Burgers minus beef

Published in FSD Update

Turkey, veggies and grains add variety to operators’ burger patties.

We may be living in a burger-crazed country, but customers are demanding more than just ground beef patties these days. They want something healthy, maybe even vegetarian, something with a unique flavor profile. They are looking for options like the Mediterranean turkey burger at Luby’s Culinary Services, based in Houston, which is made in house with fresh ground turkey and served on a seasoned ciabatta roll with olive and feta relish.

Though this special item has become a staple at some locations due to its popularity, Dan Phalen, corporate executive chef, has also found success with other non-beef burgers such as elk, boar, ostrich, black bean quinoa, garden burgers and a bison burger, “which is much leaner than the regular ground beef, higher in Omega-3 oils and iron and lower in cholesterol,” Phalen says. In fact, non-beef burgers make up 5% of Luby’s sales.

Luby’s isn’t alone. The University of Connecticut, in Storrs, has seen an increase in vegan burger consumption of 30%, says Robert Landolphi, manager of culinary development, who offers variations like a tempeh-lentil burger, a potato and kale burger, and a chickpea and eggplant burger. “Customers are looking for healthier burgers that are unique, packed with flavor and leave them satisfied,” he says. Landolphi makes many of these burgers ahead of time, keeping them refrigerated until ready to cook, whether on the flat top or in a convection oven. “They hold up very well on our serving lines and look great on a plate,” he adds.

Perfecting the patty

When it comes to creating a successful non-beef burger program, the proof is in the patty. “Fresh is always best—fresh meat versus frozen, fresh herbs versus dried, freshly baked or even parbaked buns and rolls instead of packaged,” Phalen says. The chef suggests thinking about maintaining freshness and minimizing waste before putting a non-beef burger on the menu full time. “If a customer comes in to try your new [burger], but the components are past their freshness, their first impression is substandard and that may be the only opportunity you get to impress them,” he warns.

Another word of caution: Stop trying to imitate beef, says Rosetta Star, owner/operator of Rosetta’s Kitchenette at the University of North Carolina Asheville. “It’s very difficult to make fake meat taste right, [so instead of trying], make something that is good, filling and protein full without tasting like meat.” Star’s burgers are made fresh using cooked organic rolled oats, brown rice and garbanzo beans mixed with local veggies and hemp seeds to add healthy fats. They’re parbaked and then deep-fried to ensure the perfect consistency. 

It’s important to “be adventurous and think outside your typical vegan burger when developing new types of non-beef burgers,” adds Ruth Sullivan, R.D., nutrition educator for Syracuse University, in New York. Syracuse offers white bean burgers, black-eyed pea burgers and even faux-crab cake burgers as part of a Meatless Monday special. 

Nailing the extras

“Every component of [a burger] is crucial—a perfectly seasoned and cooked [patty] can be ruined by a stale bun or even a canned condiment,” warns Phalen, who opted for a parbaked ciabatta roll so “it would be hearty enough to handle the relish topping and so I could season and bake daily for a fresh-baked taste.” His relish, albeit simple, offers the burger bold bursts of flavor. Tomato, onions, feta, olive oil, green and black olives, basil and balsamic vinegar make up Phalen’s relish for his turkey burger. “Keep items fresh and in limited amounts to let flavors come to the surface, rather than be lost among too many ingredients,” he adds.

Landolphi can relate. His non-beef burgers are garnished with a variety of toppings, like fresh guacamole, tomatoes and cilantro, to bring a Southwest flavor profile, and cilantro lime pesto to add tang to velvety chickpeas. Similarly, the white bean burgers at Syracuse are topped with a cold fruit salsa, which “has a little bit of sweet and hot that’s a refreshing complement to the dense burger,” Sullivan says. Not only does the garnish boost flavor, but it also adds interest to the presentation and “makes diners more apt to choose a healthy, tasty alternative,” she says. 

Timothy Gee, executive chef at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New Brunswick, N.J., seconds that notion. “You can create a lot of flavor with different sauces and toppings, which entices the customer to try it,” says Gee of his portobello burger, which receives a variety of garnishes, like pickled onions, plantain chips and specialty cheeses. 

“When it comes to the roll, select the one that goes best with the toppings—for example, I use a pretzel roll with the cheddar beer sauce and a brioche roll with a more classic version,” says Gee, noting his non-beef burgers are near equal sellers to beef ones. “Don’t be afraid to do something out of the box—try new combinations to get people excited about your new item but never try to sell something you wouldn’t consider having for lunch yourself.”