Vegans can finally dine on egg whites -- sort of
Last spring I attended a 12-course vegan dinner created from food waste. Jay Astafa, a Natural Gourmet Institute trained chef, served watermelon sushi and carrot-top pesto.
But dessert was where I saw true plant-based innovation.
As a single meringue was placed in front of me, the lithe chef clasped his hands and told the crowd that the crispy, light cookie was made out of the leftover water from a can of chickpeas — you know, that dirty sludge you pour down the drain.
Not an egg in sight.
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Photo: Larissa Zimberoff
On the web, this waste water is most often referred to as Aquafaba, Latin for "bean water." Indiana-based software engineer Goose Wohlt first coined the term. He had stumbled on a video showing two Frenchmen making a chocolate mousse out of the runoff. They didn't say where they had learned the trick, but Wohlt points to Frenchman Joël Roessel for discovering the magical ingredient.
In an email, Roessel writes that when he first became a vegetarian he was stuck on finding a foamy egg replacement to use in baking.
The home chef had his "aha!" moment on the bus when he thought to himself, "What do I hate as much as egg whites?" Clear bean juice was the answer and he was the first to post about it on his blog.
Wohlt, too, was grappling with a plant-based diet and a fondness for fried eggs, and had been testing "all kinds of weird starches," he said in an interview on The Sexy Vegan.
Then his mom asked him to make meringue, and he switched his attention from fried to whipped. After a little trial and error, he found he could whip up a perfect product with a stand mixer in three minutes.
Unlike Roessel's version, which included chemical stabilizers, Wohlt perfected the recipe to include only two things: sugar and bean water.
After naming the product, and writing up as much of the history of the egg-white replacer, Wohlt started a Facebook group with home cook, animal care provider and vegan Rebecca August called Vegan Meringue - Hits and Misses! Today the group has 36,298 highly active members. The pair posts all of the various things you can make, such as macaroons, marshmallows and meringue pies, as well as things that don't work quite as well.
Photo: Vegan Meringue - Hits and Misses! / Facebook, Selina Masih
The holy grail, Wolht says, is the angel food cake. After poring over dozens of posts, I decided to tackle the recipe.
I bought three cans of chickpeas, two organic and one non-organic. First I strained the contents of the can.
While there are a multitude of sugar options, like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and agave, your best bet is to use white granulated sugar. It didn't take me long to whip the mixture into peaks, to which I slowly added the sugar. Ten minutes later I had glossy, stiff, sparkling white meringue. I used a teaspoon to place dollops on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
Finally, I baked it on low heat for an hour and a half. In the end, I had perfectly crispy meringues that tasted store-bought and nothing like a chickpea.
Photo: McGrane /Vegan Meringue Hits & MIsses Facebook
While a vegan "egg white" has yet to be mass-commercialized, it won't be long before some enterprising startup decides to tackle it.
Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum, an NYU professor of chemistry, has been tinkering with a foaming agent since 2009 and filed a patent for it in 2012.
Kirshenbaum's idea came from a Season 1 Saturday Night Live sketch, in which Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd argue over New Shimmer, a product that is both a floor wax and a dessert topping.
The basics to his invention are as follows: a prepared, baked meringue product that is free from any egg or egg byproducts, formed from a mixture consisting essentially of a saponin-rich component, a sugar component and water.
Saponins are found in many plants, including beans. These complex compounds have a soapy character due to their surfactant properties, which translates to their ability to lower the surface tension between a liquid and a solid. Kirshenbaum says he discovered saponins when Yeliz Utku, a Turkish graduate student in his chemistry lab, brought back sumac, salep and soapwort plant (which releases a healthy dose of saponin when boiled).
While the chemist awaits his patent to be approved, the vegan community continues to play with the ingredient. They may be at the forefront of something that could pay off later, and not just among vegans. California passed a law in 2008 that just went into effect this year that requires hens to be placed in larger cages, which means egg production could go down, get more expensive or both. With United States egg production estimated at over 96 billion eggs in 2013, the ingredient is still in huge demand. It's only a matter of time that the industry begins looking over its shoulder at these "wacky" vegan concoctions for inspiration.
Photo: Susan Shek
Software engineer Wohlt has raised enough money to do a nutritional and chemical analysis on his own experiments.
"I would love to bring the powders to market, but I'm not attached to the idea," says Wohlt. "I really just want it out there for people to have access to. If I can facilitate it, I'll feel like that mission has been successful."
Photo: Larissa Zimberoff
Aquafaba Meringue Recipe
Reprinted with permission. Recipe by Goose Wohlt and Rebecca August.
Liquid from one 15 oz can of organic chickpeas
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Drain the liquid from one 15oz can of chickpeas until there is 1/2 to 3/4 cup of liquid.
Whip the liquid in a mixer until stiff peaks form. Don't worry, you can't really over-whip. You need good whisk attachment and high speed.
After peaks have formed, add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Once the sugar is incorporated, feel the foam and if it has any grittiness, keep whipping until the mixture is smooth.
Deposit or extrude dollops onto a dry, clean baking mat or parchment paper covered cookie sheet in 1.5 inch meringues, and bake at 215 F for 1.5 hours.
After cooking time, turn off the oven, crack the oven door and let the cookies cool to room temperature.
Store the completed meringues in an airtight container to keep them from getting gooey.
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