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How to grill plant-based meats for the best texture and flavor

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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You’re hosting a cookout, so you make a run to the store. As you tip various ingredients and supplies into your cart, you realize you need a plan for the non-meat eaters. You haven’t really played around with them before, but you grab a couple of packages of plant-based burger meat and links.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry too much about a learning curve after that. “It’s not as dramatic as I thought it would be,” says Dan Zuccarello, executive food editor for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, which recently released “Cooking With Plant-Based Meat.”

That’s one of the main goals for brands such as Impossible Foods, says Laura Kliman, the company’s director of new product development. “We’re trying to replicate the entire sensory and meat-eating experience,” and that includes how the items cook, she says.

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Although cooks who are well-versed in grilling traditional meat will find plant-based options pretty similar, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the transition as easy as possible.

Moisture loss. Burgers made with animal proteins can lose a significant portion of their weight in the course of cooking, causing them to shrink. The America’s Test Kitchen team didn’t find that with plant-based options, Zuccarello says. If you’re trying to figure out portion sizes or adapt a recipe that calls for regular meat, count on the equivalency of 12 ounces of plant-based meat for every 1 pound of beef, pork, etc.

Similarly, ATK does not recommend making an indentation in the top of plant-based burger patties, since they won’t shrink and dome in the middle like a beef burger.

Shaping. Kliman says the first version of Impossible’s burger didn’t do quite as well on the grill because it wasn’t as cohesive and tended to stick. She says those characteristics improved with the newer version released in 2019.

Overall, though, Zuccarello says ATK found it beneficial to chill plant-based patties after shaping. This helps them hold that shape and allows for better cooking, giving you enough time to brown the outside without overcooking the middle. You can buy pre-shaped, plant-based patties for convenience, Zuccarello says, though they tend to be more expensive per ounce and allow for less flexibility in seasoning.

Because plant-based products tend to skew stickier, it’s important to wear gloves or moisten or oil your hands while shaping, according to Zuccarello. Similarly, be sure your grill is sufficiently heated, with clean, well-oiled grates.

Temperature and doneness. “Our meat tends to cook faster,” Kliman says. She says you can observe the doneness using the same kinds of cues as you would a traditional burger, by paying attention to the texture and color. The burgers will firm up as they cook, and you’ll see the same color transition from rare (pink/red) to well-done (brown/gray), thanks to the heme, an iron-containing protein that lends flavor and color.

Zuccarello says the ATK team preferred to take their plant-based burgers a little past medium-rare (125 degrees) to avoid a mushy texture. He recommends a sweet spot of 130 to 135 degrees, or medium doneness. At that point, he says you still get the look of a medium-rare burger with a juicy center. ATK gives general guidance of 2 to 3 minutes per side of a thick plant-based patty, compared with 3 to 5 minutes for beef.

Links. Because there’s no shaping involved, grilling plant-based sausage links is particularly straightforward. Just make sure your grates are clean and well-greased, and you should be good to go. Zuccarello recommends not taking the links all the way to 160 degrees, to keep them from drying out. (Impossible Foods instructs cooking to that temperature “or to desired doneness.”) Look for the sausages to brown well and the casings to crisp.

Flavor and appearance. Each brand’s proprietary blend for their ground products means you may find variations depending on what flavors or seasonings are included. If you don’t like one, you may have better luck with another. Kliman encourages cooks to season bulk plant-based meat the same ways you would animal based-options. “Do whatever flavor combinations that you like,” she says. “It really is that sort of blank canvas.”

Especially with grilling, you may be interested in leaning into smoky flavors, Zuccarello says. Smoked paprika is one such enhancer, which can also help make up for the quicker cook time.

There’s nothing different you have to do to replicate the appearance of animal meat, Zuccarello says, noting that plant-based burgers and sausages brown and pick up attractive grill marks extremely well.

Zuccarello says the ATK team went into the plant-based book research with an open mind. “In general, we were pretty authentically surprised at the results,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you’re eating a cooked plant-based meat, you wouldn’t know the difference.”

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