Saturday, May 4, 2013

Black Bean Burgers & Eggstremely Cool Science

I have the ridiculously fun task of leading a cooking club at the school where I teach. We learn cooking skills, practice healthy eating habits, and get the students' hands on knives, fire, raw egg... all the things that teachers love to see their adolescents responsible for. A couple weeks ago we learned about vegetarianism and its advantages and disadvantages, especially in teens. Since most of my students are Dominican, they love their meat. However, they were really happy with the Black Bean Burgers that we made together-- a totally meatless way to get protein. Since they were such a success, I decided to make them for my apartment family this week. Along the way, I learned some really interesting facts about eggs and the role they play in Black Bean Burgers and beyond.

About Black Bean Burgers and the Power of Eggs
Black Bean Burgers are an excellent way to get protein, and there is tons of information available to show how rich in protein a vegetarian diet can be. One of my favorite infographics shows that 1/4 cup of black beans has the same amount of protein as an ounce of meat. However, this is not the point of my research this week. I'm not here to push vegetarianism, though I do feel like cutting back on animal products has a positive effect on personal and environmental health (try Meatless Mondays).

I am here to give the spotlight to a ridiculously versatile ingredient that I am guilty of having overlooked in the past: the egg. This understated ingredient was essential to this week's Black Bean Burgers, and the more I cook the more I realize how prevalent it is. I did a bit of reading about the effects of eggs in cooking (and some oohing and aahing over yet another infographic), and I learned quite a bit about their culinary superpowers and the science behind them:
  • Leavening Powers: Since eggs consist of so much liquid (88% water in egg whites and 50% in yolks), they steam when heated and promote the rising of flour. Also, beating egg whites (without the yolk, since the fat in the yolk deactivates the albumin in the whites) causes tiny air bubbles to get wrapped in the egg whites' proteins, thus keeping them fluffy and able to give simultaneous stability and lightness. Ex: popovers, cake, merengue, souffle
  • Thickening Powers: The coagulating properties of eggs (aka: their ability to become semi-solid or solid when heated) help thicken sauces, mousse, and other creamy foods by trapping the cream in a little coat of egg before the egg coagulates. This is done at a low temperature to prevent the egg from becoming solid before it has mixed with the creamy component of the recipe. Ex: custard, chocolate mousse
  • Emulsifying Powers: We all know that oil and water don't like each other. However, when you add a nice, fatty, lecithin-rich egg yolk into the mix it all changes. The fat and lecithin in the egg makes the opposing ingredients (let's say oil and vinegar) slow down as they run away from one another, essentially getting suspended in the egg and becoming more stable. Ex: Mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, Caesar dressing
  • Binding Powers: As you will see in the Black Bean Burger recipe, eggs are used as a binding agent. They begin as a liquid, but as they are heated they coagulate and cling on to whatever is near them. This pulls ingredients together in patties, casseroles, and countless more otherwise-crumbly foods. Ex: burgers, crab cakes, baked macaroni and cheese
The humble egg is clearly a very fascinating ingredient in the world of cooking. To learn more, check out this Huffington Post article, the Exploratorium Science of Cooking site, or this outrageously technical and comprehensive reference chart from the American Egg Board.

Choosing the Recipe
Black Bean Burgers are not a fancy food, nor do they need to be. They are simple and healthy, and when I think of those two terms I always think about Whole Foods. When we are able to break down what we eat and consider each ingredient to be a food (not chemical, not imitation, not preservative), that is a whole food. I naturally turned to Whole Foods for the recipe for this dish, and I was very happy. I also knew exactly where I could go to buy them!

Memorizing the Recipe
Since it was my second time making the recipe, I was already at an advantage in memorizing. I switched a few things from the original recipe to increase the yield, but aside from that I didn't change much. The key players were 3 cans of black beans, 1/2 large chopped onion, 2.5 cups bread crumbs, and 2 eggs. I probably could have added an extra egg for a little more stability, but I didn't have any crumbling issues.

The Verdict
What can be better than a burger night with friends? There is a simple joy in placing a dozen condiments and toppings on a table, passing around patties and buns, and having at it. We used hot sauce, ketchup, mustard, dijon mustard, creamy horseradish, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, and there were even more options still in the fridge (BBQ, ranch, caesar, blue cheese etc. etc. etc.). The burgers were a hit-- I love how they get so crispy on the outside when they are fried up in the pan. I also was pleasantly surprised that the onions did not taste raw. They weren't cooked for too long, but it was just enough for the flavor to mellow.

I wish I could say that my Sweet Potato Fries (the non-memorized side dish) fared as well, but sadly they were not even remotely crunchy. They looked so good on Cookie and Kate, where I got the recipe, so I know it was user error and not recipe error. If you have thoughts on crisping up oven-baked fries, chime in!

The Recipe
Black Bean Burgers
Adapted from Whole Foods Market
Yield: 10 burgers

Ingredients:
  • 3 cans no-salt-added black beans, drained
  • 2 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 sprinkle cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 tbsp olive or canola oil
  • 10 whole-wheat hamburger buns
  • toppings as desired (I used roma tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, sliced onions, and many, many condiments)
Preparation:
  • Toss all ingredients and crack the eggs into a large bowl. Mix together, first with a spoon then with your hands, until all of the breadcrumbs have been soaked up and the egg has been distributed evenly. Mash with a potato masher, avocado masher, or pastry blender until slightly chunky but easy to stick together.
  • Form the mixture into ten equal-sized balls, then press them into patties about 1/2 inch thick.
  • Place the oil over medium heat in a nonstick skillet. Once the oil is hot, place the patties in and cook without moving for about 6 minutes. Flip once and cook for 4 more minutes, then remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
  • Serve on the buns with your choice of toppings and condiments.
1. Combine ingredients. I love having a trash bowl (right) to toss everything in. 
2. Mash
3. Form balls then patties
4. Pan fry for about 10 minutes

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