It’s midday in Manhattan and I am walking, fast, to a hot date with… a veggie burger. And I’m not a vegetarian. The veggie burger, once a crime against good eating, has come of age. It’s no longer just mushed-up grains and beans – a kind of nut roast in patty form – but is being given serious attention by top chefs.
The burger I have in my sights was created by Brooks Headley, an acclaimed former pastry chef who now owns Superiority Burger, a veggie-burger joint in the East Village. Headley won’t give away the recipe for his “classic”, but it’s made with quinoa, root vegetables, beans and lentils. No egg is used, making it vegan; just a sticky mess of potato starch which, when heated to 180C, gelatinises, giving you the same binding quality as egg.
Headley’s burger, served in a bun with tomato, iceberg lettuce and sweet pickled cucumber, is the most acclaimed in the city. The New York Times gave Superiority Burger two stars and GQ named its classic the best burger in the world. It looks more inviting than most beef burgers: the deep-fried patty is golden brown and glistening. And it tastes as good as it looks: luscious, fatty, full of flavour, with a great crispy crust.
Headley says mushrooms and miso are good for creating that essential umami flavour. For the satisfying “bite” found in beef burgers he combines textures, using some vegetables that are cooked to softness, some that aren’t. Daniel Humm, from the three-Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park, is also serving a veggie burger, made of grains, vegetables, quinoa, eggs, cream cheese and Dijon mustard, at his slick NoMad Bar.
Dan Barber, the NYC chef making sustainability chic, offers them at Blue Hill Manhattan, formed from the pulp that’s left behind after carrot and beetroot are juiced. What all these chefs are doing is trying to make a non-meat burger that is a great dish in its own right, not just a second-rate option for vegetarians.
David Chang takes a different route. At Momofuku Nishi, one of his seven New York restaurants, he’s serving the Impossible Burger, the meat-free patty that famously “bleeds”. It’s the creation of Bill Gates-backed Impossible Foods, founded in 2011 by Patrick Brown, a former professor of biochemistry at Stanford. Brown is trying to produce plant-based “meat” products that don’t contain cholesterol, hormones or antibiotics.
The meaty taste is mimicked by using heme, a molecule found in haemoglobin (a component of blood) and in certain plants. Brown says an Impossible Burger uses only a quarter of the water and a 20th of the land area used to produce a beef burger. His mission statement is simple: “Today we rely on cows to turn plants into meat. There has to be a better way.” I can confirm it does indeed bleed and tastes like meat, though it’s nothing like as moreish as Headley’s veggie burger. It’s like an average beef burger.
Americans are ahead of us in the veggie-burger game. But the UK is slowly catching up. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron and Five Guys all offer “veggie” burgers in the form of bean-based patties or large grilled mushrooms. In London, gourmet burger chains Patty & Bun and Honest Burger both serve vegetable “fritters” and Shake Shack does crisply fried portobellos in its buns.
But the best veggie burgers aren’t necessarily found in chains. Bruno Loubet offers one made with mushrooms and truffles at his veg-centric restaurant, Grain Store. “I use mushrooms because of their meaty flavour,” he says. “But texture is always a challenge – the patty has to hold together. We’ve found that powdered egg white works.”
I wonder why he makes veggie burgers at all; there are enough dishes on the menu to satisfy the most demanding vegetarian. “People want them,” he says, “Especially if they’re eating at the bar. A burger is familiar. And it says ‘casual’.”
Many vegetarians told me the “Polish-style” veggie burger at Mildred’sin Soho was their favourite. Chef Daniel Acevedo makes it from beetroot, beans and dill and serves it with pickled cabbage and gherkins. “We use dry soya protein, a really old-fashioned vegetarian ingredient, to bind ours but I’m working on new burgers which don’t need that. There is a real demand for them.”
Impossible Foods’ efforts to meet that demand by replicating meat are laudable, but, as I’ve discovered, there’s no reason that burgers can’t be made of vegetables. Next time I’m in New York, I’ll be heading to Superiority Burger, not Momofuku Nishi. Why? As executive chef of the meat-focused Hawksmoor group, Richard Turner, says: “Vegetarian food should have its own style, not be a pale imitation of something else. It should be loud and proud.”
Anna Jones’s really hungry veggie burger
The rice crisps up to give a good crust and there are pops of interesting flavour I don’t think you find in a beef burger.
Olive oil, for cooking
6 big portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped
A few sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 x 400g tin white beans, haricot or cannellini, well drained
4 fat medjool dates, pitted
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp tahini 2 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
200g cooked and cooled brown rice (100g raw weight)
50g breadcrumbs or oats
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
Sliced cheese (optional)
8 seeded burger buns (I use wholemeal)
1-2 avocados, peeled and sliced
Tomato relish or ketchup
A few handfuls of spinach leaves
Heat a splash of oil in a medium pan. Add mushrooms and thyme and season. Fry until mushrooms have dried out and are slightly browned, then set aside.
Pulse the beans in a processor with the dates, garlic, parsley, tahini and soy sauce or tamari, to a smoothish mixture. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the rice, breadcrumbs or oats, zest and cooled mushrooms. Chill for 10 minutes to firm up.
Divide mixture into eight and shape into patties. Place on a lined baking tray and chill until needed. (This can be done the day before – and the burgers freeze well at this point.)
Preheat oven to 230C/Gas 8. Bake burgers for 15 minutes, until nicely brown. If adding cheese, pop a slice on top a couple of minutes before they come out of the oven. Toast buns. Once burgers are golden, serve them in the buns layered with avocado, relish, cucumber and spinach.