyond Burger for this application. The iron-rich meatiness of the Impossible Burger competed too much with the cheddar. Still: I’d gladly eat either gooey-yet-firm burger again.

Through this process, I found that I may be ambivalent about veggie burgers, but not about vegan meat burgers. While making a good veggie burger usually means careful blending of various grains, beans, and seasonings, making a vegan burger is now, thanks to the advent of vegan ground beef, as simple as shaping a patty and searing or grilling it.

The meatiness of these new vegan beefs reminded me of dishes from my childhood, ones that I hadn't thought of in a long time. I loved that I could experience those taste memories again, all while still eating plant-based. Now, in quarantine, I think about what it will be like to invite my mother over for dinner, what it will be like to finally cook and eat together again. I'll surprise her with these burgers, and soon after, we'll get to recreating her signature meatloaf, or even more daunting—grandma's keftedes.

Who are you most looking forward to cooking with, and what will you make together? Tell us in the comments below!
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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.

3 Comments

Snow May 10, 2020
As a cancer survivor, I have to steer clear of soy & soy products. And gluten is on the don't list also. I was thrilled to discover Quorn products- mycoprotein based (a few products include a small amount of egg white) and usually a 1/3 more protein than the 'real meat' version . BF Mr Steak n Potatoes who never met a green veg he liked, ate half of the "turkey" I had slivered up and in onion gravy- he had no idea until he asked me to make it again. Quorn has a great product line and are great products to introduce people to healthier choices and quite affordable. They even have "chicken nuggets" which any preschooler will eat their weight in every day.
Quorn is the only "meat substitute" I've been using for over 5 years and I'm not bored yet- slight mods for cooking time and still use all my 'meat' recipes.
 
jkuntz62 May 7, 2020
As a new vegan who is gluten intolerant I am assuming things like seitan with vital wheat gluten are off limits to me. Is this a correct assumption?
 
Author Comment
Gena H. May 8, 2020
That's right! Seitan and vital wheat gluten are not gluten-free, so they wouldn't be a great choice. But some other vegan meats are gluten free. This includes the Beyond Burger and Beyond Beef, as well as the Beyond Crumbles. It also includes Impossible burger and meat. Hope this helps.