shake n bake

TikTok vegan chicken recipe: Why flour and water make ‘delicious’ fake meat

The science of shred shows there’s more to TikTok vegan chicken than meets the eye.

Giphy

It’s another viral TikTok food trend, and this time it’s coming for your chicken. Following the trail blazed by Dalgona coffee, cloud bread, hot cocoa bombs, and baked feta pasta, two-ingredient vegan “chicken” combines a relatively simple process with familiar ingredients to create something — ostensibly — better than the sum of its parts.

TikTok user @futurelettuce’s video garnered more than 10 million views. Here’s his nine-step recipe to make a “shredded” chicken-like dish that is totally vegan, despite its visual similarity to meat:

  1. Take a 1:2 ratio of water and flour and add them together in a metal bowl.
  2. Knead the mixture until stretchy, or into oblivion, whichever is faster.
  3. Rest the dough, covered with tin foil, for at least one hour.
  4. “Wash” the dough — essentially kneading it again in a bowl of water — until the water runs almost clear of starchy flour.
  5. Rest the dough again, for an hour.
  6. Pull and twist the dough into thick strands.
  7. Knot them together and braid into a knotted ball.
  8. Fry in a pan using vegetable oil to brown on both sides.
  9. Pour in vegetable stock and cook for 45 minutes at a lower heat covered with a pan lid.

The result is something uncannily meat-like in appearance. @futurelettuce digs a fork in, pulling pieces apart to reveal strands of wheat gluten which look just like shredded chicken.

The thing is, this food hack — really, a three-hour process — has been around for centuries. What @futurelettuce made is a version of a popular meat alternative called seitan, a history he acknowledges in a later video. History aside, modern food science and basic chemistry explain why this technique works so well to produce vegan meat at home.

Watch the full video here:

TikTok Vegan chicken: Texture

Texture is perhaps the most nuanced — and often overlooked — element of what makes a certain food appealing or disgusting, regardless of how much hot sauce you throw on it. And the fibrous, chewy texture of meat is not an easy one to replicate using items found in your pantry.

Raffael Osen, who worked at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, in Germany, told ACS Central Science mouthfeel may be the most difficult thing for any fake-meat maker to replicate well.

“Taste can be achieved, but texture, juiciness, and bite — this is difficult,” he said.

Shred.Screengrab via TikTok

As the video shows, by kneading flour and water together, one can form long thread-like strands of proteins called gliadin and glutenin which together form what we call gluten.

The more you knead, the more the strands develop and stretch. Taking an extra step to “wash” flour of all of its excess starch, as one can see the TikTokkers do at their sinks, will leave just these gluten strands. This is essentially what differentiates the vegan chicken from bread, which retains the starch. Rather, what the TiKTokkers make is essentially a homemade version of seitan, or what’s known in the food chemistry world as “texturized wheat gluten.” Delicious.

The word seitan derives from Japanese, but the meat substitute was present in Chinese cuisine as far back as 1301, according to some sources. It is possible ancient foodies went about creating a meat-like meal using flour and water in much the same way as the modern TikTok trend — by washing the dough of its starch to leave a stringy texture. In the industrial method used to make the wheat-based meat replacements you might buy at the grocery store today, manufacturers create a fibrous texture from wheat protein using a process called “extrusion,” in which a dough-like mixture referred to as “protein lava” (yes) is pushed through a mold.

An issue of a trade publication called “Cereal Foods World” from 1999 describes the process:

“The lava is discharged… without excessive water flash-off in order to avoid cell disruption. The result is a product that has a visible, oriented pattern of fiber arrangement that resembles meat fibers... hydration of the fibrous strands gives the laminated, fleshy appearance of texturized wheat gluten.”

Like the two-ingredient TikTok “chicken” in all its shredded glory, texturized wheat gluten looks and feels chewy, and it is shreddable, like real meat. It’s also very high in protein, and surprisingly low in carbohydrates, making it a candidate for meat replacement.

Alissa Nolden, a sensory scientist and assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tells Inverse the texture of meat imitation products can be tricky to get right — ground beef, for example, is very different from chicken thighs in texture.

“You have to have a texture, and you’re probably going to cut it first... does it have the same cutting capabilities?” she says.

“Chicken's very different. It's got all the fibers that go different than a burger, where it's ground.”

Whether it is seitan, textured wheat gluten, two-ingredient “chicken,” or some other variation on the theme, those stringy strands are key — but they also take a lot of effort to develop. In your home kitchen, that means a lot of washing, kneading, and twisting. So roll up your sleeves.

TikTok vegan chicken: Color and appearance

Aside from texture, the color of food also has a large effect on its palatability. In an anecdote recounted in a recent review published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, a group of diners were asked to eat a meal in very dim lighting. Everyone was happily tucking in until the lights brightened to reveal they had been eating blue-colored steak, green chips, and red peas. A number of the diners, disgusted, became suddenly sick.

No surprise then that the color of imitation meat products can be a top priority for food scientists. According to a 2015 article on the psychology of food flavoring published in the journal Flavour, people can have “strong avoidance responses” to food that looks the wrong color.

“Especially in the case of meats and fish that look off,” the paper’s authors write.

This makes sense. Color is often the first thing we notice about food and can determine whether or not we actually take a bite. After that, the texture and taste come into play, Nolden says.

Golden-fried, two-ingredient vegan chicken delight.Screengrab via TikTok

This works both ways. In some experiments, people perceive foods as tasting more flavorful based on the intensity of their color. Color changes our expectations about the food, and subsequently, the experience of eating the food itself. It’s no coincidence that the two-ingredient chicken — laden with seasoning, seared to a golden brown, fried for extra crisp, and then cooked in stock — looks almost as if it truly is chicken coated in a crispy brown skin.

What does the TikTok vegan chicken taste like?

Once you’ve gotten past the look and feel of a food, the taste is ultimately what determines whether or not you will ever eat it again. When it comes to buying food in a store, taste and price are the most important factors influencing a purchasing decision, according to one survey by the International Food Information Council.

According to Nolden, taste can be more about whether or not we dislike a food than enjoy it.

“After you consume it, what will lead to rejection? [That’s] another way to think about it... So if a product had all of the taste and flavor there, but didn't have the texture, would that still be acceptable?” Nolden says.

Luckily, if you’re making your own seitan-like dough concoction to replace meat, then you don’t need to rely on a company correctly guessing what you want your fake chicken to taste like. You can make it taste however you want (within limits, of course). TikTok’s vegan chicken is infinitely customizable. But a quick watch of a few of these videos reveals that the general consensus is that the dough itself is bland, but if you add seasoning or other flavors, it will take them on. In that way, the intrepid TikTokkers have a lot of advice when it comes to flavoring.

For their part, the user who started it all — @futurelettuce — adds in sage, garlic, salt, and pepper. Another TikTok user who uses the handle @rawmanda opts for poultry seasoning, the all-in-one flavor booster.

And you can go further still. User @futurelettuce has a video demonstrating how to make buffalo wings with “bones” made out of pasta. That is some true commitment to the vegan chicken TikTok game.

If all else fails — there’s always hot sauce.

Share: