In the wide world of "plant-based" burgers, no category seems to make as much sense as the black bean burger, at least to me. Think about it: If you wanted to mimic a patty of browned beef, which is basically a puck of protein slicked in a little fat, what substance is better suited to the purpose than black beans, cooked until they're soft enough to mash? Other than lab-grown fake meat and "brown beans," I'm sort of at a loss.
Regardless, black bean burgers have proven over the years to be an incredibly popular option for those who choose to avoid burgers of the steer variety, and it seems that every plant-based-burger purveyor has at least one black bean product to offer consumers.
We faced a bit of a conundrum with our black bean burger test, because, as all good Serious Eats employees know, there is really only one good black bean burger, baby, and it's Kenji's really awesome black bean burger. (I'm not calling it that just because that's my opinion, although it is, but because that is literally their name: "Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers.")
And, while we certainly understand that some of our readers value convenience over quality, Kenji's black bean burger recipe isn't all that labor- or time-intensive—particularly when you take into account the fact that once you form the patties, they can be stashed in the freezer for whenever the desire to eat a black bean burger strikes.
That said, if you're always on the lookout for a good store-bought black bean burger (one that, as Kenji says in his article accompanying the black bean burger recipe, is a "delicious thing-to-stick-in-a-bun all on [its] own"), or if you're specifically looking for the best vegan store-bought black bean burger (as Kenji's is not vegan), this taste test is for you.
How We Chose and Tested the Products
After considering the high volume of nonmeat burgers on the market, we decided to break our tests down into three more manageable categories: garden-style veggie burgers, black bean burgers, and imitation-meat burgers.
Note that we chose to exclude all burgers that are designed to be poultry substitutes, so any product that described itself as, say, a "tofurkey burger" or a "chik'n patty" was omitted from the tests. (Use the comments to lobby us for a review of these products if you truly believe such a thing would improve your life.) You can find the write-up of our favorite supermarket veggie burgers here, and our review of the best imitation-meat burgers here.
We did our best to purchase as many nonmeat burgers as possible, from both online grocery services like FreshDirect and stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, as well as from a number of different supermarkets in New York City. And, while I'll acknowledge from the outset that we weren't able to test every single meat-burger alternative out there, we did manage to include most prominent, nationally available brands.
In total, we tested 18 vegetable-based burgers, seven black bean burgers, and eight meat-analogue burgers.
For our black bean burger test, I prepared each burger according to the recommended cooking method on the packaging, and made sure to prepare them in a way that ensured they were all at a warm serving temperature when tasters began tasting.
Each test was done in two rounds. The first round consisted of tasting and examining the patties without any buns; the second round consisted of tasting the patties in Martin's potato rolls—our preferred burger buns—to gauge how a bun might ameliorate any negative qualities in each patty or, alternatively, enhance the desirable elements of any given patty. No condiments, accoutrements, or additional seasonings were allowed.
As the person responsible for preparing the burgers and carrying out the tests, I didn't formally participate in the tasting, and, as a result, none of the opinions about the burgers tested are my own.
All of the burgers were placed on numbered plates, and we asked tasters to sample them at random. For the second round, the burgers were again placed on plates and numbered, this time using different numbers.
We asked tasters to record their impressions of taste, texture, and appearance, and to offer an overall score—a number between 1 and 10—for each burger. We also asked each taster to indicate their top three burgers in each round, identifying which burger was best, second-best, and third-best. Each taste-test round included at least eight tasters. Here's what they had to say.
The Best Black Bean Burger
Trader Joe’s Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burger
The Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burger With Black Beans and Roasted Corn from Trader Joe's trounced the competition, not only racking up the highest average overall score in the patty-only section of the taste test, but also securing the number-one spot for all but one of the 10 tasters in the second, with-bun round.
Perhaps it's unfair to relate the tasters' notes on the appearance of the patty—or of any black bean burger patty, given that they are rounds of compressed black bean mush—but two tasters actually, sincerely complimented the Quinoa Cowboy's appearance ("the best-looking one" and "I love the color!"). Others, however, were less enthusiastic in their notes, variously (if sometimes inexplicably) remarking that it looked "hard + gritty [sic]"; "spicey [sic, and ??]"; "Southwestern (corn, pepper) [??]"; "like bread"; and, finally (and wonderfully), "crispy and filled with an extra bite of flavor."
The overall favorable impressions of the texture can be summed up succinctly by one taster's comment: "crunchy exterior, creamy bean finish." All the tasters in the first round who preferred the Trader Joe's burger above the others identified the crispy exterior as a necessary, if somewhat "gritty," foil for the soft interior, which some tasters found "too mushy" (although one taster said of the patty's texture, "total disintegration, but not unpleasantly so?"). On the other hand, one taster explicitly stated: "Dislike the mushy inside."
On the flavor front, a majority of tasters used the adjective "nice" to describe it, and several identified the flavors as "Southwestern." One taster said the patty tasted "the most bean-y," while another said it had "the most intriguing spice mix" of all the burgers. Multiple tasters noted with approval the level of chili heat, but one taster called the patty a little on the sweet side.
Those of our readers who adhere to a vegan diet should note that the Quinoa Cowboy Burger is not a vegan option.
Second Place: MorningStar Farms Spicy Black Bean Burger
If the Quinoa Cowboy stood head and stirrups above the rest of the contenders, the Spicy Black Bean Burger from MorningStar Farms stood head and shoulders above what remained, with over half the tasters picking it as their number-one burger in the first round. But MorningStar Farms' entry suffered a bit in the bun stage, with only one taster picking it as the top patty. Four tasters nonetheless picked it for the number-two spot, and three tasters picked it as a solid number three.
More than half the tasters found the bare patty to have an appealing color ("brown"), noting, too, that it looked "crispy." While one taster evaluated the patty's look by saying that "it doesn't seem high quality," the other tasters approved of its overall appearance. One taster took the middle road, noting, "It's fine. Looks the way a standard frozen veggie burger should look." Thanks, anonymous taster!
All but one taster liked the patty's texture; the most succinct summation came from the taster who said, "Hell yea [sic]. Cruncy [sic] outside, soft inside." Though it may seem to the unpracticed eater of black bean burgers that all tasters want is a crispy outside and mush within, another taster pointed to the ineffable nature of a food's texture and the difficulty that poses for evaluating it: "Hard to describe, but very enjoyable." One lone taster, however, found the patty to be "mealy," with "no real crunch as expected."
Tasters were split on the flavor. About half praised the straightforwardly bean-tasting, lightly spiced patties, with one noting that it tasted like "black bean and corn salsa" and another saying it tasted "exactly like black bean, no extra flavors." Others noted that they liked the mild spice level ("little heat," "light spicy," "Indian fritter vibes," "vague Indian flavors?"). One taster found the patty to be "bland."
On the other end of the spectrum, several tasters noted that the burger started off tasting fine, even good, but they complained about the aftertaste: "has a weird healthy, but chemically, aftertaste"; "lingering spice"; and "weird acrid finish."
Like the Trader Joe's burger, the MorningStar Farms black bean burger is not vegan.
Third Place: Dr. Praeger’s Black Bean Quinoa Veggie Burger
Dr. Praeger's comfortably occupies the third-place spot with its Black Bean Quinoa Veggie Burger. It performed well in the first, bun-less round, placing first in three of the tasters' opinions, second in two of the tasters' opinions, and third in two of the tasters' opinions. It was in the bun round that Dr. Praeger's suffered: Two tasters picked it as their second-place option, while five tasters picked it for the bronze.
Dr. Praeger's was the clear winner in the "naked-patty appearance" category, with multiple tasters praising the "golden," "crispy," "brown" exterior.
Texturally, however, the Dr. Praeger's burger fell short in the rankings, with multiple tasters pointing out the exceedingly soft texture and the lack of exterior crispiness to compensate for the interior.
Flavor-wise, tasters were all over the map. Some complained that the patty was "bland"; others said it was "subtle and nice" and "balanced." Still others praised it for having "just the right amount of salt" or called it "nicely salty." While no one actively disliked the patty, one taster said the combination of the texture and the "mediocre flavor" made it unappealing. Another taster, who said it "tastes great!", stated plainly, "I would eat this again. A pretty solid option, but not burger-like."
One big advantage of the Dr. Praeger's burger, if you prioritize such things, is that, unlike the first- and second-place winners, it is suitable for vegans.
Below, you'll find a list of the other black bean burgers we tested.
Unlike in our previous taste test of vegetable-based burgers, there were no runners-up. In the first round of tasting, only Amy's Black Bean Veggie Burger was chosen as one of the top three burgers by one of the tasters. In the second round of tasting, two tasters picked Amy's Black Bean Veggie Burger as their second-place burger, and one taster picked the Bubba Original Veggie Burger as their third-place burger. The other burgers did not place at all in either round.
- Amy's Black Bean Veggie Burger (vegan)
- Bubba Original Veggie Burger (described on the Bubba's website as "vegan-friendly"; contains no egg or dairy, but lists sugar among the ingredients)
- Gardenburger Black Bean Chipotle Veggie Burger (contains no egg or dairy, but lists sugar among the ingredients)
- Engine 2 Poblano Black Bean Plant Burger (nonvegan due to potential processing contamination, as stated on the packaging)