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Plant-based burgers sprout up in Medford

Burger King’s April 1 announcement of a Whopper made without beef sounded like a prank, but the availability and popularity of plant-based burgers is growing.

Two California companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have attracted investors and awards by promising the flavor, texture and look of meat that is kinder to animals, the environment and even your health. Both brands are available in Medford, so I set out to try them.

The Impossible burger is on the menu at The Ram for $12.95, more than the $9.99 basic Ram Classic, but comparable in price to the more elaborate burgers on the menu. Diners can substitute the Impossible patty on any burger for an additional $3.

The Impossible burger is soy-based with generous additions of safflower and coconut oil. Its main innovation is a protein that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule, in the root of soy plants. According to the company, this legume hemoglobin or “leghemoglobin” delivers the same meaty flavor as hemoglobin and myoglobin found in animal tissue, but they need a lot of it to make soy taste like beef. Tearing up vast tracts of soybean plants wasn’t feasible, so the company genetically engineered yeast to produce the heme-carrying soy protein.

The Food and Drug administration issued a letter stating that this heme can be “generally recognized as safe,” a bureaucratic phrase that manages to be both reassuring and a little off-putting when applied to my lunch.

The texture offered a meaty chew that earlier generations of plant-based burgers lacked. The salty, savory flavor with a hint of minerality doesn’t perfectly mimic meat, bringing to mind mushrooms or a yeast extract like Marmite.

My Impossible burger at the Ram arrived on a vegan sourdough bun that is paler than the tender enriched Kaiser bun that cradled the classic cheeseburger my husband ordered. Both the burgers had a little too much lettuce for my liking, but the glistening juices of the beef burger coated the thick swath of leaves in a way that will encourage carnivores to eat more vegetables.

The thin Impossible burger — roughly half the thickness of the beef patty — sported a nicely browned crust. However, the patty was cracked and torn as though it had taken a bad flip on the flat top, making me wonder if it suffered from careless cooking.

The texture offered a meaty chew that earlier generations of plant-based burgers lacked. The salty, savory flavor with a hint of minerality doesn’t perfectly mimic meat, bringing to mind mushrooms or a yeast extract like Marmite. If you’ve given up meat for health or environmental reasons or even just for Lent and are longing to sink your teeth into a chewy fast-food burger, the Impossible burger might satisfy your craving.

It’s also available in Medford at Red Robin, which rolled out the Impossible burger the first week of April. The cheeseburger is priced at $14.99, comparable with the Angus beef patties that Red Robin calls its “finest.”

Carl’s Jr. restaurants started serving the competing Beyond burger in January, so my husband and I continued our fake meat quest there. The Beyond Famous Star with cheese is priced at $6.79, or you can make it a combo with fries and a drink for $9.99. That’s the same as the Angus truffle burger next to it on the menu, but more than the $4.59 price for an original Famous Star with cheese, which can become a combo for $7.79.

Measuring around a half-inch thick, the Beyond burger had a charbroiled exterior that my husband praised and a slightly rosy interior, thanks to beet juice that gives the look of red meat to a mix of pea protein isolate, canola and coconut oil, cellulose, yeast extract and other ingredients that are not genetically modified and generally pronounceable. The texture was a little spongy, reminding me of a preformed turkey or chicken burger. Loaded up with melted cheese, lettuce, pickles, onions, tomato and a slathering of special sauce tasting of ketchup, mayonnaise and pickle relish, an actual sponge would probably taste delicious, especially when accompanied by crisp, salty fries. That’s what fast-food restaurants are all about.

You can also find the Beyond Burger at Medford’s Black Bear Diner and it is sold at Safeway if you want to try grilling one in your own backyard.

The Impossible burger. (Photo by Anita Burke)