Are Veggie Burgers Obsolete? Far From It, Says Lukas Volger

by Alicia Kennedy

Published: 5/30/23, Last updated: 5/30/23

When Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat started to gain attention and traction in the marketplace back in 2016, I began to worry: Would actual veggie burgers — the ones made with vegetables, grains and legumes that you could see in the patties — go extinct? I posed the question to many food industry folks, including Lukas Volger, the vegetarian cookbook author whose “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, published in 2010 by The Experiment, led to a veggie-burger line called Made by Lukas that was sold in supermarkets for four years. Volger and I both agreed that it was in actual veggie burgers, not plant-based burgers made to mimic meat, that real culinary creativity could be found. Culinary creativity is not something that goes out of style.

Yet plant-based meat companies continued to gain money from venture capital, partner with fast-food chains and expand into supermarkets and big-box stores. It looked like they might do to ground meat and sausages what plant-based milks have now managed to accomplish in coffee shops and home refrigerators: a coup. Food magazines and television began to treat these products as the future of food, a way to combat the evils of climate change and factory farming. The narrative seemed to regard the success of faux meat, especially the burgers, as inevitable, suggesting that the only way to decrease meat consumption would be to replace meat with something that looked and acted just like it.

The fake-meat story, though, isn’t one of endless success. In late 2022 and early 2023, headlines at the Washington Post and New York Times talked of struggle: Beyond Meat, which is publicly traded, saw a stock decrease of 83 percent and laid off 200 people, around 19 percent of its employees. Consumer food analysts noted a drop in the volume of sales in the category as a whole. The reasons for the flip in the zeitgeist are many, attributable to the higher cost compared to meat, the realization that these ultra-processed meat substitutes aren’t nutritionally sound and the novelty simply wearing off.

Now we are seeing the return of the veggie burger made from plants: Shake Shack is introducing the Veggie Shack, with a patty that includes mushrooms, sweet potatoes and farro; the Times chronicled the best options in Los Angeles (falafel burgers, nut loaf) and Eater rounded up even more across the U.S. Now, in what seems like a sure sign that the tide has turned, Volger’s book is being released as a second edition.

The new book wasn’t pegged to the resurgence of the vegetable-based veggie burger. The 2010 edition was Volger’s first cookbook; he went on to publish three more vegetarian books, including 2022’s “Snacks for Dinner.” But “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way” continued to sell, and a couple of years ago, The Experiment reached out about doing a refresh. “The publisher saw veggie burgers as timeless,” Volger explains, and the re-release is coincidentally, if aptly, timed.

Made by Lukas — packaged in plastic buckets in the supermarket refrigerator section, and meant to be used as one would ground meat — proved difficult to scale up as a fragile product with a short shelf life. Though Volger did incorporate lessons from the experience into the book (chiefly, he realized the burgers don’t necessarily need to be finished in the oven) he has come to believe that the best way to get his ideas across is through recipes, not a company, and by letting home cooks experiment and learn for themselves how they most enjoy their veggie burgers.

“What these burgers have in common,” he writes in the introduction, “is that they are all unique expressions of the colors, textures, and tastes of the assorted fresh ingredients from which they are prepared — and that they started out as seeds in the ground.” There’s a pointed focus on using a “whole foods” approach, meaning ingredients in minimally processed form, and highlighting their flavors and textures; this focus on “unique expression” over what one might imagine a “veggie burger” looks like — say, a gray-brown mash of grain with a touch of visible pea, carrot and black bean offering the only color — brings out the possibility of the concept rather than focusing solely on what is being replaced. He notes that while frozen veggie burgers have long been served as a “peace offering” at cookouts, the vegetarian or vegan option should no longer be an afterthought, but instead the main event.

“Veggie Burgers Every Which Way” is a collection of recipes, but it’s also a sturdy foundation for figuring out how to make veggie burgers work with whatever beans, vegetables, grains or proteins are available. The “easy bean burger,” the first recipe in the book, requires ten pantry-friendly ingredients and doesn’t specify which kind of bean, meaning it’ll work with whatever you’ve got in canned or dry form. Volger shares principles for those who might want to go their own way entirely: how to figure out what a vegetable needs, whether that’s pre-cooking or being shredded on a box grater; how to use up fresh herbs that might go bad; guides to using tofu, tempeh and seitan; recipes for various buns, like whole wheat or pretzel; and a whole rundown of bun alternatives that still provide good flavor and texture. As Volger writes, one of the biggest changes he made to the second edition was to cut back on using egg as a binder, which makes the new book of major appeal to vegan cooks and anyone looking to use eggs more mindfully. There is also a guide for egg and breadcrumb replacement for those who want to forego those ingredients.

As one gets deeper into the book, the choices become more considered and compelling, like the curried eggplant and tomato, carrot-parsnip with almond and even a beet tartare — not precisely a burger, but certainly meat-inspired. But there are also the expected varieties, because who can write a book like this without a beet burger, a portobello burger or one that combines chipotle and black beans? These are the go-to veggie burgers one would find at a vegetarian restaurant, and through Volger’s recipes, they can become home staples as well.

For the last chapters, Volger runs down classic sides and toppings and some that are perhaps more surprising. Red cabbage slaw and roasted corn salad are summer necessities, but rutabaga fries are an autumnal possibility. Frizzled shallots and various pickles are there to provide crunch and acidity, and there’s also a guide to herbaceous and spicy yogurt sauces. Volger once again proves a masterful instructor on how to make the most of pantry ingredients and herbs that have overstayed their welcome.

While major corporations and hip restaurants alike are signaling a return to the veggie burger, “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way” shows just how versatile the concept can be — and that it has the power to shift perceptions. A burger doesn’t always have to be something that oozes, whether that’s the meat of a cow or the heme of a soy-based processed patty. As Volger learned from Made by Lukas, ready-made mix at the grocery store isn’t necessarily made to individual tastes or with the best-quality ingredients; the math simply doesn’t work out. But veggie burgers at home can be a diverse, cost-effective and easy way to add more grains, legumes and plants to your diet. Volger shows the way.

Beet and Hazelnut Burgers from "Veggie Burgers Every Which Way" by Lukas Volger.
Beet and Hazelnut Burgers from “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way” by Lukas Volger. Photo by Evi Abeler.

Recipe: Beet and Hazelnut Burgers

Lukas Volger, “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way”

Yield: Makes six 4-inch (10 cm) burgers

This was the first veggie burger flavor I launched with my company Made by Lukas. I’m very proud of this recipe, which is vegan, gluten-free, full of flavor, and boasts a terrific texture, too. I love the floral flavor of the hazelnuts here, and it’s important to freshly toast them to get the most bang for your buck; in fact, I recommend toasting them well, to a dark, chestnut shade of brown, which will also contribute some pleasantly crunchy texture. And while these burgers taste nothing like meat — they taste like beets! which is the whole idea — the mixture might seem alarmingly red to the unsuspecting guest in your kitchen.

Ingredients

¼ cup (45 g) quinoa, rinsed if not prerinsed
1 teaspoon salt
2 small- to medium-size beets
1 large or 2 medium carrots
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¼ cup (15 g) potato flakes
1 teaspoon cornstarch, potato starch, or arrowroot powder
½ cup (55 g) toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped or ground

Method

  1. Combine the quinoa with ½ cup (120 ml) water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add ¼ teaspoon of the salt, then reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook gently for 18 to 20 minutes, until the water is absorbed, the grains are tender, and the germ of the quinoa is exposed. Set aside, uncovered, to cool as you prepare the remaining ingredients.
  2. Scrub the beets and carrots. Trim off the ends and any stringy bits from the beets, but it’s not necessary to peel them. Grate both vegetables using the large holes on a box grater.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, cumin, and the remaining salt, and cook until the onions are softened and beginning to caramelize, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, stirring until fragrant, then add the beets and carrots. Cook, stirring periodically, until the vegetables are tender and have concentrated and collapsed a bit, 6 to 10 minutes. Some caramelization and blistering on the carrots and beets is good! Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, using a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits, then scrape the mixture into a mixing bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
  4. Stir the quinoa into the vegetable mixture, along with the potato flakes, cornstarch, and hazelnuts. Shape into 6 medium burgers.
  5. To cook, place a wide skillet over medium heat, and once warm, add the remaining oil. Add as many burgers as will fit comfortably without crowding the pan (usually 3 burgers will fit into a 10-inch/25 cm skillet), and cook until browned and crisped on the bottom, 5 to 7 minutes, then flip and repeat on the other side. The burgers will firm up a bit as they cook, and further once they’re removed from the heat and have cooled slightly. Serve warm.

Recipe from “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, Second Edition: Fresh, Flavorful, and Healthy Plant-Based Burgers — Plus Toppings, Sides, Buns, and More” © Lukas Volger, 2010, 2023. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com.

Author photo by Emmanuel Rosario.
Vegetables photo by bit24/ Adobe Stock.

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