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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 for a year or two, primarily because of health and environmental concerns (and long before I heard the term "pink slime"). I occasionally crave a good burger not for the beef so much anymore, but because at its best, a burger can be the perfect iteration of a sandwich, which itself can be the perfect meal for a single cook. As I soldiered on in my hunt for a good veggie burger, I decided at last 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.
Getting the texture right • 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., in 2008. His wife, Amy, has been vegetarian since college, and he was determined to make something that would pass muster with her.
"If she tastes rice that was made with chicken stock, she can tell," he said. "So I had a really good tasting committee."
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 that Amy was a fan of 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 not just to meet his wife's approval, but to prompt Washington NBC4 anchor Wendy Rieger to write on her blog that it was "the best veggie burger I've ever had in my life."
Bucher's own assessment: "It tastes like a grilled product," he said, "not a walk down the produce aisle."
Layers of complexity • 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."
Meanwhile, another standout veggie burgers, at the Reef in D.C., is made by chef Dwayne Hickman, who was vegetarian for a few years as a teenager but gave it up when he first got on the line. In a restaurant kitchen, he said, "Chef doesn't care what you do or do not eat. If you made it, you'd better taste it."
He inherited the recipe from a predecessor, tweaked it, and is now so proud of the combination of 25 or so ingredients that he wouldn't share the precise formula with me. But he did allow that he starts with a base of black bean paste and hummus, plus bread crumbs, flaxseed, nuts, raw carrots, lime zest and herbs. "If we don't want it to be just another veggie burger in this city, it has to stay a secret," he said.
Scaling down for home cooking • Fair enough. I had Bucher's and Van Etten's recipes to keep me occupied, anyway, especially because I first needed to scale them down to home-cook territory. But not all the way to a single serving. It doesn't make sense to concoct enough for just one patty, especially when the ingredients require precooking.
Bucher's recipe contains a eureka moment. He discovered that after the patties are mixed and formed, oven time firms them up, holds them together and keeps the interior from getting mushy when the restaurant grills them to order. That inspired me to apply the same technique to Van Etten's mushroom-chickpea patties, which otherwise were a little too soft to easily handle. Bingo, with a bonus: Pre-baking also prepares the patties for the freezer, a make-ahead strategy I find important for solo cooks.
Each time I make a batch of either recipe, I pan-fry one or two for the meal at hand, then let the rest cool, wrap them in plastic wrap and layer them in freezer-safe bags. They can make the quick trip to the fridge (or counter) for defrosting, and from there to the skillet.
BGR veggie burgers
Note: BGR owner Mark Bucher developed these with his vegetarian wife in mind. Molasses and barbecue sauce give them a savory, deep flavor and also help caramelize their edges when they are pan-fried. Baking them before frying helps them hold together and prevents a mushy interior. (After baking, you can also grill these over direct heat, if desired.)
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
12 hamburger buns
Condiments and accompaniments
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 and can be easily squeezed, 40 to 60 minutes. (Alternatively, to speed up the process, the pricked potato can be microwaved on "high" for 1 minute, then transferred to the oven and baked until tender, 20 to 35 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 two large baking sheets with nonstick 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 the oil starts to shimmer, carefully add as many patties as you intend to eat, working in batches if necessary and being careful not to overcrowd them. Fry them until crisp and browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer them to a cooling rack set over a plate, and blot them dry on top with paper towels.
Brush with more barbecue sauce before serving, if desired. Serve them on the buns with your favorite condiments and accompaniments.
Nutrition per burger (without bun) • 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.
Servings • 12
Make ahead • The baked patties can be wrapped in plastic wrap, sealed in plastic freezer bags and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to six months. Thaw them thoroughly before pan-frying. The sweet potato can be roasted and the brown rice and black beans cooked and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to six months. Adapted by Joe Yonan from a recipe by Mark Bucher.