Having been a vegetarian for 30 years, I’ve eaten my share of veggie burgers. The problem with most mass-produced veggie burgers is that they taste bland and vaguely chemical, while most homemade versions have terrible texture issues. They are generally mushy, and who wants to bite through a soft bun into a mushy patty that falls apart on impact? Meh. If you can pile on enough condiments, they can be ok. But I’ve yet to eat a vegetarian burger that I’m actually excited to sink my teeth into.
Ben Johnson and the rest of the ChefSteps crew were working on meat burgers and condiments for a future set of recipes, and of course they wanted to tackle a veggie burger too. We got to chatting about the work that work that my friend Eddie Shepherd had done on binding mushrooms with an an enzyme known as transglutaminase, and realized that it might be ideal for creating a vegetable based burger that had the textural “snap” of a meat burger.
Ben’s results are way beyond what I could have hoped for. The mushrooms are roasted first to develop maximum flavor and drive off water, and they are 95% of the total product, so the taste is a big fat wallop of umami that compliments the condiments instead of hiding under them. Searing the patty in a hot skillet creates a beautiful, crisp, rich crust that just needs a generous hit of salt to be mind-blowing.
You might be wondering about the transglutaminase. Perhaps that sounds a little frightening, but it really is nothing to worry about. It is an an enzyme, and we all have lots of it in our blood. Its function is to stick proteins together. The culinary version is made by bacterial fermentation. Initially used for relatively low-quality products like imitation krab, modern chefs have adapted it for more sophisticated purposes. Since mushrooms don’t have a lot of protein, in this recipe they get infused with milk proteins which the transglutaminase can bond. So the recipe is vegetarian, but not vegan. It is probably possible to make it using soy protein and a different version of transglutaminase that doesn’t come pre-mixed with more casein, but we don’t have a firm recipe for that to offer.