Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Problem of Veggie Burgers

Homemade Vegan Burger 2
I'm not sure I've ever met a vegetarian... and I've met a lot... who really likes veggie burgers. Many will eat them, of course, just as many a meat eater will eat a boxed chicken patty out of the freezer... but that meat eater probably wouldn't go to a nice restaurant and say "What in the way of breaded processed meat products do you have sitting in your freezer today?", and neither do many vegetarians get excited about the prospect of getting a veggie burger when dining out. Yes, there are usually a couple of places in any decent size city or college town that are going to serve "homemade" veggie burgers... and not just the stuff any of us can get at a supermarket... but here we come to the biggest problem of veggie burgers.

Even homemade veggie burgers usually suck. You generally have three kinds 1) a squishy oozy bean burger that slops out of the back of the bun, 2) or dry crumbly mishmash of vegetables and grains that fall apart as you pick it up, or 3) a weird chewy TVP meat analog that doesn't actually have any vegetables in it. The latter are generally what you get in the store, and not even worth making at home in my opinion... I'm not as anti-TVP as some, as I think it can add some interesting texture to dishes when used appropriately... but just eating a (admittedly seasoned) slab of it? Eh, no.

Anyway, this is your veggie burger background info for the uninitiated, and what led me to be really intrigued about Kenji's recent Food Lab post promising Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck. Indeed, his criteria for his burger were quite promising:
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.
I mean, who can really argue with that? I suppose on the flavor point in some instances you might want your burger's taste to be dominated by a single vegetable flavor like mushrooms, but surely not a spice or herb... and I certainly favor the focus on a great texture and a savory, but relatively neutral, flavor profile. So I had really high hopes for these babies and couldn't wait to fry them up for Anna.

Unfortunately making his recipe this weekend was a fiasco. Now here I will note: he's changed the recipe. Kenji quickly responded to feedback from me and other disappointed fans, and went back to the drawing board to correct inconsistencies in how the burgers came together. So the recipe you'll find at Serious Eats right now is not actually the one I made, and may in fact be a recipe for the greatest veggie burgers ever conceived by man. However, I'm still going to talk about my experiences because... well... I hope they are instructive. At least I learned something. Plus I spent this whole last week messing around with them so I'm not about to let all that work go to waste without at least a blog post to commemorate it... but I'm also hoping that I can actually come up with my own recipe based on my experiments with tying to get Kenji's old one to work the way I wanted.

Flavor-wise I think the Food Lab recipe works great and I have no complaints. I also like the texture contrasts with the nuts, barley, and chopped vegetables. My main problem was that his patties had no clear binder (he says its the chickpeas - which makes sense in retrospect since they make flour out of them after all), and that they violated the first rule of Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck: they squished out of the back of the bun. In addition, Kenji lauds the addition of panko within 30 minutes of cooking the burgers for texture purposes, but all I could tell that it was doing was sucking all the moisture out of the patty and making it crumbly (thus violating the third rule of Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck). If you let the panko incorporate more fully it would act as a binder, but doing it Kenji's way just sabotages the structure to no noticeable benefit that I could detect.

So what to do? Well first I just ditched the panko... as I didn't see its utility as a texture enhancer nor was I excited about switching them over for use as a binder. Since I wasn't starting completely from scratch, I wasn't really looking for a different binder, but more of an an additive to keep my veggie burgers together. The most obvious one is eggs, but I was hoping to keep these patties vegan (even if I always add cheese anyway) so that was right out... but otherwise we have guar gum, vital wheat gluten, and arrowroot listed there. Plus I know you can use flaxseed as an egg replacer. I made one burger with some xanathan gum (don't have guar gum and they seem pretty interchangeable), but while the effect was interesting and worth exploring it didn't really address the core problem... the burger was still too squishy and fell out of the back of the bun. Vital wheat gluten is what I tried next, and that actually worked pretty well... I added 1-2 tablespoons of it per patty, kneading the mixture until the gluten developed and then just fried it up as normal. The result was a burger that stayed together and had a nice chew... without being too chewy... while maintaining the nice textural contrasts of Kenji's original.

I'm not done with this project by any means... I aim to see how egg performs to see if it's worth using flaxseed to attempt to replicate it... plus I'd like to try Xanthan gum in combination with the vital wheat gluten to see if that's an improvement. Eventually I'll also want to see how my additions compare to the updated recipe from Kenji.

But hey, it's a start.