IMPOSSIBLE BURGERS? BEYOND BURGERS?
I SAY, NOT FOR ME. I SAY, IMPOSSIBLY BAD. BEYOND UNPLEASANT.
BUT THEN, I AM NOT THE INTENDED MARKET FOR THEM (see below)
ARE YOU READY FOR A MUCH, MUCH BETTER VEGETARIAN BURGER? ONE YOU MAKE AT HOME? ONE THAT’S ACTUALLY TASTY, HEALTHY AND NOT PSEUDO-ANYTHING?
IF SO, READ ON, COOK ON, AND GET YOUR BURGER-GROOVE ON.
(Go straight to my burger recipe. To read more about vegetarian burgers in general, the backstory on the new ersatzes, and my life in burgers — vegetarian and otherwise — plus how I developed my own version, continue here.)
There’s been a lot of burger buzz. Especially about the Impossible and Beyond Burgers, now offered in outlets like Burger King, Carl Jr’s, White Castle.
If you’ve somehow missed it — let’s say you’ve been vacationing on Jupiter — the single most cogent taking-apart of these ersatz meats is Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change? (New Yorker): the complete story on these burgers, and the (reasonably well-intended) folks and forces behind their creation.
Long before I read this piece, I wanted to try them. I wanted them to be good. I was, cautiously, excited.
I had heard Chad Sarno, one of two brothers (both vegan chefs), who own a company called Wicked Healthy™, speak; he was passionate about his development of a similar product that had taken off in the UK’s Tesco supermarket chain, as well as some iterations he was at work on (ersatz fish, because he’d grown up in Maine and loved seafood).
So. A well-funded, well-distributed plant-based burger, said to be delicious and uncannily like beef, for the masses trying to eat more healthfully, but clueless about how?
What could be wrong with that?
Then I read the Impossible Burger’s ingredient list. Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
I mean, come on. Does this make you say, “Mmm, that sounds good!” ?
Where were the vegetables?
GIVING IT A TRY
Still, I wanted to be fair. (And in the interest of fairness… Beyond Meat burgers’ ingredients: Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract).
Just after the Impossibles appeared in grocery stores, in late September, 2019, I tried one.
I gave it the full treatment: carefully grilled, with all the fixings: late summer tomatoes, red onions, romaine lettuce, my own homemade tofu mayo. I added cheddar. I put the thing on a good whole-grain toasted bun.
I managed two bites.
Salty, chewy, blah, grayish, utterly one-note in its flavor and texture: I got up from the kitchen table, walked over to the sink, opened the cabinet under it, and flipped the rest of the burger out of its bun and into the trash.
Without the burger, and with the addition of a little avocado, it was now a fine if unexciting vegetable-and-cheese sandwich.
My partner finished his. “Not exactly good, ” he said. “But edible.”
To me, though, they were impossibly bad.
They weren’t at all like beef. But they also weren’t like a good veggie burger.
Have not been able to bring myself to try a Beyond.
DADDIO ON THE PATIO
It has been more than 40 years since I last ate an actual hamburger. But I remember them vividly.
The slight resistant not-quite crisp chewiness of the well-seared outer layer, the contrasting soft pink juiciness in the middle, the savor. The grease, drippiness, saltiness.
The first McDonald’s opened three years after my birth, but fast food and franchises were not yet ubiquitous in my growing-up years. So my memories of burgers are mostly of thick hand-formed burgers.
These were made of beef that Mr. Jadkowski, the butcher, had ground for us, and to which my mother had added salt, fresh ground pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. If my mother was cooking, she prepared them indoors, in a very hot cast-iron skillet.
But occasionally we grilled.
I say “we”, but I mean my father.
My father still thought of himself as a bohemian, though by the time I came along the facts of his life no longer supported this.
He was always tense and edgy in any role that challenged his self-image, that made clear the reality: he was now married, with two children, was living smack-dab in the 1950’s suburbs of New York, the terrain depicted in Mad Men.
He was definitely not living in Greenwich Village, the Left Bank of Paris, or, Gauguin-like, Tahiti. But, as I later heard him say in an Alcoholics Anonymous talk, in his sixties and looking back, “I had a mind that was capable of sitting in a room with my wife and children, while being in Tahiti.”
Yet despite this ambivalence, he insisted on the uber-suburban task of manning the grill.
He dragged it out of the garage to sit in the driveway. Squat and red, it resembled a small sputnik on three legs; the internet informs me that it was a Weber Kettle Grill.
With great care, he would build a fire in it, using the ubiquitous charcoal briquets. It took what seemed to his hungry children like a very long time to burn down to what he deemed the proper heat. I watched in fascination, but kept a safe distance.
We knew not to hurry him.
APPROACHING THE WILDER SHORES OF EATING
Were his burgers, and my mother’s, good?
In memory, yes, though not particularly thrilling to me.
I had never especially liked a big old monolithic chunk of steak, or a pot roast; I preferred things like, say, sukiyaki at Saito’s, or Chinese pepper steak, at the Shanghai Inn. Dishes where vegetables and seasonings mitigated the meatiness, and what meat there was was cut-up.
Having these somewhat exotic tastes even as a kid, burgers, even made from scratch, with good meat, served juicy and a bit rare, seemed dull.
What I did love was the deep enjoyment of watching my father build a fire, and observing it slowly burn down to coals. And smell of the burgers cooking, which in my mind remains mixed with the smell of fresh-cut grass: that too I loved, a kind of summer-weekend-in- the-suburbs scent which I suspect will forever mark that time and place.
But the burgers themselves? I could take ’em or leave ’em.
Though I do remember the burgers I ate with my best friend Becky the summer we were thirteen, when, one year, her family rented a cottage for a week’s vacation in Cape Cod.
She was allowed to bring a friend, and that was me. I remember the stand to which she and I used to hitch-hike, where we would get drippy bacon-cheese burgers, the cheese and bacon making them interesting, as did the transgressive adventure of being on our own outside of adult supervision, in the salt-tinged moist air. and at the very age when we could begin to hope to fill out our bikinis.
We ate those burgers ravenously, standing up, licking our salty, greasy fingers afterwards, pulling paper napkin after paper napkin from the aluminum box set outside the order window.
Here is the hilarious part, at least if you don’t think about barely pubescent girls already being weight-conscious: Becky was convinced that coffee ice cream had fewer calories than any other flavor.
So after eating these gigantic burgers, caloric bombs, we would top things off with a prudent dessert: hot fudge sundaes made with coffee ice cream.
MEANWHILE, IN A HUNGRY WORLD
I managed to write a 1200+ page vegetarian cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian (it later won a James Beard Award) and never once proselytize for eating meat-free.
Nor did I explain why, and when, I made the choice to stop eating meat.
I was, and remain, proud of this. I have often said I am a laissez-“fare” vegetarian. What we put in our bodies is an intimate matter. If I offered delicious, seductive food, I felt that enlarged the door through which eaters, vegetarian and carnivorous, might enter and sit down at the table, thus inviting a meat-free or less-meat-heavy way of eating, without encroaching on the intimacy and personal choices of taste.
Too, I hated being preached to about anything. And so I did not preach; I would, I hoped, attract instead.
Yet while I believed and practiced this, I was also well aware of the fact that what we eat is not just a matter of personal taste. Every bite we eat does affect our fellow human beings, our co-species, animals, and the planet on which we all dwell. It affects many seeming peripheral matters: health care costs, the availability of clean water, human resistance to antibiotics, to name just a few.
Like many people who quit eating meat in the 1970’s, I became a vegetarian for reasons of social justice. Once I understood that inherent in eating meat is the shrinking of resources that could otherwise go into the mouths of a world filled with hungry, thirsty people, how could I justify this?
This case was made with sparkling, revolutionary clarity in Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé, published in 1971, and it stands. For here is what it takes to produce one pound of feedlot beef, one measly pound: 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline (source). (Lappé was, by the way, interviewed recently in the New York Times.)
Since that time, the reasons to make one’s diet plant-centric have multiplied. The environmental impact (including the 13–18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally; source) is enormous, as are the ethical concerns: the tortured, miserable lives endured by creatures raised in CAFO‘s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, what we used to call factory farms).
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
Back in 1976, eating vegetarian was far less widespread. It was certainly not remotely close to being socially accepted, as it is now.
It was instead puzzling to most people, and certainly not understood from a health, environmental, or animal rights perspective. “Where do you get your protein?” people asked me all the time, genuinely perplexed. (Beans and grains, nuts, tofu and tempeh, and, for non-vegans, dairy products and eggs).
And, “Don’t you miss meat?”
In my early days of being a vegetarian, I did miss the flavor of lamb, the texture of corned beef, and the experience of eating crawfish and oysters in New Orleans. And there is no vegetarian foodstuff that can duplicate those flavors, textures, and experiences. But any such missing is long gone.
What I found over time was I mostly missed were certain sauces and flavors and textures, not meat per se. After all, I had never particularly liked meat as such.
And that, over time, is where my “mission”, such as it was, came in: I enjoyed making meat-free versions of things I had once enjoyed that had had meat in their original iteration. (I once won $25 from a guy I was dating who claimed I could not make a vegetarian sauerbraten that was as good as the one he grew up on. But I did, using seitan and all the flavors and methodology of classic sauerbraten, such as the tart gravy thickened with crumbled gingersnaps, and served with the classic potato pancakes. “Dead ringer,” he told me, shaking his head, reluctant to cede the loss but unable to do otherwise, as he handed over the cash. You can find the recipe on page 228 of my Passionate Vegetarian).
WHY SHOULD IT BE IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A REALLY GOOD VEGGIE BURGER?
Look, I appreciate what the folks at Impossible and Beyond are trying to do. Truly. I also recognize that, having been a vegetarian for nearly fifty years, I am (according to that article I mentioned earlier) not their target market.
But by my lights, besides not being tasty, these created-in-a-lab foodstuffs are not remotely healthy.
Nor can they be called “plant-based” with a straight face. Sure, they’re not made from animals. Neither are styrofoam pellets, Drano, or cardboard… does that make them “plant-based”?
See, I think to eat as a healthy, vibrant vegetarian or vegan, it’s not enough to just not eat animals. It’s not just what you don’t eat, but what you do. Though not eating animals is a kind, ethical, and environmentally sound choice (especially given the ubiquity of the ghastly nightmare of factory farming), by itself it is not necessarily a healthful or enjoyable one.
To get the full bang of eating an all- or mostly plant-based diet, one needs to eat food that is sensually pleasing, that supports individual vitality as well as planetary health, and that serves as the medium of benign connection. One needs to eat plants!
And, if this is to be a matter of joy and not obligation, not just eat, fall in love with: not just the cornucopia of freshness at your local farmer’s market, but the universe of deliciousness of beans, and grains, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices.
There are an infinity of so-good-to-eat non-animal foodstuffs out there, waiting to be discovered and combined.
For most of us, that means learning to cook with these plant-stuffs, layering flavors and textures and colors, drawing from many cultures, cuisines, and techniques. Very few vegetarian restaurants exist in proportion to the number of eaters out there. Though some of them can do plant-centric cooking very well, few can do so as well as, and certainly as affordably as, a good home cook can do in his or her home kitchen.
VEGGIE BURGERS HAVE PLENTY OF INTERNATIONAL COUSINS
In countries that traditionally have a large vegetarian population (India) or those were meat is eaten only occasionally or used primarily as a garnish (parts of the Mediterranean, many Middle Eastern countries), you will find a panoply of vegetable combinations that are burger-ish.
By which I mean, they are savory, proteinaceous (I love a good grilled mushroom sandwich, but to me it is not burger-ish because it lacks the heft of protein), and can fit between pieces of bread, can have other ingredients served with them, or stand on their own in a sauce or stew.
Falafels are loosely in this category, if you make them as large patties rather than round pingpong balls, and if you’ve ever had a really good falafel sandwich, you know that they come with their own traditional fixings just as traditional beef hamburgers do (either would be much less interesting and kind of blah without their salad-y items to add crunch and freshness, their pickles and condiments).
Also in this category: the infinitely varied fillings of bread crumbs and mashed beans and cheese and eggs and nuts that stuff the peppers and eggplants and zucchinis of Lebanon and Syria and Greece and many countries in the region. Make such fillings a tiny bit thicker, shape into patties instead of stuffing them in vegetables, bake or fry them… and there you are, burger-ishness.
Then there are the many variations of Indian kofta, round amalgamations of potatoes and other vegetables (peas! carrots! spinach! )and countless aromatics (onions! ginger! garlic! spices!), often mixed with paneer cheese, often bound with chick pea flour, and formed into ping-pong-sized balls. Baked or, more often, fried, they are served swimming in a spicy tomato-pinked creamy sauce (the cream could be dairy or coconut). They are divine, as are (she said with a sigh) so many high-fat foods. Though more meatball-ish than burger-ish, kofte are definitely in this category.
A WORLD OF INFLUENCES IN ONE LITTLE BURGER
There are plenty of pretty durned good veggie burgers in Passionate Vegetarian (as well as really good veggie “crab cakes”, loosely in this category). But, that book was published in 2002. While it still holds up very well, I think, I wanted, in the light of all the ersatz burger commotion, to update and revisit the concept. I did not want to pretend to duplicate meat, and I wanted this go-round to be vegan (many of my originals used egg as a binder). I wanted this to be vegetable-and-flavor forward, delectable and not health-foody. I also wanted fairly quick and easy, because everyone seems to have less and less time, in and out of the kitchen.
I looked to the precursors long present in traditional cuisines, those mentioned above, primarily Middle Eastern and Indian. But because I knew beans were going to be part of my burger, and because the South-of-the-Border flavors are so good with beans, I decided to go with a Tex-Mex flavor profile. Although I’m generally a from-scratch girl, I managed to combine this with the quick-and-easy by ceasing to be such a freakin’ purist and use good quality canned vegetarian refried beans as a base.
Then I started playing.
I added walnuts and tempeh, for heft and heartiness; I used smoked tempeh, because it offered a little bit of that grilled-over-a-fire taste. Shiitake mushrooms doubled down on umami savor, though you don’t taste them as such in the finished burger, just the “meatiness” which, improbably, they give. Instead of egg, the burger-base is bound with cornstarch or potato starch — just a little. This means no bread crumbs, and just a little brown rice. Chipotle in adobe ratchets up the Tex-Mexiness of the refrieds, and minced parsley adds a fresh note (substitute cilantro, if you like).
You’ll see that using a few ingredients that already have seasoning greatly simplify the usual home-kitchen veggie-burger prep. Also please note that besides being vegan, these are gluten-free. And unlike many v-burgers, they hold together like a dream, especially if you do the optional-but-recommended rest in the fridge.
The finished burgers do not taste like a beef hamburger. Nor do they taste like a blah veggie burger, or anything you can buy in the frozen food case at Whole Foods. When I finally got the recipe to my liking, I sprang it on a writing group I then hosted. What did I hear from eight out of ten tasters? “Far and away the best veggie burger I have ever had.” The other two? “I like ’em better than hamburgers.”
I say: impossibly good. Beyond delicious.
MY FAVORITE VEGGIE BURGERS
1 (15.4-ounce) can vegetarian organic refried black beans, such as Amy’s
½ cup walnuts
½ cup cooked brown rice, either leftover (previously cooked), or one of the packaged pre-cooked brown rices, such as Seeds of Change‘s Brown Basmati
3 to 4 tablespoons mild oil, such as sunflower or canola, plus a bit for oiling a baking sheet
7 ounces smoked tempeh strips, such as Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon
5 ounce sliced, trimmed shiitake mushrooms
3 tablespoons cornstarch or potato starch
1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce, with 1 to 2 teaspoons of the adobo
1/4 cup parsley, minced
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
Buns (preferably whole-grain and toasted or grilled)
Any of your favorite burger fixings: mayo, ketchup, mustard, sliced red onions, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, sliced or crumbled cheese (dairy or non-dairy), sliced or mashed ripe avocado
- Place the refried beans in a medium-large bowl and set aside.
- Place the walnuts in the food processor and pulse-chop until coarsely ground (you don’t want them smooth). Add the brown rice, and pulse again several times. Transfer half of the walnut-rice mixture to the bowl with the refried beans. Leave the other half in the processor for now.
- Heat half the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the tempeh, browning for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, or until golden. Remove the tempeh from the skillet, blot on paper towels to remove excess oil, and let the slices cool slightly.
- Add remaining oil to skillet and add the shiitake mushrooms. Sauté, stirring often, until the mushrooms no longer look raw and have started to grow limp, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Crumble or slice half the tempeh strips into pieces about 1/4 inch wide. Add remaining tempeh to the processor.
- When shiitakes are done, transfer them to the processor as well, along with the cornstarch, chipotle and sauce, and parsley. Pulse-chop again, making a slightly chunky purée. Add this to the bowl with the refried beans, and combine all the ingredients, making a thick mixture. Season to taste.
- Form into 8 burgers, each about 3½ inches wide and 1 inch thick. Ideally, refrigerate the burgers for an hour or two or overnight before baking.
- When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Either oil a baking sheet or line it with a non-stick silicone sheet. Place the burgers on the prepared baking sheet
- Bake for 20 minutes, then remove pan from oven. Using a thin-bladed spatula, carefully turn over each burger. Continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until burgers are firm and a little crusty-looking on the outside. Serve hot, immediately, on buns with the fixings, or serve at room temperature. Leftovers, should there be any, are excellent cold in a next-day sandwich.
- If you wish to grill, rather than bake, these, the refrigerated rest is a must. Plus, you will need to brush each chilled burger on both sides with a little oil or melted butter before grilling.
- Since you have the chipotles open, you can easily purée another one and some sauce. Stir it into a bit of mayo, for, of course, chipotle mayonnaise.
- These are excellent made in miniature, for sliders.