Dallas taste-off: Vegan chicken tenders and nuggets in the supermarket
Chicken nuggets are one of the most innocuous, nondescript foodstuffs ever invented. But with at least two generations having grown up on this "kids meal" staple, we now have 80 million locations of Raising Cane's, Zaxby's, and Chick Fil-A where it's not just kids but also full-grown adults recreating the meal they grew up with.
The problem with nuggets, aka tenders, aka fingers, is the processing of chicken. It's bad for the animals, bad for workers, it's wasteful by the industry's own account, and bad for the environment, with negative effects on water quality, climate change, and natural habitat.
Since chicken nuggets are inherently bland (even designed to be so), they're the perfect food to veganize. Vegan chicken on restaurant menus has been forecast as the No. 3 food trend for 2022.
It's not like anyone would be missing out on a fantastic flavor experience. Tenders are mostly about texture: crunchy crust with a moist, tender though-slightly-"meaty" inside.
In the past year, major companies have turned their focus to vegan chicken nuggets, and they're all now available in stores around Dallas. This can mean only one thing: TASTEOFF.
Here's our taste test on the 5 hottest vegan chicken nuggets, ranked from 1 to 5. (They're listed below not by ranking, but in order of the nuggets in the photo above.) Each entry has the product, price, key ingredients, a summary of the manufacturer, a summary of the nugget, and a ranking on how it tastes.
On to the nuggets:
Fry's Chick'n Nuggets
10.8-oz box with 12 nuggets, $5 at Sprouts. Ingredients: soy, wheat
What: Fry's rectangular shape was the most similar to actual chicken (along with the Gardein), and afforded two bites per nugget. Crust was pale, with a shaggy, almost like panko crumb-like crust. The inside was flaked, not fibrous, neither dry nor overly moist.
How good: 3. Flavor was good, almost like chicken matzo ball soup, with a little buttery flavor thrown in. The crust and the inside were both about the same degree of good. Like a real tender, these were likable for their nondescriptness.
Beyond Chicken Tenders
8-oz bag with 6 tenders, $5 at Walmart. Ingredients: fava beans
Who: Buzzy faux-meat company known for its Beyond Beef and Beyond Sausage just introduced these tenders, made from "faba" (fava) beans, which have become a cause celebre in the international plant-based world.
What: These being tenders, they were almost twice the size of others, which makes it an unfair comparison. They had an elongated teardrop shape with a light crust, and a higher ratio of inside to crust than the rest.
How good: 4. The texture was juicy and meaty, with a pronounced flavor of thyme, strongly summoning the taste of turkey stuffing. Predictably, these were less crusty, which is one of the things you like about a tender. However, they'd be great in a sandwich, two on a bun with some toppings, maybe a spoonful of cranberry sauce.
Gardein Ultimate Chick'n Nuggets
14.7-oz bag, with 25 nuggets, $7 at Whole Foods. Ingredients: wheat, soy, and pea
Who: Old-school vegan pioneer founded in Canada in 2003 introduced their nuggets well ahead of the curve in 2019. They also have tenders and filets for sandwiches.
What: Bite-size nuggets, almost like popcorn chicken, with a light crust and a relately fibrous interior.
How good: 2. These nuggets get their 2 for being most convincing, in terms of texture: more fibrous and therefore more chicken-like than the others. This may have to do with the fact that it's a rounded, single-bite-size nugget versus the longer disc shape most of the other nuggets embody. They had a mild chicken flavor, and even though these ranked higher, I'd probably still get the Fry's or the Simulate before getting these again.
Who: Simulate is a fun and irreverent company (on their website, they say that plant-based nuggs "kill you slower" than eating animals) with vivid packaging that shows a hand feeding a nugget to a chicken.
What: Realistic-ish rectangular shape was similar to the Fry's, but the color was a lot more golden. The texture of the "chicken" was more "diced" than fibrous, but that is not criticism. It made real chicken seem kind of gross by comparison.
How good: 5. The best part was the good crunch of the golden crust, although there was nothing wrong with the flavor, other than it was subtle. The fact that these came in "last" of the five and were still perfectly good and convincing tells you how easy it is to succeed in this category. These also come in a spicy variety, and that may be the way to go.
Who: Faux-meat powerhouse known for its persuasive burger, so lifelike it "bleeds" just like real beef, now turns its sights to chicken.
What: Golden round tenders with a thin, lightly crunchy crust enclosing a tender white-meat-style interior.
How good: 1. These were definitely the most memorable of the five. They were almost symmetrically round, and in that respect most convincing as a chicken tender — which does not mean "most like chicken." They won on texture, with their contrast between delicate but crunchy outside and the plump, juicy inside. They tasted super-chicken-y — but as if they were flavored with chicken bouillon, and it hit hard from the smell and knocked it out with the first bite.