The Real Faux Burger

As I wrote yesterday, we are a burger nation, and as such, all palates and dietary preferences are invited to the patty party.

When I worked as a reporter in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, my roommate Kat lived off veggie burgers from a box found in the frozen aisle of the supermarket. We were part of a group of underpaid twentysomethings who would gather often for dinner and, at that time, Kat was the only vegetarian.

Every Fourth of July, Kat hosted a "Jamly" (pronounced jam-lye) on East River Drive, down by the Schuylkill River, where we'd cook out and drink her "Jamly" punch. I distinctly remember her grilling her veggie burgers while the rest of us ate beef patties. In nearly 20 years, those lonely days of vegetarian eating have long gone.

In the late '80s, her only option was a Gardenburger. Now Kat can take her pick from varieties like the Boca burger, Morningstar Farms burger and the Quorn "Chik'n Patty."

All of these products have different flavor attributes and textures as well as ingredient compositions. Some include wheat gluten, others cheese and eggs, others texturized soy protein (we'll get to that in a minute). But the one thing they do have in common is that they are all frozen.

In the meatless burger universe, there's one product that stands apart from its frozen friends, and that's "Gimme Lean Ground Beef Style." Sold in refrigerated tubes much like that of ready-made cookie dough, Gimme Lean (GL) is mock meat at its most realistic.

A mixture of texturized soy protein (long-time vegetarians and vegans also know it as texturized vegetable protein or TVP, the flavorless chunks made from compressed soy flour that act like a kitchen chameleon), wheat gluten, soy sauce and sundry flavorings, GL can be sliced up and cooked as is, or can be thrown into a mixing bowl and further zipped up with your own homegrown seasonings, shaped into patties and cooked to order.

In my book, GL offers the most satisfying option. Not only does it taste somewhat like a meat-based burger, it gets as close to the beefy look and mouthfeel as you'll get. Could you stump a diehard meat eater by serving up one of these babies? I doubt it, but you may convince more open-minded meat eaters that this is a viable burger alternative.

Nutritionally, this is how GL breaks down: A 2-ounce serving which is probably a bit puny for a burger) contains 8 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber and 270 milligrams of sodium (soy sauce is a primary flavoring). As a soy-based product, it is free of cholesterol and fat, and contains 50 calories.

A few tidbits for consideration:

GL contains wheat gluten, which makes it inappropriate for those living with celiac disease.

GL is meant to be served hot. A cold GL burger as a midnight snack will not make you happy.

GL and its line of products (originator of the Smart Dog) are the creations of Light Life, a Massachusetts-based company. In the course of my digging, I learned that in 2000, Light Life joined the the ConAgra family, the behemoth agri-business, known for classic '70s-era brands such as Peter Pan peanut butter, Swiss Miss, Slim Jim and Manwich, as well as Butterball turkeys.

The corporate takeover of idealistic vegetarian products developed by crunchy-granola types in the late 1970s is not exclusive to Light Life, however. Morningstar Farms products are owned by cereal giant Kellogg Company, and Boca products are part of the Kraft Foods empire. And Gardenburger, Inc., after emerging from bankruptcy last year, is now called Wholesome & Hearty Foods.

How do I make my GL burgers? Usually, I add some chopped onion or scallion, some chopped fresh parsley, a few glugs of hot sauce and a teaspoon of strong mustard. A little sesame oil is great here, too. I mix everything together, shape into patties, then I put in the fridge to let them set up for a few minutes (not necessary, but I find it ensures maximum burger stability).

Then I pan-fry, usually in olive oil, because these things do not like high heat and cook in just a few minutes. A wee bit of browning will take place, which helps in the make-believe-burger department. After you flip it onto the second side, you'll see that your burger is done in about six minutes. I serve mine on a toasted English muffin, rubbed with a clove of garlic, and for cheese, I like something strong from the blue family.

Eat immediately, and let me know if you agree that this is the real-faux thing. Comments on veggie burgers of all flavors and varieties, please!

By Kim ODonnel |  January 12, 2007; 11:07 AM ET Vegetarian/Vegan
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I like okara patties as well. They aren't trying to be mock-hamburgers, but they fill the same spot on the casual plate.

Posted by: Manny | January 12, 2007 11:47 AM

I make my own veggie burgers from a Cook's Illustrate recipe. They combine bulgar wheat, lentils, mushrooms, onions, celery, garlic, cashews, mayo, and panko bread crumbs. It's a PIA and takes an evening to make, but I end up with 12-14 burgers that freeze fabulously. They don't pretend to be anywhere close to meaty, but they're incredibly tasty! (I've also divided a couple of burgers to make falafel-style patties).

Posted by: Conscious omnivore | January 12, 2007 11:51 AM

Gimme Lean's sausage is great as well--one of the things I missed most after going veg was good ol' biscuits and sausage gravy. The GL sausage tastes every bit as good as the real thing!!

Posted by: Southern Veg | January 12, 2007 12:06 PM

Yeah, GL sausage is good. I've pan-fried it with olive oil and fresh thyme for non-veg guests who were very surprised.

GL beef is okay. I've used it in salisbury steak recipes.

Overall I like to make my own black bean or oat burgers but will sometimes eat those kinds of veggie burgers that don't look like meat (and are instead veggies) like Dr. Praeger's or Vegelicious.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 12, 2007 12:13 PM

i find that while I truly enjoy veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers that try too hard to emulate meat burgers leave me dry. I prefer to make my own veggie "burgers" (in shape and execution only, perhaps Patties are a better moniker)This summer I made a zucchini blackbean sweet potato version, this fall a red lentil, feta, spinach, quinoa version. They never quite taste like burgers. Recently I made from a veggie times recipe, seitan meatballs- which really taste and feel much like I recall the real thing- it makes me wonder with a bit of doctoring, if they could make a good french style burger (with shallots and herb de provence and french bread crumb filler on a brioche with some great dijon... mmmm, weekend project!!!

FWIW, lightlifes veggie dogs are part of my fav quick dinner- spread some mustard and relish or chopped pickle on a bun, top with cheese, melt, add cooked veggie dog..

Posted by: lirc | January 12, 2007 12:27 PM

ooo, in further on the seitan french burger- sub veggie worchestershire for the soy and maybe even use dijon in the mix and instead tapenade as the spread.

Also, as the frozen mock burger variety tend to be the veggie choice at bbq's and the like, I've learned to be creative in doctoring- its amazing how a little bbq sauce and cole slaw can take them to a new level- or sneak over to the salsa or dip.. Hummos can even brighten them up a bit.

Posted by: lirc | January 12, 2007 12:37 PM

Nate's meatless meatballs are one of the few faux meats I enjoy (I'm vegan.) We don't eat a lot of these fake meats because we tend to eat fresher, lower sodium meals.

Posted by: Vienna, VA | January 12, 2007 12:40 PM

Straying somewhat from the burger topic, but still in faux viande land, I've made fake meatballs that have actually fooled carnivores. The recipe is in Tofu Cookery (if it's still in print); the basic idea is to mix tofu, peanut butter, seasonings (augmented with whatever you like, if you like --onion, corn, lentils, etc.), shape in to balls, and coat in oatmeal or flour (I like oatmeal best); lightly pan fry until the coating is done. Not necessarily low fat, but very good. The peanut butter (a) has a somewhat meaty flavor, and (b) provides the missing fat you'd get from meat (helps them cook and replaces that missing mouth feel/flavor transfer provided by most fats).

My other secret for imparting a true beef flavor to any veggie recipe is Worcestershire sauce; not vegetarian, I know; substitute a veggie version or us soy, tamari, or teriyaki.

Posted by: Knoxvegas, TN | January 12, 2007 1:12 PM

Why are these products so expensive? I looked at an on-line grocer's site and the prices range from $6.38/lb. for Boca, Morningstar and Gardenburger to $6.53/lb. for Dr. Praeger's. Fresh ground beef cost from $3.49/lb to $4.99 (ground sirloin), and frozen burgers (ground and frozen by the market) from $1.99 to $4.99/lb.

Posted by: Dot | January 12, 2007 1:24 PM

After reading "Fast Food Nation" a few years back, the thing that bothers me about the veggie "meat" products on the market is that the reason they taste so good these days is quite possibly b/c some chemists in a chemical plant in New Jersey have figured out how to recreate the taste of just about anything. Look at the ingredient list on a pack of Morningstar Farms veggie bacon sometime. Makes me feel safer eating a salad or an organic beef or bison burger.

Posted by: Arlington | January 12, 2007 1:24 PM

I use the GL burger for "meatloaf." This recipe is not vegan, as it contains egg. I even got my 82 year old father-in-law to eat (and like) this!

2 tubes GL burger
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 can tomato sauce, divided
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 green pepper, finely chopped
1/2 c. breadcrumbs
2 T. ketchup
salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in large bowl, resvering 1/4 can tomato sauce. Add adddtional breadcrumbs/tomato sauce as needed, to get texture you prefer.

Place mixture in a loaf pan, pressing down til packed. Pour/spread remaining tomato sauce on top of loaf. Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes, until tomato sauce is a little browned and crusty.

This makes a ton and actually reheats well! The texture is a little soft, slices don't hold together as well as meat.

Posted by: Violet | January 12, 2007 1:37 PM

Although I certainly will eat them in a pinch, I agree with the above comments about preferring to make my own veggie burgers from beans and vegetables, not meat analogs. That said, I've never found a satisfying veggie meatloaf recipe. Anyone have one they like? Maybe something with lentils?

Posted by: NYCveg | January 12, 2007 1:49 PM

Thanks for posting this. I discovered gimme lean when I was just starting to get sick of Boca's vegan burgers, and now when I want a hamburger, I take some gimme lean and mix in slivers of garlic and ground pepper. It tastes so much better than those old frozen patties. Gimme lean is also great for making tacos.

Posted by: J | January 12, 2007 1:57 PM

I think finding a tasty variety of satisfying vegetarian foods (including things that meet the comfort food test) is a much better aspiration than trying to make things taste like meat. And for someone who grew up preferring "plain" foods (although that has changed), there are many, many delicious veggie foods.

I MUCH prefer making my own veggie burgers from scratch. My current favorite recipe is Lentil and Walnut Burgers. Very tasty!

Posted by: Burger Delight | January 12, 2007 2:03 PM

I'm a vegan and I love meat analogs. I didn't become vegan because I didn't like the taste of meat. Finding the most meat-like substitutes is a passion of my mind - although I do like the non-meaty burgers, as well. Morningstar Farm grillers are one of my faves (but I don't like all the chemicals). I also like Boca. Yves can be pretty good, too. I find that once I load it up with all the fixin's - it comes pretty close (enough for me anyway) to the real thing. One of fave local veggie burgers (although not very meaty) is at Luna Grill in Shirlington.

Posted by: Rory | January 12, 2007 2:03 PM

Knoxvegas, if you are interested you can get vegetarian Worcestershire sauce under the brand name Wizard's at WFM and at online vegan shops.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 12, 2007 2:24 PM

I'm a fan of the "Veggie Patch" garlic portabello burgers. I find them in four packs in the produce department.

They microwave in about 30 seconds, don't taste bad on their own - but with some hot chow chow, a slice of habanero cheddar, and a bit of mustard, they're darn tasty, even for a formerly-hardcore carnivore as myself.

(I still eat plenty of meat, but I've found veggie burgers are better for "want a quick burger" than regular burgers...)

Posted by: Sean | January 12, 2007 2:25 PM

When my dad returned from service in WWII he worked at a meat-packing plant in Baltimore. He would not eat hot dogs or lunch meat because he saw them being produced. He didn't like ground beef very much either and had to have it cooked to almost charred. (My mother's cooking methods reduced just about everything to charcoal briquet consistency.) He wasn't a vegetarian, but very choosey about the dead critter on his plate. I haven't eaten at a fast food restaurant after reading 'Fast Food Nation' and "The Jungle' either. Now with the spinach scare, mad cow disease, bird flu, mercury in seafood, what will we be eating to keep from being killed by our food?

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 12, 2007 2:43 PM

Veggie burgers and veggie food in general is even more appetizing when you become educated about the incredibly cruel, violent, senselesss way animals are killed. Please watch for yourself:

Posted by: Caroline | January 12, 2007 3:12 PM

In response to this statement, "In my book, GL offers the most satisfying option. Not only does it taste somewhat like a meat-based burger, it gets as close to the beefy look and mouthfeel as you'll get."
Please consider that not everyone who eats veggie burgers *wants* their food to taste like meat. I didn't enjoy eating hamburgers before I became a vegetarian, so I certainly don't want my veggie burger to taste like an animal product.

I have a great spicy black bean and vegetable burger recipe that has won over veggies and non-veggies alike. The trick is using salsa for the glue.

I wish meat-eaters would realize that most veggies don't have meat envy and don't need things like Tofurkey on Thanksgiving to be satisfied.

Posted by: MJ | January 12, 2007 4:22 PM

MJ, can we have the recipe for that black bean burger? thanks!

Posted by: LE | January 12, 2007 4:37 PM

Dot, remember the federal government subsidizes meat in various ways. This could account for why substitutes cost more.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 12, 2007 4:47 PM

MJ, I was just wondering why no one has said hey, I don't WANT it to taste like meat when I got to your comment. (And the tofurkey comment, too - that's always puzzled me.)

Essentially, I am a carnivore, but I know lots of vegetarians and I often will have a vegetarian dinner when I'm home alone just because I like what I'm wanting to eat.

Will you post your black bean/vegetable burger recipe? I adore Morningstar's black bean burger; I assume something homemade would be well worth the effort.

Posted by: Pat | January 12, 2007 4:49 PM

I agree with MJ. I am a meat eater, however. But if I eat a veggie burger, I don't want it to taste like pretend meat, or like meat at all, I want it to taste like veggies. I don't understand how vegetarians who give up meat because they don't want to eat it then spend all their time trying to find something that tastes like meat. Why not just eat meat then? When I eat veggie burgers, I prefer Dr. Praegers or a black bean burger or something else that tastes delicious and real.

Posted by: jp | January 13, 2007 12:45 AM

Soybeans are subsidized too, and the Amazon rainforest is now being destroyed to grow them on gigantic farms.

Posted by: Dot | January 13, 2007 1:42 PM

I'm gonna get on a soapbox for just a minnit.....

Adding to what Dot mentioned about the environmental toll from excess soy production (not to mention the fact that almost all processed foods in this country that contain any soy use genetically modified soybeans subject to large pesticide use).....

Soy usually requires a great deal of processing due to its content of various antinutrient compounds and some toxic substances, which may be why many traditionally eaten forms of soy in Asian cultures undergo such rigorous treatment before becoming "food," like soaking, fermentation, and so forth.

The treatment that our soy gets before being put into food products generally does not extend this far. Fermentation can help remove 60-80% of the detrimental parts of soy, but our soy does not undergo this process.

There are also a few medical studies that suggest that regular soy consumption may speed up the rate at which we develop dementia by several years, especially in men (possibly due to soy's phytoestrogens), and others that indicate that regular soy consumption can affect thyroid hormone production. Soy contains plant hormones that can have similar or sometimes unintended effects in our bodies.

I guess the bottom line is that while I really like the taste of textured soy proteins, soy milks, edamame, tofu, veggie burgers, tempeh, miso, etc. I don't think it's a wise idea to eat them every day, both for health and environmental reasons. (Tempeh, traditional soy sauce, and miso are probably somewhat safer because they do undergo traditional forms of processing like fermentation.)

I eat them once a week at most even though I love tofu so much I could eat it every day (and I'm not a vegetarian). If I want fake meat products I tend to look for organically-produced ones with no soy content, but I have to admit that the Gimme Lean stuff tastes pretty good.

Since I am not a vegan or a vegetarian and I don't eat burgers all that often, I just eat the real thing when I've got a craving, but I either grind the meat and make it myself or buy it from a place that I know uses good-quality meat (hint: not McD's).

In terms of actual veggie burgers I definitely prefer the kind that don't try to behave like fake meat. I loves me a good beef burger but I have had some damn good black bean and mushroom burgers that I would gladly eat any day.

Pescatarians (meaning veg except they also eat fish) might like to try salmon burgers too.

An interesting idea for lacto-ovo vegetarians would be to look up Kashmiri/Nepali/Indian recipes for faux ground meat made by cooking down milk until only the solids are left. The resemblance is surprisingly close and the milk "meat" is used to make dishes like "meat"balls and so forth, but I don't know how it would hold up in a burger.

Posted by: nosoyplease | January 13, 2007 7:15 PM

Forget the faux meat, I want to know more about the Jamly punch!

Posted by: KAD | January 16, 2007 6:24 PM

I like Morningstar sausage patties. The links aren't that great, but the patties are rather tasty. I've tried Boca burgers, but they aren't as good as Morningstar.

Posted by: slm | January 17, 2007 8:46 PM

I think it all depends on how you cook these things. Only burger I've had is Boca, but when you eat them at my school here any meat eater considering veggiehood would go right back to the beef. That being said if you're having a bbq and grill one up, it could fool anyone, in fact it did at a party where they were grilling burgers and I gave my burger eating friend a grilled Boca and he couldn't tell the difference. Frying up some sausage patties from whatever that tube one is, not sure brand, is no different than the real thing and you couldn't convince me otherwise. Grilling works for the hot dogs too, but you have to make them black on the outside if you're looking to convince a meat-eater because they bubble up and look nothing like the real thing. Microwaved they're far from real hot dogs, probably my least fav of the fake meats, but still certainly tolerable.

Posted by: Art Karcher | January 23, 2007 2:11 AM

And to JP, I spend all my time trying to find fake meat because I like how it tastes. I don't eat meat, and I suspect most of the people on here are the same, because of the mistreatment and suffering on the animal's behalf.

Posted by: Art Karcher | January 23, 2007 2:14 AM

Sorry for the delay in posting the black bean burger recipe. It's a hit! The way I make them, they usually work better in a skillet though other people can cook them well on a grill. I find them to be quite messy but worth it. And very easy. They will work with nearly any vegetable you like to eat - so add mushrooms if you want, or don't add the corn, or whatever. I like mine spicy so I add jalapenos or extra Rotel.

Vegetarian Black Bean and Corn Burgers

1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
½ to 1 can whole kernel corn, rinsed and drained
½ to 1 green bell pepper, chopped
½ to 1 yellow onion, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
½ can Rotel (optional)
1 small can (4 ounces) mild green chilies (optional)
2 chopped jalapenos (optional)

1 cup salsa
1 cup bread crumbs
½ cup wheat flour (or regular)

¼ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper/red pepper to taste

nonstick spray or canola oil

Combine vegetables in large bowl. Vary the amounts of vegetables depending on your taste. Mash together.

Add salsa, flour and bread crumbs at your discretion, until mixture holds together. The mixture may require additional wet or dry ingredients to gain the right consistency to make patties. That's ok!

Shape into patties. It can get messy. Before cooking, coat outside of patties in very light layer of bread crumbs for added crispiness.

Heat oil/spray in large nonstick skillet over medium heat - or put on the grill. Cook patties about 5-10 minutes on each side until brown throughout.

They taste great with a slice of provolone cheese. Enjoy!

Posted by: MJ | January 23, 2007 5:55 PM

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