Floral Frosting's peanut butter macarons made with aquafaba. Photo courtesy of Charis Powell.

The Secret Ingredient in These Vegan Macarons Is Bean Water

If you whip the water from a can of chickpeas in a stand mixer, it turns white and stiffens into peaks like egg whites. As mildly disgusting as it sounds, plant-based bakers and mixologists are thanking the vegan gods for the innovation.

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Mar 7 2016, 6:00pm

Floral Frosting's peanut butter macarons made with aquafaba. Photo courtesy of Charis Powell.

Did you know that if you whip the water from a can of chickpeas up in a stand mixer, it turns white and stiffens into peaks like egg whites? Are you intrigued by this, or mildly disgusted? Perhaps a mixture of both? It's understandable, considering it's a byproduct of canning that we usually pour down the drain. To thousands of vegans, though, this chickpea water—christened aquafaba—has been a godsend, with some professionals believing it has the potential to be a standardized, commonplace ingredient.

The name comes from Latin, combining "water" and "bean." It was discovered by French chef Joël Roessel but perfected by a software engineer named Goose Wohlt in the beginning of 2015, leading to the start of a Facebook group called "Vegan Meringue—Hits and Misses!" that now has almost 40,000 members. The group is updated multiple times a day with people using the stuff to make everything from cheese to pavlova to Swiss buttercreams.

Egg whites have historically been the hardest baking component to replicate for vegans, leading to molecular gastronomy-influenced recipes that call for xanthan gum, soy protein isolate, and myriad starches. Others have called for using the goo from soaked flaxseed or chia seeds, but it's never been stable enough for more elaborate applications. Aquafaba works for meringue, French macarons, and even pâte à choux for eclairs and cream puffs, all for the low cost of a can of beans you'd probably eat anyway.

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The liquid left over from soaking chickpeas is whipped into meringue. Photo via Flickr user sixybeast.

One early adopter was the UK-based baker Charis Powell, who has become the aquafaba macaron queen through her blog Floral Frosting. She has made 14 varieties since she began using it, right after its introduction by Wohlt. "The moment I found out about aquafaba, my first thought was Macarons! I immediately began making batches and batches—lots of utter failures!—adapting non-vegan recipes with poor results," she tells me over email. "I'm a perfectionist, so I wasn't going to be happy with my macarons until they had perfect feet, a smooth finish, and were chewy inside. It took two weeks and about 25 batches, but I eventually came up with my own recipe that I'm really happy with!"

It's led to incredible audience growth on her Instagram account and blog. "My blog now gets upwards of 40,000 views a month, a great increase from the 1,000 I was getting previously," she says. From peanut butter and jelly to colorfully swirled "mermaid" macarons, she's carved out the rare recipe niche that's not yet been Pinterest-ed to death: "I think it's become so popular because, until now, vegan macarons were not only unattainable for home bakers, but even for a lot of professionals. Now anyone can make some." The cheapness and relative ease of use make it ideal for serious home bakers like Powell, but, as she notes, professional kitchens have gotten into aquafaba, too—just without the cans. At Gratitude in LA, chef Dreux Ellis is making about 12 to 15 quarts per week for use in the kitchen and behind the bar. To make aquafaba from scratch, you have to soak the beans, cook them, and leave them to sit in the water overnight. Only then it is ready to be whipped, used as a binder for breadings, or shaken into a cocktail for a creamy texture. In the Gratitude kitchen, the long process is not a concern because everything at the 100-percent organic restaurant is done in-house; the restaurant's roots are in raw food, where 12-hour dehydrator drying times are the norm. It's hard to imagine a non-vegan professional kitchen where such prep for one ingredient wouldn't be viewed as utterly cumbersome, when you can get the same results from just cracking open an egg.

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Gratitude's Oaxaca Sour, also soon to be available at Gracias Madre, with mezcal, lime, agave, citrus salt foam, and fennel flower. Photo courtesy of Gratitude/Gracias Madre.

"I don't know when it came up on my radar completely; I was just seeing these pictures and started searching online, saying, 'What is this crazy thing?'" says Ellis. That was six or seven months ago. "I just think it's one of the most brilliant things I've come across," he notes. "I think it's a real game-changer for vegan cuisine." He's been a vegan chef since 2000 but had never experimented with meringues until discovering aquafaba. Now the Gratitude pastry menu features a forest berry meringata with aquafaba meringue, strawberry raspberry reduction, coconut cashew cream, and chocolate sauce.

Jason Eisner, the bar manager of Gratitude and its sister restaurant Gracias Madre, started using aquafaba in cocktails about four months ago. "I'd been trying to find a good egg white replacer for years," he says. Egg whites are an important ingredient in classic cocktails, providing a velvety mouthfeel, but until aquafaba, there was no organic, vegan way of replicating it. It's also ripe for flavoring with herbs or oils, allowing for multiple experiences in one glass.

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Graditude's Nasca Sour, with quebranta pisco, lemon, earl grey aquafaba foam, and carrot essence. Photo courtesy of Gratitude/Gracias Madre.

He's gotten obsessed, as you might expect for a bartender creating a vegan cocktail program. "It takes up the majority of my day, to the point where I'm going to do an entire menu of sours and it's all going to deal with aquafaba in its different iterations," he tells me very enthusiastically. "I'm going to use cannellini brine, chickpea foam, and I'm gonna try to see if black beans will work and what that will taste like." While I'm dubious that there's no bean flavor present in the finished cocktails, he insists that his aquafaba tastes only like what he wants it to.

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My dubiousness is born of my own experiments, which have left me with meringues that taste like Lucky Charms marshmallows. That's not always a bad thing, of course, but it's far from the cleaner flavor of non-aquafaba meringues I've tasted. At Alinea in 2014, a sweet meringue made to mimic the look of concrete was made with gums and starches; its perfect crack and flavor were a wonderful shock to me, as someone who hadn't eaten anything made with egg white in years. New Paltz bakery Sweet Maresa's makes vegan, non-aquafaba-based macarons that are brilliantly chewy and regularly sell out at New York City pop-ups. Still, the aquafaba community grows and grows.

It's not convincing anyone to switch to veganism, though. "Technically speaking, aquafaba is a dream product to work with. Never has an egg or foaming agent worked quite like it. The liquid creates stable meringues and faux whipped creams," says omnivorous chef and food writer Emily Ziemski. "The difference, however, is the taste. The texture comes off a bit gritty, and the aftertaste is reminiscent of a night spent doing too many pickleback shots. Yes, it's a great advancement for vegan baking, but I'll stick to egg whites."

In the Facebook group dedicated to it, vegan bakers from Sydney to Mumbai to Seattle are helping each other with queries and sharing ideas for how to use up their chickpea surpluses; it's undoubtedly an exciting moment in the movement, one you can watch develop in real time. It's going to be a big day for veganism when 40,000 people freak out because someone finally figured out how to make an aquafaba angel food cake. In traditional kitchens, though, they've already got the recipe down.