There is a long, global history of the manipulation of foods to make them resemble other foods, from mock turtle soup to mock duck to imitation crab. While some of these dishes are gross and weird, many are pretty good, if not entirely convincing. But even some not-so-good food fakery isn’t entirely without merit, particularly in the case of plant-based meat substitutes.
In recent years, the fake meat industry has come a long way, although in most cases, modern innovations still pale in comparison to traditional Asian meat substitutes based on soy or wheat gluten, such as seitan, tempeh, or yuba. This has largely to do with texture: while modern brands such as Beyond, Omni, or Impossible are tasty and in most cases perform fairly well in place of ground meat, they fail to recreate the fibrous chew of actual cuts of meat.
Redefining Meat with 3D Printing
Enter Redefine Meat, which, like many other start-ups in the sector, is producing meat substitutes based on plant proteins and fat in the name of sustainability, health, and averting climate catastrophe. Whether or not these companies are as good for the environment as they say they are remains to be seen – monocropping is an issue with many of their raw ingredients – but they’re almost definitely better than eating comparable quantities of beef.
For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for substitutes that recreate that singular satisfaction of a Double-Double or a ribeye steak. Steak is the really tricky one, because of its inconsistent texture. Redefine Meat aims to recreate this with what it calls “Meat Matrix Additive Manufacturing,” a kind of 3D printing that pipes out cords of fake muscle, fat, and hemoglobin, which are then compressed into steak-like slabs.
One of the UK’s most celebrated chefs, Marco Pierre White – in his heyday, people called him an enfant terrible, now he’d probably be called an abusive narcissist – has recently made Redefine Meat a feature at his many restaurants. This is a pretty big deal, because White is known for meat-heavy French and British cookery. His endorsement does make me think there might be something to this particular brand of “New-Meat.”
Eating Redefine Steak at Mr. White’s
So, I went to a branch of Mr. White’s, described as a ‘glamourous’ and ‘lively’ ‘English chophouse,’ where Redefine products are sold as steaks and burgers, and in a Bolognese sauce. I ordered the steak, with béarnaise.
The first issue was the appearance: it didn’t look like a steak. It looked like meat, but not steak – kind of like a haunch of venison, or perhaps the narrow tail end of a beef tenderloin, though more fibrous than both. I suppose this may be why it came with some sauce already spooned over it, and a little bunch of roasted cherry tomatoes and cresses on top. It was as though they were trying to disguise it.
I did my best to take a bite of it without any sauce or tomato on it. At first, the flavor reminded me of elementary school Salisbury steaks: vaguely meaty but also quite bready. It was devoid of ‘beefy’ flavors, which, in good aged beef, can be mushroomy, iron-rich, and intensely savory. This made me wish I’d had some MSG or soy sauce to get the umami in. It was not dry, but also not juicy. It did taste good with béarnaise, and went very well with rioja – but as a steak substitute, it didn’t m work. It was a failure.
However, texturally speaking, it was a triumph – almost. They absolutely nailed the irregular, tender-chewy, fibrous texture of real meat – but not of steak. What they did was successfully recreate the feel of braised beef. It could be a great substitute for brisket, shin, or oxtail, just not fillet, sirloin, or onglet. I would want to try it in a stew or a curry, or smoked and sliced and slicked with barbecue sauce. As it was, it fell into a kind of meat uncanny valley – so close to the real thing, but just wrong enough to be unappealing. Also, it cost £30 – the same as the actual ribeye.
If I sound overly negative about my experience at Mr. White’s, it’s because, in all honesty, I enjoy the opportunity to criticize the man who popularized the idea that, to be a great chef, you must also be an arrogant, shouty dictator who bullies the staff into submission. If I’d eaten it at another restaurant, or cooked it myself, I might have had a better appraisal of it. And I have to say, I do think the whole fake meat thing is a worthwhile endeavor, even when it doesn’t quite work; getting people to eat less meat is a noble goal.
Redefine Meat isn’t perfect, but it comes closer to replicating the tactile aspects of real meat than anything else I’ve tried. With a few years of fine-tuning (especially in terms of flavor), the company might have a product that is truly difficult to distinguish from actual beef. Until then, I’ll probably just stick with the original sustainable beef substitute: free range, outdoor-reared British turkey!
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