Plant-Based Impossible Burger A Welcome Option Even In Meat-Loving Texas
Houston media representatives were invited by Impossible Foods and James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and The Hay Merchant for the debut of the company’s flagship product: the Impossible Burger. The event marked the introduction of the plant-based burger in Texas.
Having been well-received in other states, the Impossible Burger has received a good dose of national media coverage already—and for good reason. It looks, feels, smells, cooks and tastes like ground beef from cows—but it’s made entirely from plants. Even raw, it looks remarkably like ground beef.
As Houston Food Finder’s barbecue and meat columnist, I was skeptical about the possibility of an all plant-based meat product having a prayer of being something I would like. However, reviews, videos, and other coverage I’ve seen over the past year had me intrigued. Could it really be that close to beef in smell, taste and texture?
Baskets of Underbelly’s “Cease and Desist” burgers—but made with Impossible Burger patties—were distributed to those in attendance, and the media guests were invited to dig in. Immediately, the aroma of flattop-seared burgers permeated the room. A couple of bites in, and the flavor was remarkably similar to a beef burger patty, with a somewhat softer texture. The patties got a nice crust from being seared on a flattop grill, and the seasonings and cheese made it hard to distinguish in flavor from a typical ground beef burger. Despite my predominantly carnivorous tendencies, the taste of this burger was good enough that I would feel comfortable ordering it again in the future.
The building blocks of the Impossible Burger are wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, plus other natural ingredients. The current mixture results in a burger that can only be cooked on a hot flattop. The Impossible Foods research team is working to improve the binding compounds in the ingredients that would allow the burger to be cooked on a grill as well. Impossible Burgers are 100-percent vegan. They include wheat protein, which means they are not gluten-free.
So what’s the magic ingredient, the component that makes this beef alternative more realistic and appealing that meat-alternative products already on the market? It turns out that the compound that makes meat desirable to humans lies in a single molecular compound—heme. When cooked, heme catalyzes in hundreds of aromatic compounds, and gives beef the flavor and color we are all familiar with. Heme is exceptionally abundant in animal muscle, and it’s a basic building block of life in all organisms, including plants. Dr. Brown and his team discovered how to take the heme protein from plants (leghemoglobin) and produce it using fermentation, similar to the method that’s been used to make Belgian beer for nearly a thousand years. Impossible Foods genetically engineers yeast to derive the leghemoglobin protein. The process allows them to produce the Impossible Burger in mass quantity with the low environmental impact.
Shepherd is a leader in America’s “whole animal” movement, which seeks to reduce waste and improve the environmental footprint of our favorite foods. So, his background makes for a natural partnership with Impossible Foods, as the company has a similar mission (in addition to making a profit, of course.) “At Underbelly and Hay Merchant, I tell the story of Houston through cuisine—and with Impossible Foods, I hear a fascinating story about food and sustainability on a regional, national and global scale,” Shepherd said. “One taste, and I knew I wanted it on my menus.”
“It’s a true honor to partner with Chris—he’s a culinary innovator and pioneer,” said Impossible Foods CEO and Founder Patrick O. Brown, M.D., Ph.D. “The fact that he’s serving the Impossible Burger in a restaurant known for its on-site butcher shop shows how quickly the culinary world is shifting toward sustainability.”
Impossible Burgers, served “Cease and Desist” style—with double burger patties, double cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles—are available at Underbelly during lunch and all hours that the kitchen is open next door at The Hay Merchant. Those hours are Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. It will replace the current meat alternative product on the menu, a black bean and olive patty. The “Cease and Desist” double cheeseburger is $12, while the Impossible Burger alternative will be on the menu for $18. The expected increase in Impossible Foods’ production capabilities in the coming year should reduce the cost of the raw product, making it more comparable in price to traditional ground beef burgers.
Current capabilities limit the ability of Impossible Foods to produce more than about 100,000 pounds of the ground beef alternative per year. A new facility is currently under development, and will allow them to increase the production to around 10,000,000 pounds per year (for reference, that’s only about 0.2 percent of the current U.S. annual ground beef consumption). Research and development continues, and Dr. Brown says the technology is capable of being turned into other meat and dairy alternatives. Impossible Foods scientists and food researchers are already working on chicken, pork, fish and yogurt made entirely from plants.
About The Author: Smoked meat enthusiast and barbecue competition judge Scott Sandlin authors the Texas Pit Quest blog, maintains the Guide to Houston-Area BBQ map, and is the barbecue (and general meat) columnist for Houston Food Finder.