What’s better than standing beneath a blue sky, beer in hand, roasting raw meat on an open flame?
Nothing, that’s what.
Alas, grilling is rarely that simple, as the modern man faces a barrage of choices when planning a barbecue: Bratwursts or dogs? Gas or charcoal? Pilsner or IPA? While these three are easy (brats/charcoal/IPA, no apologies), things get complicated once you get to the meat aisle. Do you go with standard ground beef, or try to get fancy with bison? And what about that grass-fed stuff? And do you have to get some non-meat thing for your co-worker, Jeff? (Yes, Jeff, we know you’re vegan now. WE KNOW.)
To help you hold your best grill-out yet, your humble correspondent held a barbecue of his own, and put four burger choices to the test: ground beef, grass-fed ground beef, bison meat, and the new plant-based Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat.
My baseline burger was regular ol' ground beef with an 80/20 ratio of meat to fat. If you’ve graduated from frozen patties, but aren’t quite on a first-name basis with a butcher who hand-grinds beef for you, this is probably what you buy, too.
I also got a package of grass-fed beef (a slightly leaner 85/15) and another of ground bison (ratio unspecified). In the name of #science, I seasoned all three exactly the same: a tablespoon and a dash of McCormick’s Montreal Steak seasoning mixed into each pound, one dash beyond the instructions on the back of the container. (Don’t be that guy who under-seasons ground beef.) Each of these pounds got divided into six sliders and refrigerated for an hour or so.
On the veg side, the good folks at Beyond Meat shipped your correspondent several boxes of pre-pressed plant patties. Per the information booklet enclosed therein, each of these plant-based burgers came pre-seasoned. (Also: I was hesitant to tamper with their precision-engineered shape.)
While the sliders were settling in the fridge, we fired up the coals, and soon the grill was hot and ready. The grass-fed beef and the 80/20 beef cooked at about the same rate, while the bison browned fast.
The big surprise here was from the plant burgers. Frankly, no one at our impromptu barbecue knew what to expect. Dropped onto the grill, they behaved pretty much like a regular burger. “It’s responding to the grill like meat,” said one of the guys in attendance. “Look, it’s bubbling and stuff. But it’s made of…science.”
Fortunately, once again, Beyond Meat provided explicit instructions: Beyond Burgers are to be cooked for exactly three minutes per side, which was about how long it took the sliders to brown, too. At that point, however, the Beyond Burgers still had a weirdly raw look to them, and even though they’re made of plants and probably would have been fine, we opted to leave them on a tad longer. (In the photo below, they're the slightly larger burgers on the right.)
We tasted in several rounds, first as a side-by-side comparison, then with the fixings, and then as a blind test. While I wish I could report that there was a clear winner, the results were hopelessly murky. (One taste-tester sardonically proclaimed, “I don’t see color—meat is meat, no matter what!”) There was, however, a clear non-favorite, as most tasters declined to finish their pea samples.
As for the burgers that had previously been a grazing mammal, we were shocked: There was little perceivable difference in taste between the the 80/20, the 85/15, and the bison. They varied slightly in texture, but even then, I could hardly distinguish between supposedly leaner bison and 80/20 in either the side-by-side or the blind test. The only one that stood out was the grass-fed slider, which developed a slightly crispier crust while retaining its juices, and had a leanness to it that made the others seem a bit chewy by comparison. A plurality of tasters agreed that grass-fed was best; but factoring in cost, most said the difference was so slight that they’d rather stick with standard 80/20 chuck.
80/20 – Tested and proven.
Grass-fed – A slight upgrade over 80/20; worth it if it’s close in price.
Bison – Overrated, but still a good option
Beyond Burger – Light years beyond every other veggie patty, but hard to compare with a traditional beef burger.
The Beyond Burger review
This is not to say that Beyond Burgers aren't deserving of attention, particularly among the discerning vegans and vegetarians. Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat has made headlines in the last few years for what some have described as the world’s first "bleeding" plant burger. Made of peas, beets, and a variety of other vegan ingredients, the burgers are made to look, feel, cook, and taste just like a traditional meat burger.
Now, regardless of whether you believe that eating meat is cruel, there’s pretty much no denying that it is terrible for the environment, with beef being a top offender. I’ve considered becoming at least a part-time vegetarian for that second reason, so part of me really wanted to love these things. Beyond Meat also says the burgers are free of antibiotics, hormones, and GMOs, which can't always be said for the store-brand chuck your cousin brought over.
Plus, the Beyond Burger is a game-changer for fitness-focused guys who like burgers but eschew fattier beef burgers. If you're decidedly dialed in to your nutrition, and you've been hunting for an anything-but-chicken protein option at a barbecue, regardless of source material, then the Beyond Burger is a good way to go. With a whopping 20g of protein (more than a similarly sized beef burger, the company says) and 22g of non-animal fat in a 4-oz patty, the Beyond Burger almost seems too good to be true.
But you know how that saying goes. I remained hopeful for the first few minutes they were on the grill, as they bubbled and hissed next to the beef burgers, but they retained a kind of orange hue that I found unsettling, a feeling that only amplified when I bit in. Mine had a nice crust, but was a little chewy inside, and felt like eating something akin to corn kernels with a slight pea flavor. It’s clear that Beyond Meat put a lot of effort into trying to make the patties just like beef, right down to the insides—rather than being pressed solid, they’re textured like meat out of a grinder. But taste- and feel-wise, the result was reminiscent of the pre-fab cafeteria patties of my youth, and those came dipped in barbecue sauce, at least. (Maybe it's not a bad idea for regular consumption of the Beyond Burger, although it does sort of defeat the point of a taste test.)
An important counterpoint: The registered vegetarians at our backyard cookout were fans of the Beyond Burger. After years of sampling lesser patties, one guest picked the Beyond Burger as her out-and-out favorite. She thought that perhaps our experimental method had been the patties’ downfall: In the interest of tasting each one out, we’d initially compared them without toppings. “Even I wouldn’t have wanted to eat it plain,” she said. “I don’t know why you guys did that.” And, in fairness, when one of the carnivores dressed a plant patty with cheese, she assured us that it was “not totally disgusting,” and that the cheese masked the distinct vegetable flavor we’d picked up plain.
For my taste? I'll hedge my bets. If I do go meatless, I’ll order up a grilled Portobello. But if you plopped a couple of Beyond Burgers on the grill at your next get-together—no, Jeff, we don’t have “cashew cheese”—I have no doubt your vegetarian friends would be pleased.