I’m unimpressed as I look at the breaded cutlet. I can’t ignore its manufactured shape, a soft-edged triangle that looks like a novelty sized, breaded guitar pick sitting on my plate. As it happens, guitar picks don’t exactly get the stomach juices going. And as I consider what awaits me inside the breading—mycelium (or the non-fruiting base of a mushroom)—I’m really not sure I want to try it after all.
This simply can’t be good.
But I cut into it anyway since, you know, This is dinner now, and I take my first bite. I’m pleasantly surprised. My mind goes to a Shake ‘n Bake pork chop, a food I last ate at age 9. The chewy texture is much lighter than pork, though, more like a chicken patty.
And as I really bite into the protein, I realize something rare for plant-based proteins: It’s juicy. I have no idea what to call it, and I cease to care. I just want to eat my delicious dinner.
This is Meati, the latest direct-to-consumer plant protein worthy of your attention. Available to the public now (but sold out), it’s raised $50 million and garnered attention from some of the leading minds in food and sustainability. Meati signed Scott Tassani, former president of General Mills, to serve as its president; Rose Marcari, former Patagonia CEO to serve on its board; and chef David Chang to be its ambassador (in the past, Chang was one of the first chefs to serve Impossible burgers). Whereas most meat replacements source their protein from soy, wheat, and peas, Meati is the first to market to sell mycelium.
As noted above, mycelium is not a mushroom per se. It’s the part of a mushroom’s fungal network that lives below ground, connecting tree roots like a telephone line to help them communicate, coordinate, and share resources. Meati grows its mycelium in big tanks that resemble a brewery, using fermentation. One spore is placed in water and fed with sugar, and a cow’s worth of protein grows with exponential speed. The process takes just three or four days, and the mycelium packs on its last 200 pounds of mass overnight.
Mycelium’s efficient conversion of the carbon in sugars into protein and fiber, “reaches theoretical maximums of nature,” according to Tyler Huggins, CEO and cofounder of Meati Foods. Huggins himself grew up on a bison ranch, and he was inspired to launch the company after working in forestry, where he studied soil ecology and the fungal world. After two years of searching, he found one strain of mycelium that had the right balance of high nutritional content, fast growth, and texture/flavor. And he’s not afraid to speak in superlatives, noting that his goal was to “to make massive change, bring nutrition to the world that could be a global staple.”
Yet on its own, the mycelium is mostly tasteless, and its cells have a stringy texture. Huggins explains that Meati’s secret muscle sauce is largely in how it treats the protein next, using relatively off the shelf bread and cheese machinery to push and rearrange the direction of mycelium’s strings to mimic various fibers in animals. (He declines to go into more detail.) They also use some natural flavoring to coax your mind toward chicken or beef.
Eating Meati isn’t anything like eating a portobello burger (and, ooph, I’ve really tried with portobellos…apologies to my Thanksgiving guests who suffered through my futile attempts to braise them for 12 hours in wine). So erase the mushroom idea from your mind entirely. Meati truly is remarkably meat-like as it slices and shreds in your teeth.
I like Meati chicken more than the chicken I’ve tried from Beyond Meat (though if you snag their KFC product right out of the fryerbefore it gets rubbery in a hot drawer, that’s the best plant chicken experience on the planet). Daringmeanwhile, makes a very enjoyable chicken alternative that chars up like a chicken leg off the grill, and chews like dark meat.
Increasingly, I find myself skeptical that we’ll ever have one meat replacement to rule them all, and, we may live with an abundance instead of variety. And so I appreciate Meati, not just as an alternative to meat, but as an alternative to meat alternatives. I see it as a way I can avoid eating another meal of tofu or chickpeas. Because it’s mycelium, Meati avoids the standard soy, wheat, pea trifecta of plant proteins—even Meati’s chicken crust is gluten free, making the cutlet void of the most common allergens where brands like Nuggs are not. Meati chicken also has 20% of your daily allowance of naturally occurring B vitamins (which are tough to find in plants; most proteins supplement this nutrient), 17g of protein (putting it roughly on par with chicken breast), and 43% of your daily fiber.
For my next meal, I unpacked the dubious looking, still-experimental meal steaks. Rather than guitar picks, these were a clean circle shape—clearly inspired by a filet. Rather than a golden color, they were an auburn brown. I learned later the color is from beet juice, a classic vegan meat trick.
I grilled them up as suggested, and while I didn’t get a true beef sear, I could begin seeing lines from the grill. But I made the same error that newbs make with tofu or beans. I didn’t season the steaks. I didn’t even use salt. (Hey, the chicken was pre-seasoned! I thought the steak was too!)
Eating it was uncanny. The texture was different than the Meati chicken. It was somehow like a still-moist, well-done steak. The flavor…almost starts to be like steak? And then just as you expect the steak flavor to land, there’s nothing. The texture and flavor hit some uncanny valley to me, as my mind ping ponged around for an anchor on what this was. I didn’t want to eat more, but I slathered it in Stubb’s, and got the sensation of a lousy chunk of indistinguishable red meat. I thought, “It’s bad, but I’ve eaten worse barbecue.”
Meanwhile, David Chang seas it up with butter and thyme in his videos. Whether or not I’d like this preparation of Meati steak, I do appreciate the idea of an unfettered plant protein that I can chef up myself.
As Huggins admits, the steak is “incredibly polarizing,” and they’re still locking down the flavor. He also notes that Meati needs to do a better job of advertising how these proteins should be prepared—not as ready-to-eat food, but as an ingredient that’s intended to be marinated, sliced, sautéed, or anything else you might want to do with it. But to take such liberties in the kitchen that home chefs look at this protein differently, not as an animal meat replacement, perhaps, but as a new meat, worthy of its own treatment—just like you treat a pork shoulder differently than a hanger Steak.
“I say these are ‘chicken and beef inspired.’ I think replicating 100% the analog is not the best way to go. They are what they are. [Yet we ask], ‘How can we make them better? How can we make Meati in a way that you know how to cook it?”‘ says Huggins. “It is a whole new type of food, so we want to give someone at least an idea of what the experience is going to be like.”
I don’t know what the future looks like for Meati, and how the competitive landscape of mycelium chicken versus soy protein beef will play out. (Impossible’s main ingredient is still soy.) But I do know that Meati is tasty enough, sustainable enough, and that as I ate that Meati chicken cutlet, I asked myself an earnest question: “How can I ever justify eating chicken, when not eating chicken can be this good?”
And then I remembered Popeye’s, and the appeal of a perfectly roasted chicken. OK, I guess I’ll still indulge once in a while. But the days in which Americans eat 100 pounds of chicken a year? Those are numbered.