I Tried Making 2-Ingredient Vegetarian “Chicken” and Here’s What Happened

published Feb 26, 2021
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All of my favorite foods begin with water and flour: bread, pasta, and the myriad offshoots from those. So, when a TikTok video on how to make “chicken” from just those two basic ingredients came through my feed, I watched, fascinated. I am, at best, an enthusiastic chicken-eater. The truth is, I’ve never loved the flavor or texture of chicken, and the ethics behind the industry concern me, but its omnipresence means I still do eat it from time to time, and often wish for a better substitute when cooking — thus, my draw to the “two-ingredient chicken replacement” video.

Reading the comments on the video, someone pointed out this does actually have another name: seitan. Occasionally, my former hippie parents brought home holdovers from their Haight-Ashbury days, introducing my brothers and me to the joys of foods like carob and tempeh, so in my fuzzy memories of seitan, it was just another rubbery brown thing my mom pulled from the fridge that I didn’t particularly enjoy as a kid.

In, perhaps, an effort to forget that version, my brain rarely acknowledges it’s the same things as what’s often called wheat gluten on Chinese restaurant menus, where it appears as a delightfully chewy, spongy protein that’s great at soaking up flavorful sauces.

Still, I knew nothing of how it was made and didn’t even realize the simplicity until I watched the TikTok video and immediately wanted to give it a try. I figured the ingredients are simple enough — there’s no harm in trying. As someone who tests TikTok trend videos often, I should have known these are famous last words.

Credit: Naomi Tomky

I Tried the Two-Ingredient Vegetarian “Chicken” Substitute

Although the video I followed gave no measurements, I work with flour and water a fair amount and did some estimating, kneading together about 1 1/2 cups of flour with a half-cup of water. It took eight minutes of punching and pulling until my dough ball looked smooth like the one on TikTok, and I put it aside to rest. In an hour, I returned and did the second knead, underwater, as shown. In a quick four minutes, my water ran clear-ish and the texture again seemed to match. I started to get a little excited. I kneaded in the same seasonings — salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic powder, adding a little MSG for good measure.

Things went south after that. When I came back after another hour, my blob didn’t twist up nicely like it did in the video, and instead of a smooth knot, it flopped into a shaggy pile. I began to panic. I could see those twists formed the structure needed to become shreddable and chicken-like, but no matter what I did, my sticky, ugly mess remained a lifeless lump.

I decided to forge forward anyway, dumping it into the frying pan and browning both sides. When I added the stock, though, I forgot to consider that I was adding cold liquid to the hot pan and it raged up in a furor, splashing all over me, staining my shirt with tiny speckles and leaving a dime-sized burn on my hand.

As it simmered, at least one family member was completely convinced I was cooking actual meat, as the dog made exceedingly clear with his actions. Sure enough, when it finished, it looked and smelled a lot like a seared piece of chicken breast. But when I dug in with two forks to shred, reality crashed down. A few pieces tore off in chunks. I tasted one. It was fine — certainly not a dead ringer for chicken, but an innocuous snack, for sure. I put it away in the fridge in the hopes that, as the video mentioned, it would get better the next day.

It did not.

I gave up on shredding and sliced it thinly and marinated it in a cornstarch slurry and soy sauce to stir-fry with cabbage for dinner. It wasn’t chicken, but with enough oyster sauce, garlic, and Shaoxing wine, I’d probably eat cardboard. And while it didn’t improve the dish, it certainly didn’t detract from it, either. My husband held it up in his chopsticks and raised an eyebrow. “Chicken?” he asked. I shrugged. “Ish?”

The Verdict

I suspect the issues I had were with the recipe itself, as I dove into more research afterward and found any number of more complete recipes that deviated from the version I followed. I am thrilled to have learned that seitan is so simple to make and thankful for the TikTok video for teaching me that. But next time I try making it, I plan to find a more thorough and tested recipe.

Try a recipe: Hand Washed Shreddable Seitan from James Strange