This post is part of the Food Writer’s Diary blog.
At the beginning of the year I predicted we’d see more of what I called hybrid burgers — Hamburgers with a certain amount of non-meat stuff mixed in. It simply makes sense: Americans love hamburgers, but many of us would also like to lose weight and, all things being equal, wouldn’t mind being a bit gentler on the environment. Adding delicious ingredients to something we already love makes sense.
The Mushroom Council has been advocating mixing its namesake fungus into burgers for a few years now, and recently they’ve gotten help from some influential friends. For the past two years, the Culinary Institute of America has served those burgers at its annual Menus of Change conference, which explores how restaurants can have a positive effect on the health of their customers and the planet based on what they serve. The James Beard Foundation also came onboard last year with its Blended Burger Project, through which chefs who mix their burger meat with at least 25 percent mushrooms (cultivated ones only, since it’s those mushroom farmers who the Mushroom Council represents) and you could win a trip to make those burgers at the Beard House in New York City.
Mushrooms add both micronutrients and umami to foods. Mixed into the meat blend of a burger, they have the potential of lowering the cost, calories and environmental impact of the sandwiches.
Those attributes aren’t givens, however. Mushrooms aren’t necessarily cheaper than meat — it depends on which mushrooms and meat you’re using. They’re not necessarily lower in calories, either: At a recent Beard House event, chef Hugh Acheson came up from Athens, Ga., to make lamb burgers with mushrooms blended in. They were delicious, but Acheson said he sautéed the mushrooms with garlic and “a lot of butter” before stirring them into the ground lamb, so that probably didn’t bring a benefit from the calorie perspective.
Mushrooms do likely have a lower environmental impact than meat, although it depends on where they’re grown and how far they’re shipped,
But hey, if nothing else, mushrooms are delicious, and the idea of blending meat with other things in hamburgers opens up an array of possibilities, some of which were on display at a recent Blended Burger event I attended at Fruition restaurant in Denver, where three local chefs dished up their entries.
Host Alex Seidel combined lamb and beef not just with Nebrodini mushrooms (a cousin of the trumpet) but also with farro, and topped it with vegetable slaw and sheep skyr from his own Fruition Farms. Skyr is a dairy product from Iceland that tastes and acts like yogurt but, as Seidel explained it to me, is actually a cheese: It's catalyzed by rennet instead of bacteria cultures. That’s important, because Fruition Farms is certified to make cheese, but not yogurt.
Seidel was originally going to offer his burger only at Fruition, starting May 31, but not at his more casual spot, Mercantile, at Denver's Union Station. He said at Fruition, a small, elegant spot that I would call fine dining but Seidel disputes that description, the burgers would fit in to the rest of his seasonally focused menu and he might sell 15 or so of them each night.
At Mercantile, on the other hand, the burgers would dominate the menu. That’s all people would order, and if Seidel wanted to open a burger place he would have done that. Instead, his most popular menu item at Mercantile is the $21 Market Provisions platter, a collection of cured meats, cheese from Fruition Farms, rillettes, pickles and whatnot that reflect Seidel’s approach to food. He said he didn’t want to swap that out for a burger.
But he came up with a solution: He's decided to offer just 12 of the burgers at each of his restaurants during the month-long promotion. Once they’re gone, you’re out of luck.
He hasn’t determined the price of the burgers yet.
Troy Guard, on the other hand, has two TAG Burger Bar locations, and his blended burger is going on the menu there.
Guard took the notion of a better-for-you burger to heart. So not only does he blend the ground pork shoulder that makes up the heart of this burger with 25 percent king trumpet mushrooms (which he chars on the grill before grinding it into the pork), but he topped it with a tofu-lime chile aïoli instead of mayonnaise and added a bánh mì-style slaw along with cucumbers.
Justin Brunson already has a Whole Hog burger on his menu at Old Major. He butchers two whole hogs each week anyway, and uses trim from all over the animal to make his burger. For this gem, he used 60 percent of that ground pork and 40 percent roasted shiitake mushrooms.
“I love shiitake mushrooms and pork together,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite bites of food, actually.”
Mushrooms do tend to sweat a lot, however, so to absorb some of that moisture he added some powdered milk to the blend.
He served it with some cow milk cheese from Vermont and topped it with ramp aïoli, pickled onions and local arugula, all served on milk buns, made with milk instead of water.
“It makes a real soft, squishy bun,” he said. And indeed it did.
Correction: May 5, 2016 This story has been updated to reflect Alex Seidel's decision to offer his burger at both of his restaurants.