Simulate Wings aren't ready for take-off

Chicken is the most consumed meat in America. Could these plant-based wings replace the billions of meat-based wings eaten last year?

Simulate Wings aren't ready for take-off
Simulate Wings ready for the oven.

Chicken is the most consumed meat in America. We kill somewhere between 8 and 9 billion chickens every year to make breasts, patties, wings, nuggets, legs, thighs, and whatever else you can imagine. While a lot of the hype around plant-based meats has been around beef replacements like the Beyond and Impossible burgers, convincing people to switch to a plant-based chicken replacement would have a much bigger impact on the average American’s meat consumption.

Most companies making plant-based chicken have focused on products like nuggets or tenders. In fact, that’s the next frontier for Beyond—they launched a plant-based nugget with KFC that I tried on my vegan fast food tour a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, it was the low point of my journey. KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken was dense, chewy, bland, and unpleasant. The best part was the breading—seasoned with the colonel’s 11 herbs and spices—but the overall bite was disgusting.

It’s disappointing to see a failure in taste happen on such a large scale, especially since lots of other companies make good fake chicken nuggets. My personal favorite has been Simulate’s Nuggs. First released in 2019, Nuggs almost perfectly emulate a good fast food chicken nugget. You might’ve seen their ads on Instagram. Unlike other companies that market their fresh ingredients and unprocessed foods, Simulate touts their lab-created recipe as a feature, not a bug. Leaning into the language of tech start-ups, Simulate’s recipe updates are “releases”—we’re on Nuggs 2.0—and their free shipping is a “fast download.” Simulate is tongue-in-cheek about the supposed health benefits of plant-based meats, too—Nuggs will “kill you slower” than meat-based nuggets.

Simulate has also used the Nuggs recipe for Spicy Nuggs, Dino Nuggs, and Discs, a plant-based chicken patty that is a large circular nugget. Back when it was just Nuggs, Simulate had hinted at completely new product lines, namely plant-based hot dogs called Doggs. But as they expanded, Simulate seemed content to ride off the success of the Nuggs recipe.

That all changed in February when Simulate dropped a limited release of their latest product, Wings. Teased over the course of a few days on their social media, it was initially unclear how different Wings would be from Nuggs. Surely, it would be a boneless wing, right? Would it just be the same Nuggs recipe in a new wrapper? And, most importantly, would they be good?

I emailed the Simulate press line and tried to score a free box for review, to no success, but luckily my fiancée and I were both able to snag a box through more conventional means (retail transaction).

Like Nuggs, Wings come frozen, and take roughly 10 minutes to heat up. Take a bite and you’ll realize that the similarities stop there. Instead of a crispy breaded outer layer, the fake Wing meat is coated in a buffalo batter. While the coating has a decent taste—you do get some heat from it, though mostly in the aftertaste—it doesn’t really emulate the sauciness of a fresh chicken wing.

A plate of various nugget-like chicken wings, with a bottle of BBQ sauce behind them.
Simulate Wings, fresh out of the oven.

And while Wings are boneless, Simulate has tried to simulate wing meat, as opposed to the breast meat that makes up your typical boneless wing. It does this by building the Wing out of thin layers of plant-based meat. Depending on the Wing you get, the meat does actually pull away in a strip, kind of like a real chicken wing. But this really only works on the largest Wings in the box. And unfortunately, the Wings are wildly inconsistent in size. Most of the box was full of small, bite-sized balls that were more batter than meat. Sometimes, it seemed like the layers had actually fused together, creating a dense, chewy bite.

To me, Wings aren’t quite ready for take-off, but I think Simulate knows that. In the comments of an Instagram post announcing their next product, Tenders (which they insist are not just “long Nuggs”), Simulate says that Wings are being reformulated based on consumer feedback before a wide release. I have faith that Simulate will make a better Wings 1.1–the tinkering and tweaking that they did for Nuggs have led to a tried and true recipe that has morphed into multiple SKUs.

Last year, Americans ate 1.4 billion chicken wings during the Super Bowl alone. If Simulate and other companies can make a dent in that number with good, plant-based wing options, it will save a lot of avian lives, and kill some Americans slower too.