Barbecues show summer at its best. Hot weather isn’t just tolerable, it becomes actually enjoyable when we stand beside the grill with an icy drink in hand, and watch fleshy delicacies crackle over the fire, heady smoke spiraling skyward. The satisfaction of biting into these charred-to-perfection items, right when they’re just cool enough to eat, is almost unrivaled.
For vegans, however, the situation is obviously quite different. While our lizard brains are programmed to seek the flavors and nutritional features inherent in barbecue no matter the source—salt, sugar, fat, and protein—it’s trickier to find plant-based foods that tick all those wonderful boxes.
Since we’re programmed to want what barbecue promises, I wanted to find the best plant-based options for cookouts. Most picks wouldn’t taste exactly like the meat they’re imitating, of course, so I would analyze these options by overall flavor and texture. I also wanted to choose foods that were easy to come by, either in brick-and-mortar groceries or online retailers. I knew there could be too much variability with a borrowed or community barbecue grill, such as temperature, especially since I couldn’t prep every item in one sitting, so for fairness, I made all of them on the stove, on low-medium heat, with a splash of canola oil if necessary.
The five products that made the cut were All Vegetarian, Inc.’s Vegan Drumsticks, Beyond Burger’s Plant-Based Patties, Field Roast’s Signature Stadium Dog, The Herbivorous Butcher’s Porterhouse Steak, and Upton’s Naturals Bar-B-Que Jackfruit. Here are my findings.
When I first opened the package and saw six smallish drumsticks, I was crestfallen. I wanted the stomach-expanding satisfaction that comes with inhaling a plate of chicken legs. These little knobs at the end of sugarcane sticks did not seem all that promising.
When, after 15 minutes of cooking these drumsticks—constantly turning them in a cast-iron skillet to crisp the exterior—I finally got to taste them, I was beyond amazed. The flesh of these soy-based drumsticks had a slight sweetness, and a mild chicory vibe, as if they’d been smoked. While they were more fibrous than chicken thighs, they were not chewy, nor were they spongy like other veg drumsticks I have consumed. If they were slathered in barbecue sauce, Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Wings Sauce, or sriracha, they would be near perfect.
There are two main companies in today’s vegan beef arms race: Beyond Meat and Impossible. While Beyond Burger’s plant-based patty doesn’t have the gimmick of being a vegan burger that “bleeds,” it was far beefier and moister than its rival. The patty was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, like a burger cooked medium. Flavor-wise, I was reminded of Wendy’s, or even a Burger King Whopper. It was shockingly rich.
The thing that weirded me out a bit was just how beef-like Beyond was prior to cooking. When I picked up the patties, there was the subtle metallic smell and thick pastiness of ground beef. I like meaty things, sure, hence my search for good vegan barbecue. But handling it was never enjoyable for me; I always worried about germs, and that if I didn’t act with utmost caution, I’d get E. coli or kill someone with my cooking. That said, the characteristics that gave me misgivings cooked out on the skillet, leaving me with a truly satisfying dish.
Scent is an important component of flavor, and Field Roast’s Signature Stadium Dog had the smoky, salty aroma of a perfect ballpark frank. The slick cylinders packed the “natural hardwood smoked taste” promised on the website, and a homogenous interior with a texture similar to meat hot dogs. This is a good thing: hot dogs taste and feel processed. We do not eat hot dogs to satisfy a craving for bespoke beef or wild boar.
The exterior, while not skin-like, was a different texture than the interior, which again adds to the true hot dog-like character. I could have used more seasoning, but the blend of salt, paprika, and garlic was quite pleasant.
While The Herbivorous Butcher’s Porterhouse Steak’s 12-ounce filet was an intimidating size for someone who doesn’t normally eat steak, its flavor was an instantly inviting mix of slight sweetness and significant umami. The texture was slightly bouncy between my teeth—not chewy, but with just enough resistance between bites to feel like steak. I didn’t have to fight this filet incisors-first, the way one sometimes has to tear into vegan meats.
The porterhouse was impressively moist: the first ingredient listed is “steak broth,” which is comprised of liquids such as tomato juice, soy sauce, and molasses, as well as garlic and onion powder, among others. The flavor reminded me a bit of Chef Boyardee meatballs, and I do mean that as a compliment. It was salty and seasoned and satisfying, not just relying on its beefiness to pass muster. This cut is dense, so I’d suggest dividing it among two or three people and serving it with sides.
Jackfruit is marvelously versatile, which is why it has become an increasingly popular vegan meat substitute in the U.S. Upton’s Naturals Bar-B-Que Jackfruit is a great pulled pork substitute for many reasons. The texture is hard to describe—think stringy heart-of-palm—but it was as filling as a pile of pulled pork.
This selection wasn’t as meaty as the others, though. The actual flesh was mild, so it was more like a meat substitute with vinegary barbecue sauce on it. It works, but I’d suggest putting it in a bun, since mild bread seems to enhance its meatiness.
There is a plethora of excellent options for vegan barbecue-goers, and I would emphatically recommend any of the items on this list. Some are meatier than others, but they all hit the spot. Although I am obsessed with condiments, any of these could be eaten without sauce, or on a plain bun. There was one more item I wish I could have included: Bailey’s Vegan Ribs. Other veg ribs just do not stack up. Unfortunately, the website was out of stock when I was working on this story, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing about the nuances of Bailey’s fantastic flavor from memory. Which vegan products have you had the best experience with?