For years, people buying plant-based alternatives to animal products were used to flavors and textures that weren’t quite the same as the article they were aping.
But just as veggie burger makers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are inching ever closer to mimicking the real thing, with lab-concocted beef-like marbling and juices, the creators of a new vegan ice cream are using technological wizardry to create a product that could fool even the most die-hard dairy aficionados.
Ice cream has been particularly tricky to veganize: Nut “milks” often freeze up hard or chalky or leave an aftertaste. “Dairy is one of the hardest things for us to conquer,” says Washington chef Todd Gray, who hosted a tasting of the new offerings by Eclipse Foods last week.
Gray’s downtown restaurant Equinox, which caters to vegan and vegetarian diners as well as “flexitarians,” will be among the first in the country to serve the Eclipse ice cream.
Eclipse founders Thomas Bowman and Aylon Steinhart hope to roll out their products to more food-service settings, such as tech campuses and universities, before going retail. They also have big plans for plant-based cheese, sour cream and yogurt.
But first, they’re out to conquer ice cream.
Bowman and Steinhart claim they’ve re-created the texture, taste and functionality of dairy by using plant products to form micelles, “the magic spheres” that are the molecular structures of milk proteins. But their ice cream’s base ingredients — which include oat fiber, cane sugar, glucose, canola oil, cassava starch and potato protein — are less important than the process used to create it, they say.
Tinkering with the steps — how to incorporate the ingredients, and the precise heating, pressurizing and blending — was the key. “It enables the functionality that makes it indistinguishable from its animal counterpart,” says Thomas, whose résumé includes stints as a Michelin-starred chef and director of product development at Just, which makes a plant-based egg substitute that had a similar debut at Equinox.
Other vegan ice creams have claimed to do the same. For example, Perfect Day ice cream has re-created dairy protein by adding a cow DNA “blueprint” to yeast, which ferments and produces milk proteins. That kind of tinkering isn’t cheap: A pint of Perfect Day cost $20 when it was available earlier this year in a limited run.
Bowman and Steinhart say their processing does not rely on such expensive biotech and employs the same pasteurization, homogenization and storage that regular dairy products do. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Thomas says. “We’re just re-creating milk — without the cow.”
Keeping costs down, they say, is key to making vegan dairy products eventually go mainstream — along with making sure they are actually, you know, delicious. (Less important to them is making a low-calorie product: “We’re not trying to be the healthiest kid on the block,” says Steinhart, a former tech exec.)
Gray, for one, is more than willing to vouch for the product’s taste. He described first getting the ice cream bases (in plain, vanilla and chocolate flavors) into his kitchen and immediately launching into mad-scientist mode, throwing in rhubarb-strawberry jam left over from a brunch service along with some graham crackers. He was so delighted with the result that he immediately drove the concoction across town to the Museum of the Bible, where he operates the restaurants, to show it to pastry chef Brandi Edinger.
“I said, ‘You have to taste this stuff — you won’t believe it,’ ” he recalls.
At last week’s tasting, Gray and Edinger used the Eclipse base to whip up tahini-espresso and Black Forest flavors, the latter of which incorporated chunks of vegan brownies and Morello cherries. Both tasted decidedly dairy-esque: creamy and melty, with no off-notes suggesting there was a lab coat involved in production.
The chefs also demonstrated just how high-end the base could go, using it to make a domed semifreddo — a half-frozen dessert with a mousse-like consistency — spiked with flavors of Sicilian orange and raspberry. That dish, which will be on the restaurant’s menu starting next week, also incorporated aquafaba, the slightly viscous water in cans of chickpeas, which is sometimes used as an egg white substitute. The elegant dessert is as velvety as Jason Momoa’s pink Oscars tuxedo.
Gray declared the introduction of the ice cream (as well as the soft-serve versions he doled out at the restaurant’s plant-based Sunday brunch) to be a success, even among his diners who are merely “curious” about plant-based eating.
Appealing to the masses, not just the small percentage of people who define themselves as vegan, is exactly the point, says Steinhart. “We have to win them over if we want to create a food system that actually works for the planet and for our future.”
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