Even if you're not a vegetarian, you've probably tried or at least eyed the veggie burgers in the frozen aisle.
I've been a vegetarian for over 25 years, and while fake meat doesn't make up a big part of my diet, there is no denying that I've consumed an ungodly number of veggie burgers over the years. I thought it was high time to do a head-to-head taste test, so you could know what brand to buy when you have me over for a barbecue.
The ground rules for this tasting:
- Only widely available national brands.
- Only "original" or "flame-broiled" flavors (or the simplest flavor available).
- Each burger would be prepared according to the package instructions.
- Each burger would be tasted twice: once naked, and once with a bit of Heinz ketchup.
Frankly, I was a bit surprised at how bad most of them tasted without a bun, cheese, onions, and all the other fixins'. Maybe a burger made with top-notch meat doesn't need much adornment, but these simulacra will benefit from big, bold-flavored condiments. Texture really is the critical element that makes a successful veggie burger.
Strangely, putting them out on six separate plates and using a mini legal pad to take notes didn't confer quite the air of cool scientific detachment I was aiming for (should have gone for the lab coat). But here are my decidedly opinionated results. Let us know if you agree, disagree, or think we missed the best ones.
Morningstar Farms Grillers: These were my hands-down favorite. I know I haven't eaten a real burger in a long time but these take me right back to the fast-food experience of my youth. Or maybe more like the school lunchroom experience. They are dark brown and meaty in texture with a more assertive soy flavor than the other brands, and no identifiable vegetable bits. This is the only one I would voluntarily eat without condiments.
Gardenburger Originals: Many folks associate this with the iconic "veggie burger." They have a natural-tasting, mildly sweet flavor and a satisfying bite. The texture is more of mushrooms and grain than soy. Be sure to cook them thoroughly though, otherwise you risk a slime factor.
Boca Burgers Original Vegan: Though a little dryer than Gardenburger, it has a mild and pleasant taste. I give the nod to Gardenburger but choose Boca if you need vegan.
Hideous Smoke Flavor:
Boca All-American Classic and Garden Burger Flame Grilled Vegan: In contrast to brands' original varieties, these are appalling. The idea behind having a "smoke style" is to emulate a charcoal-grilled burger, right down to the grill marks. Unfortunately whatever they use for the smoke is acrid, bitter and chemical-tasting. Which is bizarre, since there are all manner of delicious, vegetarian smoked ingredients they could use instead. C'mon guys. Lose the chemistry lab and add some pimenton de la vera (smoked paprika), and you'd have a good product.
What Did I Do to Deserve This?
Amy's: And then there's Amy's. Now to be fair to Amy, I had to try the Amy's Bistro Burger, which is gluten-free and vegan. Their All-American Veggie Burger contains walnuts, which can never darken our doorstep. Still and nonetheless, this has to be one of the worst things I've put in my mouth, and that includes the time my housemate blended some splinters off a wooden spoon right into the the pesto. That I managed to try the second bite, with ketchup, is a testament to my dedication to you, the loyal reader.
But I digress. This patty, cooked in a skillet like all of the others, was spectacularly mushy, which in my book is unforgivable. Also, it is filled with bits of identifiable vegetables, including carrots. What this has to do with a burger, I can't say.
Just sit there on the bun, tasting bland but providing a toothsome counterpoint to the condiments and we can get along. But go all soggy on me and gum up every bite, and you are banished. Banished I say.
Written by Michael Natkin/ Photograph by Michael Natkin