Alexandra

Alexandra

Contributor

Every month on Kitchen Stories, we’ll be putting our food knowledge under the microscope to find out if what we think we know is really true. Have a food-related case that you want cracked open? Leave a comment underneath the article!

The heart of a vegetarian is made of cheese–at least that’s what we imagine. Either way, certainly cheese plays an integral part in the diet of many vegetarians. So, when the vegetarian option at restaurant is (as it is more often than not) a pasta dish, like Fettuccine Alfredo or pasta with gorgonzola, should you say no to the tableside shaving of freshly grated parmesan? The answer, unfortunately, is probably.

Not all cheese is vegetarian. Yes, you’ve read correctly. Although most cheese seems like it should be just fine and quite appropriate for vegetarian diets, there is this one essential ingredient that can make all the difference. We'll tell you what it is and how to look out for it when buying cheese.

How is cheese made?

Let’s cover the basic truth before we get too much into the details. The core pillar to nearly all cheesemaking requires two things: milk and a coagulant, which is often something called rennet.

Rennet alters the milk’s protein molecules and causes it to curdle–separating the milk into curds and whey. Some soft cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, and queso blanco don’t need to use rennet as a coagulant, instead opting for citric or acetic acid.

After the milk is separated, many different paths and processes can be followed to create vastly different types of cheeses.

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So, what is rennet?

Here’s the tricky bit. Rennet is traditionally made from enzymes found in the lining of the fourth stomach of an un-weaned animal. Typically, cheesemakers use the calf’s stomach enzymes for cow’s cheese, and the same goes for goat’s and sheep’s cheeses. While there is no such thing as pig cheese, rennet from the lining of a pig’s stomach can also be used in the cheesemaking process.

To gather the enzymes needed to make the rennet, the animal must be killed. Since vegetarians by definition do not eat meat (and sometimes other) products from dead animals, it becomes clear that the rennet probably doesn’t fit into a vegetarian diet. So, unless specifically stated, your cheese is likely not vegetarian.

Is there a vegetarian alternative to rennet?

Luckily there is! Microbial rennet can be made by fermenting mold to create an enzyme similar to that of rennet, or through genetically engineered processes. Cardoon (also called artichoke thistles or globe artichokes) for instance, are plants that have been traditionally used as a natural coagulant to make cheese in parts of Spain and Portugal.

Some cheesemakers argue that this type of rennet does not produce as high a quality or depth of flavour as traditional animal rennet but, as demand continues to increase for certified vegetarian cheeses, manufacturers continue to improve this vegetarian alternative and high-quality cheesemakers are creating ever more superb vegetarian cheeses.

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Some guidelines for buying

Cheeses protected under Europe’s Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) label will not be vegetarian. These cheeses must use traditional methods of production in order to be certified as such, so this means they must use animal rennet, as this was part of the traditional recipe and technique.

In general, rennet doesn’t have to be declared on the packaging because it’s only classified as a means of production. Buying any hard cheese means that they are most likely non-vegetarian cheeses like Parmesan cheese, Manchego, and Grana Padano. But in some soft cheeses, like Gorgonzola or Camembert, rennet is also used in the production process.

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So what cheeses are vegetarian?

Fresh cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, paneer, cottage cheese, and cream cheese tend to be vegetarian by nature, requiring lemon juice or citric acid to coagulate instead of rennet. Otherwise, look for cheese that explicitly states that it was created with vegetarian rennet. There are plenty of websites that offer lists of vegetarian cheeses. If you’re living in the US, you can check out the vegetarian cheese list from “Joyous Living” for example.

As a vegetarian, do you consider cheese to be an important part of your diet? Do you eat cheese as a vegetarian and what types? Tell us in the comments!

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