There may be no American food more iconic than the hamburger.
If you were tasked with designing a patriotically symbolic dish, an edible emblem as pregnant with meaning as Old Glory, it would be difficult to do better than a patty of ground corn-fed steer, straight from the heartland, raised on the industrial lots we as a proud nation pioneered, sandwiched between buns made of American wheat and American spuds, topped with some shredded iceberg (the most American of lettuces), some prematurely plucked tomatoes ripened in supermarket cartons, a few coins of cucumber rich with high-fructose corn syrup and vinegar, and a nice big splodge of tomato ketchup produced by Heinz, a similarly iconic American entity and one of the most successful multinational food and beverage corporations in the world.
Which is why it makes sense that a British guy came up with the veggie burger.
The first commercially sold vegetable-based burger was dreamed up by Gregory Sams. He started selling meatless patties—a mixture of seitan, oats, and beans—at a restaurant he owned in London in the 1960s, but it wasn't until 1982 that he began selling a dehydrated mix for meatless patties on the retail market.
In coming up with a name for his product, he chose "VegeBurger" out of a list of candidates: "greenburger," "earthburger," "sesame burger," and "plantburger," among others. And, as his website says, "'Vege' and 'veggie' soon entered the language, as a prefix for all things vegetarian. And a whole lot of latent vegetarians came out of the closet."
Today, vegetable-based burgers are a big business, and were so even before Beyond Meat's successful IPO in May of this year, despite the fact that the company has clearly stated it will likely never turn a profit. Beyond's success has spurred a number of large food companies, like Tyson Foods and Nestlé, to invest in the already-crowded market for imitation meat.
Increased competition in the meat-substitute sphere has to be good news for consumers of meatless burgers, right? But if you've ever taken a look in your supermarket's frozen-food aisle, you know that there are already many, many vegetable-based burger products. There are, in fact, too many for any single meatless-burger fan to try without devoting an inordinate amount of time and effort to discovering which un-meat burger reigns supreme.
So we decided to eat them all,* and offer our recommendations for the best veggie burgers on the market.
*Okay, maybe not all. As many as we could, say.
How We Chose and Tested the Products
Upon reviewing the vast variety of nonmeat burgers on the market, we realized very quickly that we'd need to divide the products into different categories, in order to make the taste tests more manageable and thus more meaningful. Fortunately, meatless-burger producers have constructed some categories of their own over the years. We decided to conduct our tests along what we perceived to be natural fault lines, which were as follows: vegetable-based, or "garden-style," burgers; black bean burgers; and meat-analogue burgers.
The easiest category to explain is the black bean burgers—the patties contain black beans, and the brand's packaging advertises each product explicitly as a "burger," with a prominent mention of "black beans."
The vegetable-based-burger category consists of products that are explicitly branded as "veggie burgers," in the tradition of Gregory Sams's "VegeBurger," but with a bit of added nuance—namely, that the product should not be packaged or branded in a way that suggests the patties are meant to be similar in appearance or texture to ground-meat patties.
The final category, meat-analogue burgers, consists of explicit meat-substitute products, like those sold by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but also nonmeat burger products that seem designed to mimic meat burgers in appearance and texture, if not taste. The Boca brand offers instructive examples: We put the classic Boca Burger in the meat-analogue-burgers category, as it appears to be, in appearance, texture, and flavor, a meatless approximation of a burger. But we put the Boca Grilled Vegetable Veggie Burger in the vegetable-based-burger category.
We chose to exclude all un-meat 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.
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. We acknowledge from the outset that we did not test every single meat-burger-alternative out there, but we did our best.
In total, we tested 18 vegetable-based burgers, seven black bean burgers, and eight meat-analogue burgers.
To test the products, I prepared all of them 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 the 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 did not formally participate in the tastings, 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, but 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.
We decided to treat each of the burger categories in a separate article, for ease of browsing. This week's write-up includes the results from the first category: vegetable-based veggie burgers. (You can read the review of our favorite black bean burgers here, and the review of the best meat-substitute burgers here.)
Finally, we've included information about whether or not each product is vegan in the relevant section for our top three picks.
The Best Vegetable-Based Veggie Burger
The Winner: Trader Joe's Vegetable Masala Burger
Trader Joe's Vegetable Masala Burger was the clear favorite in the first round of the taste test, netting the highest overall score and taking the number one spot for half of the tasters.
The patty consists mostly of potato flavored with ginger, garlic, and warm spices, like coriander, cumin, and cinnamon, but it also has identifiable bits of carrot, green beans, peas, corn, and bell peppers throughout. Tasters approved of the patty's appearance—one stated, "Looks most appetizing of them all," while another noted the "bright, visible veggies!"—and its flavor. One taster summed up the general positive impression of the patties with this: "All my favorite carb-y vegetables in a lightly spiced patty? Yes!"
That said, some tasters did point out that the texture was lacking—"onion mush," as one described it, while another opined, "Bit wet/mushy"—and still others disagreed with the positive view of the flavor. "Christmas flavor with spice. Santa's revenge," one taster wrote. (Frankly, I still don't quite know what to make of the Santa remark.)
However, in the second round of the taste test, which involved sandwiching the patties in buns, the Vegetable Masala Burger wasn't the clear favorite. Instead, Trader Joe's other vegetable-based burger, the Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger, took the gold. But the masala burger was still chosen by more than half the tasters as a top-three burger. In the end, the combined scores from the two rounds made the Vegetable Masala Burger the overall winner in the category.
The Vegetable Masala Burger is mostly vegan, as it contains no eggs or dairy, but the package does list "sugar" among the ingredients, which means it may not be up to some vegans' standards.
Second Place: MorningStar Farms Garden Veggie Burger
MorningStar Farms' Garden Veggie Burger placed a comfortable second in both rounds of the taste test, with tasters praising its appealing look. "Actually looks appetizing," one fatigued taster wrote; "Looks like a veggie burger I'd eat," wrote another. Several remarked on the patty's resemblance to other appetizing foods; two noted it looked like a scallion pancake, while a third said it reminded them of a paratha.
The flavor also generally received complimentary remarks, albeit backhanded ones. "Not bad!" was a common comment, but several tasters noted that it seemed a little under-seasoned. None of the tasters seemed able to identify the components that made up the burger, a mix of rice, wheat gluten, oats, and a variety of vegetables, according to the packaging. (Because it also includes egg whites, and sugar, the Garden Veggie burger is not vegan.) However, several remarked (approvingly) on how dense the patty was.
Third Place: Dr. Praeger’s Asian Veggie Burger
It gives me very little pleasure to report that Dr. Praeger's Asian Veggie Burger clearly merited the third-place spot in these taste tests. My beef with the veggie burger is due to its branding: On the packaging, the prolific maker of veggie burgers (we tasted no fewer than eight Dr. Praeger's products) decided it was a good idea to write "stir (fry) things up!" and "Traditional Chinese flavors, no chopsticks required." That this product managed to make it through the test at all is a testament to our professionalism here at Serious Eats, and our single-minded dedication to focusing on flavor and not irritating marketing copy.
But, undeniably, tasters liked the "traditional Chinese flavors"! One taster simply said, "Flavorful! Big flavor bomb," while another commented, "Savory, salty, decent veggie flavors." Two of the tasters picked up on the "Asian" theme: "Tastes like soy sauce, flavor not bad," one wrote, while another stated plainly, "This sorta tastes like Thai/Chinese food." However, one taster noted that, despite liking the vegetables in the patty, they found the product too salty: "One bite tasted good but it's too salty to eat a large amount."
That saltiness is likely why the patty performed quite well in the bun round as well, where it placed a very solid third. Dr. Praeger’s Asian Veggie Burger is also vegan.
Below, you’ll find a list of the other vegetable-burger products we tasted. The two runners-up to the three winners were Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burger and Trader Joe’s Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger, which performed quite well in the first round and the second round, respectively. But when the results from both rounds were tallied up, neither managed to break into the top three spots.
Tasters gave all the remaining contenders poor marks for flavor, texture, and appearance, and offered negative comments that ranged from terse and crude to eloquently verbose, the intensity of which varied depending on when in the process of tasting 18 different vegetable-based burgers the taster recorded their opinions about the specific burger in question.
- Boca Grilled Vegetable Veggie Burger
- FreshDirect Kale Veggie Burger*
- FreshDirect Carrot and Parsnip Burger*
- Hilary's World's Best Veggie Burger*
- Amy's California Veggie Burger*
- Dr. Praeger's Super Greens Veggie Burger*
- Dr. Praeger's Kale Veggie Burger*
- Dr. Praeger's California Veggie Burger*
- Dr. Praeger's Mushroom Risotto Veggie Burger*
- Dr. Praeger's Korean Veggie Burger*
- Gardenburger Portabella Veggie Burger
- Trader Joe's Hi-Protein Veggie Burger*
- Trader Joe's Thai Sweet Chili Veggie Burger
- Engine 2 Tuscan Kale White Bean Plant Burger*
- Engine 2 Pinto Habanero Plant Burger*
*Veggie burgers that are vegan