Are you a cheese lover who also happens to be a vegetarian?
If so, you may have wondered whether Asiago cheese is a suitable option for your diet.
While it’s a popular cheese in Italian cuisine, the question remains: is Asiago cheese vegetarian?
In this article, we’ll explore the answer to this question and provide you with some helpful information about the cheese-making process.
So, grab a snack and let’s dive in!
Is Asiago Cheese Vegetarian?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Asiago cheese is not vegetarian.
The reason for this is that the cheese-making process involves the use of rennet, which is an enzyme that helps to coagulate the milk and form the curds. Rennet is typically derived from the stomach lining of a calf, making it an animal product.
While some brands are now using plant-based or non-animal enzymes to make their Asiago cheese vegetarian-friendly, traditional Asiago cheese is not suitable for vegetarians.
It’s important to note that this is not unique to Asiago cheese. Many other hard cheeses, such as Parmesan and Pecorino Romano, also use animal rennet in their production.
What Is Asiago Cheese?
Asiago cheese is an Italian cow’s milk cheese that has been produced for centuries in the northern regions of Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige. It is a semi-hard cheese that can vary in texture and flavor depending on how long it is aged. The cheese has D.O.P. status, which means that authentic Asiago can only be produced in specific regions of Northern Italy.
The texture of Asiago cheese can range from medium to hard based on how long the cheese is aged. There are different age varieties of Asiago, ranging from soft, smooth, and fresh to hard, crumbly, and salty. Fresh Asiago cheese (Asiago Pressato) is semi-soft and mild flavored, while aged Asiago (Asiago d’allevo) has a crumbly texture and a sharper flavor due to its long aging process of about four months. The longer it is aged, the more firm, dry, and sharp it will be.
Asiago cheese is versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes. Its sweet and nutty flavor makes it perfect for eating alone or as an ingredient in pasta dishes, salads, soups, risottos, and other dishes that call for more robust flavored cheeses. The cheese’s robust flavor complements spring flavors in dishes like Spring Pea risotto. Aged Asiago also works wonderfully in a lightly flavored risotto.
It’s important to note that traditional Asiago cheese is not suitable for vegetarians because the cheese-making process involves the use of animal rennet derived from the stomach lining of a calf. While some brands are now using plant-based or non-animal enzymes to make their Asiago cheese vegetarian-friendly, traditional Asiago cheese is not suitable for vegetarians.
The Cheese-Making Process
The cheese-making process for Asiago cheese starts with finding high-quality milk. The milk is heated to a temperature between 86 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it reaches the correct temperature, a culture containing bacteria is added to create the flavor and texture of the cheese. The milk is then left to ripen for 30 to 45 minutes, during which time the bacteria will begin to work, and the milk will start to thicken.
After the ripening period, rennet is added to the milk. Rennet is an enzyme that helps to solidify the cheese. Traditionally, rennet used in Asiago cheese is derived from animals, usually calves. This means that the cheese is not vegetarian-friendly. However, some brands are now using microbial rennet to make their Asiago cheese vegetarian-friendly.
The milk is then left to rest for 30 to 60 minutes so that the rennet can work. Once the rennet has had time to work, the milk will have thickened and formed into a solid mass. This mass is then cut into small pieces and placed into a mold, which will help give the cheese its shape.
The mold is then placed in a press, which will help remove excess moisture from the cheese. The cheese is then placed in a brine solution, which helps preserve the cheese and give it a salty flavor. The cheese is then left to age for several weeks to several months, depending on the desired texture and flavor.
Animal Rennet Vs. Vegetable Rennet
Animal rennet has been used in cheese-making for centuries, as it is sourced from the stomachs of unweaned ruminants, such as cattle, goats, and sheep. These animals have a unique digestive system that produces the chymosin enzyme necessary for cheese-making. Today, animal rennet is a byproduct of the beef industry, making it a sustainable way to use material that would otherwise be discarded.
Vegetable rennet, on the other hand, is a newer product and technique. It can be sourced from a number of plants that naturally produce the chymosin enzyme, including artichokes, thistle, and nettle. More commonly, vegetable rennet is derived from the Mucor miehei fungus and mimics animal rennet. This is why it is also known as microbial rennet. None of the fungus remains in the final product, so it is safe for consumption.
While both animal and vegetable rennet work to coagulate milk and form curds, there are some differences between the two. Animal rennet is considered to be the best choice for longer-aged cheeses because some of its residual components help to complete the breakdown of proteins. Vegetable rennet may leave a slightly bitter taste after six months of aging. However, vegetable rennet is a great choice if you’re looking to make vegetarian-friendly cheeses or if you’re looking to cut back on the number of animal products you use.
It’s important to note that while most store-bought cheeses use vegetable rennet in their production, many artisanal cheese makers still use animal rennet. European cheeses, in particular, are often made with animal rennet due to age-old recipes that have always used it. However, there are now veg versions of Parmesan and other European-style cheeses made in the United States using vegetable rennet.
Vegetarian Asiago Cheese Options
If you’re a vegetarian and still want to enjoy the taste of Asiago cheese, there are a few options available to you. Some brands are now making their Asiago cheese with plant-based or non-animal enzymes, which makes them vegetarian-friendly.
One such brand is Cello, which uses microbial rennet to make their cheeses, making them suitable for vegetarians. It’s important to check the label of any Asiago cheese you purchase to ensure it’s made with non-animal enzymes.
Another option is to try a cheese alternative made from plant-based ingredients. There are many vegan cheese options available on the market that mimic the taste and texture of traditional cheese. These alternatives are typically made from ingredients such as nuts, soy, or coconut oil.
While these options may not be exactly the same as traditional Asiago cheese, they can still provide a delicious and satisfying alternative for vegetarians.
Other Vegetarian Cheese Alternatives
If you’re looking for a vegetarian alternative to Asiago cheese, there are several options available. Parmesan and Pecorino Romano are two popular Italian hard cheeses that are often used as substitutes for Asiago. Both of these cheeses have a similar texture and flavor profile, making them great options for dishes that call for Asiago.
Another lesser-known Italian hard cheese that could work well as an alternative to Asiago is Baita Friuli. This cheese has a salty, sharp taste and is produced in smaller quantities, so it ages faster than other hard cheeses. As a result, it can be ready in as little as 5 to 6 months, which means production costs are lower.
For those who prefer non-dairy options, there are several vegan alternatives available. Nutritional yeast flakes are a popular substitute for grated cheese. They have a strong flavor and can be added to many dishes to give them a cheesy taste. Other natural, non-dairy alternatives include seasoned breadcrumbs and diced oil-cured olives, both of which can be sprinkled on or into foods to add extra flavor.
If you’re looking for a cheese-like sauce, Siete’s cashew-based queso is an excellent option. It has a smooth and creamy consistency that makes it perfect for drizzling over just about anything. Nutritional yeast gives this vegan cheese its cheesy flavor.
Finally, if you want to make your own vegetarian cheese at home, there are several recipes available online. One popular method involves using full-fat coconut milk as a base and adding agar agar powder (a vegan gelatin) to make the cheese firm. Nutritional yeast and salt are added for flavor, while tapioca starch is used to make the cheese melt and stretch. You can also add garlic powder, onion powder, liquid smoke or fresh herbs to achieve different flavors.