Rennet /ˈrɛnᵻt/ is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals. Chymosin, its key component, is a protease enzyme that curdles the casein in milk. This helps young mammals digest their mothers' milk. Rennet can also be used to separate milk into solid curds for cheesemaking and liquid whey. In addition to chymosin, rennet contains other important enzymes such as pepsin and a lipase.
Rennet is used in the production of most cheeses. The mammal's digestive system must be accessed to obtain its rennet. Non-animal alternatives for rennet are suitable for consumption by vegetarians.
Calf rennet is extracted from the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber (the abomasum) of young, unweaned calves as part of livestock butchering. These stomachs are a byproduct of veal production. If rennet is extracted from older calves (grass-fed or grain-fed), the rennet contains less or no chymosin, but a high level of pepsin and can only be used for special types of milk and cheeses. As each ruminant produces a special kind of rennet to digest the milk of its own species, milk-specific rennets are available, such as kid goat rennet for goat's milk and lamb rennet for sheep's milk.
Dried and cleaned stomachs of young calves are sliced into small pieces and then put into salt water or whey, together with some vinegar or wine to lower the pH of the solution. After some time (overnight or several days), the solution is filtered. The crude rennet that remains in the filtered solution can then be used to coagulate milk. About 1 g of this solution can normally coagulate 2 to 4 L of milk.
Deep-frozen stomachs are milled and put into an enzyme-extracting solution. The crude rennet extract is then activated by adding acid; the enzymes in the stomach are produced in an inactive form and are activated by the stomach acid. The acid is then neutralized and the rennet extract is filtered in several stages and concentrated until reaching a typical potency of about 1:15,000; meaning 1 g of extract can coagulate 15 kg of milk.
One kg of rennet extract has about 0.7 g of active enzymes – the rest is water and salt and sometimes sodium benzoate (E211), 0.5% - 1.0% for preservation. Typically, 1 kg of cheese contains about 0.0003 g of rennet enzymes.
Many soft cheeses are produced without use of rennet, by coagulating milk with acid, such as citric acid or vinegar, or the lactic acid produced by soured milk. Cream cheese, paneer, and rubing are traditionally made this way (see Category:Acid-set cheeses for others). The acidification can also come from bacterial fermentation such as in cultured milk.
Vegan alternatives to cheese are manufactured without using animal milk but instead use soy, wheat, rice or cashew. These can be coagulated with acid using sources such as vinegar or lemon juice.