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June 17, 2009

Veggie Burgers Worth Showing Off

With barbecue season upon us, it's time to rethink the soggy gray veggie burger. As any vegetarian knows, those frozen patties' attempts to imitate meat elicit only mockery and scorn at neighborhood cookouts.

Instead of trying and failing to taste like beef, my favorite veggie burgers highlight the flavors and textures of chopped vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts. Creative seasoning can turn these simple ingredients into mouthwatering burgers that appeal even to skeptics.

The trickiest part of making veggie burgers at home is getting them to stick together. In any recipe, there are three essential components, which you can customize according to your tastes: vegetables, protein, and a binder. Mark Bittman of the New York Times uses an egg to hold his nut, tofu, and bean burgers together (tomato paste makes a good vegan substitute), though the bean burger was a little too wet and grainy for my taste. After lots of research and testing, the folks at chow worked out this recipe using egg and texturized vegetable protein.

Other binders include oatmeal, flour, mashed potatoes, and ground flax seed, though I've had the most success with vital wheat gluten, a high-protein flour that gives bread dough added elasticity. With a little kneading, it holds rice, mashed beans, and finely-chopped vegetables together, and gives the cooked burgers some heft. It's available in the baking aisle or at natural foods stores.

The recipes below are variations on this formula posted by vegan cookbook author Joanna Vaught. Try the black bean burgers with cilantro pesto and the lentil burgers with hot sauce. They're so hearty and flavorful, you can serve them with pride at your next cookout.


Spicy Black Bean Burgers
1½ cups black beans

1½ cups cooked brown or wild rice
1 medium carrot, shredded
1 small red bell pepper, diced and sautéed until soft
¼ cup oil
1 Tablespoon dried chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ cup vital wheat gluten
¼ cup water

Curried Lentil Burgers
1½ cups cooked lentils
1½ cups cooked brown rice
1 medium carrot, shredded
1 small onion, diced
¼ cup oil
4 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup vital wheat gluten
½ cup water

Preheat oven to 375° and lightly oil a baking sheet. 

In a large bowl, mash beans or lentils until only a few remain whole. Add rice, vegetables, oil, and seasoning. Mix well. 

Add vital wheat gluten and water. Now for the fun part: roll up your sleeves and knead with your hands for several minutes, until gluten is evenly distributed and burger mix is uniformly sticky. Divide into 6 patties and bake for 50 minutes, turning once. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

They're even better the next day: reheat on the grill or lightly panfry.

Mary Lake is a writer, teacher, columnist for MF&L, and vegetarian blogger: Mitten Machen


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