Photo courtesy of Meredith Jenks/Trunk Archive
A Guide to the Best Plant-Based Meats
If you don’t eat meat or if you’re cutting back a bit for the planet or for your health: Sure, you can perform some kitchen alchemy and turn chickpeas, cauliflower, butternut squash, eggplant, mushrooms, jackfruit, tempeh, and tofu into some near-meat miracles. But for something closer to the real deal, you might turn to the plant-based alternative meat products available in most grocery stores today. There are a lot of them. Are any of them healthy? Do they taste good? What even are they? Our senior director of science and research, Gerda Endemann, PhD, and food director, Caitlin O’Malley, teamed up again to break it down for us.
Before we name names here, it’s worth noting that fake ground beef is our favorite fake meat to work with because—like the real deal—it’s incredibly versatile. Even the brands we tried that we didn’t love had potential to be seasoned, sauced, or otherwise zhuzhed into something that was pretty good. We also like when it’s available unflavored, so you have the option to make tacos, Bolognese, burgers, shepherd’s pie, meatballs, kofta, dumplings, chili, meatloaf, stuffed peppers—you get the idea.
The taste and texture have been known to fool life-long carnivores thanks to the ingenious and signature use of plant-derived heme (read more about that fascinating process here). It cooks up as easily as ground beef when crumbled or in patties, which can get that famously pink rare center. The current recipe is gluten-free (the original did have wheat protein, but they stopped producing that one in 2019) and has plenty of protein and iron, as well as added zinc and B vitamins, which are helpful if you eat a vegan diet.
Beyond Meat Beyond Beef
This was a close one. Beyond could be used as successfully as the Impossible meat in almost all situations, but it came down to the burger. Unadorned—just the patties, some salt, and a hot cast-iron for a pure taste test—Beyond tastes a bit more obviously like fake meat than Impossible. We still like this one a lot—it’s gluten-free, soy-free, and a good source of protein. We just might doctor it up a bit more when we use it to make burgers.
Oh, chicken. The most consumed meat in the US and the hardest to fake. Getting that muscle texture right on fake chicken is so tricky and almost always involves wheat and soy, making it nearly impossible to find vegan chicken that’s both gluten- and soy-free. To that end, we wouldn’t say that these are categorically healthier for you than chicken, but on those occasions when you’re jonesing for something chicken-y, try one of these three.
Simulate Spicy Nuggs
Chicken nuggets are a cornerstone of frozen vegan food. Simulate has taken it to the next level with these wheat-and-soy-based spicy nuggs. The “chicken” itself is good, but the well-seasoned (we’re talking garlic, onion, ancho chili, paprika, red pepper, and black pepper) crispy-breaded exterior will keep you going back for more. The kick on these is real, and we’d happily serve them with all the vegan dips for a Super Bowl party or even on little buns as mini chicken sliders.
Quorn Meatless Patties
Quorn uses a fungus-based mycoprotein that makes up nearly half of the patty—something unique and sustainable. We love the crunchy breading, and the patty itself has the most chicken-y flavor of any alts we tried. It contains egg white, so it’s vegetarian but not vegan (Quorn does have fully vegan patties, but we prefer the taste and texture of the vegetarian version). Bonus: This brand was one of the few to opt for plastic-free packaging.
Daring Original Pieces
There isn’t much out there when it comes to nonbreaded vegan chicken, so when we heard Daring had some options, we were eager to try. We sautéed the original pieces in a little oil from frozen, just a few minutes on each side, and they browned beautifully and, when pulled apart, had that quintessential shreddy chicken texture. The soy definitely comes through with a bean-y flavor, but we think tossing it in a robust sauce would do the trick (BBQ, gochujang, teriyaki, sweet and sour, tikka masala, chipotle, etc.). Also, we give them props for doing a lot with a little—apart from some spices, there are only three ingredients here (water, soy protein concentrate, and sunflower oil).
We’ll keep this category short. Because so many of the vegan sausages we tried were just stodgy gluten-logs.
Beyond Sausage Hot Italian
The Beyond Sausages are, well, beyond the competition. Because they’re gluten-free, they don’t rely on wheat gluten and have a much more pleasing sausage-like texture. When grilled or pan-seared, the vegan casing has a bit of a snap like real sausages, and we had great results when removing them from the casing to crumble and sauté with onions and garlic before adding crushed tomatoes for a vegan meat sauce. The flavors are pretty impressive: Both the sweet and hot Italian are well-seasoned, and the bratwurst tastes like a bratwurst—not easy to achieve.
Starting the day with less meat and more plants is something we can get behind. Luckily this category had a lot of good choices.
Hilary’s Spicy Veggie Sausage
This one is a bit of a unicorn in the fake-meat universe because the ingredient list is almost entirely made up of super recognizable whole foods (millet, lentils, date paste, hemp seeds, potato starch), and it happens to taste really good. The heat level was nice, with those classic fennel and sage-y breakfast-sausage flavors coming through. It gets a bit crumbly and doesn’t hold together as regular sausages do, but if that’s the main trade-off for having an option with such wholesome ingredients, we’ll take it.
Abbot’s Spanish Smoked “Chorizo”
Soy-based chorizos have been around for a while, and they’re usually pretty good, but we were intrigued to learn about a soy-free version from Abbot’s Butcher. It uses pea protein for the base along with Spanish smoked paprika, cumin, garlic, coriander, clove, and oregano for an extremely deep and well-rounded flavor. It’s easy to prepare and can be used for more than just breakfast. We’re thinking about piling it on top of vegan queso with guac and pico.
Sweet Earth Benevolent Bacon
This veggie bacon made our list because it’s seasoned so well. Sweet Earth isn’t shy with the saucy marinade situation—which is a good thing: It’s smoky, sweet, and a little tangy with legit BBQ vibes. The texture is not that bacon-like, but it becomes nicely crisp when cooked in a frying pan and would be great in a veggie BLAT or crushed up on top of a Southwest salad with vegan ranch and crunchy tortilla strips.
We knew about chickpea “tuna” and jackfruit “crab cakes,” but the thought of vegan fish scared us a bit. We bravely charged ahead with taste-testing, though.
Breaded Vegan Shrimp
Sophie’s Kitchen vegan fish was a pleasant surprise. Our favorite were the breaded shrimp. The texture was uncannily similar to the real deal, and the seaweed powder gives them that essence of the sea without being heavy-handed and fishy. They’re also gluten-free, and the rice powder breading was super crisp when we cooked them. Not sure that we’d snack on these solo, but they’d be perfect for vegan crispy shrimp tacos or a vegan shrimp po’ boy.
Okay, eggs aren’t meat. But they are an animal product, and when we heard about a vegan egg replacement, we had to try it.
The key ingredient is mung bean—we were happy to see something that isn’t quite so soy-reliant. We added Just Egg to some melted butter in a pan and it miraculously cooked up into a fluffy scramble. The texture is spot-on—it’s probably the best dupe we’ve ever tried on that front. There is a slight lingering legume-y flavor, but if you had it in a breakfast burrito or sandwich or even added some herbs and veggies, we think you’d hardly notice. This is a great option if you’re vegan or allergic to eggs.