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Rebuilding the burger
Tastes great, more sustainable

The hamburger may be destroying life as we know it.

That's not as outlandish as it sounds. Several recent studies have confirmed that CO2 emissions from the production of red meat and dairy have a significant impact on global warming, larger than other segments of food production - even chicken and pork.

You know the jokes about cows producing methane? It's not really funny. As a greenhouse gas, methane traps heat more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Methane emissions from cows - burps and the other - equal emissions from all other aspects of meat production, which are already big. If reducing greenhouse gases was your only concern, you could decrease your footprint somewhat just by switching to chicken or pork.

Grain-fed beef is also an inefficient way of producing food. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef.

Americans eat, on average, five to eight ounces of red meat a day, often in the form of hamburgers, the nation's preferred mechanism of red-meat delivery. For 1992's Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser estimated U.S. hamburger consumption at one a week; more recent studies have upped that to three a week.

And burgers themselves are beefing up. A quarter-pound restaurant burger is rare these days. Most weigh in at a third of a pound, many are half-pounders and some offer one whole pound of meat.

If you've been scaling back your automobile use and thinking about buying carbon offsets for your airplane travel, consider a 2008 Carnegie Mellon study called "Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States." It found:

  • If the average American household cut out meat and dairy for a year and switched to a vegetable-based diet, it could reduce carbon emissions by an amount equal to driving 8,100 miles in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon. (If that household cut red meat and dairy but retained chicken, fish and eggs, the savings would equal 5,340 miles.)

  • The average American family could achieve the same reduction in its carbon footprint by cutting out red meat consumption as by eating entirely locally (if that were even possible).

If cheeseburgers are the Hummers of our diet, what is the Prius? What is the commuter bicycle? What is the light rail?

How much more ecologically sound is a mass-produced "veggie burger" made in California and trucked to grocery stores across the country as frozen food and elaborately packaged in plastic and cardboard? And how does that product stack up against a burger made from meat from a grass-fed, sustainably raised cow from a farm within 100 miles of Madison?

"A lot of people are asking these questions," notes Brent McCown, a UW-Madison professor of horticulture who studies local food and pasture-based animal production. But what data there is needs more study, he says.

Without exact computations for carbon impacts, food choices often come down to a choice among values. Is food being local a high value, no matter how it is grown? Is sustainability a high value?

Often the values we want to honor are in conflict, says McCown. A field used to grow soybeans can feed many more people than one used to produce grass-fed beef. So someone who cares about sustainability may avoid meat in favor of products made with soy. But, says McCown, "almost all soybeans are genetically engineered. And most people wouldn't include genetic engineering in their definition of 'sustainability.'"

A big issue in comparing the carbon footprints of burgers and their vegetarian-patty substitutes is "subsidiary impacts" - equipment, fuel, production and transportation costs. For instance, says McCown, "You don't have to invest in a lot of equipment to raise pasture-based beef. The cows do the work." But to grow a lot of soybeans, you're talking "big equipment - planters and plows."

This is where some consumers throw up their hands and end up going to McDonald's.

Still, the demand for organic, local and more environmentally conscious food keeps growing. The nationwide popularity of books like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Mark Bittman's Food Matters indicates a widespread raising of food consciousness.

Bittman may have hit on the best strategy, which pairs eco-conscious eating with America's most passionate interest - shedding pounds. "Lose weight, heal the planet," trumpets the book jacket. Talk about a win-win situation.

Fortunately, those who decide to give up their cheeseburger for whatever reason have plenty of choices besides the Boca Burger, especially in Madison. An eco-conscious eater can give thought to taste as well as values.

The Great Dane, with outlets in downtown Madison, Fitchburg and Hilldale, added a hamburger to its menu last fall made from local, sustainably farmed products. "It was part of an overall initiative to start greening the Dane," recalls chef Matt Moyer. The Sustainaburger is made with an organic beef patty from Otter Creek Farm in Black Earth, topped with Otter Creek raw milk pesto cheese and dressed with local tomatoes and microgreens (when in season).

"Whenever possible, we try to keep it local and organic," says Moyer. (The burger can also be ordered with a patty from Heartland Bison of Stoughton.)

Despite the higher cost of organic meat, the Sustainaburger is only about $1 more than most of the Great Dane's sandwiches. Says Moyer, "We want to keep it in the price range where people will still want to order it."

Nature's Bakery of Madison, 1019 Williamson St., makes three kinds of veggie burger patties. Member/owner Robert Miller says these burgers are fresh and natural. "The ingredients are on the label, and you recognize all of them as food," says Miller, perhaps unconsciously playing off one of Pollan's maxims: "Don't eat anything your grandparents wouldn't recognize as food."

The veggie burgers are made on-site on Williamson Street. Nuts are generally from California; organic rice is also grown in California. The amount of soy is "minimal," says Miller, and not genetically modified. The tofu in the tofu-walnut burger comes from the Simple Soyman in Milwaukee. The oats and flours are Midwestern, from the "high plains, the Dakotas," says Miller.

The patties stay local, too. "About 90% of our business is in Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis," Miller says. They're sold in the frozen foods section at Woodman's, the co-op, Jenifer Street Market, Whole Foods and other local markets.

At the Harmony Bar & Grill, 2201 Atwood Ave., owner Keith Daniels is upfront about not sharing the recipe for the grill's popular walnut burger. The recipe was crafted by Daniels' then-wife after six or seven months of experimentation. The grill has served them for a decade, but the patty's popularity has "just exploded in the last five," says Daniels, who estimates the Harmony sells 100 walnut burgers a week. The burgers are made on site.

Just down the street, Monty's Blue Plate, 2089 Atwood Ave., serves walnut burgers from the Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau (but manufactured in La Crosse). These can also be purchased at Woodman's and the Willy Street Co-op, packed in a simple plastic vacuum wrap.

Local foods booster Terese Allen, who writes Isthmus' "Local Flavor" column, doesn't have a recipe for a locally based veggie burger, although she remembers creating a recipe for a veggie patty while a chef at the Ovens of Brittany in the 1980s. These days, she prefers the Harmony's walnut burger.

If she were coming up with recipe for an entirely local veggie patty, Allen would look to locally grown onions and carrots, and sunflower oil from Driftless Organics of Soldiers Grove. Local hickory nuts would be great too, "but it'd be an expensive burger," Allen laughs.

In your own kitchen, you can be as green as you want. As Allen suggests, farmers' markets or your own garden can provide the basis for a truly local creation. Plus, it's the ultimate in have-it-your-way. Hate onions? Leave them out. Love hot peppers? Go to town.

But while frying your own hamburger requires nothing more complicated than flattening the ground beef, dropping it in a frying pan and wielding a spatula to flip it over, making your own veggie burger is a little more complicated.

"I remember trying to make a bean burger from one of the Moosewood cookbooks," a friend confides. "It looked good but had about 50,000 ingredients. You'd starve to death before you'd finish making them."

There are many veggie burger recipes. They can be based on nuts, grains, beans or soy. Some seem to require a pantry's worth of earthy-crunchy ingredients. But for every one that calls for umeboshi vinegar, there's more that will utilize yesterday's mashed potatoes, or rice, or other leftover veggies. Mostly what's required is creativity. And something to bind the ingredients together. Adding an egg or two works, unless you're trying to keep it vegan; then beans or some tofu, pureed, helps.

At worst, you can disguise your failures with ketchup and pickles.

For some time, I've been trying to come up with a better veggie burger recipe. The first attempt, a kidney bean/peanut/cilantro combo, turned out pretty well. But it was followed by a number of failures.

A chickpea and smoked cheddar variation didn't have much taste and fell to pieces in the pan. A wheatberry, kale and tamari-marinated tofu version had great taste, but disintegrated on the flip.

I learned a few things. The patty needs to be pressed thin, otherwise the center is mushy. But too thin and it won't hold together. A patty that's too moist will fall apart just as surely as one that's too dry; the mix has to have some stickiness and some backbone. Freezing the patty aids in a successful flip. Frying a patty in enough oil improves flavor and crispness.

A walnut has more flavor impact than a peanut, kidney beans more than chickpeas or navy beans. Even a small amount of chopped onion in the patty brings out the flavors of the other ingredients. Fresh cilantro stands up against other ingredients.

And take a lesson from the Sustainaburger - capitalize on a good bun, fresh lettuce and the best tomato you can find.

The Feel-Good Burger

  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 1 cup cooked wheatberries
  • 1/2 cup nuts (walnuts recommended)
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • 2 regular carrots, minced
  • 1 yellow banana pepper, minced
  • 1 can kidney beans (any bean will do - chickpeas, pigeon peas, black beans)
  • 1 tablespoon tamari
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (two slices whole-wheat bread cubed and then dried out)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Penzey's Northwoods seasoning (or your favorite spice mix)

Sauté onion until translucent; hold in reserve to add to mix.

Pulse the carrots, wheatberries, banana peppers, nuts and cilantro in the food processor until well mixed. Add the beans, onions and tamari and blend until thoroughly mixed. Remove from food processor. Add breadcrumbs until the mixture has some backbone. (Otherwise it will be sticky, but too wet to hang together in the pan.) It helps to chill the mix at this point, which also helps keep the patties together when you form them.

Shape into six patties. Keep as thin as you can (but thinner than 1/2-inch may result in a patty that will not flip). Fry in a nonstick skillet with vegetable oil.

Not surprisingly, frying in butter results in a crispier and more flavorful burger. Brown on one side, about 5 minutes; flip carefully and cook about 5 more minutes.

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