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Mycoprotein: Getting the “chicken” without the bird

You used to call it a veggie burger. Not bad, if you were looking to dodge a few saturated fats. A little like the “soy burgers” they served in the school cafeteria back in the day.  Today, non-meat burgers have found their way onto mainstream burger QSR menus, which suddenly makes fake meat a big deal.

Ah, you say, thinking about the still-raging chicken sandwich wars. What about poultry-less “chicken?”

If you follow the alt-protein space at all, you’ve probably heard of something called mycoprotein. It was first used as a meat substitute in pot pies back in the 1980s by a UK company called Quorn. Today it is the number one alternative meat source in supermarkets for everything from chicken nuggets to Salisbury steak.

Mycoprotein is actually a naturally occurring nutritious fungus that Quorn ferments into a protein-rich food with a neutral taste and, particularly, the texture of cooked chicken. This makes it a better alternative than soy or other plant-based proteins because it grows in strands and layers to begin with. The fermented mycoprotein is frozen in bulk to compress the strands then flavored to give it the firm authentic texture. At that point it is made into a variety of products like nuggets, tenders, boneless wings and “chicken-breast” patties for sandwiches.

Are they any good? Most people who’ve tried them either think so or can’t tell the difference. But it’s one thing to appeal to the mostly female, coast dwellers with above average incomes that make up Quorn’s primary market in the U.S. Going after the wing-munching, beer-drinking, sports-consuming middle-aged male would be something else entirely. In January 2020, Hooters rolled out a limited-time-only item called Unreal Wings nationwide. It was a bold move that illustrates the incentive for large chain menus to offer a serious alt-protein choice besides salad: Overcome the “no vote” represented by the one vegetarian in the group, and you get everyone’s business.

Burger King did it with the Impossible Whopper. Hooters did it with Unreal Wings. KFC is testing its Zero Chicken Burger in select global markets. Quorn’s mycoprotein-based chicken is non-GMO, which makes it an interesting alternative to the Impossible Foods burger, which is very GMO. Just because they are meatless does not make the finished menu item vegan or vegetarian. KFC’s Zero Chicken burger, for example, is fried in the same vats as real chicken. It also comes with cheese and mayo made from eggs. It seems as if the true appeal, for the moment, is to the flexitarian simply looking to reduce meat consumption without giving up taste or the idea of eating a meat sandwich.

Like its bona fide flesh counterpart, the mycoprotein chicken alternative is naturally neutral in taste and adapts easily to Mediterranean, Asian, or BBQ added seasonings and flavors. Products also come in a variety of breading styles, so you can offer that birdless chicken sandwich extra crispy or soft and Southern with a pickle.

Quorn “chicken” products are extremely easy to handle and cook. Naked, you can grill the fillets or 4 oz patties in the combi oven for an awesome meatless sandwich, wrap or salad topper. You fry them just like real chicken, in the same equipment and same oil but with slightly faster cook times. Most mycoprotein products come freezer-to-fryer, which makes them ideal for low-oil-capacity fryers. They absorb less frying oil, so the finished product is also less greasy. To top it off, mycoprotein holds long and travels well, making meatless chicken tenders and wings the ideal vegetarian finger food for virtual kitchens and delivery-only menus. This may be the essential point: If there are 15 people watching the big game at someone’s house, and they know you can order a dozen meatless Teriyaki wings to go with four dozen real ones, you win.

We were so excited to cook up some yummy Quorn products at the NAFEM show this year. But just because we can’t do it in person doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it together! Click here to watch Chef Ben and I prepare Amazing Vegan Bites and all the other delicious recipes we had prepared for NAFEM. Who knows, it might inspire your next hit menu item!