Burger Kings: This one goes out to all the vegetarians out there

A recipe is analogous to a roadmap. You can choose to follow it or not. The adventurous types eschew the map and rely instead on their orienteering instincts. Or they just follow their whimsy. Others trust Google Maps to guide their course, only to find that misguided directions lead to a dead end.

I don’t like dead ends. When I zip around St. Louis, I rely on Wunnenberg’s Street Guides to get me where I want to go. They never fail me. (Credit my civil engineer husband who breathes roads and bridges for a living for turning me onto this reliable old-school guide.)

When it comes to recipes for veggie burgers, I’ve encountered instructions that have led to more wrong turns than an outdated GPS. Why don’t all veggie burger recipes have Wunnenberg’s precision? Because there are so many variables – so much “construction” blocking the way.

If your experience of driving meatless in burgerland is anything like mine, you’ve tasted more than your fair share of “meh” patties (a few, admittedly, by my own hand). Too wet. Too dry. Bland and blah. But in consuming many a mistake, I’ve learned a few tricks for maneuvering through plant-based burger territory.

Texture is one of the trickiest hurdles to tackle. Sometimes, I want the cohesive yet rough texture of a meat burger; other times I want a smooth patty to counter the crunchy vegetation I’ll pile on top. The type and grind of the primary filler – whether it’s a lowly bean or a combination of a legume and a grain – are the usual suspects that lead to dry, crumbly veggie burgers. I counter that threat by cooking my own beans so I can control the cooking time. I want them slightly overcooked so that they break down easily in the food processor. (I also warm them slightly before processing them.) When seeking to replicate the coarseness and density of an all-beef burger, pulse only the beans and grains in the food processor, then stir in the remaining ingredients.

It’s apparent that you have a “wet” burger on your hands when the patties are too moist to hold shape. How can you combat all that excess moisture? First, drain cooked beans very well; even go so far as to spread them on layers of paper towels and blot them dry. For grains, drain them in a sieve and then press down with a spatula to really get the water out. When using raw veggies (such as in the shredded radish in the Black Bean and Edamame Burger at right), toss the vegetables in a bit of salt, let them sit for a spell, then press out the moisture. This lets the veggies release their inner water. Finally, when a recipe calls for refrigerating the prepared patties, don’t set them directly on a baking sheet. Instead, line the sheet with a paper towel and you’ll have firmer patties.

The binding holds the burger together and helps keep it balanced on the dry-wet scale. An egg is typical glue for a veggie burger, but finely processed nuts (or nut butters), mushrooms or tofu can also do the trick. One binding I recently discovered is overcooked pasta. Try it in the Italian Veggie Burger recipe on page 46, and play around with eggless pastas to develop some new vegan versions all your own.

Beans and grains taste bland on their own. Seasonings bring them to life. Without spices, fresh herbs and vegetables, that burger will be as boring as all those carnivorous haters claim it to be. Coming up with flavor profiles is one of the creative aspects to building your own burger recipe. Will you take the south-of-the-border route with black beans and work in the flavor and heat of, say, chile peppers? Maybe you want to take a Mediterranean tour and explore how well fresh basil, oregano and parsley marry with cannellinis. There’s always the Indian side of the culinary globe where you can match garbanzo beans or lentils to suit your own curry blend. As for fresh herbs, be generous when tossing those into the burger mix; they’re milder than dried and you want to pack in as much flavor as you can. To extract a softer, even sweet flavor from veggies that taste sharp in their raw state like onions, garlic and peppers, consider sauteing them first.

While the taste of the patty itself most certainly matters, the toppings are what make that burger a regular on your dinner table. Take into account texture, color and flavor combinations as you slice fresh produce, whip up quick sauces and cut slivers of bold cheeses to dress things up.

Travelling in veggie burgerland doesn’t have to be full of wrong turns. For exacting results, turn to the recipes that follow. And if you like to cook sans map – er, recipe – have fun blazing the meatless trail as you fill ‘er up with other ingredients that are sure to convince even die-hard carnivores to take a veggie burger excursion every now and then.