Why doesn’t vegan cheese melt like dairy-based cheese?

Getting vegan cheese to stretch and melt is a scientific challenge.

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vegan cheese pizza
Photo: New Culture

As a former pizzamaker who’s made plenty of vegan pizzas in his heyday, I have to say, one of the most disappointing aspects of vegan cheese is that it doesn’t have that satisfying elastic pull when you grab a slice. Most vegan options I’ve tried still have a gummy texture that sticks to your teeth; fortunately, it is starting to taste much better than it once did, with buttery notes and a good amount of richness.

These days, scientists are still trying to uncover just how to make vegan cheese stretch. It sounds like they’re getting close to creating a product that’ll replicate its dairy counterpart, but it’s still taking some tinkering. WIRED made a great video explaining the process and interviewing experts who are currently working to make vegan cheese pulls a reality.

Per the video, a protein called casein is the most important component of dairy cheese, giving it that stretch. Unfortunately, it’s something that only occurs in mammals’ milk, so replicating it has been a challenge.

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Inja Radman, co-founder of New Culture, a company specializing creating plant-based versions of casein, says, “What makes casein really special and very, very, unique, is that it is an unusual type of protein. Each protein molecule by itself has this undefined structure. If you were able to go to a really fancy microscope, you would be able to see these casein balls, but within that ball, we have no clue how these caseins, like, behave or aggregate, or what their actual shape or form is.”

In the video, WIRED melted eight different vegan cheeses to see if any performed well in terms of stretching. While some achieved a gooey texture when heated, none quite got to the platonic ideal of a dairy version in terms of that ropy stretch we all know and love.

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One Belgium-based company, Those Vegan Cowboys, is using a fungal strain to replicate casein in a plant-based manner. And the company also has a bounty on the information: if anyone is able to find a fungal strain to turn grass materials into casein, they’ll be paid a sizeable sum of 2.5 million Euro.

New Culture is taking a different approach, developing a stretchy vegan mozzarella that uses casein made through a fermentation process. The company aims to grow specific microbes that only create casein. (I’m no scientist, but I have a feeling this is probably not easy.) The vegan mozzarella isn’t available yet, but the company is trying to make it as stretchy as the pizza cheese you’re already familiar with.

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The end goal, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is to produce this kind of vegan cheese with a much smaller environmental footprint than the usual cow-based stuff. Hopefully these companies will get there, because I’m excited to make pizza with a vegan cheese that hits all the right notes. That’d really be something.