For nationwide bun-and-patty purists, it looks like the ‘beef’ with veggie burgers might finally be over.
“The bar has always been set very low for veggie burgers,” says Wassail chef Joseph Buenconsejo, who understands the meatless sandwich’s previous plight as the butt of every joke. “But it’s time to raise [it].”
Along with Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger, the current transformation wouldn’t be happening without a handful of forward-thinking chefs like Buenconsejo, Daniel Humm at NoMad Bar, and Lukas Volger of Made by Lukas burger-mix fame, who also penned the influential book Veggie Burgers Every Which Way. This new standard for roasting and mashing vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, grains, and beans, is far from a lazy beef replacement. It’s a burger “that can rival meat burgers” to Buenconsejo; an “expression of vegetables” to Volger; and something simply “delicious, and crave-able” to Humm.
So how to achieve this new ideal? Whereas beef burgers are basically lumps of meat seared in a pan, veggie burgers call for more steps and dozens of ingredients—all the more reason to take advice from these experts.
The base of your burger—the vegetables you choose for your mixture—will influence the flavor and the texture of the final patty. A good place to start is with the roots. Add in “grated root vegetables and hearty vegetables that hold up after being cooked,” says Volger. “They give burgers the chew that’s usually missing from those…sloppy ones.” Beets, with their slight stickiness and earthiness, are a popular pick, as are onions, which add rich flavor when caramelized and a little moisture when left raw. Everyone relies on mushrooms, which contribute to a sensation that’s universally pegged as meaty, taste- and texture-wise. Once you’ve established this core of vegetables, you can expand into favorites, depending on the types of flavors you hope to build up in the patty—perhaps peppers for Southwestern, carrots for Middle Eastern, or cabbage for Japanese-inflected.
In addition to the grated roots and all those mushrooms, you’ll want grains, nuts, and legumes to add critical mass to your burger. “We found that using grains really gave it that ‘burger’ feel and taste without the meat,” says Humm. He uses quinoa and lentils, cooked separately and coarsely chopped. Farro, almonds, old-fashioned oats, and chickpeas help too. Beans—pretty much any type—are critical for adding protein and giving a burger substance, says Volger, but you have to be sure to balance their softness out. “Sometimes with bean burgers,” he says, “it’s easy for them to seem like bean dip on a bun.” Because falafel methodology is smart, you can also use pre-soaked but not cooked options—¼ cup each of farro and lentils soaked overnight—which, when pulsed in a food processor, break down into a dry dough. A half cup of roasted almonds, ¼ cup of old-fashioned oats toasted in butter, and a whole can of cooked chickpeas completes the mission: these burgers have plenty of meat-like mass.
“Never put in vegetables that are not cooked or would release a lot of its juices,” warns Buenconsejo, and this dehydration goal is one of the reasons that almost every ingredient in a veggie burger mix has been cooked before you ever grill the patty as a whole. “Less moisture is better to keep it together when it cooks,” echoes Humm.
Pre-cooking is a way to inject extra flavor. At NoMad Bar, the vegetable list includes fresh corn that’s been charred on the grill.
Start by taking one grated beet and one grated sweet potato, plus a can of drained chickpeas, and toss them with olive oil and salt, then roast at 400°F for 30 minutes. Do the same with 2 cups of sliced cremini mushrooms. Caramelize the onion by cooking slices over very low heat, in a little oil, for 45 minutes, until collapsed and golden.
Feel free to pursue certain flavor profiles. Volger loves playing up Thai ingredients in a carrot patty seasoned with peanut butter, lime juice, and chili—or you can keep the spicing fairly neutral so the burgers are all-purpose. Either way, the main goal here is to avoid brown rice bowl-style blandness. That means you want “a lot of umami flavors,” says Buenconsejo, and “a lot of smoke elements as well.” Try dried porcini mushrooms (about ½ an ounce, blitzed to a powder in the food processor), a teaspoon or two of miso, a dash of soy sauce, some smoked paprika, a little chipotle powder, and maybe a teaspoon of curry powder. A few cloves of raw garlic and a shallot, minced, add some freshness too.
Part of the way you bind veggie burgers is to blitz all the ingredients together in a food processor. This creates a low-moisture dough that won’t crumble in the pan or between the bun. (You can leave out a few of the grated vegetables for textural variety, if you like, but you’ll want to pulse pretty much everything else.)
The second method is by incorporating binding ingredients. Common ones are eggs, which act like glue, and breadcrumbs, which absorb moisture from the other ingredients, helping them stick together. At NoMad Bar, the secret adherent is cream cheese. If you’re vegan, steam a potato and mash it slightly to hold things together; potato or cornstarch also work, says Volger.
To bind this batch of burgers, fold in ¼ cup of panko, 1 egg, and 2 tablespoons of cream cheese.
If you’ve made a dough that’s light on moisture, shaping is the easy part. Pick up a small handful of the dough and flatten it between your hands until it’s about 1-inch thick. Press hard enough to keep the ingredients together but no harder, and keep the diameter in line with the scale of your bun. You can shape all your burgers a day or two (or even a couple hours) in advance, and store in the fridge.
Cooking methods vary. If you’re eating these for health-related purposes, bake them for 20 minutes, or until firm, at 350°F, flipping once. If you want to be indulgent, you can deep-fry them. For an in-the-middle approach, Volger recommends starting stovetop. Put a lightly oiled skillet on medium-high heat, then cook the burger for about 4 minutes. Flip it, then transfer the skillet to a 350°F oven and cook another 5 minutes or so, “until firm to the touch.” This method helps solidify the inside and guarantees a good sear on the outside. If you want to grill your burgers, bake them until firm in advance so they’ll stay in one piece on the barbecue.
Chefs are using pepper jack (Humm), provolone and cheddar (Buenconsejo), and muenster (Brooks Headley at Superiority Burger). If your burger is already rich, you might just want a thin slice of Swiss; if you’re working with a simpler patty, then heap on some grated sharp cheddar. To get the cheese to melt, throw it on when you flip the burger, before you transfer the skillet to the oven. If the cheese isn’t melted when the burger is ready, finish with a minute or two under the boiler until it sizzles.
9. Spreads and Toppings
Round out your burger with with fast-food–style fixings or gourmet additions: pesto, creative mayos, avocado, homemade ketchup, and good pickles all work. Humm’s tactic is a “sauce using mayo, piquillo peppers, and lemon juice, plus pepper jack cheese and a salad of fresh watercress and shaved radishes.” Buenconsejo’s is “mustard aioli, onion escabeche, smoked onion, tomatoes, raw onion, and upland cress”—with pickles and jalapeño fritters on the side. I’d also suggest Sriracha mayo, sliced tomato, a leaf of Romaine lettuce, and a ring or two of white onion.
At NoMad Bar, the veggie burger comes out on the same house-made cheddar chive bun as the dry-aged one; at Wassail, your patty’s served on brioche. Think carefully about your choice of carb: when you put your hard-won veggie burger on a bun, it will count for about one-third of every bite. “No matter how good you are in getting the burger right, the bread can mangle the texture,” says Volger. To get a slight chewiness with a crispy texture, try an English muffin, toasted in butter.
But also know, “a veggie burger doesn’t need bread the way a [juicy, fatty] meat burger needs bread,” says Volger. If you’re beyond recreating some classic burger bar experience, you can throw your patty on top of a salad, letting the greens reinforce the vegetable essence of your handmade patty.