Building a Better Veggie Burger

Raymond O'Connor
April 19, 2013

Despite our name and love of horse racing, we here at Brutal Horse care about animals. Personally, I’ve been a vegetarian for about eight years after a bout of food poisoning from a local dive diner (I think it was some kind of gross chicken sandwich that kept me on the toilet for a long time). Before that, I had never been much of a meat fan, I ate it, sure, but I only liked my meat in extra-processed form. I had a distaste for anything still on the bone or was recognizable as an animal in any way.

The past eight years have given me a view of the vegetarian world, for better or worse. As I see it, the biggest road block to wider adoption of vegetarian food is perception. People think vegetables are gross. To combat this, most commercial producers of vegetarian food attempt to replicate meat: veggie burgers, veggie dogs, fake bacon, fake chicken nuggets, etc. Non-vegetarians don’t like these facsimiles while vegetarians merely tolerate them. The real crime is that there is a lot of non-meat like vegetarian food that is delicious. Any country with a long history of vegetarianism has great food, India for example. Sadly, America does not have this history and so we’re stuck in the present situation.

With that in mind, I have a confession to make. About a week ago my wife and I were walking our dog and we caught a whiff of a backyard barbecue. The hamburgers smelled delicious. I’d never eat one, I still think it’s gross, but damn, that smell. That made me think, where does that smell come from and why are veggie burgers so gross? I think I have the answer: fat. Hamburger meat is mostly protein and fat, the protein binds everything together and the fat is laced throughout in solid form when cold. As you heat the burger up, the fat liquefies, drips out, landing on the hot coals creating that great hamburger smell. That’s my hypothesis at least. My question is then, if I can get enough solid fat into a veggie burger, will it result in that same barbecue hamburger experience? So after that long preamble about how meat substitutes are terrible, let’s try to do the impossible and build a better veggie burger.

Recipe Approach

Another issue with vegetarian food is that it is often unnecessarily lumped with health food. The two don’t have to be the same, think, pizza with no toppings is vegetarian. But consider, most available recipes for veggie burgers (see http://www.google.com/search?q=veggie+burger+recipe) lack fat as a key ingredient. Many include egg as a binder (5 grams of fat) but typically only one egg in a recipe for four or more veggie burgers. That gives 1.25 grams of fat per burger, while a hamburger made with 90% lean beef has about 9 grams of fat per burger. This deficiency leads to our recipe approach. Figure 1 shows the nutrition information for a 3 oz. hamburger made with 90% lean beef.


Hamburger nutrition information
Figure 1: Hamburger nutrition information, 3 oz., 90% lean beef.

The nutrition information of this hamburger will be our target, in other words, using only necessary ingredients, we’ll match the protein, fat, and sodium of a typical hamburger.

Now that we at least have target nutrition information, what ingredients should we use? There are three things to now consider: taste, texture, and drippy fat. Taste is obvious, the idea here is to try to get it as close to a hamburger as possible. This is definitely wishful thinking, but we’ll try our best. As far as texture goes, again, I don’t think we’ll get close, but we should at least try to get something that doesn’t fall apart. Finally, drippy fat was our goal from the beginning to give us that intoxicating barbecue smell.

Taste

Over the last eight years I feel that I’ve become somewhat accomplished as a vegetarian cook. I can at least confidently say that I can make better vegetarian foods than any restaurant that is not either focused on vegetarian food or some specific regional cuisine. One dish that my wife and I have had success with has been a lentil and mushroom wellington with a red wine sauce. To us, this is as close as vegetarian food gets to tasting like beef. The combination of mushrooms, lentils, and soy sauce, cooked slowly for a few hours melds together and becomes more than the sum of its parts. I think those three ingredients will be key to the taste.

Texture

Again, here we’re mostly interested in coming up with something that won’t fall apart. After years of experimentation, the very best binder available is vital wheat gluten, the protein in wheat that gives bread its chew and elasticity. In its pure powder form, it can be mixed with water making seitan, a great meat substitute in its own right. Vital wheat gluten isn’t the easiest thing to find, but my local Acme has it on hand.

Fat

Our needs here are pretty specific: We need a fat that is solid at room temperature and below, and melts at high temperatures. Besides animal fats, we have two options, coconut oil or vegetable shortening. Vegetable shortening fits the bill, but it’s kind of gross, think Crisco. Our other option, coconut oil, tastes like coconuts. Fortunately, refined coconut oil lacks a lot of the coconut flavor, but retains the solidity we’re after. Given these choices, we’ll stick with refined coconut oil for a fat.

The Recipe

We now have our key ingredients: vital wheat gluten, lentils, mushrooms, soy sauce, and refined coconut oil. Pretty simple, all that’s left is to determine the amounts and process. We’ll start with a single veggie burger and then scale it up to a recipe for four.

First, the amount of coconut oil is easy, coconut oil is all fat so we just need as much coconut oil as there is fat in a burger. From Figure 1, that’s 9 grams. The other ingredients have a small amount of fat, but we’ll consider it negligible. Next easiest is sodium or salt. The sodium for our burger is coming from soy sauce, which contains 1006 mg of sodium per tablespoon (or 18 grams). Our target hamburger has 52 mg of sodium, meaning that we need 1 gram of soy sauce per burger. Cripes that’s a small amount!

All that’s left is protein, but we still have three ingredients to deal with. In the math world we call that an underdetermined problem: we have more unknowns than equations. We need to get to a certain amount of protein but we can also shoot for the same total mass. That gives us two equations with three unknowns. The mushrooms are only for flavor and don’t contribute to binding at all. We’ll just assume 5 grams of mushrooms per burger and make up the rest of the mass with vital wheat gluten and lentils, or 70 grams. Lentils have protein, but it’s not going to bind the burger like the wheat gluten. The wheat gluten itself doesn’t have much of a flavor, so ideally we’d use as little as possible while still binding the burgers together. Fortunately, I already have some experience with the wheat gluten and bean combination in the form of this vegan sausage recipe: http://vegandad.blogspot.com/2008/03/homemade-sausages.html. This recipe is good in its own right, and it contains 1/2 cup of pinto beans with 1 1/4 cups of wheat gluten. We then know that the combintation works, but a burger is not a sausage, however, so the texture we’re after is a little different and we can tolerate a little bit of crumble if necessary.

Now, we have decided that the sum of the wheat gluten and lentils will be 70 grams and we need 23 grams of protein to match the target burger. That gives us an equation for the amounts of wheat gluten and lentils in the form


Equation 1

(1)


where p b, p VWG, and p l are the amounts of protein in grams in a burger, a serving of vital wheat gluten, and a serving of lentils respectively, m VWG, m l, and m t are the masses of one serving of wheat gluten, lentils, and total mass in grams, and x is the unknown amount mass of wheat gluten that we with to solve for. Plugging in for the known values (p b = 23 grams of protein in a burger, p VWG = 21 grams of protein in a serving of wheat gluten, p l = 18 grams of protein in one serving of lentils, m VWG = 28 grams, m l = 198 grams, and m t = 70 grams), and solving for x gives us 25 grams of wheat gluten, leaving 45 grams of lentils to fill out the 70 grams we set previously.

Our recipe for one veggie burger is then (in mass):

Scaled up to four burgers and in terms of volume, the recipe reads:

And to cook:

  1. Cook lentils according to package directions and let cool a bit. We need 1 cup cooked in the end.
  2. Combine soy sauce, mushrooms, and coconut oil with cooked lentils.
  3. Place the lentil mixture in the food processor and process until mushrooms are finely chopped.
  4. Add vital wheat gluten about a tablespoon at a time by sprinkling into the food processor and running for a few seconds. The mixture should become sticky and hold together fairly well.
  5. Split up the resulting mass into four patties and wrap in aluminum foil.
  6. Steam burgers in a steamer for about 45 minutes.
  7. The burgers are now ready to cook as needed, you can grill them or pan fry them on the stove.

As this is an untested, kind of made up recipe, we now must test it for taste, texture, and barbecue experience.

Testing the recipe

On a nice spring day, my wife and I set out to test the new recipe. I prepared everything as stated above, but added an extra touch: truffle salt! I got this shit at Whole Foods, it’s delicious. Anyway, the recipe came together very easily, producing a burger oddly homogenous in texture and appearance. I did process the hell out of it in the food processor so that would probably explain it.

Grilling experience

One of the main goals of this recipe was to achieve a hamburger-like smell while grilling. On that front, we failed. The idea was that we’d put enough fat in there so that it would drip out and give a nice aroma on the hot coals, but the recipe seemed to have too much vital wheat gluten that locked in the fat. Nothing dripped at all from the burger, but it did get a nice sear.

Final results

The texture and consistency was very seitan-like, or turkey/chicken burger like. It tasted a lot like seitan as well. The big lesson here is that there was too much wheat gluten. It was also a little under-seasoned, so it could use some more mushrooms and soy sauce.

Some tweaks I will try are: less vital wheat gluten and more lentils, more mushrooms, more soy sauce, and more coconut oil. I think steaming before grilling is still important as it cooks the wheat gluten first. It should probably be processed a little less in the food processor, so that it’s not quite as homogeneous and has some room for the fat to drip out. That’s the goal!

raymond.oconnor@brutalhorse.com
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