What is vegetarian cheese?

Cheese is seemingly a very simple food. However, when you dig deeper, you realise just how much nuance and detail there is to it. Some people think that cheese naturally is vegetarian because it comes from milk. However, there are other microscopic ingredients that go into the mix that complicate things. So below you’ll find my best attempt to explain what cheeses are really vegetarian.


Milk has to be curdled and the solids (curds) need to be separated from liquids (whey) in order to make cheese. Rennet is an enzyme that helps to achieve just that by curdling the proteins present in milk and releasing whey from the curd.

Traditional rennet comes from the stomach of nursing calves, kids or lambs and it is a by-product of meat production. Vegetarian rennet, however, is obtained from non-animal sources. Cheeses that are made using vegetarian rennet are known as vegetarian cheeses.

Types of Vegetarian rennet:

There are three main varieties of vegetarian rennet: microbial, plant and fermentation-based.

The microbial rennet is the most common alternative to the traditional rennet and is derived from moulds and fungi. Microbial rennet may be genetically modified.

The plant (or vegetable) rennet, as the name suggests, comes from plants that have coagulating properties, such as fig, nettle, artichoke, and thistle. Many Spanish and Portuguese ewes’ milk cheeses use thistle as the coagulant and are known to have a unique piquant flavour. The most famous ones are Torta del Casar, Azeitao, and Serra da Estrella.

The last variety is created by isolating rennet genes from animals and introducing them into certain bacteria, fungi or yeast to make them produce the coagulating enzyme (chymosin). The resulting genetically-modified organism (GMO) is killed off after fermentation and then the necessary enzyme is extracted from the remaining broth. The proper name for this type of coagulant is fermentation-produced chymocin (FPC). Even though the process starts using GMOs, the resulting rennet does not contain any GMO or any of its DNA.

Cornish Yarg: vegetarian cheese


Many soft cheeses are produced without use of any rennet and therefore are naturally vegetarian. In this case milk is coagulated with acid, such as citric acid, lactic acid or vinegar. Cream cheese, paneer, and cottage cheese are normally made by acidification. However, to be certain, always look for a “Vegetarian” notice on their packaging.

The quickest way to find your vegetarian cheeses in The Cheese Lady shop is by finding the word “Vegetarian” on our cheese tickets. Online however it is even easier, simply click here.

If you have other cheese questions, please CONTACT us.

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The Cheese Lady x