Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Umami Burgers

The secret to a beefier hamburger is plant-based.

DIY umami burger

Burgers = summer. (Photo: Ian Knauer)

Ian Knauer is a regular contributor to TakePart. He worked for ‘Gourmet’ and is the author of the IACP Award–nominated cookbook ‘The Farm.’

When you go to the beach, you jump in the ocean. Otherwise, what’s the point? So it goes with summertime and burgers. When you have a grill, you use it to make hamburgers.

I am partial to the classic: beefy patty on a roll with lettuce, tomato, and ketchup. I also like bison, turkey, and veggie patties. In fact, hand me a burger of any ilk between May and September and I’m a happy eater. But, the fact remains that some burgers are just better and some are just bland. Sure, salt and pepper make a difference, even adding a smashed clove of garlic in the mix can help boost flavor, but if you’re left searching for that special ingredient—a surefire fix to summer blandness—I’ve got the answer: glutamate.

It would be an unnecessary cheat to stoop to MSG, although it would do the trick; a dash of soy is a better fix. But there is one ingredient in my pantry that I always reach for just before I form the meat into patties. It’s a shriveled yet intensified form of its former self—the dried porcini mushroom.

Mushrooms, particularly porcini (also called cepes) are loaded with natural glutamates—the G in MSG—and will magically boost the flavor of everything they touch. Their true gift is adding umami flavor foundation without bringing their own personality to the mix. Stir in a small amount of ground porcini (you can buy a powder, but I just whiz the mushrooms in a spice grinder) and your burger will taste more like a burger without tasting like mushrooms. This trick works with any burger at all. If you don’t dig on steer or turkey, that’s cool—add some to you veggie burger and you’ll marvel at just how rich it becomes. And so, now that it’s summer and you’re making burgers, they should be the best burger you’ve had all season. Otherwise, what, really, is the point?

Umami Burgers

Serves 4

1 3/4 pound ground meat or veggie burger mix

1 garlic clove

Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon ground porcini mushrooms

4 burger buns

Lettuce

Ripe tomatoes, sliced

Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard

Crumble the meat or mix in a large bowl. Using a large knife, mash and mince the garlic with a large pinch of salt, until it forms a paste. Add the garlic to the bowl and sprinkle with the porcini powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Gently toss the meat or mix to combine, then form into 4 large patties.

Preheat the grill.

Grill the burgers to your desired doneness, then let rest 5 minutes. Build burgers with the patties, buns, lettuce, tomato slices, and condiments to your liking. Serve.

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