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How to make the perfect bean burgers

Felicity Cloake, guardian.co.uk, Modified: August 24, 2013 10:24 IST

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How to make the perfect bean burgersCan bean burgers ever compete with their meaty equivalents, and if not, which vegetarian option would you rather have at a barbecue?


Bean burgers are one of those meat-free dishes, like Glamorgan sausages or nut roasts, which suffer unfairly from comparison with what us omnivores like to term "the real thing".

While I'm not wild about the idea of mock meat, these are all foods that don't need to piggyback on any better-known meaty relatives to be worth cooking: they're all great recipes which just happen to be vegetarian, and I'd quite happily eat them instead of the so-called "real thing" any day. (Though not every day. Variety is the spice of life, after all.)

Many vegetables work brilliantly on the barbecue, but summer is the season of burgers - and being vegetarian is no reason to deny yourself the gluttonous pleasures of an overstuffed bun. In fact, thanks to the lower calorie count, you can probably have two.

Beans

All-important in a bean burger, you might think - but, without wishing to disrespect the humble legume, I find them all pretty much interchangeable once mushed up into a burger. The New York Times uses "white beans", for which I choose cannellini, as they're on special offer; Saveur magazine black beans; Rose Elliot kidney beans; and youthful prodigy Sam Stern goes for the black-eyed variety in his Cookery Course for Students in the Kitchen.

You can always rely on Yotam Ottolenghi to ring the changes, however, here by using fresh broad beans in his burgers. Though I initially resent podding nearly a kilo of the things only to overcook them and mash them to a pulp, it proves an inspired idea - I love both the fresh flavour and the Hulk-like hue.

That said, I'm not sure this isn't stretching the concept slightly: a bean burger demands the mealy, slightly fluffy texture of dried beans, so I'm going to combine them with black beans, which to my mind have the best flavour of the dried sort. Sweet and slightly earthy, they contrast nicely with the summery broad beans, which, freed from their roles as the base of the burger, I can afford to leave slightly crunchier than Ottolenghi's: some rough mashing should do the trick.

The NYT puree their beans, giving their burgers a soft, rather paste-like texture and making them difficult to cook. I prefer to leave them slightly rougher and readier, though simply mashing the lot briefly with a fork, as many recipes suggest, won't do the trick: instead, mash half of the beans well, and squash the rest.

Filler and binder

You can't make a bean burger from beans alone - as Mark Bittman writes in the NYT, legumes lack the connective tissue that helps the meat versions hold together, which means you'll need to give them a helping hand by adding "ingredients that bridge the gap between liquids and solids by capturing the moisture and transforming it into a binder".

Breadcrumbs are the most popular choice, used by the New York Times, Ottolenghi, Stern and Saveur, but they're not the only option. Ottolenghi also uses mashed potato, and Stern sweet potato baked with herbs, while Elliot eschews the bread altogether in favour of soy nuts, AKA roasted soya beans (which seem to have been rebranded as the rather sexier-sounding Japanese edamame). These, she says, "add extra protein and a nutty flavour", but, although I enjoy them on their own, I find the taste overpowering in a burger. The same goes for the sweet potato: delicious, but very ... sweet - I have to work to taste the beans themselves.

The potatoes and breadcrumbs prove the most subtle options here - I think the spuds give a heftier, more satisfying texture to the burgers, but if you'd prefer a lighter option, substitute breadcrumbs.

Ottolenghi, the NYT and Saveur all use egg as a further binder, but I find the latter two recipes in particular too wet, and thus prone to falling apart - better to use citrus juice for extra liquid if necessary, as Stern and the NYT suggest: it's deliciously tangy.

Herbs and spices

Beans can take a bit of spicing up: most recipes tend towards what I'd regard as the either the Middle Eastern or vaguely Mexican route of cumin and coriander, with oregano for good measure from Stern and Saveur, while Ottolenghi adds sweet fennel seeds. Chillies are also popular, with Elliot going for cayenne, Stern for smoked paprika, Ottolenghi for fresh chilli and Saveur for paprika, fresh poblanos and smoked chipotle chillies in a tomatoey adobo sauce. The NYT, however, stays more European with its parsley and sage or thyme, plus tangy lemon juice and great quantities of garlic - undoubtedly delicious, but not quite, I decide after tasting the others, the burger I'm after here.

For sticking between a bun, and topping with salsa and cheese, in the manner of a more traditional burger, the spicier versions are preferable: I love the smoky, tangy sweetness of the chipotles in adobo if you can get hold of them (find them online here), but otherwise, Stern's smoked paprika adds a touch of chargrilled heat to burgers that are, sadly, best cooked in a frying pan. Fresh chillies, meanwhile, contribute a fruity warmth that works brilliantly with the beans, and fresh coriander adds a touch of colour.

Other ingredients

Beans and potato would make a perfectly satisfying burger on their own, but most recipes stick in some more veg for good measure. The NYT goes for some rather worthy grated carrot, which disappears into the mixture; Ottolenghi adds spinach, but not in a quantity large enough to detect; and Elliot opts for red pepper, which I like for the sweetness it brings. Ditto the onion she, Saveur and the NYT use - and a generous amount of garlic too, because most things in life are better with garlic.

Chilling and coating

All the recipes apart from Elliot's call for the burgers to be chilled before cooking, to help keep their shape - as we're not pureeing the beans, there's no need to leave them in there for hours on end, as the NYT suggests, but half an hour is helpful.

Ottolenghi dusts his burgers with flour, which gives them a nice crust, but Saveur's cornmeal is even better, giving the outer layer a grainy crunch I find utterly addictive - you can find cornmeal in Caribbean shops and some supermarkets, or polenta is more widely available in the UK.

If you have a fine-mesh fish cage for the barbecue, then by all means stick these in, but, I'm afraid, due to the low fat content bean burgers will always be best fried. On the plus side, this at least gives vegetarians relief from worry about cross-contamination at an omnivorous barbecue. Though really, even meat eaters are unlikely to miss the beef, I promise. And if they do, well, they can always fire up the coals themselves.

The perfect bean burgers


(Makes 5)
200g potato, peeled and diced
50g podded broad beans
400g cooked black beans
1tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
Vegetable oil, to fry
1 onion, finely diced
½ red pepper, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ jalapeno or other mild chilli, finely chopped
1 chipotle chilli in adobo, finely chopped, or 2tsp smoked paprika
Juice of ½ lime
Small bunch of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
2tbsp cornmeal, to coat

Cook the potato in boiling salted water until tender, then scoop out with a slotted spoon. Add the broad beans to the water and cook for 5 minutes, then drain, cool and skin.

Meanwhile, mash the potato and half the black beans until smooth, then add the broad beans and remaining black beans and mash roughly.

Toast the spices in a dry pan until aromatic, then grind.

Heat 1tbsp oil in a frying pan and cook the onion and pepper until soft. Stir in the garlic and chillies and cook for another couple of minutes.

Stir the onion mixture into the potato and beans, along with the lime juice, chopped coriander and ground spices, and season to taste.

Form into 5 patties with damp hands, and chill for half an hour.

Roll the patties in cornmeal to coat, then fry in vegetable oil over a medium heat until golden on both sides, and warm all the way through. Serve with salsa and chopped avocado.

Bean burgers - a treat for everyone, or a tired vegetarian cliche? And, if the latter, which meat-free dishes would you prefer to see at a barbecue?


Felicity Cloake's perfect beanburger. Photographs: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

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