A sensory product review: the vegan mince pie alternatives worth sampling this Christmas.

Posted by Debbie Parker on the 17th December, 2020
From a sensory perspective, both versions have their merits. Non-vegan was top when it came to melting in the mouth, buttery flavour and the overall ease of eating, but vegan equivalents offer a crumble on both cutting and tasting, with a greater sweetness and fruitiness in their flavour.

‘We’re dreaming of a Vegan Christmas…’
Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a mince pie. But the key ingredients that make it a festive favourite – butter, eggs, and a generous dollop of cream – make it off limits for the growing number of vegans in the UK. And it’s not just vegans who are interested in dairy-free options this Christmas. In fact, 18% of Brits would consider a vegan alternative to their favourite Christmas foods this year, according to a nationally representative poll.

But those consumers won’t dig in unless the taste is right. So how exactly do manufacturers replicate that taste without the use of dairy? And can vegan mince pies ever measure up to their standard counterparts?

We evaluated some of the vegan mince pies available on the shelves this year for The Grocer, to understand the full sensory experience of these alternatives. With over 20 years of sensory expertise she shares a scientific review for all the adventurous festive tasters out there.

The sensory science behind a perfectly baked mince pie…
Manufacturers have their work cut out in creating a vegan mince pie that hits the right spot. That’s because many of the sensory aspects of pastry are the result of dairy and eggs. In vegan alternatives, those ingredients are naturally off limits.

Similarly, in the process of baking, the addition of milk, butter and eggs in pastry dough provides crumb structure and aids aeration, making the dough light, crisp and crumbly.

These ingredients also contribute to moisture, colour, texture and flavour in pastry, so removing even one will impact the eating experience. And removing all three is a huge challenge on the structure and integrity of the pastry.

As milk and butter originate from animals, they contain higher levels of saturated fat. That’s the reason why animal fats are solid at room temperature. In contrast, most vegetable fats – or oils – are liquid at room temperature. Solid fats act as shortening agents in pastry making. Fats melt to create a barrier around gluten molecules from flour, impeding the formation of gluten matrices and preventing an elastic and chewy dough (such as that required for pizza dough).

This shortening action is something that liquid plant oils struggle to mimic. Palm and coconut oils, however, have higher saturated fat content than other vegetable oils and are solid at room temperature and are therefore suitable shortening fats. Many vegan recipes use palm oil as a dairy alternative in pastry recipes.

The taste test…
So how do the two measure up in a taste test? For this test, we compared standard supermarket mince pies to their vegan counterparts. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, the flavour of all three vegan mince pie samples were very similar to their non-vegan equivalents. These alternative mince pies rose to the taste challenge marvellously. The fruit fillings were sweet and rich, as you would expect from any mince pie worth its salt.

From a sensory perspective, the key giveaway of their vegan origin was the shortness of the pastry and lack of binding keeping the pastry together. The pastry crumbled more easily on cutting and on eating, and overall the pastry was less richly buttery than the non-vegan versions. Also, although the vegan mince pies crumbled more on cutting, the pastry did not melt so quickly in the mouth and was a little chewier. Overall, the non-vegan mince pies were easier to eat as they stayed more intact during consumption.

So, which version is top dog this year?
From a sensory perspective, both versions have their merits. Non-vegan was top when it came to melting in the mouth, buttery flavour and the overall ease of eating, but vegan equivalents offer a crumble on both cutting and tasting, with a greater sweetness and fruitiness in their flavour.

Generally, we sensory scientists maintain an objective view of our product samples, but if I was to choose, the buttery flavour of the non-vegan just clinched it for me… But, if you or your family are vegan or not, this sensory review may well entice you to test this for yourself. Will you sample the old classic, or switch up to experiment with a vegan alternative this Christmas?

Meet the Author: Debbie Parker
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