If you walked into one of Salt & Straw‘s 18 ice cream shops during the month of January, you would’ve seen a whole special menu dedicated to vegan flavors. There was a toasted coconut milk and cookies flavor, ribboned with chocolate ganache made from almond milk, and an Elvis Presley-inspired peanut butter, “bacon” (really, smoked coconut flakes), and banana combination. Another flavor featured a dead ringer for marshmallows that really were made from aquafaba–the “bean water” left over after boiling chickpeas, whipped into an ingredient resembling egg whites.
The special vegan menu, say Salt & Straw cofounders Tyler and Kim Malek (they’re cousins), was actually something of a test run–starting in February, 20% of all of the company’s flavors will be entirely plant-based.
For Salt & Straw, this is a big step–one that they weren’t sure they would be able to pull off, but were determined to try. “We opened in Portland, which has one of the highest percentages of vegans in the country,” Tyler says. “We know that more and more people are choosing a plant-based diet for health and environmental reasons, and we wanted to find a way to make our ice cream inclusive for everyone.”
The switch to a full-time, one-fifth vegan menu has been around five years in the making, Tyler says. “There are a lot of technical things about vegan milk and flavors that make ice-cream making challenging,” he says. Even the way non-dairy milk spins in the ice-cream making machine, he adds, is different, and they had to do a lot of experimentation to find a method of making a vegan base that would support the types of unique flavors the company is known for.
In each city it has an outpost (Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco) Salt & Straw develops a menu of ice creams built around local ingredients. Each month, the company makes an additional five, more seasonal offerings, like the all-vegan one in January (going forward, at least one of those flavors will be plant-based).
If you’ve ever eaten non-dairy ice cream, though, you probably know that creamy taste–and often, interesting flavors–are hard to come by. “We have so much fun working with local partners and suppliers, and experimenting with textures and taste in our dairy flavors,” Tyler says. “We wanted to put the same care and indulgence into vegan flavors.”
That had to start, though, with a solid base. Salt & Straw opted to make its vegan base from coconut milk. From an environmental perspective, coconuts are much lower impact than dairy. Coconuts are often grown on small, family-run farms, which don’t rely on pesticides or fertilizers. Coconut trees can also help sequester carbon. (Tyler notes, however, that relying on coconut milk deviates from Salt & Straw’s preference for local sourcing, and shipping the nuts overseas does require a lot of fuel.)
Salt & Straw worked for years to perfect how it mixes coconut milk to make a creamy ice-cream base that’s nearly indistinguishable from dairy. In fact, before this year, Salt & Straw would often sneak a coconut-milk-based ice cream on its menu and not mark it as vegan. They determined it a success if people enjoyed the flavor based on taste alone–which is similar to the approach that plant-based meat companies, like Impossible Foods, are taking as they scale up. (Salt & Straw staff would, though, direct people to the flavors if they asked about vegan options.)
The 20% vegan menu commitment is Salt & Straw’s way of signaling that choosing vegan–for whatever reason–does not have to lock people out of experiences like eating good ice cream, and that plant-based options have a place in the mainstream. Going forward, the company is looking forward to working with more local, plant-based product makers along the West Coast, and incorporating their goods into new flavors.