You know when you flip a veggie burger and it crumbles into a million little pieces? Or you take your first bite and it squiiiiiishes out of the bun?
I wish I had a French fry for every time I made a veggie burger, stacked it on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and cheese and all my hopes and dreams, only to end up eating it with a fork and knife and telling myself, well, this is better anyway.
When it comes to veggie burgers, like most recipes, we’re all about customization. Heck, we usually don’t even use a recipe. But there is one recipe component you can’t do without: binders.
Binders accomplish two important tasks: They ensure that your burger doesn’t fall apart, so flipping is a breeze. And they provide structural integrity, so the texture is more oomph, less mush. There are three categories to choose from: We’ll very scientifically call them eggy, starchy, and cheesy. And each has its own thing going on.
To test their pros/cons, I took one basic recipe—a simple pinto-spinach burger—and compared and contrasted various ingredients. Here’s what happened.
Necessary? For sure. The protein in eggs provides crucial burger binding. Think of it like hair gel: soft and gooey at first, until it sets and firms up, locking everything into place. Figure 1 large egg per batch of 4 to 6 burgers.
But I can’t eat eggs. If you’re vegan, there’s a great alternative: flaxseed meal. This substitution often appears in vegan baking recipes but works just as much magic here. To replicate 1 large egg, mix 1 tablespoon flaxseed with 2 to 3 tablespoons water and let sit for a few minutes. Add to the veggie burger mix just as you would an egg.
Necessary? Yeah. Like an egg, some starchy element is a must. If you’re making a mostly-bean burger—so, already quite starchy—you’ll need to use less. If you’re making a veggie-y veggie burger, you’ll need to use more. I like to add this ingredient to sight and feel—until the burger mixture is slightly moist but mostly dry, and holds together when squeezed. A 1/4 cup of one of the ingredients below is a good starting point for a batch of 4 to 6 burgers.
Breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs and veggie burgers are old friends. Pro: Breadcrumbs are super accessible. I like to collect bready bits and bobs in the freezer. Then, when I have a plastic bag full, I thaw and pulse in the food processor. No need to dry them out. If you’re an overachiever, you can coordinate breadcrumbs and burger. Say, a beet burger with rye breadcrumbs. Or a sweet potato burger with cornbread crumbs. Con: This burger wasn’t the sturdiest of the bunch. And the blander the breadcrumb, the blander the burger.
Oats. Oats, too, are a veggie burger regular. Pro: They’re probably already in your cabinet. And they’re gluten-free! (Double-check the label as this varies by brand.) If you want to step up the flavor, you can toast the oats in a 350° F oven for 5 to 10 minutes until golden and nutty. Con: If you don’t want to toast the oats, their rawness comes through. And depending on how well they become incorporated, you might cross paths with a whole rolled oat here and there.
Tortilla chips. I nabbed this idea from Ten Dollar Dinners by Melissa d’Arabian. She uses tortilla chips in a cheesy black bean burger. Pro: Like toasted oats, tortilla chips offer nutty flavor depth—but here, you don’t have to do any extra work. In fact, if you’re nearing the end of a bag of tortilla chips and all you have left is crumbs, perfect! Con: You really notice these fellows. Melissa designed her burger with that in mind, but if you don’t want those corny, crunchy bits and bobs in your burger, opt for something shyer.
Wheat germ. Beyond yogurt, beyond muffins, like you’ve never seen it before! Pro: This was my favorite of the bunch. Wheat germ contributes a roasty, meaty flavor. Also, because it’s flaky and fine, it becomes seamlessly incorporated, unlike the breadcrumbs or oats. And the sturdiness is unparalleled, with little to no floppage. Con: Some people don’t keep wheat germ around (I frown as I write this). And it’s more expensive than, say, bread loaf ends.
Necessary? This is the one binder that’s totally up to you. Gooey, melty, stringy cheese brings ingredients together, like a huddle or a group hug. Picture pizza toppings: Instead of the pepperoni and mushrooms and olives sliding this way and that, they’re all secured by the cheese. Pro: so much flavor. Con: trickier cooking. There’s a fine line between gooey and too gooey when the burger itself starts to melt and slouch at the edges. Get around this by cooking the burger as quickly as possible. Or using a small amount of cheese.
What to look for. First things first: a melt-friendly cheese. Which means you’ll want to steer clear of halloumi, feta, and ricotta. Opt, instead, for gooey powerhouses like mozzarella, young gouda, provolone, Monterey Jack, and cheddar. For the spinach burger, an extra-sharp cheddar was kisses fingertips. But if I were making a white bean–roasted red pepper burger, let’s call in some gouda. A black bean–tortilla chip burger, Monterey Jack. A chickpea-sundried tomato burger, mozzarella. And on and on. You got this.
What are your veggie burger tips and tricks? Share ’em in the comments!