Tofu is an essential, elemental ingredient that’s best appreciated when it’s not fussed with too much.
Think of some of the great dishes across so many Asian cuisines, like agedashi tofu, served in a shallow pool of seasoned dashi; or mapo tofu with its spicy-funky braise of chilies and fermented beans; or the Korean kimchi stew called soondubu jigae that’s finished with spoonfuls of silken tofu. Tofu is allowed to just be tofu, rather than masquerade as something it isn’t.
When I make veggie burgers, I try to preserve the integrity of the vegetables—I think of veggie burgers as expressions of vegetables rather than attempts at being hamburgers. Despite the popularity of tofu as a meat substitute, I’ve often wondered if tofu even belongs in a bun, especially since I’ve had my share of very bad ones.
But with its rich nutritional profile and unique texture, tofu does make a terrific veggie burger. And by reframing the perspective to put the focus on the lovely characteristics of tofu—just as is best with the vegetables in veggie burgers—you can make a tofu burger that’s not such a disservice to its star ingredient. And here's how to do it.
Use a 14- or 15-ounce block of firm tofu. Always look for the brands that list “whole soybeans” on the ingredients and avoid anything that includes “soy isolate” or “soy protein,” which as far as I understand it, is the root of our soy scare.
Here’s a fun trick: Freeze, then completely thaw, the tofu. This gives it a spongier texture and more lift in the finished burgers. They’re more delicate to work with, but in a way that translates as “juicy” when sandwiched in a bun. But if you don’t have time, don’t sweat it.
Whether you freeze and thaw or start fresh, you'll want to wrap the whole block up in a clean kitchen towel and weigh it down with something heavy, like a skillet or a baking pan filled with a few cans of tomatoes. Press for about 30 minutes.
Start by wilting a pile of greens. Spinach, watercress, Swiss chard, tatsoi, arugula—go for hearty but soft greens. Mature kale, for example, is a little too sturdy and doesn’t integrate into the finished patty so well. Wilt them in a splash of oil, transfer to a plate to cool, then squeeze dry and give them a coarse chop.
Then, think about the flavor base: I usually opt for a basic profile of scallion, garlic, ginger, and a pinch of pepper flakes. You can change it up with onions, shallots, or leeks instead, and add grated carrot, chopped edamame, mushrooms, celery, or mung bean sprouts. Don’t add too many vegetables—just a small handful or so of each. And the trick is to chop or grate everything finely because large pieces of vegetables introduce fractures in the finished burger, which will prevent it from holding together.
Give everything a quick sauté in a splash of neutral oil and cook until just softened and fragrant. After this is done, deglaze with soy sauce to intensify the flavor: Scoot the the vegetables to the sides and pour a good splash of soy sauce into the center of the pan. As it bubbles, it will caramelize. Stir everything together, then remove from the heat.
Bind it, baby.
Once you break it up, tofu is prone to crumbling. But it has binding properties if you play your cards right. Cut off about a third of the block of pressed tofu and add it to the bowl of a food processor along with about a quarter-cup of coarsely chopped, toasted nuts: Peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seed all work. Make a slurry of 2 teaspoons cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water—combined with the pureéd tofu, this will function as your vegan binder—and add it to the mix.
Process these ingredients, stopping as needed to scrape the sides of the bowl, until you have a mostly smooth, tacky paste. Then add those chopped, cooked greens and pulse a few times until combined. Scrape the whole mess into a mixing bowl and add the softened aromatics.
My biggest challenge with tofu burgers is that the finished texture is so often just pasty mush—it lacks structural integrity. To get around this, grab your box grater. Grating the tofu that you did not purée will preserve the burgers' tofu-ness, and give them a more varied and interesting texture in the end.
Use the large holes of a box grater to grate the remaining and add to the mixing bowl with the tofu mush and the sautéed greens and aromatics, then season with salt and pepper. I find that adding about a quarter-cup of coarse breadcrumbs or panko helps lighten up the patties, but this is less necessary if you try the frozen tofu option (and breadcrumbs can be omitted altogether for a gluten-free tofu burger). Shape the mixture into 4 patties.
You can cook your veggie burgers in a skillet, in the oven, or on the grill.
Skillet: Pan-fry the burgers in a nonstick or a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium heat in a splash of neutral oil. Add a few dribbles of toasted sesame oil (or chili oil, or garlic oil) to the pan if you like. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes per side. You want them to turn golden brown and to be slightly firmed to the touch.
Bake: You can also bake the burgers at 325° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they firm to the touch (they won’t brown too much).
- Grill: You need to pre-cook the burgers for grilling. (As a raw mix, they’re just a little too delicate and threaten to fall through the grates.) Brush baked burgers generously with neutral oil, then grill on hot grates away from the flame, just until heated through and char marks show.
I wouldn’t go all-American (lettuce, tomato, etc.) with these tofu burgers—think about toppings that make editorial sense.
Make a quick peanut sauce from smooth peanut butter, a few pinches of brown sugar, a squirt of sriracha, a splash of rice vinegar, and water dribbled in as needed until you have a nice consistency, and slather this over the cooked burgers. Or make a honey-soy glaze by combining 2 parts soy sauce with 1 part honey, and then baste the burgers in the last minute or two of pan-frying. (Prepared peanut sauce or teriyaki sauce is fine in place of homemade.) Or go with mayonnaise but stir in a squeeze of wasabi paste or sriracha.
Smear toasted buns with your chosen condiments and top with spicy tender greens like watercress or arugula, or other baby Asian greens like tatsoi. Add a shower of sliced scallions or a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Quick cucumber pickles and quick-pickled onions are also a favorite for me. Whatever you do, serve immediately while the burgers are still hot and juicy.
You’ll have a tofu burger that, for once, feels no shame.
- One 14- or 15-ounce block firm tofu, optionally frozen and then thawed
- Neutral oil, such as grapeseed, safflower, or canola
- 4 cups sturdy but soft greens, such as watercress, spinach, chard, arugula, tatsoi, or baby kale
- 4 scallions, green and white parts, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped, toasted peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, or sunflower seeds
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch, whisked together with 1 tablespoon water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup coarse breadcrumbs or panko (optional)
- Toasted buns, for serving