Imagine being a vegan in France and craving île flottante, or floating island, a dessert of fluffy puffs of meringue nestled in a sea of crème anglaise. Joël Roessel, a 34-year-old opera tenor, was riding on a bus near Paris and wondering how he could replace the main ingredient. So he asked himself: “What would disgust me as much as a raw egg white?
His answer: bean liquid. When he got home, Roessel found a can of red beans in the cupboard, drained out the liquid and whipped it. The result was nothing short of astonishing: a mound of fluffy, pure white – but completely eggless – meringue.
This minor French revolution hit the world when Roessel published it on his blog, Révolution Végétale, in December 2014, and the concept quickly began to catch on with others, including Goose Wohlt, an American software engineer and vegan blogger. He’s credited with coining the word “aquafaba” – “aqua” for water and “faba” for beans – to describe the ingredient that most people simply pour down the sink.
Wohlt posted his vegan baked meringue recipe, made from the liquid from a can of chickpeas, plus sugar, to a popular Facebook group called “What Fat Vegans Eat” in March. The post received nearly 500 comments in a matter of hours, quickly spawning a whole new Facebook group: “Vegan Meringue - Hits and Misses!”
Rebecca August, an animal-care provider in Michigan, is the original force behind the new group, serving as its head administrator since creating it just over six months ago, after she saw Wohlt’s original recipe.
“I ran to my kitchen to whip up a batch of cannellini bean fluff, the closest thing to chickpeas I had on hand,” she recalls. “When I saw the amazing response to this discovery, I messaged Goose and told him that Vegan Meringue deserved its own Facebook page, and the phenomenon began.”
At more than 28,000 members worldwide and growing daily, the page is indeed a phenomenon, and aquafaba continues to garner attention, even making an appearance on the spring menu of chef Dan Barber’s food-waste-focused pop-up restaurant in Manhattan, Wasted. The Facebook group experiments are wide and varied, from macarons and dacquoise to butter and mozzarella, with enthusiastic forays into challah, nougat and Yorkshire pudding. The cooks are just as varied and include vegans, omnivores, those with egg or gluten allergies and some who are simply “epicurious.”
“Goose conceived of the group as an open-source development group,” says August, “a sharing community where everyone benefits from and builds on the genius of others, and, I have to say, our group is just the best in that regard.”
The development concept is clearly embraced by the community, as members are not shy about sharing their aquafaba misses as eagerly as they do their hits, seeking to learn why a batch of aquafaba banana pancakes turned out mushy or how to rescue a drippy lemon meringue pie. As the experiments continue, novices are advised to use 3 tablespoons of aquafaba to equal one egg. The bean juice seems to work equally well whether it comes from a can or from a fresh batch of homemade cooked beans, and it can be frozen for later use. (Remember, it’s the cooking liquid from the beans, not the bean-soaking liquid.)
Although most any beans will do, including black, kidney and soy, chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) tend to be preferred for their milder, less “beany” flavor. Besides, you can whip up a batch of hummus to go with that aquafaba chocolate mousse at the same time.
Why it works
But why does it work? Harold McGee, the food scientist who wrote the best-selling kitchen reference book “On Food and Cooking,” guesses that it has something to do with the combination of proteins, carbohydrates and saponins.
“Saponins are soaplike materials that can collect in bubble walls at the interface between liquid and air and stabilize the bubbles,” McGee says in an email. “Some proteins can do the same, and both proteins and carbohydrates help thicken the liquid, which makes it slower to drain out of the foam structure.”
August notes that aquafaba appears to embody many qualities found in eggs and dairy products. That has encouraged increasing innovation among those inspired by the movement, and they have whipped aquafaba into Italian meringue buttercream, used it as a binder in baked goods and even blended it with oil to become a butter substitute and vegan mayonnaise.
Beyond vegans, the trick is attracting attention from other cooks who either don’t want to separate eggs or use raw eggs to avoid the risk of salmonella contamination.
Back to the islands
Meanwhile, just outside Paris, Roussel continues to experiment with aquafaba, even using it (along with some starch and guar gum) to make those elusive floating islands that started his quest in the first place.
“What was really important to me,” he says, “before sharing my discovery, was to understand as far as I could how to help people in successfully replacing the foam.”
Now he’s an active member of the Facebook vegan meringue community himself, benefiting as much as anyone else: “I’ve continued to experiment, and the misses of others gave me a progressive knowledge of what to do and not to do. Nothing’s impossible!”
Vegan Italian Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from GeekyCakes.com. Not only does this light, creamy frosting contain no egg whites or butter, it also has virtually no bean flavor from the aquafaba. If you are using aquafaba that is already salted, taste the mixture as you blend it before adding more salt. You’ll need a candy thermometer or an instant-read thermometer.
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup unsalted aquafaba (reserved liquid from cooked/canned chickpeas)
1 3/4 cups 100 percent palm oil shortening, such as Spectrum All-Vegetable Shortening, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisking until the sugar has dissolved to form a simple syrup. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan so the tip is in the liquid but not touching the bottom of the pan.
Increase the heat to medium; while you are monitoring the simple syrup, put the aquafaba in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment and begin whipping the liquid on low speed.
Once the simple syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (about 235 degrees), increase the mixer speed to high. At this point, you want to get the aquafaba liquid whipped into very stiff peaks while getting the sugar syrup to a temperature of 248 degrees at the same time, which will take a few minutes for each.
Once both are achieved, pull the simple syrup off the heat and pour it slowly into the mixer (still on high speed). Do this carefully so that the hot syrup does not splash on you. Once all the syrup is incorporated, the mixture should resemble a thick, marshmallow-like fluff. Turn off the mixer.
Switch to the paddle attachment; beat on high speed for about 5 minutes, to cool down the mixture. Make sure the bowl feels completely cool before you begin adding the palm oil shortening in small chunks or by the spoonful, incorporating it all completely. If the mixture begins to look curdled, don’t worry; it will come back together as it continues to mix.
Add the vanilla extract after you’ve added all the shortening, and continue to beat for a few minutes on medium-low speed, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, until you have a thick and glossy frosting. Use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 6 months. Bring to room temperature before using, stirring with a flexible spatula until creamy.
Per 1/4 cup: 250 calories, 0 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar
Yield: 4 cups, enough for a two-layer cake plus 16 cupcakes.
Vegan Aquafaba Butter
Adapted from the Danish blog Plantepusherne.dk. This butter-substitute spread comes together in about 60 seconds and is similar to the commercial vegan “butter” spreads like those made by Earth Balance. If you can, use refined coconut oil, which has a somewhat buttery flavor.
1/3 cup solid coconut oil, preferably refined
4 teaspoons canola or rapeseed oil
3 tablespoons aquafaba (liquid from canned or cooked beans, not bean-soaking water)
2/3 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
1/3 teaspoon salt (optional)
Pinch ground turmeric (optional)
Melt the coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat, then remove it from the heat and cool to room temperature. Stir in the canola or rapeseed oil.
Combine the aquafaba and vinegar or lemon juice in a Mason jar or similar container and begin blending with an immersion (stick) blender. It should start to thicken within just a few seconds, so begin pouring the oil mixture into it slowly, and continue blending until it thickens into something resembling mayonnaise.
At this point, taste it to see whether it needs salt; if it does, add the 1/3 teaspoon. Mix in the turmeric, if using, to give it a little color.
Scrape the mixture into a container and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight or until firm. Once it’s firm, cover it and refrigerate up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 6 months.
Per tablespoon: 50 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Yield: About 16 tablespoons.
Homemade Vegan Mayonnaise
From the website peanutbutterandvegan.com.
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons aquafaba (liquid from canned or cooked beans), at room temperature
3/4 to 1 cup neutral-tasting oil
Combine the vinegar, ground mustard, salt and aquafaba in a small bowl and mix briefly with an immersion blender until combined. With the immersion blender running, slowly drizzle in the oil 1/4 cup at a time. The mixture will start to become very thick and you will need to move the immersion blender around to get it all combined. Once the mixture is thick, stop adding the oil.
Transfer to a jar and refrigerate. It will thicken more after it is chilled.
Yield: About 3/4 to 1 cup.