Quest for the Ultimate Vegan Burger

Xuan Huang

Aah, burger! – A cultural icon, a culinary pride, a fond summertime memory, a real comfort food, and a quintessential American nostalgia. On the way converting to a more plant-based diet, it is certainly a deal breaker, if not the deal breaker for many omnivores.

By now you must have heard about or even eaten a few Beyond burgers or Impossible burgers. The idea of manipulating plants to mimic meat taste is beyond me: Plants are great tasting by themselves! Can we still celebrate the festiveness and playfulness of a burger with pure, real, plant-based whole foods? So we set out a quest to find out just that: the ultimate vegan burger.

First and foremost, the patty. We are definitely not the first attempters. There are already many adventurous vegan chefs and foodies whose published recipes became our first destination for inspirations [1-9]. Notably, the “How not to die cookbook” has a few patty recipes [10]. The website for the movie “The Game Changers” even provides an “anatomy” of a vegan burger – the grains, the proteins, the non-starchy vegetables, the “binder”, and the spice [11].

Our first step was to feed the 15 most highly rated recipes to our recipe parsing and analyzing engine which was asked to do a simple headcount for the number of times each ingredient appeared in recipes. The most frequently used ingredients are:
{Black beans/kidney beans: 9, garlic: 9, onion: 9, cumin: 8, oats: 8, soy sauce/miso: 7, paprika: 7, mushroom: 5}

After zeroing in on these most popular ingredients: we still have a few lingering questions: Can chickpeas work equally well? Tomato paste sounds like a great choice though it only appeared in two recipes. Mushroom is the most popular “non-starchy vegetable”, but how about beets? A vegetable that can provide both flavor and color seems to be a no-brainer. Mentioned in “ The Game Changers” burger recipe website as a “binder” but never appeared in any recipes, sweet potato in our opinion would make a fantastic choice as an ingredient. Last but not least, does it make any difference if we bake it or fry it with oil on a pan?

To investigate all these, we made a balanced factorial design of experiment with three factors: protein choice (1. kidney beans; 2. chickpeas), veggie choice (1. sweet potatoes; 2. beets; 3. mushrooms), and spice choice (1. cumin, coriander, turmeric; 2. tomato paste; 3. both). That is 2x3x3 = 18 different burgers! We could have inserted yet another factor of the cooking method in the design but that would have entailed making and tasting at least 36 burgers – so we decided 18 is a good stopping point and therefore randomly generated assignments of three cooking methods (cooktop, oven, or combination) to the 18 burger patties.

A Balanced Factorial Design of Experiment
Patty #1-#9
Patty #10-#18

After cooking, three “judges” (by now so hungry because it was well past 2pm) divided and tasted the burger patties and gave their ratings (by the end of which so full and swore they would never eat any vegan burger again). The median value of three ratings were recorded for each burger. Assuming no interactions between different factors, we run a regression analysis and even with only 18 data points, the findings are pretty significant:

For proteins, burger made with black beans is significantly better rated (+1.44 points on a 0-10 scale) than that with chickpeas;
For veggies, burger made with sweet potato or beets is significantly better rated (+1.40 and +1.14 respectively) than that with mushrooms, though the difference between sweet potato and beets is not significant;
For spice, burger made with tomato paste is significantly better (+1.45 if used in combination and +2.3 if used alone) rated than that without.
For cooking method, frying over a pan is less desired (-0.57) but the difference is not significant.

By no means our approach is completely scientific. If you’ve read thus far, we hope we at least had you entertained. Our experiment suggests that these are the ingredients you probably should consider for your vegan burger patty: beans as the protein choice, beets or sweet potato or both as the vegetable choice, and tomato paste will definitely brighten up the taste.

We’d be remiss if we stopped our experiment here. Let’s face it: patty made with vegetables tastes unapologetically like, well, vegetables. We’d like to know how it measures up with other options. We cooked up three patties side by side and did another taste test. They are our recipe, the Beyond burger patty, and a real ground beef patty (I am a flexitarian and I do eat red meat every once a while). Texture-wise, our patty is very different than that of the real patty. Made with beans, our patty readily yields to teeth. Beyond burger better resembles meat in texture. However, we find our patty much more moist than Beyond burger. We also experimented with injecting more “juice” to the patty: after baking, use a toothpick and poke some holes on top of the patty, slowly pour two tablespoons warmed mushroom broth onto the patty – it will readily soak up the broth and hold it well. This extra step brings extra moisture to the patty. Why not add the stock before cooking? – A very good question you may ask. The reason is that you want to keep the patty mixture dry before shaping patties. Otherwise it doesn’t hold its shape well. After baking, the patty develops light crusts on both sides and makes it a lot easier to hold shape and the mushroom broth, if you choose to inject it.

We’d admit it is too much of a hassle to add the mushroom stock. So if you are like us, just skip that step. Not worth the time. Luckily, there are other ways to enhance the juiciness of a burger, such as our secret vegan cheese sauce. Stay tuned and it will be in our second part of this blog series. Also, if you want the recipe for the pillowy-looking vegan burger buns which taste just as soft, we will share the recipe as well.

Now eager to make your own patty? Here is the recipe that we created after our serious quest into the ultimate burger. Enjoy!

If you are a vegan, or exploring a healthy plant-based lifestyle, here are more vegan recipes that we created and tested.


[1] Vegan Burger by Lovingitvegan

[2] Ultimate Vegan Black Bean Burger by ambitiouskitchen

[3] Perfect Veggie Burger by ohsheglows

[4] Vegan Beet Burgers by itdoesnttastelikechicken

[5] Vegan Mushroom & Black Bean Burger by ilovevegan

[6] Smoky Black Bean Burger by simple-veganista

[7] Vegan Burgers by crumbsandcaramel

[8] Southwestern Black Bean Burgers by Katherinemartinelli

[9] Spicy Southwestern Black Bean Burgers by brandnewvegan

[10] Beet Burgers, How Not to Die Cookbook, p. 98

[11] Building the Best Veggie Burgers, gamechangersmovie