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(Xenia Latii)
(Xenia Latii)

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Uncanny Patty

Impossible Foods has created something extraordinary: a vegan burger catered to the most voracious of carnivores. It is the next chapter in America’s proud and disgraceful history with the burger, our most important cultural export. It promises to do a lot of good — but is it any good?

For chefs like David Chang, life without beef is a life not worth living. But it isn’t one that’s hard to imagine. Chang’s first glimpse was in the not-too-distant past. In college, Chang spent a semester abroad in London in the mid-’90s, in the thick of a mad cow disease epidemic, which began in England before becoming a global health scare that forced millions of cows to be culled. Fear and a sudden lack of supply sent beef prices skyrocketing.

"There was no beef anywhere," Chang told me. "I remember my mom actually sending me beef jerky because beef was just so expensive."

With a typical college student’s funds and the British pound being abnormally strong against the dollar, Chang turned to the cheapest alternative available: veggie burgers. He may not have preferred them, but it was far better than the alternative. Veggie burgers were more appetizing in London, and readily available just about anywhere because of the assimilation of Hindu culture — wherein eating beef is taboo — into the city’s food scene. Even McDonald’s had a decent version. Chang returned home the following semester and brought his coping mechanisms with him. He would develop a taste for microwaved Boca burgers.

"It really wasn’t about deliciousness," he said. "It had nothing to do with anything other than mad cow disease."

Humankind, like the rest of the animal kingdom, possesses an innate fight-or-flight response in the presence of immediate danger. But we lack the tools to adequately respond with the same kind of urgency to long-term threats. It’s easy to switch to Boca burgers when you have no other option. How do you channel that sense of obligation into something more consequential? There are an estimated 7.4 billion people living on earth today; by 2050, that number will close in on 10 billion. In 2011, there were an estimated 1.4 billion cows in the world, according to data The Economist compiled at the time, making it the planet’s second-most populous farm-raised animal (chickens came in first at around 19 billion). Yet consider that raising cattle requires about 10 times as many natural resources as any other livestock animal. Can we sustain that many people — and that many hamburgers — operating within the same food systems we’ve had for more than half a century? Like so many relationships, empires, and ideas, our plan was built to last — and then the future happened.

No one can foresee the cataclysms that will irrevocably alter the way we live. But it’s still possible to recognize patterns and consequences. Some are clearer than others. For example: Our dependence on livestock is destroying the planet.

Depending on which leading experts you ask, the agriculture-and-livestock industry accounts for between 18 and 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are trapped in the atmosphere and create livable, even pleasant temperatures, but whose rapid proliferation since the Industrial Revolution could one day ruin the natural world. Even on the most conservative end of the estimate, livestock — and the agriculture industry that feeds it — accounts for a higher percentage of greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

This can seem unfathomable. Cars, trains, and buses are all man-made technologies that operate in a state of constancy, and their steady undulations of exhaust into our air are a reminder of how inefficient our tools of expedience still are. So it can be difficult for those who have little contact with an agrarian lifestyle to conceive of live animals being a man-made technology — but that’s exactly what livestock is. When scaled to accommodate billions around the world, this technology we’ve had for millennia is wildly, disastrously inefficient. Scientists may not be able to agree on how dire the livestock problem is, but some are working on a safeguard for our doomsday, whenever that may come.

"The way that we’re producing meat today, using animals as the technology for turning plant biomass into meat, is the most destructive technology on earth today by a wide margin," said Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods and a former biochemistry professor at Stanford. "It’s a technology that was brilliant 10,000 years ago, but is completely unsuited to a world where there are billions of people who want those foods."

Ten thousand years later, we may have a way out of the vicious cycle. Impossible Foods has an ambitious mission: to completely replace animals in the global food system by creating meat using only plant ingredients. Creating is the operative word here. Impossible Foods isn’t trying to make the best meat substitutes on the market. By isolating and reverse-engineering the very properties of meat that make it such a foundational component of human life, it is hoping to redefine meat entirely.

Its first target? Nothing less than the hamburger, the United States’ most influential cultural export, and what the late food writer Josh Ozersky declared "the most powerful food object in the industrialized world." Impossible Foods represents the pinnacle of 21st-century-tech-boom audacity: The product that will save the world aims to look and taste the same as the indulgence responsible for destroying it.

The fate of the planet could hinge on the success of a veggie burger.

The history of the hamburger is winding: At some point before the turn of the 20th century, several different Midwesterners claimed to have been the first to wedge a ground beef patty between two slices of bread; 96 years ago, in 1921, White Castle was founded, becoming the first step in the United States’ fast-food revolution; in 1940, the first McDonald’s opened in San Bernardino, California, as McDonald’s Bar-B-Q, selling burgers but mostly smoked meat; eight years later, the McDonald brothers would revamp their model, focusing squarely on burgers, eliminating the drive-in service that was embedded into the culture, and turning into a self-service operation that created a new paradigm for American restaurants.

An overlooked time in the annals of burger history, however, is 1946. That was the year when, by way of Title 9, Section 319.15, Subpart B, of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, the hamburger was given a legal definition:

The regulation affirmed that a hamburger cannot be considered a hamburger unless it is 100 percent beef. (Makes you wonder why McDonald’s felt the need to specify "two all-beef patties" in the Big Mac jingle.) While this reads like common sense, it would create serious reverberations in the livestock industry and influence the global farm-animal count for decades to come. Because a hamburger could not contain even trace amounts of, say, pork fat in the ground meat mixture, Big Beef rode a tidal wave unimpeded as the public demand for hamburgers saw exponential growth for nearly half a century.

It’s crazy to think that ground beef could have so much influence. What is it if not just a network of extruded flesh and fat of varying bodily origin? Only once it is formed into a patty does it come together to resemble something distinct. It is arguably the most recognizable form of meat in America, even though, by nature, ground beef is meant to obscure rather than reveal.

That goes double for the typical veggie burger. The first commercially available vegetarian burger was sold in 1982 as the VegeBurger. It was originally sold as a packet of dried ingredients, meant to be rehydrated and then worked into patties by hand. Gregory Sams, the creator, worked off what he assumed a burger would look and taste like — as a vegetarian since childhood, he had never tasted a real burger. "I was creating the VegeBurger with this image of what a burger should be like. There was a lot of trial and error," Sams told Smithsonian Magazine. "It was a big moment for me when my long-suffering wife asked for a second bite." Companies like MorningStar and Boca, and later Gardein, emerged as the VegeBurger’s spiritual progeny, inching closer and closer to almost, maybe resembling the real thing.

Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger represents a quantum leap forward. Instead of simply building an aesthetically pleasing burger simulacrum, Pat Brown brought in scientists who would otherwise be working in biomedical research to figure out how and why meat behaves the way it does. Brown put it this way: "Saying, ‘Well, let’s start by making fake meat,’ would be kind of like saying, ‘It’s 1800, and we don’t really understand anything fundamental about how the human body works, so let’s just start curing cancer.’"

The look and structure of the Impossible Burger is similar to actual ground beef — more so than any other plant-based burger on the market — but it’s still not quite the same. In the transparent packaging it’s shipped to restaurants in, tendrils of the plant-based proteins (mostly wheat and potato) are visible within the nebula of red mass, the fat in the mixture coming from coconut oil. In its raw state, it tastes similar to an uncooked potato dipped in blood: vegetal, with an unmistakable, iron-rich minerality, a flavor that most of us would associate with our first yanked tooth.

As unappetizing as that sounds, it’s that flavor that is at the heart of what makes the Impossible Burger unlike any other plant-based meat product on the planet. The catalytic ingredient is a molecule called heme, something found in all living things, but particularly abundant in meat. "Every living cell has heme as an essential biomolecule," Brown said. "But the things that we call meat have orders of magnitude higher levels of heme than virtually anything found in the plant world."

Heme is what gives blood its color and its ability to carry oxygen; it’s what lends blood its metallic bite. Scientists have known this for a long time; what had only recently been discovered by Brown was the role it played in how meat cooked. Heme is what helps produce hundreds of other chemical reactions when it comes in contact with heat — a set of transformations known as the Maillard reaction, in which amino acids and carbohydrates are altered to create new flavor compounds and savory aromas. Brown and his team of scientists isolated the genetic sequencing code that produces heme and spliced it into yeast, which is able to produce thousands of gallons of the ruby-red heme a day as a byproduct of its fermentation process. In essence, Impossible Foods is powered by a blood farm. It’s a scientific breakthrough that doubles as a heartening narrative device: The magic ingredient to save all mankind was within us all along.

Veggie burgers rely on their intrinsic puck-shaped form and their eaters’ imagination to lend credence to their identity. Impossible Foods circumvents the mental gymnastics. By asserting that heme is the single biggest contributing factor in what makes meat meat, it separates itself from its plant-based peers. But it doesn’t yet convincingly cross into the realm of meat. Like its patty cooked to medium well, the Impossible Burger finds itself in a gray area.

(Danny Chau)
(Danny Chau)

"I’m very sorry, but this does not taste like a hamburger," burger expert George Motz, author of Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 150 Great Burger Joints, told The New York Times after a bite of Chang’s Impossible Burger at Momofuku Nishi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. "Any carnivore will take one bite of this burger and know it’s fake."

I had a different first impression. My first bite of an Impossible Burger came at Crossroads, a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. Its logo outside shows two chef’s knives crossing, like a coat of arms. A framed photo of Robert Johnson hangs on the wall, in the sight line of customers walking through the front door. The legendary blues musician’s mythic origin story provided inspiration for the restaurant’s name. The menu revolves around familiar classics: crab cakes, pasta Bolognese, chicken and waffles — all plant-based, all catered to people who never thought they’d ever eat vegan food. The symbolism is clear: trading in your guilt for all the comforts of omnivorous gluttony is its own Faustian bargain.

On weekdays, during lunch, they offer their take on In-N-Out’s cheeseburger with an Impossible Burger patty. All the components are there: onion, vegan cheese, burger patty, tomato, lettuce, secret sauce, and pickles — in that order — all sandwiched between halves of a familiar sponge-dough bun. And the order of operations matters: The In-N-Out burger is a product greater than the sum of its parts; it’s a study of structure and ratio. I was prepared to feel let down, but my first bite was a small revelation: It tasted like a quintessential West Coast burger, without caveat.

But taste can be a tricky thing. It is a cross-disciplinary match game, where all five senses (and memory) form like Voltron to determine whether a food item is physiologically compatible with one’s sensibility. This looked like an In-N-Out burger, and smelled like one, too. My first Impossible Burger experience prompted my mind to ask a confounding question: Are my senses being steered by what’s in front of me, or by my memory vault that, over time, has hardwired a near-perfect conceptualization of an In-N-Out burger into my system? It felt like the latter — it felt like I’d willed a cherished burger from my childhood into existence.

Crossroads picked the perfect muse for its application of the Impossible Burger. If you’ve had an In-N-Out burger, you know: The beef patties are impossibly thin. The burger is not powered by beef flavor alone, but in how that deep savoriness interacts with the tang and twang of the tomato and spread, and how the onions and lettuce at the top and bottom levels of the burger provide textural contrast to the outer and middle layers. It’s harmonic, and doesn’t put all its emphasis on the beef. At this stage of the Impossible Burger’s development, that’s a good thing.

Because the Impossible Burger is packaged the same way as raw ground beef, it can be approached and prepared in all the ways one would expect: thin patties or thick patties, cooked medium rare to well done. While not yet available for home consumption (the company aims to have the Impossible Burger in the meat section of grocery stores in about two years), it can be found in seven different restaurants across coasts: four in NYC, two in San Francisco, and one in L.A.

Of the seven locations, I tried the Impossible Burger at three of them: one in L.A. at Crossroads, and two in San Francisco at Cockscomb and Jardinière, all acclaimed, upscale establishments. The price ranged from $14 to $19 — not ideal by burger standards, but understandable at their stage of development. As Impossible Foods rolls out what is ostensibly a beta testing, its target audience appears to be the thought leaders and social influencers who drive food hype in America’s biggest metropolitan areas. Recently, the company announced that Public in New York City would be one of the latest ambassadors of the Impossible Burger; it is the first restaurant with a Michelin star to serve the product. If Crossroads’ In-N-Out replica were $7, I’d happily eat it weekly. It’s not. Yet.

Because the Impossible Burger is sold in a raw form, it is, in tech parlance, open source. Each chef has a different take on how best to present the burger, and how it’s best cooked. It boils down to priorities. What’s more important: form or function? The biggest flaw I found in the Impossible Burger was its structural integrity. Heme may give the Impossible Burger a familiar sizzle on the griddle, and it may be responsible for catalyzing the properties of umami that are generated in the cooking process, but it doesn’t have an answer for everything. It can’t transform the proteins and fibers of wheat and potato into something they aren’t. On subsequent bites, it becomes apparent that, when cooked under medium temperature, the patty does not have the ability to hold firm. Even at medium, the doneness at which the Crossroads burger was cooked, the patty began to slide and almost ooze out the sides of the bun. Eating an Impossible Burger is just like eating a normal burger, except there’s more maintenance. With every bite, you’ll want to poke the patty further into the bun, or you run the risk of it plopping onto your plate in a heap.

"They’re going to get to a point where when you cook it — the gelatinization, the proteins in it — you’re going to be able to cook it so it’s exactly medium rare to medium," Chang said. "Right now, I think the burger tastes more delicious from a medium to medium well, to even well done — and I am not a fan of anything that’s over medium."

Two-time James Beard award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins is a consultant for Impossible Foods, and serves up a version at her flagship restaurant, Jardinière, in San Francisco. Like Chang, her preferred doneness on the Impossible Burger veers closer to medium well and beyond, at which point the burger loses a lot of what makes it juicy, but maintains a firmness much closer to ground beef. Her role with the company is important; the Impossible team is largely made up of biochemists, biophysicists, and molecular biologists, most of whom have never worked in the food industry. Des Jardins’s insight on the product’s nuances — and especially how it differs from ground beef — are vital to how the product will improve over time.

One of the most interesting features of the Impossible Burger is how crispy it can get. That isn’t a word associated with beef patties. "You can try really hard to sear beef, and you can get a crust on it, but the moisture will come up through it and kind of diminish that crispness," Des Jardins noted. "That does not happen with the Impossible Burger."

It was the first thing I noticed when I had the Impossible Burger at Cockscomb in San Francisco. The crust they were able to achieve on the Impossible patty was one of the most beautiful sears I’d ever seen on a burger, beef or otherwise. It makes sense: Potato is one of the common ingredients in the patty, and its primary fat is coconut oil, one of the best deep-frying oils available.

(Danny Chau)
(Danny Chau)

"It’s just different from the way beef behaves," Des Jardins said, "so you want to cook it at a lower initial temperature as to not overly accentuate that crisp exterior." Of course, that is if you want to downplay that crisp exterior. What Cockscomb managed to accomplish was a thick, medium-rare burger with the exterior of Belgian fries. It didn’t really taste like beef, but at that point, we were past the narcissism of small differences. This was clearly something else. And I can’t say I minded much.

Those quirks are the reasons I’ll continue to eat the Impossible Burger; it is a living document, and the paths in which it will develop can’t be foreseen. Maybe it will reach its logical conclusion and become 99.9 percent ground beef. Maybe its flavor will begin to resemble something entirely different. One of the main points of emphasis that Brown injects into every conversation about the Impossible Burger is that cows aren’t going to get any better at producing meat than they already are, whereas Impossible Foods has unlimited potential for growth.

"The previous trajectory [of meat production] was basically limited by the inherent limitations of using animals as a technology for making these foods," Brown said. "Two hundred years ago, transportation was completely dependent on horses. That imposed an absolute limit on what you could accomplish. You couldn’t, for example, have a rover on Mars that is pulled on horses. The horses have not gotten better in 200 years."

That is to say, the Impossible Burger is, despite all its press, still a ground-beef simulacrum at this stage. But it can get better. And one day in the near future, there will come a time when the differences will be nearly imperceptible. It’s easy to dismiss the product now, but what about then?

"This is actually not that different from a Turing test," Chang said. "At what point does AI fool a human being that it’s not a computer? At what point can a human being not be able to distinguish that this is not real beef?"

Take a few seconds to think of the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten. What made it so weird? When I was 6, I had my first taste of kangaroo in Germany, in my aunt’s backyard. I remember a brick oven and currant shrubs. Kangaroos were my favorite animal at the time, but my love for the creature had met its match: I was an insatiably adventurous eater. The first few bites didn’t sit well. I began to cry, but, as a well-mannered child, I dutifully cleaned my plate. There is no word that succinctly articulates the strange, melancholic loss of innocence that eating your favorite animal betrays, but I’ve spent the past two decades trying to triangulate that exact sensation. I found closure in that plate of meat. After I wiped the tears from my eyes, I went back for seconds.

Today, my answer would be different. It’s one thing to be repulsed by a foreign animal; it’s another to be repulsed by an old memory, one that’s come back in an unrecognizable form. The weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten was an opaque orb of soy proteins and gluten — like a kneaded rubber eraser, but pale white — at a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant called Hoa Sen (translation: lotus flower) in Garden Grove, California. It wasn’t its composition that made me uneasy; both soy protein and gluten are common in many diets. But vegetarian cuisine, especially that which tries to re-create meat dishes, relies on symbolism, on using one’s memory to imbue a dish with the same meaning. That orb of soy proteins and gluten was a vegan version of trứng vịt lộn, duck embryo boiled in its eggshell. Alone, it didn’t taste like much of anything, but it was the ritual and the process of eating it — of sprinkling salt and pepper with each bite, of pairing it with leaves of rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) — that made the experience feel so familiar. The re-creation of this dish gave me pause. Something about conjuring the image of a developing embryo to vivify a vegan dish felt counterintuitive. The semiotics of meat had never been clearer to me, nor had the levels to which we decide what does and what doesn’t meet our own moral standards as far as what we put in our mouths. A ball of soy fibers did what no meat-industry exposé could.

For the past three decades, it had been easy to dismiss plant-based burgers on the basis of how different they were — in look, in preparation, in flavor — to the real, beefy thing. But Impossible Foods CEO Brown and his team have altered its future. The closer Impossible Foods gets to achieving its mission, the closer we get to meat’s uncanny valley.

Since late July, when the Impossible Burger made its debut at Momofuku Nishi, early reviews christened it with a different tagline: The vegan burger that bleeds. Because of the heme, the Impossible Burger can achieve a pink, juicy center that looks frighteningly similar to that of a medium-rare beef burger. "The bleeding aspect is something that the press has latched onto, and not something that we’re trying to push whatsoever," Brown said. "It gets attached to us to our chagrin, really."

While the response to the Impossible Burger has been positive, both Chang and Des Jardins mentioned reluctance on the part of some of their diners. "I’ve seen vegans eat it and find it to be something that they don’t want to eat again," Chang said.

It’s the same on the West Coast. "For the die-hard vegans that have not eaten meat in a really long time, it can be a little bit startling," Des Jardins said.

At Cockscomb, there is a taxidermied buffalo head mounted high on the side of the restaurant, overlooking all the customers on the dining room floor, most of whom were enjoying the Impossible Burger. Alicia, my waitress, excited for my initial impressions, enthusiastically offered her own thoughts. The burger reminded her of kangaroo meat, she said — a completely unexpected and triggering detail.

"I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but we didn’t evolve as vegans or vegetarians," Chang said. "I think one reason why we like burgers is there’s something primal to that in meat." He isn’t wrong. But it’s ironic; today, the hamburger has come to evoke an elemental relationship between man and animal, but the vagueness of that blend of flesh, fat, and connective tissue reflects nothing as clearly as it does a postmodern detachment from our existing food systems.

In his 2005 book, Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships, Richard W. Bulliet breaks down the history of humanity into four stages: separation from the rest of the animal kingdom, predomesticity, domesticity, and postdomesticity. Modern life concerns itself with only the latter two. "Domestic societies kill domestic and wild animals without guilt and according to what they see as their needs," wrote Bulliet, an emeritus history professor at Columbia. "These needs can include sport and entertainment along with the consumption of flesh and skin. Post-domestic society anguishes over both sorts of killing, but cannot escape the demand for animal products that can be satisfied in no other way."

A decade after Bulliet published his findings, Impossible Foods has shown the other way. "Give them something that delivers everything they want from meat and more," Brown said. "Make it more sustainable and affordable, and compete in the market. The way that you solve the problem is you have to satisfy that very demand, not try to convince people that they want something else."

Eating a burger — in spite of all we’ve read, all the documentaries we’ve watched — is a nihilistic act. Industrialization has irrevocably changed our relationship with the natural world; the implication of Impossible Foods’ mission, then, seems clear: We can’t bring everything back to the way it was, but we can find a new trajectory that won’t leave our planet depleted of its resources. If this nihilistic disassociation is simply a product of the modern age, then let’s use this nihilism for good. The Impossible Burger posits that the concept of a hamburger becomes less about the content of the patty and more about the factors that help keep it in power. At its core, Impossible Foods’ mission is food preservation of the cultural, not the physical.

Inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a new restaurant called In Situ, headed by James Beard award winner Corey Lee, chef of the three-Michelin-star Benu. It is, in essence, a gallery on the ground floor of the museum masquerading as a restaurant. It presents signature dishes from world-renowned chefs, with the team in the kitchen faithfully composing each plate the way it was prepared by its original chef in its original restaurant in its original time. It is undoubtedly the first restaurant of its kind.

(Danny Chau)
(Danny Chau)

On the menu is an appetizer called the Apocalypse Burger, first created by Anthony Myint, the cofounder of the popular Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York, and the co-owner of San Francisco’s The Perennial, arguably the most environmentally conscious restaurant in America. What arrives at your table is a black plate, with a piece of Bibb lettuce, a sliver of red onion, tomato slices, pickles, a small saucer of aioli, and … a lump of charcoal. The waiter instructs diners to open the briquette, which in reality is two halves of a shell made of fried pasta dyed with squid ink. Inside is a minuscule patty of wagyu beef blanketed by a familiar yellow. It is the most vibrantly colored slice of cheese I’ve ever seen.

The Apocalypse Burger is a layered commentary about sustainability and our carbon footprint. With one bite, an audible crack, a fissure. With the next, obliteration. I got the message, but, like the size of the burger itself, only on a micro level. In the moment, I didn’t wish we had an answer to the most important issue of our time, nor did I consider the burger’s symbolism. All I could think about was how delicious it tasted.

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