Like real meat, the fake stuff is available either finished or raw. Finished products include everything from frozen burger patties striped with faux grill marks to fake bologna slices and breaded not-chicken nuggets made from wheat, soy or Quorn, a patented fungus derivative otherwise known as mycoprotein.
Soy protein usually arrives at a food manufacturer in the form of a dry powder. Soy protein is coiled and globular, while real meat proteins are fibrous, so the challenge is to change the soy’s molecular structure. The food manufacturer exposes the soy protein to heat or acid or a solvent, and then runs it through an extruder to reshape it. “When you denature the molecules, they open up and become more fibrous,” says Barry Swanson, a professor of food science and nutrition at Washington State University and a fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists. “Then you hold them together with a gel, such as carrageenan or xanthan gum, something that will hold a little bit of water, and what you get is something that vaguely resembles a piece of meat.”
Quorn, the leading brand for meat alternatives worldwide, is a relative newcomer to the U.S. market. Quorn products are made from a daunting double-fermentation process in a 50-meter-high tower; the result is a high-protein, high-fiber fungus related to the mushroom family and with a structure similar to that of animal muscle cells. The fungus is then mixed with binders, flavorings, and other ingredients, formed into the desired shape and heated, which causes it to coalesce.
Other faux meat products are made from wheat gluten, which goes through a similar denaturing process. Wheat has less protein than soy, but its stretchy texture is more easily transformed into the chewiness of meat. Many products are formed from a combo of wheat and soy.
Once the texture is sufficiently meat-ish, it can be lavished with seasonings and flavorings to impart the taste and aroma of whatever substance is being mimicked, from bratwurst to bacon.
How to Work with the Stuff
- It goes in at the end. Instead of beginning by browning or searing the meat, you will instead flavor the dish first and add the faux material at the end.
- It works best in dishes with lots of sauce or strong flavors. The sauce will determine the success of the dish; the texture and flavor of the mock meat will be secondary.
- It needs to be wrung out. Many of the originals, like mock duck, mock abalone, and other gluten-based products, are resilient little sponges packaged in soy-laced broths to give them a meaty taste. Wring them out gently. —Robin Asbell
Where to Get Fake Meat