The Food Lab: Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck
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I like to think of Serious Eats and A Hamburger Today as more than just a food blog. It's really a relationship between the editors and contributors, and you guys: the Serious Eats Community-At-Large. A like with any relationship, occasionally the routine can hit a rut.
I've tinkered with and written about burgers a whole lot in the last couple of years. So much so that there are, in fact, times when I'm simply at a loss as to what to tinker with and write about next. But if there's one thing that being married has taught me, it's that whenever your relationship hits a holding pattern, it's always best to turn to your spouse to seek for ways in which to liven it up. You see that way, if it works out, everyone's happy. And if it doesn't? Well it makes it a heck of a lot easier to blame the other person. This is valuable relationship advice. Take note.
So when it came time for me to write another burger-based installment of The Food Lab, I decided to take my own advice to heart and went searching for ideas on my Facebook page, through my Twitter feed, and via our message boards. The overwhelming response? Veggie burgers.
Don't like that idea? You've got nobody to blame but yourselves.
Personally, I do like a good veggie burger. And I'm not talking one of those hockey puck, soy protein, faux-meat, painted-on-grill-mark atrocities aimed at vegetarians who secretly (or publicly) miss meat (more on my stance on faux meat here). I'm talking a veggie burger that actually tastes of grains and vegetables. A veggie burger that celebrates its veggie-ness yet can stand up to and be complemented by the typical toppings and condiments you'd find at a backyard cookout. I'm talking a veggie burger that even a meat-eater would happily eat—topped with cheese and bacon, if they want.
And heck, just for the fun of it, why not add an extra challenge here and make the burgers 100 percent vegan as well?
The Perfect Veggie Burger
There are a few key characteristics that I look for in a great veggie patty.
- The burger must be structurally sound. I want a veggie burger that holds its shape and doesn't have the texture of mashed potatoes, squishing out the back of the bun as I bite down.
- The burger must have good textural contrast. All lumps or all smooth is no good. I want the patty to be soft and tender, but have little bits and bites of crunch and chew.
- The burger's flavor must be good, but not overly assertive. I want my burger to have a good balance of savory flavors. What I don't is for a single flavor—say a spice or an herb—to dominate, restricting my topping choices.
- The burger must hold together on a griddle or grill. A veggie burger that cracks or crumbles and falls into the grill grates when you cook it may as well not ever have existed int he first place.
- The burger must not suck.*
*Note: The same rule applied to my Turkey Burgers That Don't Suck, and, well, pretty much any food that doesn't suck.
With that in mind, I stepped into the kitchen.
Part 1: The Veggies
Working with a very basic recipe of dried mashed lentils as my base, I decided to test each and every component to work towards my final recipe.
The main flavor base for a good veggie burger should be—surprise—the veggies, and I knew that some member of the onion family would play a crucial role in that flavorful backbone. Members of the onion family (aka alliums) are unique amongst the vegetable world in that when used properly, they have an innate ability to bring out the savory qualities of the other ingredients they are cooked with. A burger topped with a slice of onion or a mushroom sautéed with a brunoise of shallots doesn't taste onion-y per se, but they do taste more savory.
I tried adding shallots, regular onions (of the red, yellow, white, and sweet variety), and scallions to the mix before finally settling on a combination of leeks and a little bit of garlic. Known as the "soup onion," leeks more than any other type of onion have the ability to meld into the background.
I sautéed my leeks and garlic in a bit of oil to soften them before chopping them and adding them to the mix. A stalk of celery sautéed alongside them also added flavor without overwhelming the palate.
I knew that if I wanted my burgers to taste extra savory and moist, I'd need to use a couple of glutamate-rich powerhouses in my mix. Glutamates are the chemical compounds that are largely responsible for our sense of savoriness in a dish. Meat is packed with them, as are a number of vegetables. Mushrooms are high up on that list.
In order to concentrate the flavor of my shrooms and drive off some excess moisture, I roasted them right alongside the eggplant until they were deeply browned and had lost about half of their weight in water.
Roughly chopped in the food processor, the mushrooms are a good first step towards adding the texture I'm looking for.
Part 2: The Beans
Nobody says that veggie burgers always have to contain beans, but there's a good reason they almost always do. Beans are a great way to add texture and their starchiness makes them ideal binders. I experimented with a whole slew of options—black beans, cannellini, kidney, fava, pinto—but most of them turned out to be far too flavorful on their own. No matter what you do, a veggie burger made with black beans turns into, well, a black bean burger. That's not a bad thing, but not what I was after.
I ended up narrowing my choices down to two: lentils and chickpeas. Both were flavorful but mild enough to complement the other elements nicely. Really, either would have done, but as I found with my vegetarian chili recipe, chickpeas are great for adding texture when you roughly chop them in the food processor.
Part 3: You're Gonna Love My Nuts
My new chickpea and vegetable-based patties were good, but they were still lacking in both texture and flavor. As is often the case, I happened to have Vince of Slap Chop fame's nuts on my mind during this iteration and figured that chopped nuts should be the way to go.
As with the beans, most nuts were a no-go. Peanuts, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts were all far too assertive. Macadamia nuts worked flavor-wise, but got a little soft in the mix with a strange, off-putting texture. This left cashews and pine nuts, and both worked wonderfully, adding a bit of soft crunch, as well as what can only be described as nuttiness to the mix.
Into the food processor they went.
Part 4: The Grains
With most of my flavoring and textural elements in place, I was honing in on some patties that I was happy with. Next ingredient: some form of grain to tie the whole thing together.
After trying (and failing) with wheat berries, oats, cooked rice, and cooked pasta, it came down to barley and bulgur wheat. While the latter was a bit easier to cook (all you have to do is soak it in boiling water until it hydrates), the finished patties were far too reminiscent of falafel. That's not a bad thing if falafel's your bag, but I don't want people eating my veggie burgers to pigeonhole them into one category of ethnic foodstuffs. I preferred the far more cuisine-neutral character of barley. Think of it as the Switzerland of grains.
The texture was nearly there, but the patties were a bit mushy, lacking structure. Some breadcrumbs added to the mix solved this problem nicely. I went with Japanese-style panko for their heartier texture. I found that cooking the patties right after the breadcrumbs were incorporated was absolutely essential to good texture. Let the mixture sit too long, and the breadcrumbs absorb too much liquid and the patty once again returns to mush.
Now how's that for some textural contrast?
Amping Up Flavor and Moisture
At this point, I was pretty darn happy with my burger. It was certainly more flavorful than anything you could get in the store, but it still wasn't quite at the level of competing with an actual hamburger. I wanted a veggie burger that a meat eater would realistically choose even when there was actual ground chuck staring them in the face. This meant more flavor and even juicier texture.
The one major advantage that meat has over vegetables in terms of delivering juice to a burger patty is in its fat. Animal fat is tends to be more highly saturated then vegetable-based fats. Because saturated fats stack together more tightly and easily, they tend to be firmer at a given temperature. Most animal fats don't melt until well above room temperature, while most plant-based fats are liquid at room temperature.
What does this mean? It means that with a well-made beef-based burger patty, your fat stays in discrete firm chunks that melt only as the patty starts to cook, basting the meat in fat and creating little pockets of chin-dripping juiciness that show themselves only when you bite down on the burger. Vegetable-based patties, on the other hand, don't have this advantage, which means that you have to build the extra moisture directly into them if you want them to have any chance at survival.
In my previous adventures with non-beef burgers, I discovered the secret to adding moisture to a lean turkey burger without overwhelming it or ruining its texture: roasted puréed eggplant.
I decided that since I was roasting some mushrooms already, I may as well throw an eggplant in there with them. Roasted eggplant is some really magical stuff. Not only does it taste great on its own (just throw in a bit of good olive oil and lemon juice), but it has the characteristic of being able to carry many other flavors along for the ride, all while adding a subtle sweet meatiness.
When combined with my chopped mushrooms, it added exactly the moisture that my patties needed, even helping them to brown a bit better in the pan.
Taking another queue from that Turkey Burger recipe, I decided to add a bit of Marmite to my patties to help boost up their savoriness. A product made from the spent yeast leftover after fermenting alcohol, Marmite (or the Australian equivalent Vegemite) is a concentrated source of glutamates. I use it in everything from soups and stews to, well, veggie burgers.*
* And if you're a Kiwi, better act fast, because there's a shortage of Marmite this year!
That little dab of marmite was all that the burgers needed to send them into rocket-boosted, escape-velocity-achieved, 1.21 gigawatt flavor orbit.
Ok, the Marmite and an onion cooked directly into them.
Fine, and some cheese, just to tie the whole thing together.
The best part of the recipe? It behaves almost exactly like ground meat when you're handling or cooking it. That means that whatever you can do to a normal patty—griddle it, throw it on the grill, press an onion into it, smash it with a spatula, shape it into a loaf, make a Jucy Lucy—whatever—you can do with this mix.
Is it the easiest stuff in the world to make? Admittedly no. It requires roasting vegetables, sautéeing leeks, boiling barley, and chopping nuts and chickpeas, and that's all before you even form it into patties. But believe me when I tell you that you'll never look at veggie burgers the same way again.
That's good news for vegans, and heck. I'd even say it's good news for burger lovers who are just out for something a little bit different (don't forget to add the bacon).
UPDATE 4/3/2012: Some folks were having issues with the patties holding together or being too mushy. After more testing, I've pintpointed the problem to be with the chickpeas and the degree to which they get processed (underprocessed and your patties fall apart. Overprocessed and they get mushy). To alleviate this problem, the best thing to do is separate the chickpeas into two batches, puréeing one with a bit of flour and baking powder (to act as binder and leavener), and roughly chopping the second batch. This ensures good texture and good binding in a more consistent manner. The recipe has been updated to reflect these changes.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.