Help Us Design the Best Meatless Burger

Brainstorming a recipe for a simple, grillable, plant-based patty

  
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A quick note to let you know that for the summer, we’re moving our conversations from Fridays to Thursdays starting at 3 p.m. EST. Tomorrow’s conversation is all about grilling: What are you grilling this weekend?

Please consider becoming a member of The Bittman Project and joining us. Thank you for your support. — Melissa

If you're like us, you can't wait to have cookouts this summer. Lots of them. Now imagine you're outside with friends and family on a balmy evening, tossing plant-based burgers on the grill. Not the kind concocted in a high-tech lab — yours came from a regular kitchen, made with supermarket ingredients, probably well in advance and definitely by hand. And the burger is so good, even meat-eaters want to know where you got it.

We at The Bittman Project seem pretty close to realizing this summer dream cookout. But we need your help. Let's all gather in our online community to put our heads together, work on the recipe, and finally figure out this whole plant-based patty thing. And we'll call that place Burgerville.

Burgerville Goals

  • Our burger should be satisfying and savory but not too beany, sweet, or grassy.

  • The texture inside should have some chew and resistance when you bite; exterior crust is a must.

  • The mixture needs to hold together well enough to grill over a gas or charcoal flame, turning at least once.

  • Appearance should be burger-like in a relatively traditionally meat-based way. 

  • Our burger is real food: nothing more processed than milled grains, roasted nuts, or tofu. Additions may include whole grains; fresh, dried, roasted, or fermented vegetables and fruit; and plant-based fats and oils.

  • The ingredients should be available in any well-stocked supermarket.

  • Let's say refined starches aren't out of the bounds, though a solution based on treating simple ingredients with an interesting technique is preferable. (So instead of potato starch, for example, think mashed sweet potato or brown rice.) 

  • Ideally, no special equipment — not even a food processor — would be required. Again, not a deal-breaker.

  • The ability to prepare the burgers in advance and refrigerate or freeze them is a huge plus — bonus points for burgers that reheat well after cooking.

The Burgerville Process

  • Mark and the rest of The Bittman Project team have made a lot of vegetarian burgers over the years. I spent several weeks last fall working on all sorts of crazy formulas before lighting on the relatively simple baseline recipe that appears below. When we got together last winter for our last in-person team meeting before lockdown, we pan-cooked some to critique together.

  • Let's start with that recipe. I'm also including Mark's Best Black Bean Burger as an additional reference. It's a terrific bean burger — ask the couple thousand fans at NYT Cooking who give it five stars. But one thing we’d like to try is holding back some of the beans to mash into the mix by hand at the end — a technique we often like for a more varied texture. The only downside is its upside: The results are tender inside and crisp outside, but the burger mixture is relatively loose and requires cooking in a pan, not on the grill.

  • Feel free to talk about Burgerville in this week’s grilling chat — which will be on Thursdays now through the summer. After that, feel free to try the baseline recipe or work on something totally new. We'll try to keep pace all month with updates, questions, and ideas via email or in the comment thread that lives with this post.

  • Then everyone tests and develops in Burgerville through June. You can email us photos and recipes at bittmanproject@gmail.com. We'll review and post some finalists for the community to try by the July 4th weekend.

  • Whatever we share, please be sure to note sources. We want to be able to research and credit everyone involved. If the idea appears in or was inspired by a cookbook or other media, please keep track of the author and source; links are especially helpful. If it's your genius at play, by all means, say so!

The Burgerville Recipes

Here are two recipes to get our brainstorming started — and we’d love it if you share your early finds in the comments, the Thursday discussion, and/or in an email to us.

The Bittman Burger — Baseline Recipe

Makes: 6 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 can (about 14-ounces) unsweetened coconut cream

  • 2 small cans (14-ounce) or 1 large can (28-ounce) pinto beans, rinsed and well-drained (or about 3 cups drained homemade beans)

  • 1/2 cup rolled oats (not instant)

  • 1/3 cup chia seeds

  • 1/4 cup red miso 

  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika

  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

  • Good-quality vegetable oil, for brushing

Instructions

1. Put the can of coconut cream in the freezer while you prepare the burgers. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Spread the beans into a large rimmed baking sheet and roast, shaking once or twice until the skins of the beans dry, crack, and darken slightly, 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Working over a large bowl with a palm-full of oats at a time, rub them between your hands to crumble them a little; repeat with the remaining oats. (It’s okay if they don’t know all break apart.) Add the chia, miso, smoked paprika, mustard, and pepper and stir, mashing with a fork to combine. Remove 1/4 cup of the thick fat from the top of the coconut cream and refrigerate the rest of the fat and liquid for another use. Stir the fat into the bowl until a thick paste forms; let sit until the beans are ready. 

3. Add the warm beans to the oat mixture and mash with a fork, a potato masher, or your hands until the beans are broken up but still in uneven pieces. The mixture should hold together when you squeeze some in your palm. To shape the burgers, divide the mixture into 6 balls, and working one at a time, press them into patties onto a large rimmed baking sheet until they’re about 1/2 inch thick. If the edges crack or they become uneven, simply press them back into a circle.

4. Cover loosely with parchment and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to a day. Or wrap the burgers individually and freeze for up to several months.) Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium direct-heat cooking. (Or if you're going to cook the burgers on the stove, heat the oven to 200° and get a baking sheet handy.)

5. To grill the burgers, brush the tops with some of the oil. Put them all on the grates directly over the prepared fire, oiled side down, brush the tops with more oil, and cover the grill.

To cook on the stove, put a thin film of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add three of the burgers to the pan.

6. Either way, cook until the burgers are firm, a crust forms, and they release easily 5 to 10 minutes. Turn and cook the other side the same way, another 5 or so minutes. If cooking in a pan, transfer the finished patties to a baking sheet in the oven and repeat with the remaining three burgers. Serve right away on buns or rolls if you’d like with all the trimmings.

— Baseline recipe developed by Kerri Conan


Mark's Best Black Bean Burgers

Makes: About 8 small burgers or 4 regular-sized burgers
Time: About 40 minutes with canned (or homemade cooked) beans

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup dried, stemless porcini mushrooms

  • 2 cups cooked or drained canned black beans

  • 1 teaspoon roughly chopped garlic

  • 3/4 cup rolled oats, or more if needed

  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika or chili powder

  • 1 teaspoon cumin

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • Salt and black pepper

  • Bean-cooking liquid, porcini soaking liquid, or water

  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Instructions

1. Soak the mushrooms in hot water until pliable, 5 to 10 minutes. Lift them from the soaking water and chop; reserve the soaking liquid for the burgers or another use (like a soup, sauce, or stir-fry).

2. Put the mushrooms, beans, garlic, oats, spices, and soy sauce in a food processor with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Pulse until the mixture is combined, not puréed, about 30 seconds. (Or use a potato masher.) When you pinch some in your fingers, the mixture should hold together without sticking to your hands. Add more oats to thicken it or a few drops of liquid to thin it, as needed. Stir in the cilantro with a fork, and let sit for 5 minutes.

3. Shape into 4 large or 8 small patties; let them sit for 5 minutes. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook until crisp on one side, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook until the burgers are crisp on the other side, another 5 minutes or so. Serve with the usual fixings.

— Adapted from New York Times Cooking