My Vegan Cheese Relationship
A complicated journey of dealing with cravings and learning the basics of making vegan cheese.
Why is giving up cheese the red line that most people refuse to cross when considering a plant-based diet? Is it a texture thing? Is it the flavor...or maybe it’s missing that umami hit that brings a lot of savory to food? Conceivably it could be a cultural thing that’s influenced by social conformity.
These are the questions I think about when I consider my relationship with cheese, which has shifted many times since 2009 when my plant-based adventure began.
At first, I wondered how Spaghetti Bolognese would taste without a good dusting of grated parmesan. Would pizza be the same without gooey melted mozzarella? What would I say to my friends who wanted to sit around the table on a cold winter night dipping bread into melted cheese and engaging in a lively game of who gets to eat la religieuse (that’s the thin crust of toasted cheese at the bottom of the caquelon)? What would I eat in an airport food court when I craved a sandwich and realized every sandwich had cheese?
The next step for me was clearly to become nerdy...in a food kind of way. I searched for ways to fill my mouth with a coating of fat, a slight saltiness, and a kind of tanginess that is only achievable when fermenting foods using a starter culture. Ultimately milk is transformed into cheese by using bacteria and enzymes that coagulate proteins and convert carbohydrates to lactic acid. Simple enough...all I needed to do was find a plant-based starter culture that works with plant-based milk.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy because soy milk and different types of nut milk react differently to starter cultures and coagulate much less. The result is often a flat-tasting cheese due to less acid that should balance the fat. The cheese is usually soft...or, if you’re lucky, a semi-soft spread. Plus, vegan cheese is often made from a solid ingredient (nuts) that will never melt.
I kept nerding on.
I played around using several different starter cultures like soy yogurt, kefir, and probiotic capsules – all of which should have, in theory, worked well with thick nut milk. My results were mixed, and I wasn’t satisfied...until rejuvelac came into my life.
Rejuvelac is a fermented beverage made from whole grains. It contains a variety of friendly bacteria and can produce lactic acid. It’s also simple to make and costs very little...and it works reasonably well with cashews and almonds. I was hooked. The chef side of me fused with my nerdy side, and I entered into a sort of crazed pursuit to create satisfying vegan cheese.
But I also realized this was not a task for anyone looking for instant cheese gratification. Making rejuvelac takes about 4-7 days, and making a simple cashew cheese base takes another few days. Getting the cheese to taste like cheese requires some aging time, periodic attention and a good amount of space. Creating complex flavors through fermentation is something I couldn’t rush – this process needs time to unfold naturally. I was happy with the early experiments, but I wasn’t satisfied. These steps were not the kind of thing most people want to make regularly to appease their cheese cravings, not even for me – a self-described Chef Nerd.
At about the same time, the availability of commercially available vegan cheese increased rapidly. Most of the early alternatives relied on flavor enhancers, vegetable gums, and oils rich in saturated fats (coconut, palm or hydrogenated) that were added to mimic the texture and mouth feel of dairy cheese. To my taste buds, they had an artificial flavor and a texture closer to rubber or plastic than cheese.
Slow improvements led to a few interesting types of vegan cheese that started to look the part…and even taste close enough to the real thing to satisfy my cheese craving. Suddenly, the pendulum swung to the other end of the spectrum, and I found myself buying more and more cheese. It was now possible to buy a vegan cheese that could be grated…or melted…or specialty cheeses like those that are infused with a mold to create blue streaks…or even packets of grated cheese designed to be melted and turned into a vegan fondue feast (I haven’t gone there yet).
These calorie-rich new vegan cheeses come at a price. For starters, they are 2 to 3 times more expensive than traditional cheese. They are high in fat content…often using fats rich in saturated fat to boost the fat levels already present from any nut used in the base. And many continue to use vegetable gums and flavor enhancers.
My ever-evolving relationship with vegan cheese has yet to be settled. My seesaw relationship looks a bit like this: I missed eating cheese. Then I despised it. I ventured into the world of making my own, then I stopped and decided it was easier to buy my fix. Then I ate too much…and stopped again…
I still occasionally make small amounts of vegan cheese to enjoy or share with friends. There are also many excellent types of vegan cheese available in most supermarkets, so it’s a no-brainer to go and buy whatever I need when I can’t be bothered to spend a week making something interesting.
In some ways, I found my equilibrium when it comes to cheese. I’ve developed a majestic and conscious indifference to it for roughly 350 days per year…and then…well, I make some!
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll need to make your vegan cheese at home:
Culturing Agent: Most cheese can be made using some form of a probiotic powder that is rich in bacteria. This solution tends to be expensive and inconsistent. Alternative options include kefir, a plain vegan yogurt, the liquid from sauerkraut, and homemade or purchased rejuvelac. I recommend making your rejuvelac and using it as a starter culture as the first step in your vegan cheese-making journey.
Base Ingredient: The base ingredients can be nuts, seeds, soy milk or soy yogurt. Nuts – specifically cashews and almonds – and sunflower seeds tend to make the creamiest cheese that holds up to pressing and aging.
Thickening Agents: Small amounts of thickening agents can help create firmer cheeses. Agar, tapioca flour and xanthan gum are the most effective. Exercise a bit of care if you use a thickening agent – too much causes a gelatinous interior that is not pleasant to eat.
Equipment: For the most part, vegan cheese is easily made at home without investing in much equipment. A blender, preferably a high-speed blender, creates a fine nut purée that helps a lot in the final texture. Molds for shaping cheese are sometimes helpful in creating smaller portions that age faster, and Muslin (cheesecloth) is useful when aging cheese.
Artisan Vegan Cheese by Miyoko Schinner
German-based Cashewbert takes vegan cheese-making to the next level. Visit their shop for a complete list of supplies and books.
How to Make Rejuvelac
Rejuvelac is a fermented grain liquid filled with probiotics and lactic acid. It has an obvious cheese-like aroma, which is why it is useful to use as a culturing agent for vegan cheeses.
Rejuvelac requires a few days to make because you need to first sprout some grains, then allow enough time for the culturing process to happen. Depending on the temperature in your home, you should allow 4-7 days to fully culture the liquid. But, once made, Rejuvelac keeps for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator, giving you enough time to make a lot of vegan cheese.
I first learned how to make Rejuvelac from Miyoko Schinner's instructions. She is widely considered one of the foremost authorities on making vegan cheese.
Yield: about 1 1/4 liter (5 cups)
200 grams (1 cup) whole wheat grains
1 1/2 liters (1 1/2 quarts) water
Begin by soaking the grains in a 1-liter glass jar. Add enough water to completely cover the grains, then place a towel over the mouth of the jar and secure it with a rubber band. Allow the grains to soak for 8-12 hours.
Drain the liquid, then add just enough water to moisten the grains without completely immersing them in the water. Put the jar in a warm place out of direct sunlight for 1-3 days. Rinse the grains once or twice each day by draining and moistening them. Continue this process until the grains begin to sprout – you should see little tails emerging from the grain.
To culture the grain liquid, divide the sprouted grains equally between two 1-liter glass jars. Pour 750 ml. (3 cups) water into each jar. Cover the jar with a clean towel and secure it with a rubber band. Put the jars in a warm place out of direct sunlight for 1-3 days. The water will turn a bit cloudy, and the liquid will have a slightly tart flavor. When this happens, your task is finished. Strain the liquid into a clean jar and discard the grains.
Keep rejuvelac refrigerated. After a day or so, it will take on a noticeable cheesy aroma. This aroma continues to intensify as it ages.
Tips and Variations
Make sure the whole grains are not shelled or pre-soaked. This affects their ability to sprout, and you will waste your time…and money.
It is possible to use other whole grains to make rejuvelac. Brown Rice, Quinoa, Rye, Kamut, etc. I think wheat grains work the best in creating a strong culture and cheesy aroma.
Basic Vegan Cashew Cheese
Mastering basic cashew cheese is an important step for those looking to expand their vegan cheese repertoire. It is tasty in its own right, so feel free to stop here after making it.
Lengthening or shortening the curing time affects the overall sharpness and texture of the cheese. Young cheese that is cultured quickly is mild and creamy. Allowing the cheese to culture for several weeks creates a firmer texture, interesting skin and sharper flavors.
Yield: about 500 grams (one pound)
300 grams (2 cups) of raw cashew nuts
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
120 ml (1/2 cup) Rejuvelac
Soak the cashew nuts in 1 liter (1 quart) water for 4-8 hours. Longer soaks create a softer cashew nut and result in fine-textured cheese.
Place the cashews, salt and nutritional yeast in a high-speed blender. Turn on the blender and add the Rejuvelac slowly through the cap opening to process the cashews. Continue to process until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Be sure to scrape the sides often.
Pour the mixture into a clean glass bowl or container, cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for 8-36 hours, depending on how sharp of a flavor you want to develop (culturing proceeds quicker at warmer temperatures – so adjust the timing depending on the time of year). The cheese thickens and cracks as it cultures.
At this point, the cheese can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for 2-4 weeks. You can also divide the cheese into individual molds to create smaller portions that ripen faster.
Tips and Variations
You can make this cheese with something other than a homemade Rejuvelac:
Powdered probiotics work in combination with a liquid like water, but they tend to be expensive and unreliable (some even say they are not vegan).
Unflavored soy yogurt is another possible culturing agent. Use an amount that gets the cashews processed in your mixer without adding too much and making the mixture too thin.
The liquid from sauerkraut or pickles (if you are fermenting them yourself) can also work effectively while adding interesting flavors.
Boursin is a soft and very flavorful cheese. I have served this to non-vegans many times, which is always a big hit. It is fabulous on crackers or bread, used as a sandwich spread or as a dip for roasted vegetables.
The garlic flavor is strong in this cheese. Be sure to use less if you prefer something milder.
Yield: about 500 grams (1 pound)
500 grams (1 pound) of vegan cashew cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 garlic clove, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon of finely chopped chervil
1 tablespoon of finely chopped tarragon
2 teaspoons of finely chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon sea salt
Put the vegan cashew cheese, parsley, nutritional yeast, grated garlic, chervil, tarragon, thyme and salt into a large bowl. Mix well by using a folding technique. Taste the cheese and adjust the seasoning.
Form the cheese by shaping it into a log or ball or simply putting it into a mold that is lined with plastic wrap. Cover and wrap with plastic wrap, then refrigerate overnight until firm before unmolding.
Tips and Variations
Use alternative herbs to create something different. Perhaps some fresh basil, oregano, dill and even coriander leaves, depending on your mood.
Boursin lasts about 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Longer storage increases the sharpness of the cheese, so be cautious.
Share Your Thoughts…
I want to know more about your experience with vegan cheese. Have you tried any? Have you tried making your own? What’s your relationship to cheese? Share as much or as little as you want.
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Wow! I've dabbled in trying to make things taste like cheese with nutritional yeast, miso, etc. but I've been wanting to try making a culture. I've never heard of rejuvelac, so excited to try the next time I want some good cheese haha
Super interesting! I had never heard of rejuvelac. Vegan cheese has come a long way in the two decades since I started consuming it. I do eat some traditional cheese these days but still appreciate a top-notch vegan alternative. I've made some basic cashew cheese and I even did a weird humus-based sauce that was meant to be cheesy but not quite. Shout out to Miyoko's Creamery in my hometown of Petaluma, CA who are making some really solid vegan versions of the classics.