Vegetarian Chicken – How is it made?

Have a guess at what’s on the photo above this post. Looks like chicken with rice to you? It is chicken, but, there’s a loophole here, it’s vegetarian chicken…

Most of us know: we should eat less meat. Whereas I don’t have any problems eating vegetarian regularly, not everyone in our household thinks the same. So besides the regular veggie meals in which we simply don’t eat meat (nor a meat replacer). We try out meat replacers once in a while. Thus we tried out this vegetarian chicken.

Vegetarian chicken, is that still chicken? No, it’s not chicken, but several of the vegetarian chickens nowadays actually really taste like and look like chicken. How can you make this vegetarian chicken without chicken though? The structure of chicken meat is quite complex and if you don’t have the animal to make it, how would you?

De Vegetarische Slager

The vegetarian chicken brand I you see on the photo above is made by ‘De Vegetarische Slager’. This is a Dutch company founded by a farmer who decided to go vegetarian but missed his meat too much. Instead of turning back to eating meat, he decided to develop vegetarian meat. He wanted to create the meat experience with its bite and taste, without requiring the animals.

I remember going to their first shop in The Hague more than 5 years ago, being inspired by what they had done at the time. Since then this brand has grown a lot. It started in one shop, but is now sold in more than 10 countries and several Dutch supermarkets have started selling it. They don’t only make vegetarian chicken, also other meat replacers, one of which is a meat ball. In a butcher’s competition this ‘meat ball’ without meat actually won a third place! In other words, these people know what they’re doing.

But they aren’t the only ones. Nowadays there are a lot of producers of vegetarian chicken. All making vegetarian chicken, so how is it done?

What is vegetarian chicken made of?

Since meat contains a lot of protein, a replacer for the protein has to be found when making a chicken substitute. A quick look at the products in the supermarket showed that most of them are made with soy (protein) as their base.

Soy is a common source of vegetable protein. Soy beans grow on plants and are known for their high protein contents. That makes up for the protein content of the vegetarian chicken. However, since soy is a vegetable, and not meat, it has a completely different structure. We want the bite of the meat. So how can we give the plant protein, in this case soy a meaty feel?

The structure of meat

One of the things that makes eating meat so special is the structure of meat. Meat essentially is the muscle of an animal. That muscle had to be able to contract and move bodyparts while the animal was still alive. For it to do that it requires muscle fibers. These fibers can extend or contract depending on the required movement of the animal.

When eating meat these fibers give the meat the bite you’re looking for and the chewiness. However, it’s not only the muscle structure that is important. Other ‘ingredients’ such as fat and even bones contribute a lot of flavour. It’s these combinations of factors that makes for a slow cooked beef, as well as quickly seared steak, a chicken thigh skewer or a pork sausage.

Vegetarian Chicken, uncooked from the Vegetarische Slager
Uncooked the chicken doesn’t look like raw chicken, but honestly, it does resemble boiled chicken quite well.

Faking meat

Finding a good meat alternative that still looks and tastes like meat is an on-going challenge. Besides the vegetarian chicken made from soy that I ate, there is research going on in various other directions. There is not one way in which vegetarian chicken and the likes are made. To list just a few.

Cultured meat

One of the most fascinating ones I’ve been following is that of cultured meat by Maastricht University. At this university they are trying to grow muscle cells and in this way meat, without the animal. They focus on beef. Some of the ingredients are harvested from living animals, but the main growing process is actually done in the lab. Their vision of the future is fascinating!

Quorn

Another common technique is that of Quorn (in the Netherlands that is). Quorn is a company that makes meat substitutes using mycoprotein. This mycoprotein is made by fungi. They produce long strands of protein which have a texture somewhat similar to meat. Read more on the BBC and Quorn websites. They make a vegetarian ‘meat’ but is generally not marketed as ‘vegetarian chicken’.

Soy-based products

And that brings us closer and closer to the vegetarian chicken: soy substitutes. By far most of the meat replacers I’ve seen are made with soya as the main ingredient. It is used by an American based company Beyond Meat (reviewed by the MIT Technology Review). As well as de Vegetarische Slager who we discussed earlier.

However, as we mentioned, soy doesn’t just form into a texture similar to that of meat! There are a lot of technologies being used and investigated to modify the soy in such a way that it will have this meaty like texture.

Extrusion

A commonly mentioned process for making vegetarian meat with soy is by using an extruder. An extruder essentially is a very large screw inside a chamber. This screw mixes the ingredients and pushes them through a nozzle at the end of the extruder. The high pressure, temperatures and kneading/shearing actions in the extruder can make pasty consistencies. This material can then be cut into the required piece size.

Shear cell technology

This technology, presented in the autumn of 2015, has been developed by a Dutch University (Wageningen University). Instead of using extruders (which generally consume a lot of energy), this technology claims to be a lot less energy intensive.

In order to make meat, researchers discovered that the proteins have to be aligned for them to form a fibery structure. They found out that by using shear in one continuous direction will align the proteins in such a way that they form this structure. By heating the proteins this directional alignment is fixated, they won’t move into another position anymore.

For the Dutch readers (I couldn’t find an English version), here and here are two reports discussing the technology in a lot more detail.

As far as I know the technology has been presented in 2015 and isn’t yet applied on a commercial scale yet. But who knows, a company like the Vegetarische Slager might already be using it for the kipstuckjes I ate.

Vegetarian chicken used in fried rice

My Kipstuckjes

So, there I was, with my vegetarian chicken, probably made using some sort of extrusion process with a lot of soy. But that’s just part of the question. Most interesting, how did they taste? Well, surprisingly good! I heated some satay sauce (which I tend to eat with my chicken and rice) and dipped the veggie chicken in. It might have lacked a little flavour if baked just so, but with some spices or sauce (as you would normally prepre your chicken as well) it tasted good! I wouldn’t hesitate using it more often. But then, I could also make that same dish without any meat and replacer and it would probably taste good.

That said, if a meat lover comes over I doubt whether they’d dare to ask whether it’s real chicken or vegetarian chicken…

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