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 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 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.”
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.”