It's easy to take issue with veggie burgers. They have gotten better as demand for meatless options has increased, but in the freezer aisles of supermarkets and on the menus of restaurants, you still find dry, bland or mushy disks that not even a staunch vegetarian can embrace. And many seem to contain precious little evidence of what makes them what they are: vegetables.
That's frustrating for someone like me, who has been moving away from meat eating. I went on the hunt for a good veggie burger, but I decided to bring it all home.
If I want to control what's in it — no long list of unpronounceable ingredients — I figured I've got to make it myself.
It turns out that good veggie burgers aren't all that easy to master. Start with some ingredients you think might do the trick: hearty vegetables such as beans and mushrooms; spices and herbs; maybe some nuts and grains (although not too much of the latter, or it seems too carb-heavy to eat on a bun).
But if you don't also include the right stuff to bind it all, patties can fall apart as soon as they hit the pan. When you put in plenty of sticky binder — sweet potato, say, plus some flour and maybe, if you're not vegan, an egg or two — you realize only after you've cooked one that the inside has about as much texture as bean dip. Mark Bucher was in such a state when he was developing recipes for BGR the Burger Joint, a chain that started in Bethesda, Md.
He was going for a texture "like a loosely packed ground-beef burger," which led him to a combination of brown rice and whole black beans, flavored with barbecue sauce and molasses. The binder was elusive until he remembered Gimme Lean, a brand of soy products meant to emulate ground beef or sausage. When he added that to his mix, along with mashed roasted sweet potato, he had a burger good enough for Washington NBC4 anchor Wendy Rieger to write on her blog that it was "the best veggie burger I've ever had in my life."
Other cooks, meanwhile, want to walk that walk. When chef Brian Van Etten was working on the patty recipes for Veggie Galaxy, which opened six months ago in Cambridge, Mass., his aim was to keep vegetables front and center.
"I feel like there's too many gimmicks out there," he said. "It all gets too earthy-crunchy. Vegetarian food for me is all about produce."
His mushroom-chickpea burger has layers of complexity: depth from cumin, brightness from lemon juice and umami from tamari (wheat-free soy) and nutritional yeast (often used as a vegan cheese substitute). He's not vegetarian, and he says that might be one of the keys to the success of the restaurant, the younger sibling to Veggie Planet, an institution in nearby Harvard Square: "We want to make things that satisfy everybody, not just vegetarians."
Baking these BGR veggie burgers before frying helps them hold together and prevents a mushy interior. (After baking, you also can grill these over direct heat, if desired.)
BGR veggie burgers
1 small (6 ounces) sweet potato
2 cups cooked brown rice
1 cup cooked black beans, homemade or no-salt-added canned, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup barbecue sauce of your choice, plus more for glazing if desired
2 tablespoons honey
One 14-ounce package soy protein, such as Gimme Lean beef-style
Kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Use a fork or sharp knife to prick the potato in several places. Place it on a piece of aluminum foil and bake until the potato is tender, 40 to 60 minutes. Let the potato cool, then squeeze out the flesh into a large bowl and discard the skin.
Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
Add the brown rice, black beans, molasses, barbecue sauce and honey to the bowl, and stir to thoroughly combine. Pull off small pieces of the soy protein, add it to the bowl and mash it up as you mix it in. Taste, and add salt if needed.
Spray 2 large baking sheets with non-stick cooking spray. Form the vegetable mixture into 12 patties, about 5 inches across and 1/2-inch thick, placing them on the baking sheets.
Bake the patties until they feel firm to the touch and are just barely browning on the edges, about 25 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature.
Pour the vegetable oil into a large skillet. When it starts to shimmer, carefully adding the patties. Fry them until crisp and browned, about 3 minutes a side.
Serve them on the buns with your favorite condiments and accompaniments.
Makes 2 servings.
Nutrition information (burger only): 180 calories, 6 g. protein, 28 g. carbohydrates, 5 g. fat, 1 g. saturated fat, 0 mg. cholesterol, 290 mg. sodium, 3 g. dietary fiber, 8 g. sugar
Adapted by Joe Yonan from a recipe by Mark Bucher.
For this mushroom chickpea burger, the patty mixture must be chilled for at least an hour or overnight before baking.
Mushroom chickpea burgers
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 pound cremini mushrooms or portobello mushroom caps, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and discarded and caps cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup cooked no-salted-added chickpeas, lightly mashed with a fork
1 tablespoon low-sodium wheat-free tamari (may substitute low-sodium soy sauce)
3/4 cup chickpea flour, plus more as needed (may substitute all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 cup nutritional yeast (may substitute grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Pour olive oil into a large skillet over medium heat, and when the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion and garlic. Cook until the onion and garlic are tender and lightly browned, 4 minutes. Add the thyme and mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms exude their liquid, 4 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.
When cooled, add the chickpeas, tamari, chickpea flour, cumin, nutritional yeast and lemon juice, and stir to combine. Add salt if needed. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least an hour or overnight. If the mixture is too loose to form patties, add no more than 2 tablespoons of chickpea flour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 2 large baking sheets with non-stick cooking oil spray. Form the vegetable mixture into 8 patties, about 5 inches across and 1/4-inch thick, and place the patties on the baking sheets.
Bake until they feel firm to the touch and are just barely browning on the edges, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and let cool to room temperature.
Heat vegetable oil into a large skillet, carefully add patties. Fry them on each side until crisp and browned, about 3 minutes a side. Cool.
Makes 8 servings.
Nutrition information (burger only): 170 calories, 6 g. protein, 16 g. carbohydrates, 10 g. fat, 1 g. saturated fat, 0 mg. cholesterol, 135 mg. sodium, 4 g. dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Adapted by Joe Yonan from a recipe by Van Etten.