Plant-based meat has come a long way since food tech got involved, but will any chef, scientist or a hybrid of the two be able to create the perfect plant-based marbled steak? Meat-free alternatives to ground beef, burgers and chicken nuggets have been available on menus and in grocery stores for years, testifying to their consumer approval. But a trickier challenge exists among innovators: creating whole muscle cuts, like steak, and getting the marbling right.
In traditional whole muscle cuts of meat, marbling, also called intramuscular fat, is the flecks of fat that occur within the meat that affects its flavor, juiciness, tenderness and texture. It is also one of the main criteria for judging the quality of a cut of meat — in general, the more marbling, the better. Largely determined by the diet of the animal, cattle raised on whole grain tend to have more marbling than grass-fed cattle. Certain cuts of meat also contain more marbling than others.
Recreating the marbling aspects of intramuscular fat, its color before and after cooking and its nutritional qualities is a hard task for plant-based visionaries. This is one of the main reasons plant-based meat alternatives already on the market generally fall into the same categories. If plant-based marbled steak was easy to create, it would already exist. Despite the challenges, some well-established brands and startups are working to reinvent marbled steak, but minus the cow.
Some traditional meat companies that have entered the plant-based world have begun their journeys to creating plant-based marbled steak, namely Cargill. While it launched a line of plant-based meats in February 2020, Cargill recently invested in Bflike, a Dutch startup that will help it create “virtually indistinguishable” meat and fish analogues.
“Key to Bflike’s innovation is its patent-pending vegan fat and blood platforms,” Cargill said in a company press release.” This ground-breaking technology results in plant-based meat and fish alternative products that are virtually indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts, with similar visual appearance (both raw and cooked), texture, mouthfeel, melting behavior and cooking performance.”
While Cargill still has work to do in the field before launching any new plant-based products, a Slovenian startup has created a plant-based marbled steak that mimics a filet mignon. Juicy Marbles uses a patent-pending machine called the Meat-o-Matic Reverse Grinder 9000 to layer soy protein into linear fibers of the steak.
The technology is intricate, but the company uses a common ingredient for the marbling: sunflower oil. The filet mignon contains other simple ingredients, such as soy and wheat protein, beetroot coloring and natural flavors.
“We have been working on texturization techniques for two years, but it took us one year of rapid development on just the steak to reach the current state of affairs,” Mićković added. “In the following months, we intend to finish out the last tweaks.”
Juicy Marbles currently sells a two-pack of its raw, unseasoned filet mignon for $80.44, a price that is somewhat comparable to its meat-containing counterpart. But for the time being, the product is sold out with no estimated restocking date. Mićković said the company is hoping to have the filet mignon on the shelves by the fall.
The lab-grown meat sector is also experimenting with marbled steak, including Israel-based Aleph Farms. Back in 2018, the company created the first steak without the use of a living animal. Since then, it has developed a lab-grown ribeye, a much thicker cut than its original lab-grown steak. While some may not consider cultivated meat to be plant-based, the technology alone can alleviate the need for livestock production.
As the holy grail in the meat-free world, the creation and mass production of plant-based marbled steak presents significant challenges. But many companies are on a mission to find a more sustainable solution to traditional meat. It remains to be seen whether plant-based marbled steak will become as popular among consumers as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.