So here’s the thing about veggie burgers. They’re not great. Just as a general rule: even the highest quality, truffle infused, butter brushed, created by gastronomic geniuses who have taken their studies of cuisine down to the molecular level vegetarian burger will pale in comparison to the most basic frying pan beef patty. That’s the name of the game. Burgers are just meant to be meat. However; if you (like me) want a burger-adjacent vegetarian option-I’m going to show you a fantastic runner up. Forget about bean burgers; people chase after the perfect bean patty because it’s the closest texture wise to ground beef, but at best they end up tasting like, well, beans – and at worst the taste like salty dirt. What we need to do is make something that will taste great and forget about the rest. Flavor is king, everything else comes second. Mushrooms are a great option (just imagine a nice, fat slab of portobello on a bun) but they can be a non-starter for some picky eaters. Instead, for this burger I’ll be using eggplant steaks. Smokey, creamy, with an umami tang that rivals the meatiest of burgers, this vegetarian option will make you forget the taste of a beef burger – almost.
Prep Time: 5-10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
This recipe will make 4 burgers, but can easily be scaled up to feed more
For the Lot:
1 large, roughly cylindrical Eggplant
2 Russet Potatoes (1 per person)
1 teaspoon Mayonnaise
1 bunch Radishes
1/2 a Lemon
So a few things here. I get that people would probably prefer a straight up burger, but they’re super straightforward to make and it would be a little boring to write about. Just use good quality ground beef; grass-fed is more expensive, but undoubtedly worth it. If you want to get really crazy, look into mixing different cuts of beef to get exactly the right fat quantity. Season the meat before forming your burgers with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and maybe cayenne and you can’t go wrong. In terms of other vegetarian options, my second favorite would be using large portobellos, and the process for cooking those is exactly the same as here, be sure to give them a good scrub first. Think of this not as a replacement for burgers, just another sandwich option (and much cheaper). I didn’t make buns for this recipe – there’s something satisfying about using the cheapest burger buns possible, that really sticky sweet white bread – but if you want to go all out and make your own bread, I’ve already got you covered. Check out this recipe for some awesome buns. (haha).
- Cut the eggplant into “steaks” about 3/4 to a full inch thick. Generously season each side with salt and pepper and rub it into the flesh of the eggplant. Apply a thin layer of mayonnaise, 1/4 of a teaspoon or less should work, just make sure the entire slice is covered. This will create a crisp skin when you cook it and trap in all the flavor and moisture of the eggplant.
- Cook in a frying pan on medium high heat for 1-2 minutes each side. Alexis likes them a little softer than I do and there are benefits to doing it either way. The longer you cook, the more intense the smokey, roasted eggplant flavor gets, and the softer/creamier it gets. I like it cooked for a shorter time because, although you miss out on flavor, you get a more satisfying crunch when you bite into it. If you’re looking for something closer to the texture of a burger, go shorter.
- If you want cheese, top the eggplants after the first flip and cover the saute pan with a lid. Don’t ruin the flavor by using Kraft singles, get a nice pepper jack or a muenster, something interesting that adds to the complexity of the flavor. The steam and heat with melt the cheese to the perfect cheeseburger gooeyness. I didn’t think I would like these with cheese, but at the request of the wife I tried it out and it was pretty tasty (I mean, melted cheese, what could go wrong?)
- Serve on a toasted bun (if you want, do the same trick with the mayonnaise in a skillet and you’ll get the crispiest, butteriest piece of bread you’ve ever tried in your life), with sliced tomato and whatever else you like on your burgers.
Of course, whenever you fry, take precautions. Dry the potatoes with a paper towel after you cut them, the less wet they are, the less they splatter. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the oil and heat it slowly. I use a large, thick bottomed pot; the bigger the better. The more room you have, the less dangerous the process is. The more oil you have, the less likely you are to overheat/burn the oil, but you need to increase the size of your cooking equipment accordingly. Don’t fill anything with oil past 2-3 inches from the rim, that’s when things start to get dangerous.
I double-fry potatoes, meaning once at a lower temperature and then again at a higher temperature. This ensures they cook through and also gives a satisfying crunch. I’ve tried baking, boiling and baking, pan-frying and then baking; all to get around deep-frying, but for the best results, deep-fry your fries.
- Heat the oil to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, heat on medium-high heat for roughly 10-15 minutes. The oil is hot enough when you can drop in a piece of potato and it floats right away.
- Cut your potatoes to desired fry shape and size. We like long and skinny (see image above), if you want something else, go for it. You may need to adjust your initial fry time accordingly as you cut thicker. Dry with paper towels.
- Fry at 325 for 2-3 minutes until lightly brown and floating. Fry in batches so as to not overcrowd the oil and decrease the temperature. Remove from oil and set aside.
- Increase heat to 400 (375 for thicker fries or if you want to be extra cautious) and fry for 1-3 minutes depending on how dark/crispy you prefer your fries. I like mine a deep, golden brown which takes about 2 minutes. You really can’t skip this second fry, without it the potatoes will be cooked, but unsatisfying and soft. Drain on paper towels or brown paper and season your fries twice. First, immediately after they come out of the oil and then again after they have cooled. The hot oil present on the first round of seasoning will dissolve the seasoning and help soak it up into the fries – this is the key to truly tasty fries.
I like my burgers with a wee bit of roughage, just to freshen things up. You can eat this salad by itself, on the side, on atop the burger, however you like. Arugula with grated radish (using the fine side of a cheese grater) carries a sharp bitterness that plays against the creamy, smokey flavor from the eggplant and the salt from the fries. A squeeze of lemon and olive oil with fill out the flavor and keep it excited.
All in all, I think I make these more often that I do burgers. They’re lighter, healthier (especially if you leave out the cheese), easier to clean up after, and much more budget friendly. More than that, I enjoy the variety in my diet. I eat eggplant regularly, but it’s nice to have it in a dish where it gets to shine. It’s surprisingly meaty and after the first time I made these burgers, I started using eggplant more and more as substitute for chicken or beef. Not only does it bring a wonderfully funky flavor, but it pairs well with just about any sauce or topping. The french fries are up there with house favorites. They’re definitely luxurious and not something you should eat weekly, but who doesn’t like crispy, salty, golden brown potatoes? Nobody. That’s who.