Every time I post a photo of a tofu recipe on Instagram, my DMs are flooded with “how’d you get it so crispy?!” It seems the tofu texture so many people crave is also the most elusive.
My answer is usually one of three things: I tore it instead of slicing it, I froze it and then defrosted it, or I battered and fried it. And then it hit me: if I applied all three techniques to the same block of tofu, I would have the crispiest, craggiest, crunchiest tofu imaginable. And so I did just that—and vegan chicken nuggets were born.
These protein-packed nuggets are super-savory, ultra-crunchy, and just as satisfying as the fast food favorite. Looks-wise, they could fool Ronald McDonald himself; they’re shaped, seasoned, and fried to mimic the real deal. Enjoy them on game day, serve with dips for dinner, or freeze a big batch to fry up as a late-night snack.
The Best Tofu for Nuggets (and How to Prepare It)
Extra-firm tofu, which is sturdy enough to batter and fry, is the best choice for these nuggets. To infuse it with flavor, I take the extra step of freezing and thawing it. The ice crystals that form in the freezer turn into small holes when thawed, making the tofu more porous and ready to absorb the marinade. This process also gives the tofu a chewier, meatier texture.
The day before you’re planning to cook, drain a pack of tofu, pat it dry, and tear it into pieces. Tearing gives you irregular, nugget-shaped pieces, an uneven surface for the marinade to cling to, and ragged edges that get extra crispy when fried. Freeze the pieces, thaw in the fridge overnight, then squeeze out any excess moisture.
If you already have a block of tofu in your freezer, simply thaw and then tear.
Creating a Textured, Nugget-Like Breading
Two smart steps will help you achieve the craggy crust synonymous with chicken nuggets:
- Add nutritional yeast to the flour mixture. Its light and flaky consistency is perfect for breading and its savory, cheesy flavor is also a big win.
- Stir a tablespoon of the vegan buttermilk into the breading. This creates extra texture in the form of small clumps which will cling to the tofu, making them especially crispy.
How to Make Vegan Chicken Nuggets in the Air Fryer
Preheat your air fryer to 400°F for 5 minutes, ensuring it’s nice and hot when the nuggets go in. Shake off as much flour from the nuggets as you can, then coat all sides with nonstick cooking spray.
Cook in a single layer, flipping halfway through, until crispy and golden-brown, about 12 minutes total. You may need to work in batches depending on the size of your air fryer.
The Best Dipping Sauces
No nugget is complete with a side of sauce. Here are a few of our favorites (substitute vegan mayo where necessary):
- Copycat Smash Sauce
- Creamy Mustard Sauce
- Red Pepper Aioli
- Homemade Ketchup (use brown sugar in place of honey)
Tear the tofu into pieces:
Blot the tofu dry with paper towels, then use your hands to break it into quarters. Split each quarter in half (revealing the center of the block), then tear in half the other way, creating 16 evenly-sized pieces.
Freeze the tofu:
Place the tofu pieces in a single layer on a small parchment-lined baking sheet or dinner plate (whatever will fit in your freezer). Freeze until frozen solid, at least 4 hours.
The tofu will turn yellow-ish; this is okay! If freezing for longer, transfer the pieces to a ziptop bag for up to 4 months.
Thaw the tofu:
Transfer the tofu pieces to the refrigerator to thaw overnight. If they’re still frozen when you’re ready to start cooking, defrost them in the microwave at 50 percent power, flipping every minute.
Press the tofu:
Set aside the parchment-lined baking sheet. Sandwich the tofu between several layers of paper towels and press with your hands to release any excess moisture. Continue this process until very little moisture transfers to the towels.
Make the spice blend:
Place the salt, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Whisk with a fork to combine and set aside.
Marinate the tofu:
Whisk together the soy milk, Dijon mustard, vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of the spice blend in a medium bowl.
Add the thawed tofu to the marinade, tossing to coat. Using the back of a spoon, press down on the pieces until mostly submerged. Let sit at room temperature, stirring halfway, for at least for 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
Make the flour mixture:
While the nuggets are marinating, whisk the flour, nutritional yeast, and cayenne pepper (if using) into the bowl with the remaining spice blend. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the marinade to create small clumps throughout the mixture.
Dredge the nuggets:
Remove the nuggets from the marinade, giving them one final dunk and then letting any excess drip off. Dip them, one at a time, in the flour mixture until all sides are coated. Shake off any excess, then place on the reserved baking sheet.
Fry the nuggets:
Pour enough oil into a large, heavy-bottomed skillet so that it comes up the sides at least 1/2 inch. Heat over medium-high until shimmering and a pinch of flour sizzles when you drop it into the pan.
Use tongs to carefully transfer half of the nuggets to the oil in a single layer. Cook, flipping the tofu halfway through and turning onto its side if needed, until all 4 sides are crispy and golden-brown, 4 to 6 minutes total. Reduce the heat if the oil gets too hot.
Repeat with the remaining nuggets, adding oil to the pan and letting it come back up to temperature between batches (if needed).
Drain and serve:
Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt, if desired. Serve immediately.
Vegan chicken nuggets are best served warm, but leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Reheat in a 400°F oven (or air fryer) for 5 minutes.
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