Founding Farmers’ New Vegetarian Burger Smells, Tastes, and Bleeds Like Meat

Made of just plants—and genetically engineered to taste like beef—the "Impossible Burger" hits DC.

The Impossible Burger prepared as a classic cheeseburger at Founding Farmers in Potomac. Photography by Ken Fletcher.

You’ve likely heard of scientists genetically-modifying plants, manipulating a fruit or vegetable so that it’s crunchier or sweeter. But what about plants genetically-modified to look, taste, and act like meat—right down to toothsome texture and juicy bleed?  

California-based Impossible Foods is doing just that. Its first product, the Impossible Burger, will be served at all three DC-area Founding Farmers restaurants starting today, plus sister ventures Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers. This is DC’s first experience with the faux-burger, which rolled out last year at a handful of restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

The burger itself is the result of an elaborate food-science experiment drawing on the molecules in red meat that give ingredients like beef their characteristic flavor and texture.

The Impossible Foods research team found that one particular molecule called heme is responsible for much of beef’s reddish color and taste. Soy root naturally carries a version of heme, too. Rather than farm massive amounts of soy and extract all the heme, the Impossible Foods scientists engineered a more manageable solution: grow heme in a lab by inserting its genes into a special type of yeast. Long story short, they produced an ingredient with the smell and taste of meat—without any meat involved.

The Impossible Burger prepared with spinach and blue cheese at Founding Farmers in Potomac.

Also in the burger: wheat protein (to make it chewy), de-flavorized coconut oil (to make it sizzle), and potato protein (to make it crispy on the outside). So no, the Impossible Burger doesn’t follow Michael Pollan‘s golden rule, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” But it’s surprisingly delicious all the same. 

Although a true feat of technology, the patty doesn’t taste like a lab experiment. If you can put aside thoughts of heme and yeast, it tastes and feels like a regular beef burger. Diners can even specify their preferred level of doneness. The restaurant recommends medium, which arrives with a pink, juicy center (again, thanks to the heme). 

According to Farmers & Distillers’ executive chef Richard Torres, even the raw patties look similar to regular ground-beef patties, and cook with the same sizzle and smell. 

“It’s a healthy option—not just for vegetarians, but for meat-lovers, too,” says Torres. “It has some carbs from the potato and wheat, but only a limited amount of fat from the coconut oil.”

Being the Farmers Group, the faux-beef burgers are served in a multitude of ways—slathered Big Mac-style in special sauce, stuffed or layered with cheese, or dressed up with avocado and bacon. Patrons can swap in the Impossible Burger for an extra $1 to any regular beef patty preparation (which generally run $12 to $15). All the toppings and a homemade brioche bun make it even easier to forget that you’re eating lab “meat.” 

The Impossible Burger prepared with goat cheese and slaw at Founding Farmers in Potomac.

Farmers Restaurant Group also offers a few traditional veggie burgers made with a variety of grains and legumes, but those are being phased-out in favor of the Impossible Burger. Torres says part of its allure is that it mimics meat in a way that no tofu or black bean patty can, making it a healthier and more viable substitute for carnivores and vegetarians alike. Well, at least vegetarians who don’t mind a little faux-blood. 

Editorial Fellow

Former editorial fellow Erica Sloan is now an editorial assistant at Martha Stewart Weddings and Martha Stewart Living.