Cheese 101: Vegetarian Diets & Cheese

In my two years of working in the Vineyard Market, I’ve come across many customers who keep to a vegetarian diet, yet want to venture into artisanal cheese land.  Whether a cheese is vegetarian-friendly comes down to the rennet it is made with, so I have compiled a list of frequently asked questions that I get about vegetarian safe cheeses and rennet.

Is cheese vegetarian-friendly?  This comes down to the way the particular cheese is made and what type of rennet is used.

What is rennet?  In simple terms, rennet is a type of enzyme that is used during the cheesemaking process.  It is added to milk in order to separate the curds from the whey.

There’s different types of rennet? Yes, there are 3 basic types of rennet.  “Traditional” rennet, also referred to as animal rennet, is taken from the lining of the stomach from a calf (though sometimes from an ewe or kid).  Vegetable rennet is derived from certain plants or vegetables (such as figs).  Microbial rennet comes from fungal or bacterial sources, though no bacteria or mold is found in the finished product.

Which types of rennet are vegetarian safe?  Vegetable and microbial rennet are what you want to look for when buying cheeses for a vegetarian.  Any rennet labeled “animal” or “traditional” should NOT be served to a strict vegetarian.

How can I tell which type of rennet is used for a particular cheese?  Checking the ingredients list of a cheese is your first step in finding out which type of rennet is used.  Unfortunately, many cheese makers will often simply list “rennet” in the ingredients list.  If this is the case, you should speak with whoever is charge of the cheese shop or department in which you are shopping, as they should have a pretty good understanding of their cheeses.  In the off chance they do not, simply Googling the creamery or brand should turn up which type of rennet is used.

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