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The Evolution of the Vegan Burger: My Personal Journey

Freelance writer from the northeast coast of England with a fondness for vegan food and punk rock.

Vegan burger with broccoli, roast potatoes and corn in a creamy sauce with black pepper

Vegan burger with broccoli, roast potatoes and corn in a creamy sauce with black pepper

My Pre-Vegan Days

As someone who hasn’t eaten meat since 1984, I guess some of my meat-based antics from before that time could be considered skeletons in the closet. One such story is that I used to wheel a hot dog and hamburger barrow around the streets surrounding St James’ Park, the home ground of Newcastle United Football Club.

On Saturday afternoons, I’d ply my trade at the rate of 12.5% of takings, which rose to 15% if I made £100 (this only happened once). I got in to see the game free of charge, but that was scant compensation for freezing my butt off for two hours before kick-off, and an hour after the game had ended. I could warm my hands on the lids of the pans, but it was cold feet that were my main gripe; had I warmed those on the pans, the health inspector might have had something to say. It was only a year or so after that period of my life that I gave up meat and entered the world of vegetarian burgers.

Old school packet mix burger with salad, peri-peri mayo and tomato relish in a broche bun

Old school packet mix burger with salad, peri-peri mayo and tomato relish in a broche bun

My First Veggie Burgers

I was house-sharing at the time with two friends. We got our burger fixes via packet mixes that we combined with water and shaped with wet hands, which would prevent the mix sticking to our fingers, and ensure a good sizzle when the burgers were lowered into the pan. These brands had names like Sosmix, Burgermix and Sizzles, and they were cheap, filling and tasty enough. We each must have eaten our own weight in these mixes, after indulging in many a post-pub fry up. As it happens, I often keep a packet burger mix in the pantry. These products have a lengthy shelf-life, and are handy to have in for emergencies, or for when I feel like kickin’ it old school in the kitchen. Give me a packet mix burger in a roll, a patchouli incense stick and a spin of New Order's Blue Monday, and I'd be whisked back to my house-sharing days.

Then a new kid on the block arrived, in the form of the Realeat VegeBurger. This was completely different to the aforementioned mixes, in that it was not soya-based, listing wheat protein and sesame seeds as its main ingredients. The instructions recommended using an egg, which alienated the vegan demographic, but at the time, what did I care about those cranky vegans? I somehow ended up on Realeat’s mailing list, and one day I received some instant soup sachets to try, and a feedback form to fill in. I don’t think the soups made it onto the market, but I did receive a free VegeBurger T-shirt for my trouble.

Then things moved on with the introduction of the ready-made frozen burger. These were considerably firmer and more meat-like than what had gone before. It was time to break out the toothpicks. My local supermarket stocked packs of eight such burgers, and a local bakery across the street sold bread rolls that were a perfect size for them. A regular Saturday morning treat for me was those newfangled burgers in rolls that were still warm from the oven.

Vegan burger with steamed carrot and kale, sweet potato wedges and quinoa and black bean salad, taken before and after the addition of peanut sriracha sauce

Vegan burger with steamed carrot and kale, sweet potato wedges and quinoa and black bean salad, taken before and after the addition of peanut sriracha sauce

Realistic Burgers: Proof Vegans Miss Meat?

Some time later, despite my earlier cynicism, I made the switch to veganism. And in today’s much more vegan-friendly climate, burgers that replicate meat abound. Some of these are incredibly realistic, a factor that sometimes draws the accusation that a liking for such products is evidence of how much vegans actually miss meat. I would counter that thus:

These products are not specifically aimed at the vegan market. A report from 2019 predicts that the alternative meat market could be worth $140 million in a decade. That would be a disproportionate level of investment to cater for the taste buds of the vegan community, which makes up a tiny section of the population. The bigger picture is that people are a lot more aware of the impact their being alive has on the planet, and some have taken to re-evaluating aspects of their lives that might increase their carbon footprint. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest polluters out there, and a response to his has been the genesis of a new dietary category, the flexitarian. These non-vegans participate in activities like Meatless Monday and Veganuary, as a means of lessening their environmental impact. Some of the biggest selling meat-free burgers are not on display in the vegan aisles, but rather right next to their meat equivalents, such is their target group. After all, it would be easier to persuade someone to try a vegan product that was similar to something they were already familiar with, like a burger, than with, say, pan-fried yartsa gunbu, with a sprinkling of quinoa and lightly chastized elderflower buds.

Personally, I don't have meat substitutes very often, but I'm pleased that they are available. It's nice to have the convenience of a tasty quarter-pounder in a roll, or as part of a meal, as in the photo at the top of this article. Because, to quote Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, I do love the taste of a good burger.

Vegan burger with gherkins  and relish in a home-baked bread roll

Vegan burger with gherkins and relish in a home-baked bread roll

Vegan Burgers That Don't Replicate Meat

Despite the availability of these realistic burgers, a market does exist for patties which, while not meat-like at all, still make a tasty, filling sandwich. There are vegans who find the texture of some burgers a little too authentic for their liking, so they avoid them. My local supermarket stocks a variety of vegetable-based burgers, one of which is made from beetroot, with a subtle hint of mint. I tried this recently, and it went very well in a large bread roll with salad, relish and pickle, and a side of fries.

Then, of course there is the daddy of them all, the vegan burger that predates all of those mentioned above: the homemade concoction. Packed with protein, usually from beans, and pressed into shapes that range from pancake to hockey puck, the homemade veggie burger may not have the authentic texture of some of those mentioned above, but we know every ingredient that goes into making one, and it’s all good. The possibilities are almost endless, but this video from Vegan But Lazy (formerly Anarchist Kitchen) shows how to put together a few variations.

Burger Preparation Playlist

Back in the day, a friend loaned me a clutch of new singles, among which was this oddity. It was unusual to say the least, yet it worked perfectly, and when it ended I played it again immediately to make sure my ears hadn't deceived me. Imagine how fresh this must have sounded when the whole punk and new wave scene was still relatively novel!