We all know that cheese is made from milk but what does it mean when a cheese is labeled as vegetarian? Gird your loins gourmet cheese lovers, this article could qualify as TMI (too much information). To explain the meaning of vegetarian cheese means explaining what rennet is and how it is used in the cheese making process.
Let’s first take a trip back a few thousand years to learn how this prehistoric food was “discovered”. While no one is certain just who invented cheese, the theory is that Central Asiatic peoples transported milk in canteens made from the stomach of goat, sheep and cow. These animal stomachs feature a coagulating enzyme known as rennet. This enzyme turns milk into solids known as curds, which are separated from the remaining liquid called whey. The addition of salt helped preserve their new found delicacy and allowed these ancient peoples to transport and store a highly perishable, nutrient-rich food – cheese. Certainly an achievement ranking right up there with the advent of fire!
Today, modern cheese makers don’t add animal stomachs to vats of milk to craft cheese. In fact, they now have two options when making gourmet cheese - animal rennet or vegetable/microbial rennet. Since 1990, animal rennet has been genetically engineered by using the gene for animal rennet and is purified for cheese making. Vegetarian rennet is derived from plants or microbes, both of which have the same coagulating properties as animal rennet. 1
Ingredients known as microbial enzymes, vegetable rennet and vegetable enzymes indicate the cheese is suitable for vegetarians. Gourmet cheese that is certified PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) by the European Union otherwise known as name-protected cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Roquefort can only be called as such because they are strictly produced according to historical and cultural tradition. These types of cheeses must use animal rennet to adhere to legal food laws.
Is there a difference in taste between vegetable and animal rennet? Not to worry, vegetarians can find excellent gourmet cheese. Here is a list of outstanding, mind-blowingly delicious cheese that just happens to use vegetable/microbial rennet, many of which are available in our Vegetarian Cheese Shop.
- Butlers Blacksticks Blue
- Cahill’s Farm Cheddar
- Cashel Blue
- Coach Farm goat cheese
- Cypress Grove goat and sheep milk cheeses (Humboldt Fog, Lamb Chopper, Purple Haze, etc.)
- Mull of Kintyre’s Mature Scottish Cheddar Truckle
- Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. (Ewe’s Bleu, Camembert)
- Point Reyes Farmstead Blue Cheeses
- Rogue Creamery Blue Cheeses (Crater Lake Blue, Oregon Blue, Oregonzola, Rogue River Blue, Smokey Blue)
- Saint Andre Triple Crème
- Shropshire Blue
- Vella Special Select Dry Monterey Jack
- Vermont Butter & Cheese (Bijou, Bonne Bouche, Chevre, Couple, etc.)
- Wensleydale and Wensleydale with Cranberries
1. David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Chemistry University of Cincinnati Clermont College ,Rennet for Making Cheese, November 23, 2009