Even though it’s generally accepted that vegetarian food has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past several years, veggie burgers by and large remain stuck in the herbivore ghetto. There’s the Morningstar-Boca Burger contingent, mass-produced and full of ingredients alien enough to make a ballpark hot dog look wholesome. And there’s the variety served in far too many restaurants: dry, leaden, and/or structurally unsound. With all too few exceptions, veggie burgers seem to be made by people who hate people who eat veggie burgers.
Fortunately, Lukas Volger loves veggie burgers, and wants you to as well. The author of the just-published Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, Volger has created some 30 recipes for veggie burgers that are intensely flavorful and contain actual vegetables. He took a bit of time to speak with us about his book — which includes everything from curried eggplant and roasted tomato burgers to sesame-glazed tofu and chard patties — growing up on meat and potatoes, and all of the trial and error involved in making veggie burgers that actually taste good. Stay tuned tomorrow for the second half of the interview.
How’d you get the idea to dedicate a cookbook solely to veggie burgers?
It came up through a conversation with my editor and publisher when we were having dinner one night. I can’t remember who had the idea, but I put together a proposal and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in veggie burgers.
How long did it take to develop all of the recipes?
I had a couple of recipes I’d been working with over the years, and then spent about eight months working on the others. I spent a lot of time drafting the table of contents first — I wanted to organize the book around ingredients and tried to come up with a balanced overview. I had some idea of what I wanted — I knew I wanted a lot to be vegan and gluten-free. With that in mind, I thought of recipes, like, “Corn and goat cheese would make a good burger,” and then, “I’ll do a vegan quinoa burger.”
Did you encounter any great surprises while you were developing your recipes?
The standard homemade veggie burger is held together with eggs and bread crumbs. So it took me awhile to find a good vegan way to bind burgers. I don’t like Egg Replacer. I know a lot of vegan chefs swear by it and aren’t bothered by the taste, but it really bothered me. So I came up with the idea of using a steamed potato for binder. It brought nice flavor and held the burger together beautifully.
I was actually kind of surprised about that. Maybe I should have known to begin with, but it really took a lot of trial and error. I was trying things like molasses and tofu. One of the biggest complaints about veggie burgers is the texture: You bite in and it squirts out of the other side of the bun. So the potato was a revelation for me. The other thing that was a bit of a revelation was the cooking method: A lot of recipes call for using a frying pan or oven or barbecue, but the best way is to apply standard restaurant treatment, which is to cook the sides in a pan and finish it in the oven.
Did a lot of your experiments end up in the dustbin?
I tried a lot of tofu burgers, and a lot of them ended up in the dustbin. If tofu isn’t cooked and marinated properly, it has a chalky taste, and the texture reminds me of wet cardboard. It has to be drained really well and seasoned really well. And I tried to cover raw veggie burgers, but the texture was just so off. It was like baby food on a bun.
Why did you want a good portion of your recipes to be vegan and gluten-free?
I know first of all that there’s a lot of demand: Vegans probably buy more veggie burgers than vegetarians do. There’s a lot of crossover with celiac disease, a lot of people zeroing in on wheat and gluten [in their diets]. I’m not strictly a vegan at all, but I think it’s important for one or two meals a day to eat vegan.
Would you define yourself as a vegetarian?
I’m not a strict vegetarian, which in many circles means I’m not vegetarian at all. I grew up in Idaho on beef and potatoes and iceberg lettuce. It’s been a long transformation over the past 28 years. There are special occasions where I’ll eat fish or meat, but I really identify with Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, that idea of really, really reducing our meat intake.
When did you start to change how and what you ate?
College was when it all happened for me. I’m one of those kids who when I got to college went, Oh my god, left-wing politics! Feminism! Vegetarianism!
Have you ever worked as a chef in a restaurant?
I’ve never been a chef. I worked in bakeries in high school and in restaurant kitchens. Now I occasionally wait tables when I need cash or have nothing better to do. I also have freelance jobs in book publishing.
Where do you like to go out to eat veggie burgers?
There is this delicious but extremely caloric one at Alias. It’s something I’ve tried to replicate in the book. There’s no holding back in terms of rich things. It’s two portobello mushrooms filled with queso blanco and black beans, battered in panko, and fried. I think the secret is lots of oil and the deep fryer. That’s always the secret at restaurants.