Written by Dr Justine Butler, Senior Researcher and Writer, Viva!
In March 2015, Goose Wohlt, from Indiana, posted a picture of vegan meringues in the Facebook group What Fat Vegans Eat, made using aquafaba. He said: “Dead simple, delicious, two ingredient, whole food meringues… one can chickpea brine mixed with half cup sugar. perfect-O”. The recipe Wohlt shared on social media looked too good to be true, and some thought that the post was a hoax to be announced on April 1 as an April Fools!
But it wasn’t a hoax. Goose named the bean juice aquafaba (bean water) and described how you just whisk the water up and add sugar; in much the same way as the method used for meringue made from egg whites.
A Google search for aquafaba returns over 300,000 results, and the term has been hashtagged more than 35,000 times on Instagram. There are numerous ‘aquafaba’ cookbooks describing the many different ways to cook with this novel ingredient.
Vegans have been waiting in the wings for an easy and simple meringue recipe, and here it is.
Previous candidates replacing eggs have included banana, apple sauce, pumpkin seeds and flax seed. However, a good replacement for egg whites in meringues has remained elusive. Commercially available egg replacers are available, but they just don’t cut it in meringues.
What were the other options?
Vegan food extraordinaire, Miyoko Schinner, had some success by extracting the mucilage (lignan) from flax seeds.
However, flax seed meringues were a bit complicated and unpredictable – the foam doesn’t always hold up and the flavour of flax can be off-putting.
In 2014, Joël Roessel, a ténor from France, also discovered that the liquid from cooked chickpeas could be whipped into foam. He then discovered that this foam could be used to make vegan meringues.
He’d been trying to devise a vegan recipe for the French dessert, floating islands – meringues floating on crème anglaise (vanilla custard).
Joël said his theory was based on molecular cuisine, science and common sense. However, his recipes were a bit too technical for a wide audience relying on the addition of vegetable gums, starches and stabilisers.
By simplifying how aquafaba can be used, Goose Wohlt opened a whole new world of egg-free baking possibilities. Classic desserts could easily be made vegan using aquafaba, such as lemon meringue pie, pavlova, chocolate mousse and baked Alaska… as well as soufflé, marshmallows, macarons, nougat, choux pastry, waffles, soufflés, royal icing, butter and mayonnaise. The possibilities became endless.
So how does it work?
To make an egg meringue, it’s the robust whisking which create unfolding proteins. This forms the scaffolding structure of the meringue.
The gaps in the scaffolding-like structure are filled with sugar molecules when all of the ingredients are combined. When you heat the meringue, the water evaporates leaving a crispy, crunchy texture.
Too much heat causes the water to expand and evaporate too fast making the inside hollow.
Scientists at the Norwegian food research institute, Nofima, analysed aquafaba and found that it contains equal amounts of proteins and carbohydrate but little or no fat. However, the carbohydrate could also help stabilise the foam by increasing viscosity.
Chickpeas are a legume commonly used to make falafel, houmous and three-bean salad. Some people have had success with the water from other tinned beans, such as kidney beans, but chickpeas remain the popular choice.
What’s the process?
Generally three tablespoons of aquafaba equate to one egg, providing it is the right consistency. It should be a bit gloopy like egg white— not too thick and not too runny. If it is too watery, you can reduce it by heating it to get a thicker consistency and it can be frozen for later use.
Adding a small amount of lemon juice, vinegar or cream of tartar before the sugar provides acid, which may help slow the newly unfolded proteins binding together and permit even more air to be whisked in.
In my first attempt at whisking up the gooey, viscous water from a tin of chickpeas, it first went bubbly then thickened, went white and formed peaks — just like egg whites!
Be warned, the process to whisk up aquafaba to stiff peaks takes some time. I then added a small pinch of cream of tartar followed by half a cup of caster sugar — adding a little at a time to avoid collapsing
The result was a thick and glossy meringue. I piped out little blobs on a sheet of baking paper and baked them at 100°C for two hours and then left them in the oven to cool by just unclicking the door but not opening it.
It was astonishing — I had vegan meringues for the first time in over a decade. Sweet, light and deliciously crunchy.
Next I made chocolate mousse — it came out light and fluffy with tiny air bubbles through it. Just perfect. Next, I tried mayonnaise.
It couldn’t be simpler; aquafaba, mustard, vinegar and salt mixed together in a bowl then, using an immersion blender, I slowly drizzled vegetable oil into it and hey presto — smooth and creamy egg-free mayonnaise.
Why aquafaba and not eggs?
Aquafaba provides a cheap and easy way to replace eggs — which is also great news for people with egg allergies.
It provides a safe alternative for those wanting to avoid Salmonella poisoning. Salmonella is less common in eggs now, but the bacteria still poses a risk — especially to people with compromised immune systems.
Leading scientists have issued stern warnings about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a plant based diet to avoid catastrophic shortages. Consumption of animal protein at current rates is simply not sustainable.
The new wave of vegan cooking provides an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore. Plant foods use less land, water and fossil fuels and produce considerably less greenhouse gases — and are infinitely kinder.
If you thought going vegan means missing out, think again, vegans really can have it all.