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.
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.”
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, one of Washington’s other standout veggie burgers, at the Reef in Adams Morgan, 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.
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 so 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.
In that way, guess what they remind me of?
Yonan is on leave from The Post this year, working on a vegetable-focused cookbook. He is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter: @joeyonan. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.