There's a revolution happening in the cheese world, and it doesn't have anything to do with dairy.
For decades, vegan cheese has had a bad rap. It was well deserved. Rubbery and often with an aftertaste compared to pencil erasers or Play-Doh, the plant-based varieties just did not stand up to the real thing. Now, a new generation of vegan chefs and food entrepreneurs has figured out what was missing: fermentation.
Vegan cheese "started out as 'How can we make something look like cheese?'" says Miyoko Schinner, owner of Miyoko's Kitchen, the artisan vegan cheese company based near San Francisco. "But the problem was that it didn't taste like cheese. Then we realized that we needed to apply actual cheesemaking techniques to develop flavor."
Crafting vegan cheese using traditional techniques makes sense. It requires patience, just as with dairy-based cheese; the advantage is that a plant-based cheese can take less time to make, but it still requires a few days or even weeks to develop complex flavor. "Vegans want to be able to make cheddar cheese in fifteen minutes," Schinner says. "No omnivore would ever expect to do that."
Vegans are not the only audience for nondairy cheeses. There's a huge portion of humanity — 65 percent — that cannot digest dairy products, says Washington's own vegan chef-restaurateur, Doron Petersan. "So, when you think about it on that level," she says, "it doesn't make sense to use animal products to create cheese. The problem is that cheese is so freakin' delicious, everybody wants to eat it."
Kale Walch certainly had no intention of becoming a vegan cheesemaker, but he started experimenting with recipes about four years ago after being inspired to follow his sister Aubry's plant-based diet. "I couldn't stay vegan without a good cheese replacement," says the Minneapolis resident.
After some trial and error, the siblings decided to take their products - handmade with a base of high-quality soy milk and coconut oil — to their local farmers market. They were shocked by the enthusiastic response. A crowdfunding campaign soon led to a private investor and the opening of their brick-and-mortar store, the Herbivorous Butcher, in early 2016. They now make 400 pounds of vegan cheese each week, in eight-pound batches, including dill havarti and pepper Jack, along with plant-based versions of capicola, beer brats and pastrami. The biggest sellers are American and provolone.
"It started out that we were just making the food we were hungry for," Walch says. "But it turned out that a lot of people were hungry for the same stuff."
As it turns out, close to 75 percent of Walch's customers are not vegan; instead, they have concerns about factory farming, sustainability and global warming. "It's getting harder to avoid the facts about the environmental impacts," Walch says. "People are starting to catch on a little bit, and our products are probably the easiest way to bridge the gap." Consequently, consumers spent $5 billion in the plant-based food sector in 2016. And alternative cheeses are the biggest single subcategory.
"A generation ago, this was a lifestyle choice," according to Neal Barnard, author of "The Cheese Trap" and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan research and advocacy nonprofit based in Washington. "But now it's also about the impact on the environment and animal welfare."
The average American consumes about 65,000 calories per year from cheese alone, according to Barnard, so his crusade against cheese is hardly surprising. Switching to plant-based versions can have a dramatic effect on reducing some people's cholesterol levels, but even a vegan cheese can be fatty, relying on nuts and/or coconut oil to provide the right mouthfeel.
"Cheese has a salty, creamy, unctuous quality," Schinner says, so good vegan cheeses should, as well. "You want them to be able to melt, to enhance the flavor of dishes, to provide that taste memory."
The concept of fermentation began to dawn on her some 35 years ago when she was living in Japan and saw a television show about nuns who were changing the flavor profile of tofu by burying it in ash or marinating it in miso. She combined miso, white wine and mirin to create a marinade for tofu, but over the years took the same ingredients and started using them to flavor purees made from nuts. By allowing cashews, almonds and other nuts to ferment at room temperature for a few days mixed with miso and various other ingredients, Schinner found that deeper flavors could be developed — similar to those that might be found in a sharp cheddar or buttery Gouda.
For the home cheesemaker, Schinner's books "Artisan Vegan Cheese" and "The Homemade Vegan Pantry" offer fairly uncomplicated recipes that pay special attention to vegan ingredients that can mimic certain kinds of familiar cheese flavor profiles.
"Cashews are the most neutral," she says, "like cow's milk. Goat's milk is stronger in flavor, so almonds are a good substitute because they develop a funkier flavor when they're fermented." Brazil nuts turn out to be a surprisingly delicious stand-in for Parmesan, offering up an earthy taste that is also fatty and slightly gritty on the tongue. Schinner suggests using sauerkraut brine as a fermenting liquid for the nuts, which adds a deep saltiness and tang.
Petersan was inspired to start making a vegan version of burrata - balls of fresh mozzarella stuffed with a thickened cream - after participating in a cooking demonstration with Schinner several years ago, who was making her signature buffalo mozzarella using a fermented cashew yogurt as the base.
"I just fell in love with it," Petersan says. "I started to play around with it, tweaking the recipe, and watched about a million videos on making burrata." The result, which can be found on the menu at Petersan's vegan diner, Fare Well in Northeast Washington, features the same shiny smooth outer shell as its traditional dairy-based cousin, with a satisfying burst of creamy filling. When presented on a bed of peppery arugula with fresh pesto and toasted baguette slices, it's an almond-cashew burrata that might fool even the most discerning cheesehead.
"There's this whole psychology of food, and that's part of what we're doing," she says of vegan cheesemakers, "making these foods that are not dairy and presenting them in a way that's beautiful and palatable and fun and attainable."
Walch can attest to the psychology, having just spent months working to perfect a plant-based version of cheese curds — those rubbery chunks of curdled milk that are a Midwestern favorite, prized for their characteristic squeak against the teeth.
He knew that his fellow Minnesotans would be expecting that squeak, the sound created when elastic strands of calcium-encased proteins developed during the curdling process rub up against tooth enamel. "We came up with a halloumi cheese by adding a little wheat gluten to make it more solid for grilling," Walch says. "So it gave us an idea of how we might make the cheese curds. It ended up taking a lot longer to perfect than we thought. It's hard to get that squeak."
While the Herbivorous Butcher doesn't have enough production space and climate control to allow for making aged cheeses, they have incorporated various types of miso, made from fermented beans, to develop different flavors. Scan vegan cheese recipes online, and you will find a range that includes classic blue cheese made with cashews and Penicillium roqueforti, and a Jack-style spread made with cauliflower. Miyoko's Kitchen is about to move into a new 30,000-square-foot facility, where Schinner is excited to expand her line with grain- and legume-based cheeses.
"You can make a plant-based product that's almost identical to a dairy-based cheese using the same process," Petersan says, "because it's not about the dairy. It's more about the science and processes behind it."
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Here are more manufacturers that make nondairy cheeses:
- Bragg Nutritional Yeast. This product is an inactive yeast grown with beet molasses, sugar cane and water, then fortified with vitamin B12. Widely available in the health food section of most grocery stores, it adds a distinctly cheesy flavor to many recipes and is delicious sprinkled straight over pasta and popcorn. bragg.com.
- Kite Hill. Co-founded by Los Angeles chef Tal Ronnen with an emphasis on sustainability, the company sells nationwide and specializes in nut-milk-based soft cheeses and spreads. kite-hill.com.
- Daiya. Recently purchased by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Otsuka, this brand produces shredded cheeses that have become the go-to for makers of vegan pizzas. Its line includes meltable slices, and it's widely available in many grocery stores. daiyafoods.com.
- Three Girls Vegan Creamery. This newcomer from Connecticut ships cashew-based mozzarella pearls, aged grated Parmesan made with almond meal and mustard seeds, and mini French-style soft cheeses studded with edible flowers. threegirlsvegan.com.
- Treeline. This array of French-style nut cheeses takes its cue from boursin, boasting a soft texture and swirled with herbs, and can often be found alongside products from Miyoko's Kitchen. The green peppercorn style has a tangy goat-cheese quality, and two new aged cashew-based hard cheeses can even be grated over pasta. treelinecheese.com.
- Vromage. Youssef Fakhouri has been wowing Los Angeles locals with cheese made from a variety of nuts and seeds, including macadamias, pistachios and hemp seeds. Some of the styles that can be shipped include asiago, spicy cheddar and "veganzola." vromage.com.
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Hartke is a Washington writer.
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Vegan Shaved Parm
Makes 2 cups
Brazil nuts provide a luscious fattiness to this vegan version of Parmesan, and the addition of miso and nutritional yeast provides plenty of umami, making the taste strikingly similar to traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Scatter it over pasta and salads or melt it onto garlic bread.
MAKE AHEAD: The nuts need to be soaked for at least 4 hours. The cheese mixture needs to cure at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. The cheese can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 3 or 4 months.
Vegan cheesemaker Miyoko Schinner's use of sauerkraut liquid is not only easy but also adds tangy flavor to the finished product. But you can make a vegan cheese starter called rejuvelac, a probiotic liquid made from sprouted grains that serves as a plant-based rennet, or buy it at natural foods stores and via Amazon.com.
From "The Homemade Vegan Pantry" by Schinner (Ten Speed Press, 2015).
1 cup Brazil nuts
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup sauerkraut liquid (may substitute a vegan cheese starter called rejuvelac; see headnote)
2 tablespoons white, yellow or chickpea miso
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt
Place the Brazil nuts in a bowl and cover with water. Let sit at room temperature for at least 4 hours.
Drain the Brazil nuts, discarding their water. Transfer to a food processor or high-speed blender, along with the pine nuts, sauerkraut liquid, miso, nutritional yeast and salt. Puree on HIGH for 2 or 3 minutes, until the mixture is smooth, then transfer to a container; cover tightly and let sit at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, until the flavors are sharp and have deepened.
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 250 degrees. Line two or three baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
Use an offset spatula to spread the mixture almost paper-thin on the baking sheets; depending on their size, you may have enough cheese mixture to spread on three of them. Bake two at a time (upper and lower racks) for about 30 minutes, rotating them from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until dry and golden brown.
Let cool, then break into shards and transfer to a tightly sealed glass container. Refrigerate for 3 or 4 months.
Nutrition | Per 2-tablespoon serving: 90 calories, 2 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
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Makes 1 pound
In her 2015 cookbook, vegan chef Miyoko Schinner writes that she had forgotten the "joy that feta cheese can add to dishes." Her vegan version made with blanched almonds adds the same tangy brininess as traditional feta cheese.
You will need cheesecloth and an 8-inch square pan.
This feta can be marinated; see the VARIATION, below.
You can make a vegan cheese starter called rejuvelac, a probiotic liquid made from sprouted grains that serves as a plant-based rennet, or buy it at natural foods stores and via Amazon.com. But Schinner's substitution of readily available sauerkraut liquid is not only easy but also adds tangy flavor to the finished product. Powdered agar-agar is available at natural foods stores.
MAKE AHEAD: The almonds need to be soaked for 12 to 24 hours. The cheese mixture needs to cure at room temperature for a few days. The mixture with agar needs to be chilled for several hours. The almond feta will taste best after 3 or 4 weeks, and can be refrigerated for 3 to 4 months.
From "The Homemade Vegan Pantry" by Schinner (Ten Speed Press, 2015).
For the feta
2 cups blanched almonds, soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours
1 cup sauerkraut liquid (may substitute a vegan cheese starter/rejuvelac; see headnote)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2/3 cup water
2 tablespoons powdered agar-agar (see headnote)
For the brine
6 cups water, or more as needed
3/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt
For the feta: Drain and rinse the almonds.
Place them in a high-speed blender (such as a Vitamix), along with the sauerkraut liquid and salt. Puree on HIGH for 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth and no longer grainy; if you don't have a high-speed blender, it may be easier to blend half the almonds, liquid and salt until smooth, then add in the other half to finish blending. Pour the mixture into a clean container and cover with a plastic, metal or glass lid (or plastic wrap). Let sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 days, making sure you taste it each day, until it begins to get tangy. Keep in mind there is no hard-and-fast rule about how long it needs to culture - your taste buds will have to guide you in determining the right length of time. In warmer weather, it could be just a day, while in cooler weather, it could take 2 days or longer.
Once the cheese is slightly tangy, you can move on to solidifying it. First, prepare the mold for the cheese by lining an 8-inch square pan with cheesecloth. Combine the water and agar in a medium saucepan and whisk well. Cover the pan with a lid and warm through over low heat. Don't peek for 3 to 4 minutes, then check to see whether it is gently bubbling. At first, if you peek too early, it may look as though it has solidified. However, if you let it cook a few minutes more, it will start to liquefy again and bubble away; the mixture will be a little cloudy and slightly thickened, but still pourable when ready.
Once the agar has fully dissolved, pour in the cultured almond mixture and whisk until fully incorporated. Pour the cheese mixture into the cheesecloth-lined pan. Refrigerate for several hours, until very firm.
For the brine: Whisk together the water and the salt in a large bowl until most of the salt has dissolved. Cut the cheese into 4 equal pieces and place in the brine. Cover and let them sit at room temperature for 8 hours.
To finish, transfer the feta to a storage container and pour the brine over the cheese until it is halfway submerged. Add more plain water to completely cover the cheese and dilute the brine. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 months. The flavor vastly improves after the first 3 to 4 weeks.
VARIATION: To make marinated vegan feta, cut 8 ounces of the plain/brined feta (that has been refrigerated for 3 to 4 weeks) into 1-inch cubes, placing them in a clean 16-ounce jar as you work. Add 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence, 1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, a wide swath of lemon rind and enough olive oil to cover the feta cubes. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours before serving with bread or crackers.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
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Cauliflower Jack Vegan Cheese
Makes 1 pound
This recipe offers a nut-free alternative to most vegan cheeses. The natural nuttiness of cauliflower pairs well with chives to create a lightly firm but still spreadable version of that's tasty on crackers and can even be melted on bread under the broiler.
Powdered, unflavored vegan gelatin can typically be found in the same section in the grocery store where you would find traditional gelatin and/or baking supplies. Some kosher gelatins are vegan as well - just make sure to choose one that is unsweetened and unflavored. Common brands include Lieber's, Natural Desserts and Bakol Jel. Powdered agar-agar is available at natural foods stores.
MAKE AHEAD: The cheese needs to be refrigerated for 4 hours, or until firm. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 5 to 7 days.
Adapted from "Vegan Cheese: Simple, Delicious Plant-Based Recipes" by Jules Aron (Countryman, May 2017).
2 cups cauliflower florets (10 ounces)
4 tablespoons unflavored vegan gelatin (can substitute powdered agar-agar; see headnote)
3 tablespoons organic refined coconut oil, liquefied, plus more for the container
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated garlic (powder)
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
Place the cauliflower in a basket steamer suspended over several inches of water. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until tender. Reserve 3/4 cup of that water.
Place the gelatin in a bowl and sprinkle a little cold water over the top to hydrate it (if using powdered agar-agar, you can skip this step), then add the reserved cauliflower water and whisk to incorporate.
Combine the steamed cauliflower, coconut oil, lime juice, sea salt, nutritional yeast, onion powder and garlic powder in a blender; puree until smooth.
Add the gelatin mixture to the blender; puree until completely incorporated, then pour the mixture into a bowl so you can fold in the chives. Use a little more coconut oil to lightly grease a container large enough to hold/mold the cheese mixture, then pour in the mixture and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 4 hours, or until firm, before serving.
Nutrition | Per 2-ounce serving (using agar-agar): 60 calories, 1 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
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Vegan Aged Camembert Cheese
Makes 3 four-inch rounds or 2 six-inch rounds
This plant-based version of the classic French cheese has only five ingredients and is fairly uncomplicated - it just takes patience.
By using traditional cheesemaking practices, including the addition of penicillium candidum - the agent that allows the vegan camembert to grow a signature coating of mold - this nut-based version is surprisingly close to the original in flavor and appearance.
Read the directions all the way through for special equipment needs.
Penicillium candidum and mesophilic can be ordered online from www.cheesemaking.com. Vegan acidophilus probiotic capsules can be found at most grocery and health food stores in the vitamin aisle.
MAKE AHEAD: The cashews need to be soaked for at least 5 hours, and up to overnight. The cashew cream needs to be refrigerated for 4 hours. Allow at least 2 weeks for the cheese to ripen; the aged cheese can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.
Adapted from a recipe by Thomas Pagot at FullofPlants.com.
2 pounds (about 4 cups) raw cashews
8 to 10 tablespoons filtered water
1/2 teaspoon (from about 8 capsules) vegan acidophilus probiotic or 1/8 teaspoon mesophilic (see headnote)
1/8 teaspoon penicillium candidum (4 drops if using liquid; see headnote)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Soak the cashews in water for at least 5 hours or overnight.
Drain the cashews, discarding their water. Rinse them under cold water and place in a blender with the filtered water (as needed). Open the probiotic capsules and measure out 1/2 teaspoon, then add the powder to the blender, along with the penicillium candidum. Blend on high speed, scraping down the sides from time to time, for up to 10 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and creamy; you can add a scant tablespoon of water at a time if the mixture becomes too thick to blend, but be careful not to add too much water so that the mixture becomes loose (see NOTE, below).
Transfer the thickened cashew cream to a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 1 day to allow the mixture to ferment. After the cashew cream has fermented, refrigerate it for 4 hours.
Line a clean baking sheet and three 4-inch (or two 6-inch) springform pans with parchment paper; make sure the sides and bottoms of the springform pans are completely covered with the parchment paper, or you can also use plastic wrap as a liner. Fill each pan with the mixture and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Place the pans on the baking sheet and cover with an inverted plastic box.
To age the cheese, let it sit on the tray covered with the box at room temperature at 52 to 56 degrees; the cheese can also be aged in the refrigerator, but it may take a little longer for the mold to grow. The entire process can take as long as 3 weeks.
For the first 3 days of aging, carefully flip the cheeses each day, by inverting the mold, turning the cheese over and reinserting it into the mold. Make sure your hands are very clean or handle the cheese with plastic wrap.
On the fourth day, carefully remove the cheese from the pans and sprinkle the sea salt over the entire surface of each cheese. Place back on the baking sheet and cover with the box, and continue to turn each day. On the seventh day, place a bamboo mat on top of the baking sheet and put the cheese, which should be much firmer, directly on top of the mat before covering with the box. The bamboo mat will allow for more air circulation.
Continue turning each day for the next week. The mold should appear after 5 to 7 days and continue to grow until the cheeses are fully covered with a white rind. After two weeks, wrap the cheeses in parchment paper and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 days to allow the flavor to continue to develop. The cheese will keep for at least 1 month in the refrigerator.
NOTE: If the cashew cream does become loose, wrap the mixture tightly in a cheesecloth. Place in a colander over a bowl and put a weight on top, then let it drain overnight before proceeding.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
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Vegan Everyday Cheese
Makes 2 1/2 cups
The viscous quality of aquafaba - the liquid we typically pour off from a can of chickpeas or other beans - proves to be a terrific emulsifier in this nondairy, non-nut-milk cheese that is a worthy substitute for mozzarella and other mild white cheeses.
You can use aquafaba from canned beans (chickpeas or garbanzo beans are the most commonly used, as the liquid has a fairly neutral flavor) or from homemade beans. When using homemade beans, remember that the aquafaba comes from the cooking, not soaking, liquid. You will need an instant-read thermometer.
Powdered agar-agar is available at natural and health food stores.
MAKE AHEAD: The cheese needs to be refrigerated in an airtight container for at least 6 hours and up to 2 weeks.
Adapted from "Aquafaba" by Zsu Dever (Vegan Heritage Press, 2016).
3/4 cup aquafaba (see headnote)
4 teaspoons powdered agar-agar (see headnote)
1 1/2 teaspoons white or chickpea miso
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon tapioca starch
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
3/4 cup unsweetened plain soy milk or almond milk
3 tablespoons refined coconut oil, liquefied
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened plain non-dairy yogurt
Stir together the aquafaba and powdered agar-agar in a medium saucepan; let sit for 3 minutes, to thicken.
Combine the miso, nutritional yeast, tapioca starch and salt in a small container.
Combine 1/4 cup of the soy or almond milk with the coconut oil in a liquid measuring cup.
Heat the agar-agar mixture over medium heat, whisking thoroughly to incorporate. Once it begins to bubble, cook undisturbed for 1 minute. Then, while whisking vigorously, add the milk-oil mixture in a slow, steady stream.
Add the nutritional yeast mixture and whisk until smooth, then gradually whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup of milk, bringing the mixture back to bubbling. Cook for 5 minutes, until the cheese reaches a temperature of 195 degrees, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Whisk in the yogurt and return the cheese to barely bubbling.
While the cheese is still hot, transfer it to a 2 1/2-cup heatproof container. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours (or until firm). Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Nutrition | Per 2-tablespoon serving: 25 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar