The nugget aisle at the grocery store – already packed full of varieties, from dinosaur-shaped to sauce-slicked – gets a plant-based addition as Impossible Chicken Nuggets hits frozen-food cases this month. Starting this week, the new product from the company behind the faux-beef Impossible Burger also will be available to restaurants – and a handful of celebrity chefs have designed menu items featuring the soy nuggets for its debut.
“Impossible Nuggies” are on the menu of David Chang’s trendy Fuku in New York alongside the chain’s signature fried chicken sandwiches, where they’re paired with two sauces and waffle fries. At Sean Brock’s Joyland in Nashville, Tenn., they’re served with pimento macaroni and cheese and a peach-infused sauce. Others incorporating the faux birds include Tal Ronnen at Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles and Traci Des Jardins at a pop-up called El Alto Jr., at the new State Street Market in Los Altos, Calif.
Retailers carrying the product will include Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, ShopRite, Giant Stores and Gelson’s, the company said. Laura Kliman, who leads product development for Impossible Foods, said in an interview that the nuggets sold to consumers differ slightly from those that are used by restaurants, which are typically using deep fryers to prepare them. But both, she said, rely on the company’s understanding of how flavors develop to mimic the taste of chicken.
“You look at the attributes that are the most important – people want that golden appearance, so the color had to be right,” said Kliman, who spent about a year leading the team developing the nuggets. “You want them very crispy and crunchy. And then there’s the savory, juicy, mild chicken flavor.”
Of course, faux versions of meat products have been around for decades. Multiple varieties of plant-based nuggets are already available. But the high-tech tinkering used by Impossible Foods and other makers of vegan meat alternatives, including Beyond Meat, is an attempt to make the replicas all the more realistic in hopes of making alt-meats appealing to the masses.
The category is intended to reduce the harm to the planet caused by factory farming, and it also purports to offer a better nutritional proposition, although some dietitians call the latter differences a toss-up. Fast food companies have entered the game: McDonald’s is developing the “McPlant” with Beyond Meat, and Burger King carries an Impossible Whopper.
Impossible recently followed up its popular burgers with ground pork sausage. Nuggets, Kliman said, were slightly different from anything the company had done before, but her team was attracted to the category simply because so many consumers are, too. Chicken, she noted, is the most popular meat in the United States. Getting the iconic childhood staple right presented challenges. “The most novel part was developing the coating and breading, getting that really perfect crunchy exterior,” she said.
The nuggets don’t contain heme, the ingredient derived from genetically modified yeast that the company has famously used to make its burgers “bleed” like beef. But otherwise, Kliman said, it employed a strategy similar to its approach with its original product using plant-derived “flavor precursors” that develop while cooking, just as in real meat.
The company says 7 in 10 customers preferred the Impossible nuggets over a leading brand’s real chicken nuggets in a blind taste test involving 201 tasters. We put it to a smaller-scale test. What would be the verdict of two slightly hangry food journalists (that would be me and my colleague, Olga Massov) after a day of work and one 6½-year-old (Olga’s son, Avi)?
We fired up our respective ovens and prepared the nuggets according to the simple directions: Preheat to 375 degrees, cook for 11 minutes. Over Zoom, we compared notes. “It does taste like chicken,” Olga marveled as she nibbled thoughtfully. I examined the dupe for your standard frozen nugget. The color was appealingly golden brown, and the texture of the breading was nice and nubby. Upon tasting it, I agreed: The flavor was indeed savory and chicken-like.
“I don’t mind this,” I said. That’s a higher compliment than it might seem – I don’t often eat nuggets and prefer less-processed strips or tenders over the mushed-up texture of a nugget. But I wouldn’t turn my nose up at these toasty chunks even if they did share the slightly pasty interior as the chicken versions that inspired them.
Avi, on the other hand, is a connoisseur who enjoys chicken and plant-based versions, and so his opinion seemed more important. We got him to pause for a few bites, and he, too, was impressed. What did he like? “The outside!” What were his impressions? “I like it with ketchup!” Did he prefer these or real nuggets? “These! With ketchup!”
I imagined other uses for them – as a crunchy element in a chopped salad, maybe, or tucked into a tortilla with tangy slaw. But their utility seemed best suited to the way I was consuming them right then – with no idea what or when dinner would be served directly from the oven to a plate. And following Avi’s tasting notes, generously globbed with ketchup.
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