The Meat of the Matter
“Bean curd.” “Wheat gluten.” “Mycoprotein.” The biggest obstacle that meat substitutes face may be their names; they sound like something scraped off of a shoe, or from a sci-fi B-movie. That’s a shame, since when it comes to taste and texture, they’ve come a long ways. What they need is a good food euphemism, just as how we call it “veal” instead of “baby cow”.
Meatlessness, as any vegetarian activist will tell you, has its advantages. I’m an omnivore but I cook with them all the time, for a number of reasons, and not just because my wife doesn’t eat meat or poultry. They’re lower in fat and other bad-for-you ingredients; you’re never going to get salmonella or trichinosis from an undercooked grain of wheat; raising animals for food uses a lot more natural resources than growing produce.
Still, they face an uphill battle to win over the hearts, minds and taste buds of the American consumer. A notable episode of Everybody Loves Raymond featured Ray’s mother cooking up a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving. Does Tofurky taste like a real turkey? I haven’t had it, but I’m going to wager probably not. However, judging by the reactions of the characters on the show, you’d have thought they were eating something made of insulating caulk and sewer waste.
Why this bad reputation? Some of it is undoubtedly simple ignorance or prejudice, but some it may be the legacy of meatless products from years past. My first experience with a soy burger was in the late 80s, when visiting my friend Dave, then a vegetarian. The patty was indeed disc-shaped and brown, but that’s about where its resemblance to a “hamburger” ended, since the thing tasted nothing at all like ground beef, nor indeed like anything you’d want to eat. In the two decades since, the food companies have figured out that what consumers want is not so much a patty that tastes like beef, but a patty that can be eaten on a bun with lettuce and tomato and that tastes good. Gardenburgers are now popular and common enough that you can get them on your sandwich at Subway, and for good reason: they’re good. Do they taste like beef? Nope. Not even close. But you don’t care.
Meanwhile, other meat substitutes have made equal strides, be that following Gardenburger’s route, or in simulating the real thing. They’ve been taking vegetables, and using them to fool your mouth and your taste buds. “Fooling it with what?”, you may ask.
Talk about meat substitutes, and many minds leap to “tofu”. And hey, tofu’s fine, but it’s not the best gateway drug for the carnivore near you; its popularity as a meat substitute stems from being the easiest meat subtitute you could make before the era of modern food science. Tofu’s spongy nature means it absorbs flavors well, so when diced up small, as in Chinese food, it tastes like the sauce it’s sitting in, while giving you the taste of the protein that you’d expect from the “missing” meat. But its innate taste is bland, making it really lousy when you’re trying to simulate a big slap of meat, like a burger. Worse, its texture is somewhere between spongy, mushy and crumbly, which is nothing at all like that of meat. When diced up small and fried (again, as in Chinese cooking), it toughens up and becomes convincingly meat-like, but served in a big hunk, it doesn’t give your teeth anything to gnaw on.
For that, you want wheat gluten. Don’t worry about the spooky scientific-sounding name; the gluten is just the part of the wheat grain that gives bread its spongy, chewy texture, and you don’t need any weird modern process to extract it – you just add water to wheat flour and strain it appropriately. Like tofu, wheat gluten (sometimes called “wheatmeat” or by its Japanese name, “seitan”) has a bland taste faintly reminiscent of (surprise) bread. It’s often lower in protein than tofu, making it a weaker option nutritionally, but when cooked, it gets a rubbery, chewy texture like a cooked chicken breast.
So which to use, soy or wheat? For many manufacturers of fake meats, the answer is “both”. The right blend of the two gives you the protein of one and the chewiness of the other. What about taste? With neither soybeans nor wheat gluten tasting much like anything, that can be trickier. Picking the right meatless dish, then, becomes critical. There are several good brands of “crumbles”, which you use like ground beef in, say, chili. These are convincing enough that a friend made a chili with one and said nothing to her husband, who didn’t notice. Admittedly, their low-fat nature means they don’t have as many of the tasty oils you may want in your crumbled ground beef; for some folks that low-fat angle is a positive, but I throw in a tablespoon or so of oil when I’m browning the “beef” to cover for this. You’re not going to get the gristly nature of ground beef, though, so think of the vegetarian version as being ground lean beef, and work from there.
Sausages, hot dogs, and the like make the switch to meatlessness quite well. That’s because your basic wurst is crappy meat, filler, and spices; swap out the right vegetables for the former and you lose little in the process, because it’s the spices you’re tasting anyway. As with the “crumble”, the meatless wursts won’t be as greasy, so slather on a little canola if that bothers you. However, I’ve found that once I cover a Morningstar Farms bratwurst in grilled onions and peppers, I don’t need to bother.
Quorn is a more recent member of the meatless brigade, popular in Europe and now more heavily marketed in the States. Quorn is made from mycoprotein – that is, protein derived from fungus. If that sounds gross at first, remember that mushrooms, blue cheese, and yeast are all tasty parts of your diet. Here’s the biggest surprise: Quorn tastes nothing at all like fungus. Quorn looks nothing at all like fungus. Quorn doesn’t even have the texture of, say, a mushroom. There’s some serious food-science voodoo at work here, but I don’t mind, because it’s darned convincing. The Quorn chicken “cutlets” really look and taste like chicken, have the right texture (admittedly on the soft side, more like a fast-food cutlet than one from your butcher), and even have the stringy striations you expect from real meat. I’m pretty convinced that were I to cut it into strips, so that you wouldn’t notice the softness of the “chicken”, I could serve it to guests without anyone catching wise.
Whether you have a vegetarian coming over for the cookout, are trying to eat better, or are perhaps a little troubled by the meat industry, try giving one of these products a spot on your grill this summer. Will it convince you 100%? Maybe not, but I think you’ll find it’s a lot better than you’d imagined, and certainly a lot better than the Raymond writers feared. Cows, chickens and pigs will thank you, and if we’ve learned anything from Babe and Charlotte’s Web, that’s never a bad thing.