You May Have Been Taken For A Ride
Hey, hey you! Lacto-ovo vegetarian over there! Think you’re being all ecologically conscious by not eating meat over there? Doing no harm and “coexisting” and whatnot? How’s that going for you, not eating meat and all? Working out just fine?
Well guess what. If you eat cheese, like really good cheese, chances are you’re probably not really vegetarian. Boom. Ruined your day, right?
Its true! You’ve been living a lie all along if you consider yourself a connoisseur! Ha HAH!
Don’t feel bad, I fell prey to the fallacy that all cheese is vegetarian as well. Except this was a forehead slap moment for me, as I knew why not all cheeses were vegetarian in theory but I didn’t put all the pieces together as I was chomping down some nice washed rind something from France. I merrily schmeared on cream cheese, sliced up limburger and grated romano on virtually everything that I shoved in my yap for two decades without a second thought. It’s truly embarrassing that I didn’t consider what makes my cheese into cheese when I considered that bardwell.
Rennet, you are a tastemaking bastard.
Rennet, an enzyme traditionally found in the stomachs of baby mammalian animals, is what causes milk to become that glorious crapshooting slab of deception. Although there are vegetarian rennets available and are used for quite a few common cheeses, small batch european cheeses tend to go the old school route with using animal based enzymes.
Yup, That artisanal european cheese might have been made from the stomach lining of an adorable little unweaned calf, goat or lamb. Not a teenager goat, not a full grown cow, no sir. A defenseless baby animal with huge pools of sweet baby eyes, ears as soft as velvet, made your fancy pants cheese. Which kind of seriously blows, as some of those suckers melt on your tongue and glide down your gullet like a thousand little masseuses ushering that cheese into your stomach on a cavalcade of fairy feathers.
Life is so unfair. But are there options?
Rennet is a catchall term for a group of enzymes, but the active coagulating enzyme in the mix is called chymosin. Other enzymes in rennet (such as pepsin and lipase) also help in cheesemaking, but the star of the show really is the chymosin. And that chymosin can only be found in the stomach lining of unweaned mammals. Kind of sad, eh?
However, like all things in life, there may be a silver lining to this Hiroshima. Getting enough natural calf, kid and lamb rennet on demand is difficult, so quite a few commercially made cheeses use microbial rennet or genetically modified rennets instead. These rennets are vegetarian and easy to reproduce in quantity. (Whew!) Although microbial rennet has been around for years, this type of rennet is not as popular as genetically modified rennet as the cheese made with microbial rennet tends to develop bitter flavors as it ages. Genetically modified rennet was approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1999 and accounts for at least 80 percent of commercially made cheese in the United States today as it produces no off flavors, is cheap to make and works just as well as animal based rennet.
So, you really have a 20% chance (or less) of eating nonvegetarian cheese if you buy it on the shelf at the grocers. Although it isn’t much, its something to ease the dull pain of separation that comes from knowing the truth. However, the only way to be 100% sure on the source of your rennet is to do your research. Before you mindlessly grab that brick of Colby off the shelf (you would do that?), you should check the ingredients. Some companies list their cheese enzymes as animal or vegetable based right on the side of them if you’re lucky. Or if you plan out your shopping trip ahead of time (people do that?) you can also find vegetarian cheese sources on sites like this one here.
However, if you’re on the fly for a quesadilla at the Acme, you can always have a sure bet with any of the Cabot cheese varieties. Cabot only uses vegetarian rennet sources and is as common as dirt in just about every grocery store from here to eternity. Dinner, saved.
So, now that I’ve stomped on your aspirations for being a virtuous vegetarian against the rocks, you might as well just go ahead and order the steak tartare and dive in to some foie butter while you’re at it. Because you’ve been living a rouse all these years, buddy.