Monday, July 30, 2012

Meatless Monday: What Makes a Cheese “Vegetarian”

While researching Burrata for last week’s post, I learned quite a bit about rennet and discovered a few resources to help those aspiring to go truly “meatless” on Mondays to meet their goal.

Rennet in some form is an essential component in the process of making any kind of cheese that can be sliced. Rennet is a coagulant, added to the vat of milk at the start of the cheese-making process, causing the milk to thicken so it can be separated into curds and whey. Rennet contains the enzyme chymosin, traditionally sourced from the abomasum (fourth stomach) of newly-born calves. Chymosin aids the calf in its digestion and absorption of milk; adult cows do not have this enzyme. 

It is widely speculated that the production of the first cheese was, in fact, an accident. The first cheese may have been produced when our ancestors stored milk in a bag made from the stomach of a young cow. The milk would have curdled. The discovery that the curds could be dried and salted led to the creation of a new food, cheese, which could be stored for a much longer period of time than milk could be. 

Today, however, calves are not the only source of the enzyme required for making cheese. There is indeed such a thing as “vegetarian cheese.” A fact sheet from the Vegetarian Society goes into great detail about how alternative rennets (some from bacteria, others from fungi) are manufactured. Research into production of rennet from fungi was apparently spurred on by a prediction made in the 1960s by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that there would be a shortage of calf rennet due to an increased demand for meat. [Chymosin would be absent in calves slaughtered at an older age.] A number of substitutes for chymosin were developed, and today much of the cheese produced is made using non-traditional rennet.

If you love Parmigiano-Reggiano, however, you may be saddened to learn that one of the characteristics required for a cheese to earn this label is that it be made in a fashion unchanged since the process was mastered in the 11th century, which means with rennet obtained from veal calves. Gorgonzola is another such cheese.

If, however, Cheddar, or Jack is what you crave, vegetarian cheese is easy to find. Cabot Creamery Cooperative is one of the regional producers offering a wide array of vegetarian options. The Cabot FAQ page states that Cabot uses “a microbial-based enzyme…approved for vegetarians [which]…also allows our cheeses to pass kosher certification. The one exception in the Cabot product line is Processed American Cheese Slices which are sourced from plants that Cabot does not own. Look for the phrase “Contains no animal rennet” on the ingredients panel if this issue matters to you.

For more Cheese FAQs, check out this page from the California Milk Advisory Board. 

Happy Monday. I hope I haven’t ruined your day. Thanks for reading. 

I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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