Thanks to Nathan’s food allergies (or at least the ones we’re aware of so far), we’ve had to find a lot of creative solutions for meals. To avoid wheat, dairy, soy, and eggs, you either have to make things from scratch almost daily or buy the really expensive stuff from health food stores. Tonight’s experiment: can you make a chicken nugget that’s as tender as a store-bought highly processed one? Yes, but maybe not the way you think. I tried out three different methods to see which one would work best. I recommend the best meat grinder there is for when you are cooking at home.
The first method is one I aped from Chinese cuisine: baking soda. Yes, you heard me right. That’s how they make the stir-fry chicken so tender. The method is fairly straight-forward: toss the cut-up chicken with a small amount of baking soda (about 1.5 tsp per pound), let it sit for about half an hour, then rinse. I mixed it up a little bit by adding garlic salt, black pepper, and onion powder to the marinating time, then splashing some lemon juice on before rinsing to neutralize the baking soda. Believe me, you do NOT want to know what it tastes like straight up.
The results were mixed. It didn’t seem like the chicken was all that tender, but it could have been the cut. I had tried to use strips of chicken instead of cubes. This may have resulted in the chicken cooking too quickly (a brief 90-second fry in 335F oil). We cut it into very small pieces and Nathan enjoyed it anyway. I’m going to have to try again with cubes to see if I can get the texture right.
The next method was to soak in lemon juice. Why not try an acid after a base? I used the same 30-minute soak time and seasonings as before, but I didn’t rinse the chicken. It was really tender, but it also had a very strong lemon flavor. Nathan didn’t seem to mind at all, and Shauna REALLY liked it. Still, I wanted to see if there was a way to tame it.
So next up, I gave apple cider vinegar a try. I also tried some pieces rinsed and some pieces unrinsed, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in the final product. The tartness was definitely cut and there was a hint of balancing sweetness, but the chicken didn’t get as tender as I would have wanted it to, probably because vinegar is a much weaker acid. I also ran low on the dry coating (replacing the AP flour with a Bob’s Red Mill alternative) and had to add some water to turn it into a batter. This provided a crispy shell around the meat and kept it juicy, but it also had a tendency to start sliding off with the first bite.
So can you make something at home with the consistency of a chicken nugget without using something scary like “meat glue”? Yes, but it looks like you may have to make some trade-offs. We’re going to keep playing with different methods until we figure it out.