My college roommate gets me. I know this because they put up with me talking to them while gesturing absentmindedly with knives for four years, but more relevantly to this blog, at least, because they sent me a Snapchat of a black bean burger they had been playing with.
They told me that it was their latest and most successful attempt to come up with a not-mushy bean burger – and that’s exactly the sort of problem I find irresistible.
We spent the next couple of minutes batting ideas back and forth, and then the challenge took up permanent residence in the back of my brain and wouldn’t leave until I took a stab at it.
Which, of course, moved this recipe to the top of my “make this next” list.
Why are vegetarian burgers hard?
“Vegetarian burgers aren’t that hard, Jessi,” you say. “The Impossible and Beyond families of products exist, and they are everything I could possibly want out of a plant-based meat substitute.” And I would agree with you…
…if you are someone who wants to actually replace meat.
I mean, I’m not a vegetarian, but meat is not my favorite thing to eat – and if I can choose between an Impossible burger and a black bean burger, I’m going to choose the bean burger probably eight times out of ten.
They’re more interesting – there is no standardized recipe, so every time I eat one it’s a little bit different. You can mix up the combination of beans, spices, and veggies more or less infinitely.
With ground beef (or something that is trying to be ground beef), you more or less always know what to expect.
The problem of protein
That said, ground beef does have a pretty significant advantage when it comes to texture – if you take water out of the equation, it is formed, primarily, of proteins. Critically, these proteins are raw.
You can think of an individual protein as a piece of string whose entire length has been tied into an extremely complex knot. As we apply heat to that protein and it starts to denature, we can imagine the knot starting to unravel, leaving the long string free to tangle with its neighbors – which it does, enthusiastically.
These proteins denaturing and tangling up with their neighbors is what causes the textural change that makes a ground beef patty hold together when you cook and eat it.
The things we use as bases for vegetarian burgers (beans, grains, lentils, etc.), have proteins in them too – but in order to make these kinds of food malleable enough to be shaped into patties, we have to cook them. Which means that even if there were enough protein available to hold the burgers together (there isn’t), it has already been denatured and re-set into its new shape and texture.
This is the fundamental structural problem of veggie burgers – the bulk of what goes into them is already cooked.
We want a bean burger that is sturdy enough to flip without crumbling in the pan, and that will hold together without mushing out of the bun as you eat it. Ideally, we’d also like a bit of textural interest and richness to chew on as we eat, but, for now, that’s a secondary consideration.
So what’s a cook to do?
Holding it together
Let’s take a moment and talk about bread. And no, I’m not talking about buns – it’s relevant, I promise.
More or less the whole process of making bread is about creating and developing a very specific kind of protein – gluten. Gluten is the protein responsible for giving bread dough its strength and stretch, and it’s what gives the finished loaf the spring and chew we all love.
It’s also something we can mix into the burger raw.
You see, the only thing you have to do to make gluten is mix flour with water – and once you’ve done that, you can wash all the starches away, leaving behind almost pure protein.
This (extremely unappetizing looking, btw) lump of gluten can be dehydrated, powdered, and sold as a product known as vital wheat gluten – used primarily as a way of strengthening bread dough, or as the main ingredient of seitan (which is a vegan meat replacement, not an 18th-century spelling of satan, which is what I thought for a good chunk of middle school).
We’re going to use it as glue.
But gluten’s not the only binder we can steal from the baker’s pantry – eggs are also an easy way to add a little more raw protein power.
And between the two, we should have more than enough protein to denature and get all tangled up with our beans to hold our burger together as it cooks.
So now we have a bean burger that holds together in the pan and on the plate – but lacks a certain amount of resistance.
I don’t know about you, but I do prefer at least a marginal textural difference between my burger and its bun. The vital wheat gluten gives the patty a little bit of spring, but it’s still mostly just…soft mashed beans.
Let’s change that.
There are any number of bulking agents you could add to the beans to add a little tooth and texture – brown rice, quinoa, barley – but I wanted to do something a little different.
Textured vegetable protein is commonly used as a vegetarian meat substitute in things like chili and tacos, where having something that at least tangentially approximates the texture of ground meat is important. It is made from de-fatted soy flour, which is mixed with water and salt, and then is cooked and extruded, kind of like pasta.
For my purposes it’s perfect. When sparingly rehydrated, it retains a bouncy, almost pebble-y texture that will break up the monotonous softness of the beans. As a bonus, it is almost completely flavorless, which means it will fade politely into the background and let the other ingredients shine.
Also, it is a complete protein, which is nice from a nutritional standpoint, but that’s more of an accidental side benefit.
The second thing we’re going to do is dry out the black beans before mashing them, something that my roommate mentioned in our original conversation, and which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt also recommends.
I know it feels a little Modernist Cuisine dehydrate-rehydrate-dehydrate, but bear with me.
At least in my experience, the softness of vegetarian burger products, and bean burgers especially, is because of moisture. Cooking beans is essentially just forcing enough water in there that they soften up and become edible – and that moisture stays there throughout the burgering process. It’s why we normally add breadcrumbs to these recipes – they act like a sponge for all the moisture from the beans and other veggies, keeping the burger from edging from soft into soggy.
By removing that moisture from the beans before you mash them up and stick them in a burger, you improve the texture in two ways. First, the beans have less moisture to contribute, making the burger less soft overall, and second, the outside of the beans hardens up a little bit, which gives us more to chew on in the end product.
I have one final textural element to consider, and that is fat. Both black beans and TVP are basically fat-free, and I want something in my final burger mix that will add back the sort of unctuous richness that the intramuscular fat gives us in a ground beef patty.
I could use chunks of refined coconut oil, but that frankly kind of grosses me out.
Instead, I added very small chunks of avocado, which is about 15 percent fat by weight, and which also remains extremely creamy, even when cooked. I know it sounds a little strange at first, but you can’t taste the avocado in the final mix – you just notice that the black bean burgers are a little richer than you might expect.
Now, of course, we have to make the burger taste good. I landed on a mix of onion, garlic, and poblano chiles, spiced with nutritional yeast, which adds a savory, almost cheese-like note, in addition to soy sauce, oregano, cumin, and chile powder.
The final result is a deeply savory black bean burger – but one that deliberately doesn’t have much of a point of view. I wanted to leave flexibility here so you could play with the combination of beans, vegetables, and spices that work for you, and to set up a good foundation for toppings. As long as you maintain the overall proportion, the burgers should maintain the structural integrity and texture that sets them apart.
NEVER-MUSHY BLACK BEAN BURGERS
- 1 15 oz can (or 1 1/2 cups cooked) black beans, drained and rinsed
- 43 grams (1/2 cup) texturized vegetable protein (TVP)
- 73 grams (1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) hot vegetable broth, plus a little extra for adjusting texture
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 poblano chile, diced small
- 1 small onion, diced small
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 61 grams (1/2 cup) vital wheat gluten flour
- 1 whole egg
- 1 extremely ripe avocado, diced small
- 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dry oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- neutral oil, for pan-frying
- Preheat oven to 350°
- Spread the black beans on a sheet pan in a single layer – no need to worry about oil or anything, they shouldn’t stick – and roast for 20 minutes, or until the surfaces of the beans are completely dry and the skins are beginning to crack open. They’re gonna look real unappetizing, but this step makes a huge difference texturally.
- While the beans dry out, pour the hot vegetable stock over the TVP, give it a stir, and let it sit until the liquid is completely absorbed – at least 10 minutes. I know the quantity of vegetable stock feels arbitrary, and it’s easier to just do equal parts dry and liquid – but resist that urge. We are aiming for a balance of hydration – enough for the TVP to hydrate all the way through so it’s not crunchy, but not so much that it loses its texture altogether and becomes mush.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers and a pinch of salt and saute until they are starting to brown around the edges, 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is fragrant, about 30 more seconds. Pour in the soy sauce, which is going to sizzle alarmingly, and stir everything around until the sauce has reduced completely and the pan is dry, about a minute.
- Place the now-dry beans in a medium bowl, and mash with a potato masher. It’s not going to be as easy as you expect – the dry beans reduce down into a sort of bean skin + bean flour texture that resists smushing. Don’t worry about it too much, just try not to leave too many whole beans. Add the rehydrated TVP, sauteed veggies, vital wheat gluten, egg, avocado, nutritional yeast, paprika, cumin, oregano, chile powder and salt and mix to combine. The mixture will seem crumbly, but there shouldn’t be any dry vital wheat gluten flour still floating around – if there is, add vegetable stock a teaspoon or two at a time until there are no dry powdery bits left. The final texture of the burger mix should reminiscent of the little rubber pieces that are meant to represent dirt in the “nicer” types of astroturf, and should hold together in a ball that when you squeeze it together in your hand.
- Mold the mixture into three-and-a-half-inch diameter patties (I pressed mine into a round cookie cutter, but patting them out in your hand should work just as well). Don’t be afraid of pressing hard here – the more compacted the patties are, the better they will hold together in the pan. Sprinkle one side lightly with salt.
- Heat enough oil to thinly cover the bottom of a large skillet (you can use the same one you sauteed the veggies in – just wipe out any chunks) over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the patties and cook until deeply golden brown on the first side, 2-3 minutes. Flip and brown the other side, another 2-3 minutes. If you want to get really technical about it, I try to hit a minimum internal temperature of 150°F, since the proteins in the egg will start to coagulate around 140°F, but it’s really not that fussy.
- The patties, uncooked and unsalted, will store in the freezer for up to six months, as long as they’re in an air-tight container (though I've noticed that they do lose some cohesion after they thaw). Once cooked, the patties will hold in the refrigerator for up to a week, though they will get progressively softer the older they are.