Do you love feta but don’t really know if it fits with your ethical views ? Don’t worry, this is a common concern among vegetarians, and we’re going to make things easier for everyone.
We’ll touch on whether feta is or can be vegetarian, how to look for one that is, and why some animal products are used when making feta. And if none of that will satisfy you, we’ve got a 100% vegan option listed, in case you’re looking for a plant-based option as well.
Is feta cheese vegetarian ?
Traditional feta is not vegetarian, as it’s made using animal rennet. It can be vegetarian when it’s made with vegetal rennet. This is not always the case, and you always need to check the label, or ask the cheesemonger.
Some feta cheese is made with animal rennet, some is made with vegetal rennet and some companies produce both. Traditional feta is always made with sheep or goat’s milk and animal rennet, and it should be listed on the ingredient list.
The vegetarian ones are usually the cheaper ones, because vegetal rennet is easier and cheaper to produce than animal rennet. To really understand this we have to look at what feta is, and why it uses rennet.
Read also: Does Feta Cheese Melt?
What is feta, and why rennet is used
Feta is a traditional Greek cheese, though its production is not limited to Greece. It can be found all along the Mediterranean coast and Black sea, including on Cyprus.
This cheese is a very old cheese, traditionally made from sheep’s milk, sometimes sheep and goat’s milk. This gives it a pungent smell and flavor. Not only that, but feta is made to be a somewhat dry, crumbly cheese and cow’s milk isn’t as useful for that.
When feta is made, rennet is added to coagulate the milk into curds and separate it from the whey. Rennet is an animal enzyme extracted from the stomach of slaughtered young calves.
In the past few decades vegetal rennet has been used more and more, though there are documented cases of ancient Greeks using fig juice to make feta.
Vegetal rennet can be extracted from:
- dried caper leaves
- ground ivy (related to mint)
- pythic acid derived from unfermented soybeans
- fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC)
- microbes from the Rhizomucor miehei mold
Most vegetarian feta is made using FPC or mold microbes. The most reliable and common is the FPC, which is made by isolating the rennet genes from animals, and introducing them to specific bacteria, yeasts, or or fungi, in order to produce chymosin (source).
If this all sounds unappealing, don’t worry. The chemical process of any food sounds kind of disgusting and way too complex. It’s just the way cheese is made, and FPC is so far the most animal-friendly rennet stand-in.
Examples of vegetarian feta
There are many brands that cater to vegetarians and they have a line of cheeses that are made using vegetal rennet. Here they are:
- 365 from Whole Foods
- Organic Valley
- Specially Selected from ALDI
- Vermont Creamery
- Bass Lake Cheese Factory
This list is courtesy of Vegetatio.com, and there are a few other options you have. Kosher and halal shops usually have vegetarian cheeses, and are bound to have a vegetarian version of feta as well.
Try these cheeses for guaranteed vegetarian cheese
If you’re set on having cheese that is completely rennet free and 100% vegetarian, then you may want to focus on something other than feta. There are cheeses that are also white, fresh, and are traditionally made using lemon juice to curdle the milk. Here’s what you can swap feta for.
Paneer cheese is a traditional Indian cheese. It’s a while, mild cheese made with either cow or sheep’s milk and lemon juice. The curds are pressed into medium-sized blocks and the result is a firm block of fresh cheese. It can be ready to eat within 3-4 hours, so it’s probably the quickest and easiest cheese possible.
While ricotta isn’t the same texture and flavor as feta, it can be a great filling for pies if you season it appropriately. Since it’s such a bland and mild cheese, it will take any flavor (sweet or savory). Be sure to drain it very well !
Yet another fresh, white cheese this one is also made using lemon juice to get the curds. It’s definitely saltier and more flavorful than paneer or ricotta, but it’s coated in a thick whey. In some cases it’s mixed with a light sourcream.
While you don’t have a lot of options for traditionally vegetarian cheeses, you can always look for more common cheeses and check their labels. This means you will definitely find vegetarian options, but you have to be careful what you buy.
If you’ve got any other food curiosities be sure to check the related articles below, we’re always adding more food facts to make your life that much easier.