Several years ago, when the younger of my two sons, Andrew, broke ranks with his meat-eating family and announced he'd become a vegetarian, my wife and I looked for ways to be supportive. On visits to Ithaca, New York, where he was attending college, we took Andrew to the iconic vegetarian bistro, Moosewood Restaurant. When he was home, we combed our collection of cookbooks for vegetarian recipes. We discovered a new roster of delicious, meatless meals, but there was one in particular that the cook in me was determined to master: the veggie burger. Family dinner was important when our boys were under our roof, and in the warmer months I'd often cook outside on the grill. I imagined tossing a homemade veggie burger over the flames for Andrew—next to whatever I was cooking for the meat eaters at the table—the next time he came home. It would be tender, with a texture that was neither dry nor mushy. It would be flavorful, packed with savory veggies, legumes, and grains, with grill marks where the flame caramelized the sugars in the vegetables. I envisioned a burger my son would truly relish, one that warmly welcomed vegetarians to the family table and that I might also enjoy as an occasional substitute for beef.
I soon discovered that veggie burger recipes tend to be labor- and ingredient-intensive. The first one I attempted called for diced mushrooms (a common ingredient in veggie burger recipes because they add a pleasant savory, or umami, flavor), plus carrots, onions, garlic, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, bulgur wheat, wheat germ, parsley, dill, tahini, chickpeas, soy sauce, lemon juice, cayenne, salt, black pepper, and cumin. Not something you just throw together, even with the aid of a food processor.
And the resulting patties, while tasty, didn't hold together well, which brings me to my biggest beef with veggie burgers, whether homemade or from a restaurant: texture—they're either sawdust dry or so mushy they squeeze out from the bun like toothpaste when you bite in. Ahab had Moby Dick. My white whale: a veggie burger that delivers on taste and texture and can earn its stripes on the grill.
Cross Country Burger Tour
On a quest, I buttonholed foodies and chefs. Perused dozens of recipes. And ordered a variety of highly touted restaurant versions. My first realization: I'd best ditch any hopes for a quick prep time. A flavorful veggie burger recipe requires numerous ingredients and steps. For example, the $15 black bean version at Muse, the dining room at Cleveland's Ritz Carlton Hotel, includes black beans and 23 vegetables, spices, and seasonings. Most recipes I came across had more than a dozen ingredients. Many called for roasting some components, sautéing others, and always—discovery number two—cooking the burger on a hot griddle or frying pan. Never on a grill.
My search for a tender, structurally sound, grillable veggie burger was looking more and more quixotic. I ate some very tasty patties, including executive chef Jehangir Mehta's popular Indian-inspired burger (made with peas, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and warming spices) at Mehtaphor in New York City. Clearly loved for its flavor, not form, his patty, says Mehta, "is more like a Sloppy Joe."
I tried others at such recommended restaurants as Hillstone, with outlets across the country, and burger chain The Counter, where veggie burgers account for 10 percent of orders. But always, pieces of the burger smooshed out when I bit in. Unmarked by the grill, it was clear these mushy patties were not designed to hold up when cooked over flames.
I finally sighted grill marks on a brown rice, farro, black bean, beet, and onion burger at the Cheesecake Factory in San Francisco. I interviewed Chef Bob Okura about his year of developing the recipe and learned that the key to the restaurant chain's grillable patties is a balance of ingredients that absorbs moisture without relying on flavorless fillers. The recipe is top secret, but Okura revealed Dijon mustard works as a binding emulsifier.
Re-inspired, I went on a cooking spree. Over several days, I tried lots of potential binding agents: finely ground cashews, puréed chickpeas, rice flour, and even ground-up corn pulp and cornflakes, this last a trick from Chef Jonathon Sawyer at the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland.
My hopes were raised by a recipe from The Next Iron Chef winner Jose Garces. On his menu at Village Whiskey in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, this burger's mix of puréed lentils and day-old bread crumbs seemed sticky enough to hold together ingredients like black beans, corn, and edamame. Sadly, the patties fell apart on the flip and had to be scraped off the grill and finished in a pan. But they still tasted terrific, with coriander, cumin, cayenne, and turmeric adding color and zing.
The next day, I improvised a new recipe I dubbed the BBC burger (Beets, Brown Rice, and Carrots). Looking for a well-balanced mix, I combined moist beets with sticky brown rice and chickpeas, and—thinking of Chef Okura—I added mustard and puréed cashews as binders. Before cooking them, I had an idea: If you can put mushrooms into a burger, why not put burger mixture into a mushroom? I scooped out the gills of two bun-size portobello caps and pressed some Village Whiskey burger mix into one and the BBC mixture into another. I cooked them, mushroom-side down, for about five minutes on an oiled, preheated grill over medium-low flame. Then I brought them inside, topped them with pepper-jack cheese, and broiled them for a couple of minutes. Both held together well and made delicious dinner sandwiches.
Pleased, I returned to the grill to audition the BBC burger on its own, as a molded patty. When side one was cooked, the spatula slid beneath it easily. I lifted it and turned my wrist. The BBC burger executed the 180 like a champ, staying tight and hitting the hot grill with an immediate, satisfying sizzle that, to my ear, sounded like applause. Then I bit in: faintly charred, crispy surface; tender, savory interior; burger bliss!
Try these recipes for delicious burger alternatives: