Although I have never been a strict vegetarian, I've eaten my fair share of tofu burgers, seitan and vegetable burgers, and veggie dogs throughout my youth. So it was with an open mind that I explored the world of "fake meat." I didn't really love the taste of many of these top-selling burgers — but I do understand the moral, environmental and health issues that lead people to become vegetarians. And I fully support fast-food chains and other restaurants and grocery stores offering alternatives to traditional meat burgers.
I only wonder: Couldn't they make them taste better, and be healthier?
It was with that thought in mind that I created these super-simple vegetarian burgers, focusing on a single ingredient (in this case, tofu, eggplant and mushrooms, respectively) rather than the usual 20-ingredient, time-consuming and often complicated recipes for veggie burgers that abound.
Grilled Tofu Burgers With BBQ Sauce
The only trick with this recipe is to make the time to press the moisture out of the tofu by placing it in a bowl with a weight on top for at least 5 hours, or preferably overnight. You can use any barbecue sauce you like.
- 1 block firm or extra-firm tofu, cut in half lengthwise
- About 1 cup barbecue sauce, homemade or bottled
- 2 hamburger rolls
- Place the tofu in a bowl and place a small plate on top with a weight on top of the plate — a can of soup or beans is ideal. Refrigerate for at least 5 hours, or preferably overnight, draining the liquid that is released from the tofu every few hours.
- Take the tofu out of the bowl and, using a biscuit cutter or free form with a small sharp knife, cut a large circle "burger" out of each piece of tofu. Place the two tofu burgers into a bowl and cover with the barbecue sauce. Let marinate at least 30 minutes or several hours.
- Light a charcoal or gas grill until hot, about 400 degrees. Place a grill rack on the fire. Place the two tofu burgers directly over the heat and grill about 4 minutes. Add more sauce from the bowl and gently flip the tofu over. Brush with more sauce. Grill another 4 minutes, or until the tofu burger is hot and the barbecue sauce is sizzling and a touch caramelized. Brush any remaining sauce onto your burger rolls. Heat the hamburger rolls on the grill for about 1 minute on each side, or until just golden brown. Place the tofu burger on the hot roll, add lettuce and pickles and serve hot.
Marinated Portobello Mushroom Burger
Portobellos have a meaty texture and the large gills and cap are ideal for trapping a delicious marinade made of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar.
- 4 portobello mushrooms, stems trimmed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
- 2 burger rolls or two 4-inch pieces of baguette cut down the middle
- Coleslaw or shredded lettuce or cabbage
- Sliced avocado
- Sliced ripe tomatoes
- Place the mushrooms cap side down on a broiler pan and pour the sesame oil, vinegar and chopped ginger evenly over both mushrooms. Marinate for an hour or overnight.
- Light a charcoal or gas grill until hot, about 400 degrees. Place a grill rack directly over the heat. Grill the mushrooms directly on the rack, cap side down for 4 to 5 minutes. Gently flip over (it's OK if the marinade pours out) and grill about 4 minutes on the other side. Remove from the grill, and cut into thick slices.
- Mound the grilled mushroom slices on a burger roll or baguette, and top with coleslaw, shredded cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and/or avocado slices.
Hoisin-Glazed Eggplant Burger
A whole eggplant is roasted in the oven to soften it before it's brushed with hoisin sauce and grilled. Serve on a crusty roll with tender butter lettuce, sliced tomatoes and bean sprouts.
- 2 Japanese eggplants, about 10 ounces total
- About 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
- 2 whole wheat burger buns or two 4-inch pieces of baguette, cut down the middle
- Butter lettuce
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Wrap the eggplant in foil and bake about 20 to 40 minutes depending on the size, or until softened but still firm. When you press on the foil the eggplant should just yield and start to feel soft. Remove and let cool slightly. Cut into 1/2 inch-thick slices. Place the eggplant slices in a bowl and gently toss with the hoisin. Marinate at least 15 minutes and up to several hours.
- Preheat a charcoal or gas grill until hot, about 400 degrees. Place a grill rack over the fire and carefully lift the eggplant out of the hoisin. Grill 2 minutes.
- Flip and brush liberally with the hoisin remaining in the bowl. Grill another 2 minutes. Flip and brush the eggplant again, giving it a good coating and continue grilling until the eggplants are totally soft and brown from the hoisin. Warm the burger buns or baguette on the hot grill for about 1 minute each side.
- Brush the heated bun with the remaining hoisin, add the eggplant slices, butter lettuce, sprouts and tomatoes.
Editor's Note: In this conversation, Kathy Gunst referred to a study on genetically modified foods, released by Friends of the Earth. The team at NPR's Science Desk note there's no persuasive scientific evidence to support the belief that non-genetically modified foods are better for your health than GMO foods, a conclusion confirmed in 2016 by a National Academy of Sciences report. And the vast majority scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat.
The way that different companies make their plant-based burgers differs, but there is no animal tissue in them. These burgers are however, processed, and just like any processed food — be it cookies or chips or veggie burgers — the healthiest option is always going to be to go for whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Friends of the Earth is an advocacy organization that is strongly critical of GMOs. At NPR, we take a look at all the science and rely primarily on peer-reviewed journals and academic studies.
This segment aired on July 15, 2019.