An Honest Review of the Cult-Favorite Impossible Burger

updated Jun 3, 2019
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Credit: Danielle Centoni

About a year ago, when chef Sarah Schafer first heard about the Impossible Burger, a vegan, plant-based patty that “bleeds,” she scoffed.

“I was one of those meat-eaters that was like, ‘There’s no way you can take my beef away,’” says the chef-owner of Irving Street Kitchen, an upscale restaurant in Portland, Oregon, that’s famous for its fried chicken, country ham, and barbecued brisket. “I fought it tooth and nail.”

But at her general manager’s persistent insistence, she ordered some, gave it a try, and was sold. “I even got my brother and father to eat it.”

At first, she expected only vegans and vegetarians would want to order it, but instead the opposite was true. “A lot of vegans and vegetarians don’t want anything that’s going to imitate meat in any way,” she says. “It’s more the meat-eaters who order it. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is just like eating a burger.’ It has an iron-y flavor to it, because of the heme.”

Credit: Danielle Centoni

What’s heme? It’s the thing that sets Impossible Burger apart from other vegan meat replacements like the Beyond Meat patty. The red heme “bleeds” out from the patties like you’d expect from a medium-rare patty of ground beef. It’s made by taking the DNA from the roots of soy plants, injecting it into yeast, and fermenting it.

I tried the Impossible Burger last summer (and again for this story) and was impressed by how well it mimicked the look and feel of a ground beef patty, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Taste-wise, though, it was meaty but not beefy. It lacked umami depth and mostly faded into the background.

But this past January, Impossible Foods debuted a brand-new version of its original patty, this time making it with soy protein instead of wheat gluten, which changed the way it could be used. Unlike the original version, this next-gen patty can be grilled, sautéed into crumbles, and pretty much used however you’d use ground beef.

Credit: Danielle Centoni

“The new version is 10 times easier to work with,” says Schafer. “It used to be that I had to take it from the freezer right to the flat top or it would fall apart. Now I can make meatballs out of it. I started making empanadas with it. I’m using it to make chilaquiles.”

The company also says the new formula tastes better, but I tried it and came away with the same impression as before. Although the plant-based patty looks and tastes like meat, it’s not actually beefy — certainly not like a patty made with actual ground chuck. “It reminds me of eating tenderloin,” says Schafer. “It doesn’t taste like an aged piece of beef, but it tastes iron-y enough that you know you’re eating meat and it’s juicy enough that it feels like you’re eating meat.”

Credit: Danielle Centoni

That relative blandness is why you’ll often find Impossible Burgers served with a range of flavor-packed components. Over at Imperial Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, also one of the first to launch the patty back in the fall of 2017, chef Matthew Jarrell tucks the patty between a pillowy bun and tops it with a silky, pilsner-spiked cheddar cheese sauce and a pile of sautéed cremini mushrooms. When I stopped by recently to see how the chef makes this menu favorite, he offered me one. I took one bite and promptly forgot I was eating faux meat. With all of those luscious toppings piled on, I couldn’t care less if the patty tasted beefy or not.

Credit: Danielle Centoni

“The mushrooms really add a lot of savory umami flavor,” he says. He also makes sure to cook the patties on a super-hot surface and weights them with a press so that they get evenly seared. “You really want that crispy seared texture.”

The Impossible Burger and its cohorts, like Beyond Meat, aren’t as healthful as, say, a veggie burger made with grains and minced vegetables — because they’re mostly soy with a hefty helping coconut oil. One 4-ounce patty contains 240 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 370 milligrams of sodium. But that’s not really their reason for being; they’re meant to be healthier for the environment.

According to researchers, forgoing beef just once a week for a year is the equivalent of not burning 38 gallons of gas. “If everyone replaced just one burger with this, imagine the offset for the environment,” says Jarrell.

Right now you can only get an Impossible Burger at a restaurant, but later this year Impossible Foods says it’ll finally launch its products in select grocery stores, joining Beyond Meat in giving home cooks a realistic ground beef alternative. And when it does, Schafer offers the following advice:

“Don’t be afraid to experiment. Make it as taco meat, make it as burgers, make it as meatballs. Try encasing it and smoking it. Don’t be afraid to use it in things you’d put ground beef in.”

Have you tried the Impossible Burger? What’d you think?