Vegan meat has come a long way since Boca Burgers were the most innovative option for those seeking plant-based alternatives to products normally made from animals. And vegan meat sales are way up this year, partially due to the pandemic.
But what does creating successful plant-based meats look like? To get answers, we spoke with five leading vegan butchers to find out.
Most vegan butchers aren’t looking for an “exact match” so much as total satisfaction
Vegan BBQ sandwich — Photo courtesy of iStock / bhofack2
Many vegan butchers aren’t looking to exactly replicate animal protein so much as use their flavor profiles to create a unique culinary experience. Monk’s Meats uses a variety of different plant proteins (like wheat, chickpea, soy and mushrooms) and a number of different techniques (like steaming, smoking, brining, braising and grinding) to create a meaty texture for their customers.
But the butchers at Monk’s are more interested in replicating culinary processes and techniques than recreating animal meats. “Our flavor profiles are designed to work with different spices and traditions and our ‘cuts’ are meant to stand up to smoking, grilling, braising, stewing, brining, etc.,” explains Chris Kim, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based vegan butcher shop.
Kerry Song, founder of southern California-based vegan butcher shop Abbot’s Butcher has a similar attitude. “We don’t want to be an exact match, because we aren’t an animal protein…but at the same time, we use the animal product as a North Star, as we think about the flavor profiles and mouthfeel of each ‘meat’ we craft,” Song says.
Crafting a successful vegan meat isn’t just about taste
Animal flesh all has different amounts of protein, fat and sugar that combine to give each meat a distinct taste. In the end, though, a lot of the taste comes down to the seasoning.
“Chorizo includes ancho chili powder, cinnamon and bay leaf, for example. All American breakfast sausage includes sage, red pepper flakes and paprika,” says Kale Walch, co-founder of the award-winning Minneapolis-based vegan butcher shop, The Herbivorous Butcher.
Sadrah Schadel – co-founder of the Asheville, North Carolina-based vegan butcher shop No Evil Foods – notes that the experience of meat also has “a heck of a lot to do with smell,” so in addition to playing around with different ratios of ingredients to emulate a variety of textures and mouthfeels, No Evil Foods focuses on replicating the scent of animal meats.
“A lot of our work is done by hitting visual markers and matching aromas closely associated with the animal protein we’re aiming to replicate,” Schadel says. “An Italian sausage doesn’t have the same texture or mouthfeel as a fresh-style chorizo, so we don’t simply use the same base recipe and switch out the seasonings.”
Peter Fikaris – co-founder of the Berkeley, California-based vegan butcher shop, The Butcher’s Son – recognizes the olfactory side of meat-eating as well.
“When I ate chicken, I remember it having a slight pull on my tongue when eating. It was fatty and moist but had an odd dryness to it – the flavor was more in my nose than my mouth,” Fikaris says. “It made my teeth sort of have this pulsating feeling after a few bites, like I was craving more of that particular chewing sensation.”
It’s details like these that The Butcher’s Son works to recreate.
Certain vegan meats are harder to make than others
Plant-based meats that require several steps or a variety of methods, such as marinating or smoking, are often more challenging and more time-consuming – but No Evil Foods goes for it anyway, doing things like smoking pulled “pork’ over real hickory wood.
“We’re basically creating meat without the animal, which means that we need to start from scratch every time,” Schadel says.
The biggest challenge for The Butcher’s Son isn’t just replicating the taste, look and texture of animal meats – it’s also about knowing how your vegan meat cooks, how it cools down, and how it feels when you’re eating it during different cooling periods.
“It may look and taste great hot, but turn into a stiff piece of gluten or a chalky mushy piece of coconut oil-saturated pea protein after 15 minutes of sitting,” Fikaris says. Getting it exactly right – at any temperature – requires trial and error, and is often a delicate balance of ratios and timing akin to baking.
Walch says certain plant-based meats require a multi-day process and some even have to set overnight. “Maintaining the shape we want and making sure it maintains the right flavor balance throughout the process is very labor-intensive,” Walch explains.
He also notes that chicken, despite its overwhelming popularity, is one of the most precarious plant-based meats to work with. “Vegan chicken is delicate, so we don’t treat it as harshly as we would the vegan pork or beef products,” Walch says.
Best-sellers depend more on the butcher and less on the particular meat
For The Butcher’s Son, the top-selling menu items are always chicken. “I don’t know what it is about chicken, but if you got it, they want it. I’m convinced that if you’re looking to run a successful business, just add chicken,” Fikaris says.
For Abbot’s Butcher, the ground “beef” is most popular for its umami flavor, mouthfeel and texture. For No Evil Foods, The Stallion Italian Sausage and Comrade Cluck No Chicken slightly outperform the rest.
Most vegan butchers hardly started out vegan
Most vegan butchers got into this line of work because they started out meat lovers, and had a change of consciousness. Song went vegetarian in college, but the founder of Abbot’s Butcher says she didn’t ditch animal meat because of taste or texture.
“I gave it up because I’ve always felt strongly about animal welfare and the environment,” Song explains. “But when it came to the meat alternatives that were available, to me, they were vegan junk food filled with a lot of additives and preservatives.”
Coming from a family of physicians, Song says finding a vegan meat with a clean label was important to her. When none of the plant-based meats on the market provided the ingredients, taste and mouthfeel that Song wanted, she created Abbot’s Butcher to satiate her craving.
No Evil Foods co-founder Schadel and her formerly carnivorous co-founder, Mike Woliansky, felt like the vegan protein options available to them weren’t healthy enough and had “all the personality of cardboard” – so they took the DIY homesteading approach and started making their own plant-based meats from scratch.
Peter Fikaris says he co-founded The Butcher’s Son for similar reasons. “I went vegan and realized I had no place to go for a cold cut or a decent fried chicken sandwich, so I built that place.”
And for those of us who want to help the environment, animals and our cholesterol – while still satiating our occasional fried chicken craving – we’re certainly glad these plant-based butchers did just that.