So we just had lunch at the Railyard Brewing Company. Love what they’ve done with the space – it feels open, airy, and much less claustrophobia-inducing than the old Brewpub. We were inspired by an enthusiastic reviewer on MML and a friend who swore the veggie burger was amazing.
First things first, we must respectfully disagree with our friend Jesseca as regards the fries with manchego cheese and truffle oil. We got these as an appetizer and found them, frankly, less than appetizing. Manchego cheese is truly one of the world’s great cheeses. Truffles are nice. French fries are good. All of these things together, with the fries covered in some weird kind of flavor sprinkle, result in a surprisingly cloying mix that seems more like a food experiment than like a food. We picked them over, anxious for the much-heralded house-made veggie burgers.
There were some amazing things about the veggie burger, which is a staggering $9 and served on your choice of brioche or pretzeled bread. One astonishing thing is its near-total lack of cohesion. Upon first bite, it speeds to every direction outside of the bun at the same time. This would encourage you to scoop it back into the bread but for one tiny problem – it is entirely flavorless, inspiring us to make jokes about root-marm. This is not something you want customers to associate with your food. Also it has a disturbing texture that may be the result of a blender setting somewhere between chop and puree. We tried mustard. We tried catsup. We tried their house-made barbecue sauce. We salted it. A lot. Even so, it was barely edible. We reminisced favorably about the various brands of frozen veggie burgers in our freezer.
We don’t mean to hate. The Railyard’s chef Leo Maurelli was named the Alabama Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year, and we think it’s super that they’ve opened this establishment downtown. We look forward to going for drinks sometime. But will somebody please teach the kitchen how to make a decent veggie burger? It’s not that hard.
There are basically two ways to go. The first way is to try to produce something with a more meaty texture. If you want something like this, you’re probably going to need to have some vital wheat gluten to bind your items together. Wheat gluten is like the protein in flour, and you can get your own out of flour or just buy a big can of the stuff (they also sell it in bulk at Healthwise and other crunchy stores). For added interest, you can mash up and add some other protein, like soy beans, chickpeas, black beans or lentils. These will want a little olive oil to stick together. For flavoring, you can go the soy sauce-thyme-nutritional yeast route to get a more “chickeny” taste, or the tomato paste-paprika-veggie stock route for something a little more “beefy.” I like a little garlic, too. These get kneaded up, divided into patties and baked or pan-fried, depending on your preference. They end up chewy and ready to sauce or top.
The second way to go is with a slightly more fall-apart texture. This is the more “traditional” lentil burger that causes most people to think it is gross to be a vegetarian, but it’s possible to make these well if you pay attention to the flavor profile and the binders. For some binder guidance, think about how a lump crab cake gets made – it wants not just the protein, but some flavor and something to hold it together. Many people use egg to bind, which does a great job of holding things together without adding too much in the way of weird texture or flavor. You might also use mayo (or its vegan equivalent), mashed firm tofu or some mashed potatoes.
One key is to make sure your protein is dry. Wet beans or lentils = fall-apart burgers. To make sure they are good and dry, a few bread crumbs never hurt anyone. Other things that prevent fall-apart: making sure the patty gets a good sear on each side and letting it sit before serving.
When you’re making vegetarian food, it’s also important to remember that vegetables and legumes generally lack a few things that make meat taste good: umami and fat. It’s incumbent on the chef to add these things (plus some salt, how is it that people remember to salt meat properly but somehow fail to salt beans properly?) to make sure vegetarian items have good mouthfeel. The way chefs usually cheat at this is to use a lot of cheese. That’s got salt and fat and savory. Sometimes you’ll see mushrooms used to good effect here – a really good morel or porcini can go a long way toward making vegetarian food taste better. You can also go the seaweed-soy sauce route.
For fats, the kind of oil you use to cook a veggie burger matters a lot more than the kind of oil you might use for beef. Because generally beef does not want oil – it brings its own fats. If your patty has a lot of intrinsic flavor, a neutral oil will be fine. If not, you’re going to want to go with olive oil or even peanut oil (again, depending on your flavor profile) to give the outside some better mouthfeel and snap. Cheese can go inside the patty too for fats, and even if you want to go vegan you can still use Daiya or its equivalent.
But I digress, because the abomination of a veggie burger at the Railyard seems to have used none of these tricks. It leaves you feeling strangely oily and a little sad. It’s no wonder that most people remain convinced that we should inflict suffering on other animals in other to make ourselves happy at lunch if this is the alternative.