Is it a hockey puck, or is it a veggie burger?

In the past 10 years, that question has become irrelevant, as both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Meat companies have created plant-based burgers that strive to provide the flavor, look and texture of real ground beef.

According to a comparison study by Healthline, both patties offer similar nutrition and convenience. They are simple to cook and can serve as a stand-in for ground beef in a variety of recipes, from meatballs to that classic Fourth of July staple, the all-American burger.

Even local chefs who have been dubious of meat-like vegetarian products have jumped on the faux burger bandwagon. Liza Hinman, chef/owner of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa, said she ate her first plant-based burger, an Impossible Burger, at the Geyserville Gun Club bar and lounge, one of the earliest eateries in Sonoma County to offer the option.

“I wasn’t expecting much, but if you had put it in front of me and I had eaten it, I probably wouldn’t have known that it was a plant-based burger,” she said. “It was delicious. … This was the first experience that made me reconsider.”

For the past five years, The Spinster Sisters has offered a special Burger Night on Wednesdays in partnership with Sonoma County Meat Co., which provides the restaurant with grass-fed beef from Oak Ridge Angus ranch in Knight’s Valley. Hinman had played around with making a veggie burger to offer alongside the grass-fed patty, but she never found one that could be made in volume and store well.

“It’s a ton of work, and they’re not always good,” she noted. “With the rise of this new, plant-based burger that was looking to innovate the whole industry, why not try it and see how it compares?”

Hinman now serves the Beyond Burger as part of the Burger Night menu at the restaurant, now open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday for dine-in and limited patio seating.

“We originally wanted to use the Impossible Burger, but it was hard to find early on,” she said. “They were not able to produce that much, and the national chains were offering them, so it became much more challenging to find.”

Like a real burger, the Beyond Burger gets a flavor boost from consistent caramelization on the outside, she said. But she cautions not to overcook it or it will become dry.

“At the restaurant, we grill it on the gas grill. … It takes three minutes on each side,” she said. “If I was at home, I would do it in a cast-iron pan.”

The plant-based burger is made with beet juice, so it has a rosy interior and is brown on the outside when cooked. But more importantly, it has the texture of the ground beef.

In 2019, the Beyond Beef company reformulated its burger by adding more marbleizing fat in the form of coconut oil and cocoa butter, which melt when heated. It also added mung bean and rice protein to the pea protein, giving it more umami flavor.

“Even more striking was the texture,” Maura Judkis wrote of the revised Beyond Burger in the Washington Post’s Voraciously in 2019. “It had a coarser texture that was closer to ground beef.”

In March 2020, New York Times food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt gave the two plant-based burgers a test drive in the kitchen. He concluded that the ability of the new generation of vegan meat alternatives to mimic meat “depends upon exactly how you cook them.”

“Impossible and Beyond burgers shine when they are formed into thicker patties that trap liquefied fat and are cooked no more than medium-rare,” he wrote. “Flipping the patties frequently as they cook ensures an evenly cooked interior and good flavor development on the exterior.”

Lopez-Alt also suggested topping the plant-based burgers with robust condiments, to add extra flavor.

At The Spinster Sisters, Hinman adds toppings like bacon and blue cheese, caramelized onions and green chiles to her burgers in the winter because she wants to avoid the bland, out-of-season tomatoes.

In the summer, though, she favors the classic tomato, lettuce and onion condiments, with the option of cheese, bacon and a fried egg on top. For her vegan customers, she leaves off the bun and cheese and serves the Beyond Burger on lettuce.

Other condiments Hinman suggested to boost flavors include housemade pickled onions and cucumbers and a Vegan Thousand Island Sauce with a hint of smoked paprika (recipes below) that she developed for our vegan readers.

“I think it’s so important in a burger to have that balance of fat and something acidic and pickley,” she said.

Another vegetarian option would be to build a classic California burger with avocado, tomato, lettuce and red onion on top. If you’re feeling ambitious, you might also whip up your own pesto aioli, roasted red pepper “ketchup,” chimichurri sauce or spicy guacamole.

Tips on cooking vegan burgers from The Spinster Sisters’ Liza Hinman

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