The Mysteries of Chickpea Water, a Magical Substitute for Eggs (No, Really)
In this age of clickbait, food hacks are ubiquitous but rarely very clever. (Squeeze thawed spinach with a sushi mat? Hmm … okay.) But once in a while a food hack comes along that destroys your preconceptions and restores your faith in humanity’s resourcefulness. I’d like to talk you about aquafaba.
Vegans may already know that despite aquafaba’s fancy sounding name, it’s nothing more than the liquid from a can or jar of chickpeas. (It literally means “bean water.”) But take a mixer to it and the goopy liquid whips up beautifully—just like egg whites. You can use it to make meringues or mayonnaise or angel food cake or even pisco sours. And they taste just as you’d expect a version made with real eggs does.
What’s so startling about this discovery is that labs have spent years trying to recreate the complexity of eggs, scoop by powdery scoop. Start with pea protein or wheat gluten, add a dash of tapioca starch or potato flour, a pinch of gums and celluloses, and you end with something, uh, vaguely goopy and egg-like.
And here is aquafaba, emerging fully formed from a can of chickpeas. “The part that’s so great is you have technology advancement from bottom up instead of top down. It’s not a hundred PhDs at Frito Lay coming up with something,” says Kent Kirshenbaum, a chemist at NYU, who’s taken to baking up aquafaba meringues for his science outreach talks.
So who are these people who outsmarted all these food PhDs? Look no further the Facebook group, Vegan Meringues – Hit and Misses, whose banner photo features “miss” meringue replacing the face in Edvard Munch’s “Scream.” It’s this Facebook group that christened chickpea water “aquafaba,” placing it on the cutting edge of cooking.
Hits and Misses
The story goes like this: In 2014, Joël Roessel wrote about using liquid from various canned beans to make meringues on his French blog. It worked OK, but the meringues also required cornstarch and guar gum to stabilize the foam. A few months later, Goose Wohlt, a software engineer in Indiana, was challenged to make vegan meringues for Passover, when he came across a video likely inspired by Roessel’s post.
Wohlt is fastidious. When I emailed him to talk about aquafaba, he said he’d send me a “brief backgrounder” before we got on the phone. He sent me a 6,000-word email. Before turning to aquafaba, he had been experimenting with proteins, starches, and vegetable gums to make a vegan meringue. “They were all disgusting,” he says. But the very first time he whipped up aquafaba, the meringues turned out beautifully, and Wohlt decided to share the photos on the Facebook group, What Fat Vegans Eat. The post got so popular that Rebecca August created a splinter group just for the meringues. Vegan Meringues – Hit and Misses was born.
Wohlt, who is an admin of the Facebook group as well as of aquafaba.com, has been a software entrepreneur, and he brought an open source philosophy to recipe development. To him, sharing the misses were just as important as the hits—so that people knew what not to do when tinkering. That’s why the “miss” meringue is right up on top in the banner photo. The group has since grown to over 40,000 members, who have developed definitive recipes for royal icing, genoise cakes, macaroons, chocolate mousse, and more. Oh my god so much more.
Nobody knows exactly why chickpea liquid works so well as an egg white substitute, but several food scientists told me it is likely a combination of proteins and starches in the water. Chickpea proteins, like egg proteins, have parts that hate water and parts that love water. When you shake or beat it, the proteins unravel, so that the water-hating parts interface with air, and the water-loving parts with water. Hence, bubbles and foam. Starches help thicken and stabilize the foam.
Wohlt had planned to crowdfund a phytochemical analysis to find out exactly what made aquafaba foam so well—but the community was much more interested in nutritional information, so they did a nutritional analysis instead. He’s given up on analyzing the exact proteins in aquafaba for now. Though he’s still tinkering—he says he recently perfected an egg-white substitute that you can fry up.
Aquafaba Goes To Whole Foods
But Wohlt says he doesn’t feel like he can casually post the recipe for his new egg-white substitute on Facebook these days. Not since a company filed a trademark on “aquafabanaise” and announced their own line of vegan mayos.
Sir Kensington’s is a New York-based condiment company whose cofounder Mark Ramadan likes to talk about how they are bringing “integrity and delight to an overlooked category.” They sell to Whole Foods and Dean & DeLuca and New York restaurants like the Spotted Pig and P.J. Clarke’s. Their mascot, a gentleman with a top hat and monocle, bears more than a passing resemblance to Eustace Tilley, the illustrated mascot who often graces the cover of the New Yorker.
Ramadan freely admits they took inspiration from the Facebook group and aquafaba.com. “We owe a debt of gratitude to the vegan community,” he says. “They say with great constraint comes great creativity.” The R&D team at Sir Kensington’s were also impressed at how easily aquafaba substituted for eggs. They were working with pea protein at first, which is what current vegan mayos are made of. “We did something like 100 to 200 trials with the industry standard,” says Laura Villevielle, the company’s director of product. “It took us about four trials using aquafaba to find something we’re very happy with.”
Sir Kensington’s then tweaked the simple vegan mayo recipe they found online, adding kombu to impart more umami and viscosity to the liquid. And they contracted with a hummus maker in upstate New York to buy their otherwise discarded chickpea water.
Ramadan says they’ll be reaching out to the Facebook group as Sir Kensington’s Fabanaise officially launches. The members have, of course, already discovered Sir Kensington’s plans, and most have reacted with excitement. But Wohlt, who has sunk so much time into this, feels a little different. At the time, he wrote, “Unfortunately the cost the community will pay for their gain is that it will dampen the likelihood that other people will share new discoveries, I fear.” Certainly he is now wary of sharing his new egg white substitute.
But then, what exactly are the rules here? This is uncharted territory. The exact wording of recipes can be copyrighted, but their ideas cannot. Patenting a recipe requires clearing a very high bar. To bring the analogy back to open source software, commercial software makers can make use of open source code, but the programmers who write the open source code know exactly what they’re getting into. Has a food company ever credited a Facebook group for a new line of products?
Sir Kensington’s Fabanaise, in original and chipotle flavors, will be going out to grocery stores this month. Or you can whip up your own batch. It’s pretty easy.