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Fake Meats…Delicious or Disgusting?

[1]Fake meats. Are they delicious or disgusting? I’ve been inspired by a recent photo poll [2]on Huffington Post to explore this very question. And, as you suspected, for most folks the answer is “disgusting” for me the answer is “it depends”.

Sure, us vegetarians have all heard it, “Why are you a vegetarian if you still eat things that taste like meat?” That’s not the point, at least as far as I’m concerned. We’ve all received the memo that meat substitutes don’t taste like meat. So, if the marketing team decides to call it fake chicken or fake beef, that’s up to them. I’m not looking for something to replicate meat. I’m looking for things that taste good and for ingredients that convey a flavor that I’m looking for in a particular dish.

What’s key to remember when working with fake meats or meat substitutes is that if you are expecting them to taste exactly like the meat they are supposed to be mimicking, they never will. I learned that early with bacon and pepperoni substitutes. You will never be able to recreate that taste. Many people have asked me if I miss bacon. Honestly, I don’t.  So, if I’m eating a bacon substitute I’m not expecting it to taste like bacon.  The spices in the product make fake bacon a good addition to a modified BLT sandwich.

Moving on to veggie burgers. I’ll admit, I usually have a box of Gardenburgers or Boca Burgers in the freezer so I don’t thumb my nose at them. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of flavors in what you can find in the store’s freezer. Some are a lot better than others, so you really have to experiment with what you like. In the refrigerated section you can also find portabella burgers and some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, have hand crafted patties. I prefer these much more than the frozen versions. Meanwhile, I do have a book of recipes of exclusively veggie burger recipes and have tried out a lentil goat cheese burger [3] recipe that came out really good. But,  I hope to work on more of these recipes this summer when I can fire up the grill.

Ordering veggie burgers in restaurants gets tricky. Here’s my sage advice: When ordering a veggie burger from someplace new, don’t try to imagine what kind of burger they will bring out. Your mouth could be watering for a chunky, juicy, handmade patty and then be presented with a thin hockey puck. (This disappointment is otherwise known as, “Oh geez! We have a vegetarian at table #12! Run to the store and pick up a frozen box of Gardenburgers!” ) However, because I don’t set any expectations I’ve been pleasantly surprised when I am handed a gourmet and succulent veggie burger. Most notably, in Pittsboro, North Carolina [4] and Katoomba, Australia [5]. Also, you can’t go wrong with a veggie burger at Ted’s Montana Grill. They are also quite tasty.

As for fake hot dogs, that’s a whole other story. I’ve never met any veggie hot dog that I really like. Sure, I’ve been known to eat them at a baseball stadium or other random location, but that’s only out of desperation. And, I most certainly don’t even bother keeping them in my house. They are usually rubbery, chewy and tasteless. But never fear, vegetarians don’t have to feel left out at BBQ’s. Head towards the vegetarian sausages that come in a spectacular array of flavors. A while back, I introduced everyone to Vegetarian Sausagepalooza [6] – a review of two brands of veggie sausages. You’ll find that the flavors you get out of these products depend on how you cook them. Stick them in a microwave, and you’re missing out. Fry them or grill them and you get more smoky flavors.

Then, there are the litany of other kinds of “fake meats” made out of seitan, TVP, tofu, and tempeh. They come in all types of shapes and forms from frozen cutlets to refrigerated stir-fry strips. I’ve made several recipes using these fillers and they all play different roles in different recipes. In vegetarian goulash [7], the seitan serves as a chewy stew like accompaniment the joins the rest of the ingredients.

But, if made as crispy fried bites, [8] the seitan is the feature of the recipe.

If you’re not up to cooking from scratch, manufacturers have made it much easier to enjoy these creations through products that go beyond “chicken-like” and “beef-like” but also versions with sauces and marinades so all you have to do is heat and serve.

So, fake meats, delicious or disgusting? It’s not as simple as that. Because there is such a wide variety of flavors and forms, it’s best to not assume that you’re not going to like all fake meats. You have to experiment with all the different kinds of products rather than run and cower from them. If you’re looking for a vegetarian version of meat to taste exactly like the meat it’s substituting, stop searching because you’re never going to find it.