"Wait, these are vegan?" said the young girl with the pink hair and the British accent.
I was standing in front of the ordering counter at Pal's Takeaway, over on 24th and Hampshire in San Francisco's Mission District, and had decided to undertake a bit of impromptu taste-test while waiting for my sandwich to be made. That morning I'd been at the offices of Hampton Creek, an alternative food startup which, with over $23M in funding, is quite possibly the best-funded alternative food startup in the world.
Earlier this year, we tasted a few samples of their first consumer product, Just Mayo, a mayonnaise made with plant-based emulsifiers in place of the egg. That product ended up beating out not just the other vegan mayonnaise brands in our blind taste test, but actually scored higher than our winning standard jarred mayonnaise, making it our overall top pick for store-bought mayo. It's currently available in a half dozen stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, ShopRite, and Target, along with some Costcos, Amazon Fresh, and Food52's Provisions site.
(We do still prefer our own homemade mayonnaise to any store-bought brand.)
This was my second trip to their research space in San Francisco, a large converted warehouse that's part industrial kitchen, part chemical laboratory, part communications office, and part living room. This time I was there to pick up a few jars of Just Cookie Dough, the plant-based chocolate chip cookie dough they've been working on.
What's In It?
With mayonnaise, removing the animal products seems pretty straight forward. Store-bought mayo consists mostly of oil and a watery acid. The main role of the eggs is as an emulsifier. Cookie dough, on the other hand, generally contains large amounts of both butter and eggs. The process of making them animal-free doesn't seem quite as easy.
What exactly do butter and eggs do in a cookie? Well, having baked over 1,500 cookies last winter, carefully isolating each variable and ingredient to see its effect on the final product, I'm pretty well-equipped to tell you.
Butter's primary role in a cookie is simple: flavor. Butter tastes good. More precisely, the small percentage of milk proteins in butter that brown as the cookie bakes, taste good. Butter's secondary role is as a tenderizer. Butter is about 81% fat by weight and around 8% water. By coating bits of flour with fat, it prevents the flour from forming gluten, the protein network that makes bread chewy but cookies tough. The more butter in your cookie, the more tender they'll be.
Judging from the label, Hampton Creek seems to use a mixture of palm oil and water to take care of the tenderizing fat element. What about for flavoring? Well, all I can see is the "Natural Flavors," which can mean a wide variety of things.
As for eggs, they provide a small amount of protein to aid browning, along with a lot of water. They, along with baking soda, are also what makes cookies rise and puff slightly. The more eggs you add, the cake-ier your cookie gets. Taking another look at the ingredients, they appear to enlist the aid of xanthan gum and algin—two naturally derived hydrocolloids—to help replace some of those characteristics.
The rest of the ingredients—wheat flour, evaporated cane juice (that's hippy-speak for sugar), chocolate, oil, molasses, baking soda, and a couple other grains—are nothing you don't find in many other cookie doughs out there.
So how successful are they with their replacements? Only one way to find out.
Straight out of the jar, it's tasty, as you'd expect cookie dough to be. There's none of the complex, caramel-notes you get from regular or browned butter, but the molasses adds a nice touch.
To bake, you open the jar, scoop out the dough in tablespoon-sized portions, plop them on a tray, and throw them in a 350°F oven. 10 minutes later you get this:
Looking pretty good, right? My first impression out of the oven is that they're quite flat—they don't puff up at all the way a slightly eggier real cookie dough would, but that's not necessarily a defect: many folks like thin cookies with a higher ratio of caramelized crust to soft crumb.
A few minutes out of the oven and they're super tender—too tender for me. They kinda fall apart in your hand. As they cool, they settle down to a texture that is a dead ringer for Chips Ahoy Soft Batch (my wife's favorite). If soft and chewy cookies are your thing, then these are for you. They have a fair amount of sweetness, and the caramelized edges go a long way towards adding that missing buttery toffee note from real butter cookies. I personally could do with a few more chocolate chips (or better yet chocolate chunks), but still, a pretty darned good cookie nonetheless. Granted, the competition ain't too stiff, but these were easily the best dairy and egg-free cookies I've tasted.
Having baked them myself I didn't feel that I could give an impartial impression of their flavor, so I packed up a couple dozen and walked on over to Pal's, where I gave one to Jeff Mason, the owner of the shop. As a sandwich maker, his job basically requires him to be an excellent taster to procure the best stuff to put between two slices of bread. I trust his palate.
I handed him a cookie, let him know that they weren't my own so he could be as honest as he likes, and asked for impressions on their flavor. Noticing the line of folks waiting for sandwiches, I decided to form a full-on tasting panel. It's easy to get people to do work for you when there are free cookies involved.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. "These are some of the best cookies I've had period," said one young man. "They could perhaps be a little bit sweeter, but I like my cookies sweet. Really great texture, and nice flavor," was Jeff's response.
Now, bear in mind that people are bound to be positively biased towards free stuff, even when you specifically ask them not to be, so this is hardly a scientific taste test, but I see it as a good litmus test for the reaction I'd get if I served them at a dinner party. There'd be no problem with leftovers.
As a cook with more than a passing interest in veganism from both an ethical and an environmental perspective, I'm extremely excited to see time and money being spent by intelligent folks to develop products like these—products that actually put flavor and performance in front of politics and ethos—and it's telling to me that most of the people who work at Hampton Creek aren't even vegan themselves.
The cookie dough will be available in Whole Foods in the South Pacific region by the end of the month, retailing for $5.49 for a 14-ounce container (that's enough to make a couple dozen cookies), and expanding to the Pacific Northwest and to Costcos on the West Coast by October.