Plant-based meat alternatives have been around for ages, but only recently they’ve seen more mainstream popularity. This can be attributed to food-science breakthroughs made by new companies—most notably Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—whose products were designed to specifically mimic the characteristics of ground beef in texture, flavor, and their ability to “bleed” red-hued juices.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve tried every imitation-beef burger we could get our hands on, using a simple burger as our benchmark. Our results aligned with most fauxtein taste tests (and boy, there are many), with both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger offering the most beef-like experience. The Impossible Burger had the beefiest texture, inside and out: its surface browns up beautifully, and the interior (if not overcooked) stays juicy and chewy, almost like the real thing. The Beyond Burger is more fine-grained in texture—it’s obvious you’re not eating real beef—but it forms a crispy exterior and has enough fat and beet-colored juice within to offer a good approximation. Flavor-wise, both tasted beefy, but we found the Beyond Burger to taste most like a griddle-cooked hamburger, while the Impossible Burger had a lingering, livery flavor that was too beef-like for us.
Whichever beef-alternative product you choose to cook at home, you’ll only unlock its qualities if you cook it properly—and a cast iron skillet is the best tool for the job, thanks to its excellent heat retention.
Here are our tips for cooking plant-based burgers in cast iron:
DIY patties. If possible, purchase loose “meat” over preformed patties, which are too thin and tend to dry out even if you cook them correctly (see below). To get juicier results, form the blend into patties that are about ¾-inch thick, pressing them a bit more tightly than you would a beef burger so they hold their shape.
Don’t preseason. All plant-based meat blends and patties comes preseasoned, so they don’t need a sprinkle of salt before cooking. Doing so will actually pull out some moisture, resulting in a drier burger. If your burger needs more seasoning, salt it after you finish cooking.
Preheat the skillet. The key to achieving the best texture and meatiest flavor from imitation beef is to sear it in an evenly heated cast iron skillet. Preheat the pan over medium heat for a few minutes before adding oil (see below).
Use plenty of oil. Unlike real beef patties, fauxtein tends to brown unevenly, so extra cooking oil is necessary to ensure an even sear. (Most brands are also stickier than ground beef, so the extra oil helps them release.) Add enough vegetable or grapeseed oil to completely cover the bottom of the skillet.
Don’t press, don’t smash. We love a good smashburger, but the technique doesn’t work with meat alternatives, as it pushes out too much fat and dries out the patty. The specific fats used in fauxtein vary from brand to brand, but they all melt at lower temperatures than beef fat, so you want to keep them where they belong—inside the burger blend.
Don’t overcook. If you follow the package directions for cooking fauxtein, you’ll almost always end up with a dry, overcooked patty. Cook the patties as you would a medium-rare burger; this will take 2 to 3 minutes per side (depending on the thickness of the patties), or you can check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer: 125°F to 130°F is the sweet spot for a juicy, pink-in-the-center burger.
Condiments are key. A perfectly cooked hamburger doesn’t need much adornment, but even the best fauxteins benefit from contrasting flavors and textures, so garnish and sauce your burgers with aplomb.
Recipe: Cast Iron Plant-Based Burgers
1 pound loose (or 4 patties) beef alternative blend
Vegetable or grapeseed oil
4 hamburger buns, toasted
4 slices cheese (or vegan cheese), optional
Garnishes and condiments, the more the merrier
The Field Method for Cast Iron Care
If using loose beef alternative blend, divide the mixture into 4 equal portions, then shape each into a patty about ¾-inch thick, and slightly wider than your bun. (Unlike ground beef, you’ll want to use a firmer hand when forming the patties, or they’ll fall apart in the skillet.)
Add enough vegetable oil to completely cover the skillet, and increase the heat to medium-high. When the oil shimmers, add the patties and cook without disturbing until their bottoms are deeply browned and release easily from the skillet, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the burgers over and top with cheese slices, if using. Continue cooking until the other side is deeply browned, 2 to 3 minutes longer. (To check doneness with a thermometer, insert the probe of an instant-read thermometer into the center of the patty; you’re aiming for 125°F to 130°F for a medium-rare-style burger).
Transfer the patties to the buns, dress the burgers with garnishes and condiments, and serve.