Anyone who is or who has been a vegetarian knows that sometimes you get those meat cravings (well, at least this one does). After more than a decade of being a veggie, I have at one point or another tried pretty much all the fake-meat products—Boca Burgers, Tofurky, Morning Star Vegetarian Bacon (or “facon”)—and though most were tasty in their own way, none of them made me do a double-take; it was clear that I wasn’t eating the real deal. That is, until I found the Impossible Burger.
The entirely plant-based burger patty was cooked up by a Silicon Valley startup called Impossible Foods, and the Impossible Burger is having a bit of a moment right now. Earlier this month, the company struck a deal with national fast-food chain White Castle to sell Impossible Sliders at its 400-plus locations across the country (us Capital Region-ites can only buy White Castle’s wares in the supermarket freezer aisle; the closest brick-and-mortar is in Nanuet, NY, two-and-a-half hours south of Saratoga Springs).
On the Impossible Foods’ website, the company claims that its burger “delivers all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows,” and being a veggie expert, I wanted to see (really, taste) for myself whether the Impossible Burger lived up to the hype. And it turns out it’s not so impossible to find them in the area: In fact, Saratogians can try the Impossible Burger at Farmers Hardware on Maple Avenue. So I drove over there to investigate.
“It sells very well, and it’s actually kind of exceeded my expectations,” says Julia Sanzen, the CEO and Executive Chef of Farmers Hardware. “Word has spread around town and nearby cities, so people do come to us just for the Impossible Burger.” Sanzen has been carrying the meatless patty since January, but first encountered it almost three years ago at a restaurant in New York City with her partner and Co-founder, Tyler. “I was amazed how it really tastes and has the texture of a burger. I could eat one every day.” And Sanzen isn’t even a vegetarian. From the first bite, I can see what she’s talking about: I’ve had or made a lot of my own black-bean or chickpea or [substitute whatever bean you like] burgers, and they’re all good, but they always taste like, well, beans. This was the first veggie burger I’d had that really contained the flavors and juiciness of a beef hamburger.
How does Impossible Foods do it? The company was founded in 2011 by Patrick O. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., with the mission of making a tasty burger that was not only popular, but also better for the planet (livestock have a surprisingly high carbon footprint and consume a lot of water). Furthermore, Brown wanted to make this ultra-realistic veggie burger with all natural ingredients. Fake meat and textured protein products may be overall less caloric, but many of them are highly processed with long ingredients lists. The Impossible Burger, however, consists of a few simple ingredients: potato protein for essential nutrition, coconut oil and a little soy so it sizzles with a natural juiciness, and two binding food additives, konjac (a starchy root) and xanthan (a sugar-like, gummy compound), common in many chefs’ kitchens and food products. What’s the secret ingredient that gives the Impossible Burger its meaty flavor? Something called heme, an essential molecule in all living things but found in very high concentrations in animal meat. Impossible Foods was able to create vast amounts of this molecule by taking the heme from soy roots, which naturally contain an abundance of the molecular meat flavor, and fermented it using a genetically engineered yeast. The company chose to use the genetically engineered yeast in order to produce the Impossible Burger at a commercial scale but with the lowest achievable environmental impact. (In other words, it would take many, many acres to grow the amount of soy necessary to mass produce Impossible Burgers.)
The Impossible Burger was the first product for Impossible Foods, and since then, the company’s expanded its line to include other meatless products, such as meatballs, empanadas and sausage patties. The company has been so successful that in August 2017, Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong businessman and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, headlined a list of influential donors who pumped $75 million into the company in an effort to get a high-quality, plant-based burger into the mainstream. So far that bet seems to be paying off. Besides the big White Castle deal and Farmers Hardware, Impossible Burgers have sprung up, most within the past six months to a year, at Capital Region locations such as Wired Coffee Roasters in Malta, Wolff’s Biergarten in Schenectady, The Shop and Slidin’ Dirty in Troy and Dave & Buster’s in Albany. And as long as Farmers Hardware keeps selling this impossibly delicious veggie burger, I know I’ll keep enjoying them!