The Wonder Protein That Makes Cheese So Stretchy

Casein’s unique structure is the key to smooth brie and melting mozzarella.

A hand slices cheese in front of shelves of more cheese.
Michaela Rehle / Reuters

Cheese’s fabulousness all begins with a particular protein: casein. Kantha Shelke, food scientist and one of the heads of the company Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm, told Gastropod that “we’ve got a few wonder proteins in nature, and casein is definitely one of them.” One particular type of casein has special little tails that hold onto water, which is the glue that stops milk from splitting and makes it a liquid. But if you add the enzyme chymosin to milk, it cuts the tails off those casein molecules, allowing the protein to all clump together in curds. This is the beginning of milk’s journey to become cheese, a process we saw in person at the Istituto Lazzaro Spallanzani, an agricultural and cheese-making school near Bologna in Italy.

Casein’s unique structure also contributes to the stretchiness of cheeses such as mozzarella and the smoothness of cheeses such as brie, and it is the secret to cheese’s sensuous meltability. Like many vegans, Miyoko Schinner, the founder of the vegan cheese company Miyoko’s Kitchen and the author of Artisan Vegan Cheese, found that cheese was the one thing she really missed when she gave up dairy. She was such a cheese fan that she’d even traveled Europe sampling the continent’s thousands of small-batch, artisanal cheeses, before she realized that her constant stomachaches might have been due to a dairy intolerance. Out of desperation, she started to develop her own nut-milk substitutes. In order to replicate the taste, texture, and meltiness of cheese, she spent years experimenting with different types of nut milks, different methods to cause the proteins in the milks to clump together, different cultures to age the cheese, and, finally, additions such as starches and oils that would allow vegan cheese to melt. We at Gastropod sampled some of her results, along a few of the other vegan cheeses available in stores today: How well do they compare to the original?

This episode, we also talk with Maria Chavez, the executive director of a community biotech lab called BioCurious and a member of the Real Vegan Cheese project. She is leading a group of volunteers in California in an open-source effort to genetically engineer yeasts so that they will produce casein. Their ultimate goal is to create a cheese substitute made from animal proteins, with no animals milked in the process. And once you’ve genetically engineered yeast to produce casein, why stop with dairy? Will one of the vegan cheeses of tomorrow be made from narwhal milk? Listen in for more!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.