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By Jeb Gavin

As a scientist, philosopher, and glutton, I have many, many opinions regarding lab-grown meat. Setting aside any ethical dilemmas (there shouldn’t be, unless you’re reaching for one), I’ll focus instead on the science and aesthetics, and how the former informs the latter.

For those of you raised vegan, under a rock, having spent your entire life with your eyes closed and your nose plugged and your fingers in your ears, a hamburger is a lump of ground beef sandwiched between two pieces of bread. I specify beef because while you can make burgers out of other stuff, hamburgers are in fact beef by definition, and no amount of turkey or seitan or scallops will change that. The most important element of the hamburger is the beef itself, how you treat it, season it, and cook it.

Burgers are most commonly a mix of lean meat and fat, at a ratio of 80/20. As simple as it seems, fat is flavor. Grinding the beef redistributes the fat into the meat, moisturizing and tenderizing the lean meat as it cooks (1). The fat problem seems to be the number one issue surrounding lab-grown meat, at least from a culinary perspective. Without the fat, the meat tastes dull. Sure, it’s probably minerally- a hint of iron, probably meaty, too. (2) But you need fat. You need properly distributed fat in the patty. Fat makes burger juice, which should combine with whatever you’re using as a sauce. Fat melts and aids in the Maillard reaction (3). Fat is the key. But they’re not growing beef fat, just the muscle. Actually, the process to generate fat in a lab will likely be more difficult than simply producing meat, as adipose (the science-y word for fat) often requires both excess carbohydrates, and a complex balance of hormones (4).

Assuming this meat was ground with a sufficient amount of tasty tasty beef fat (5), and properly seasoned (7), and then griddled properly (8), it might taste halfway decent. But that’s a pretty big if, and requires a hell of a lot of care and effort, especially considering at five ounces a patty, I could eat a million dollars worth of Frankenburgers as a warmup to supper. If I were dumb or desperate enough to eat a burger from the freezer section, and again allowing for added fat, no, probably wouldn’t taste any different. Might have a different mouth-feel, again owing to the way muscle tissue acts post mortem, but taste? It’d still be bland and disappointing.

  1. One of the many reasons Wagyu or Kobe burgers make me stabby. The point of beef that expensive is the delicate marbling- the fat already interspersed into the beef making it taste and feel rich and buttery. Grinding Wagyu makes no sense, and you are a bad person if you do it.

  2. The iron aspect comes from the hemoglobin proteins, the meatiness from the amino acid glutamine. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the sodium salt form of glutamine is better known as sodium glutamate, MSG. FYI, you can’t be allergic to it. It just makes stuff taste better, so long as you don’t overdo it. MSG headaches are the same reaction you’d have to any excess amount of salt.

  3. The Maillard reaction is browning. Browning is when the chemical composition of a foodstuff changes due to heat. Sugars and aminos are broken down, creating flavorful, aromatic compounds that taste amazing, unless you overdo it and then they taste like charred shit. The crust on a steak or burger? The golden brown crust on pie or bread? The caramelization on onions or Bananas Foster? That’s Maillard.

  4. There is also the concern over muscle fiber density, but for those of you smart enough to watch Better Off Ted, particularly the episode where they grow meat in a lab, you already know unused muscle mass is kind of a waste.

  5. I seem to recall a place in Manhattan (6) used to grind deckle into their burgers to up the fat content. Deckle is the outer layer of fatty meat on rib eye steaks. If you take a rib eye primal and dry age it, the flavor of the meat ends up concentrated in the deckle. Grinding that with a bit of chuck and perhaps some short rib or brisket, and that’s a tasty, tasty burger.

  6. The Brindle Room.

  7. IF YOU DON’T SEASON, BY WHICH I MEAN SALT YOUR BURGER PATTY BEFORE YOU COOK IT, YOU’LL END UP EATING BURGER TOPPINGS, WITH EXTRA PROTEIN. IF YOU’RE A BURGER RESTAURANT AND YOU DON’T SEASON YOUR PATTIES BEFORE COOKING THEM, PLEASE SHUT DOWN AND GO INTO EXILE.

  8. Fat is flavor. The Maillard reaction is flavor. Keeping the fat in the burger while it browns means even more flavor. If you put a burger on a grill, all the juices run out. There are brilliant, sainted cooks capable of grilling burgers and keeping them moist, and getting a good char. Chances are you aren’t one of these cooks. Even professional cooks tend to screw it up. But on a flat top griddle, with no grates for the juices to go anywhere, and the maximum amount of surface contact between the cooking surface and the food, oh baby oh baby.
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