What do aquafaba and open-source software have in common? (And what is aquafaba, anyway?)
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In the spring of 2015, Indiana software engineer Goose Wohlt made a two-ingredient eggless meringue and posted the results online. Wohlt, a vegan, was determined to create meringues he could eat at his family's Seder. In his search for the perfect egg substitute, he drained a can of chickpeas and whipped up the liquid with some sugar. Unlike his previous attempts, this gloriously billowy version had all the makings of a classic meringue, without the off flavors that came with other substitutes. He named the liquid "aquafaba," Latin for "bean water."
Wohlt posted his recipe to a Facebook group, What Fat Vegans Eat. Comments began appearing within minutes. "Everybody was running to their kitchens and whipping up this stuff to see if it really worked," says fellow vegan Rebecca August, a Midwest animal care professional, who read the post and gave it a try with the liquid from a can of cannellini she had on hand. Two days later, August and Wohlt cofounded the Facebook group Vegan Meringue — Hits and Misses! It was a move that would prove to be an experiment in collaborative online food ingredient research and recipe development — an echo of the open-source principles to which software engineer Wohlt is devoted, in which code is available for anyone to modify and build upon.
Aquafaba is a boon to those adhering to egg-free diets. Unlike other vegan substitutes — such as pea protein, soy protein isolate, and starch blends — aquafaba acts as a single-package, all-natural, direct replacement for eggs in everything from Pavlova to ice cream. In just a little over a year's time, Vegan Meringue – Hits and Misses! has grown to some 49,000 members and includes devotees from around the world. It has given rise to splinter groups in the US, Brazil, Italy, and France. Last month, a New York condiment company, Sir Kensington's, released the first commercial product made with aquafaba, Fabanaise, an eggless mayonnaise.
Wohlt was not the first to whip aquafaba into foam. Joël Roessel, a French tenor and food blogger, has been posting results of his work with the liquid since 2014. Details of who discovered what first are nuanced. But Wohlt's two-ingredient meringue and the open-source philosophy of Vegan Meringue — Hits and Misses!, which is run by August with a dedicated group of admins including Wohlt, has given viral status to something that was once simply poured down the drain.
Members of the Facebook group share their kitchen endeavors, learning from one another's failures and building on successes. The idea, says Wohlt — who also operates the website Aquafaba.com — is to encourage creativity by including posts at all stages of development, not just the "hits." "It's an evolutionary process, but it only works if people contribute back what didn't work," he says.
This exchange of ideas among thousands of passionate recipe developers in kitchens across the globe offers novel concepts and diverse perspectives. The food industry would be hard-pressed to replicate it in their R&D labs.
When Sir Kensington's tested aquafaba in its vegan mayonnaise prototype, after some 200 iterations with other egg replacers, the company knew it had a hit. "The reaction was pretty instantaneous," says Laura Villevieille, director of product, who says they came across aquafaba when an intern read about it on the website Food52. "All of a sudden, here was an ingredient that had the same viscosity as egg yolks, it had all the same properties as egg yolks, and it emulsified the way our egg-based mayonnaise does," she says. "We saw this huge opportunity to bring innovation to that particular marketplace." The company sources aquafaba from New York's Ithaca Hummus, using gallons of what was once a waste product. The company projects it will use about 100,000 pounds of aquafaba this year.
Wohlt is of two minds when it comes to corporate involvement. Sir Kensington's Fabanaise is, on the one hand, good for the vegan community, he says. It gives aquafaba "a veracity it didn't necessarily have before." Wohlt worries, though, that it might undermine the innovation-by-community ethos.
The open-source doctrine encompasses a moral code: Those who benefit from the openly available information share what they have learned and give attribution back to the community. The food industry, conversely, operates in what programmers might call a closed-source mode. New ideas are kept close to the vest and innovation is quickly patented. Corporate patents, says Wohlt, could preclude small food businesses' making use of the cache of innovation available via the online group.
Sir Kensington's is figuring out how to work in partnership with the online vegan community, says Villevieille. "It's a new experience. We've never been handed this kind of innovation, and this kind of excitement, and this kind of access to a whole new niche world within food. So we definitely are excited to work with that community," she says.
For his part, Wohlt is exploring ways to protect the online collaborative process. In his view, even more important than the transformation of bean water into an extraordinarily useful vegan ingredient is the community that has developed around it.