Forget everything you know about veggie burgers. No, wait—for just a moment, remember everything you know about veggie burgers: the suspiciously rubbery feel of those textured-vegetable-protein disks; the Gardenburger patties that look like coagulated oatmeal; mushy, homemade bean burgers that disintegrate the second you put them between the two halves of a bun.
Now forget everything you know about veggie burgers. Veggie burgers don’t have to be to hamburgers what The Wedgewoods were to The Beatles (at least according to Mad Men). In fact, they shouldn’t really try to imitate hamburgers much at all: We don’t yet have the technology to make fake beef that tastes anything but disquieting. And, to consider another popular approach, there’s no reason vegetarian patties have to include every edible crop known to man. (Here’s a black bean, and a grain of brown rice, and—look, everyone, a corn kernel!)
Veggie burgers simply need to be sturdy, savory, and juicy—flavorful and dense enough that you know you’re eating something distinct from the bun, and not getting more bland starchiness. The way to accomplish that is marinated tempeh.
Tempeh is a fermented soy product. Originally from Indonesia, it’s typically sold in the United States in half-pound shrink-wrapped rectangles. A few months ago, I suggested making chili with tempeh, which immediately prompted widespread outcry from chili traditionalists. But tempeh is the closest thing vegetarians have to a non-weird meat substitute. And, whether or not you’re a vegetarian, it’s absolutely the best ingredient for veggie burgers.
Tempeh doesn’t have much flavor on its own, but it soaks up other flavors like a sponge. So making good tempeh veggie burgers is merely a matter of dousing those rectangles in a delicious marinade and baking all that flavor in. To make the marinade, start with soy sauce—not because the goal is an East Asian flavor profile (it isn’t), but because no other ingredient will so effectively infuse your burgers with both umami and moisture. Garlic and thyme will give your tempeh burgers some savory flair, while a little bit of honey will leaven the saltiness of the soy sauce.
You can eat tempeh burgers right out of the oven, but if you’re planning a Memorial Day cookout, you can also bake them in advance, put them in the refrigerator, and then reheat them on the grill. There’s just one drawback: Thanks to those shrink-wrapped rectangles, tempeh burgers are inevitably square, not round. But sacrificing visuals is a small price to pay for veggie burgers that actually taste good.
Yield: 4 burgers
Time: About 1 hour, largely unattended
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 pound tempeh, cut into 4 equal squares
4 ounces cheddar cheese, thinly sliced
6 hamburger buns, toasted if desired
Lettuce leaves, tomato slices, pickle slices, mayonnaise, mustard, and/or ketchup as desired
1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Whisk together the soy sauce, oil, shallot, garlic, honey, and thyme in a medium bowl. Put the tempeh pieces in a 9-inch square pan in a single layer and pour the marinade over them. Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the tempeh pieces over. Continue to bake until the tempeh has absorbed all the marinade, 20 to 30 more minutes.
2. Top the tempeh pieces with the cheddar and continue to bake until the cheese melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve the tempeh burgers on the hamburger buns with as much or as little lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard and/or ketchup as you like.