Cheesy pasta, gooey pizza, stuffed appetizers: Just three of the delicious delicacies that are no longer off-limits to those following a vegan (or similar) diet, thanks to plant-based cheeses. And finding a good substitute for the flavor and texture of dairy is important, because creamy foods, more so than even steak or sausage, are reportedly the hardest to give up. Nut-based cheeses can help fill this gap, and contribute to the satiation (a.k.a. longevity) of a plant-based diet.
Gourmet varieties of these cheeses are holding their own atop cheese boards around the world, too. Take, for example, the flavor combinations available from two of Toronto’s top shops, Ladyship Vegan and Culchered: Dill and onion spread, sundried tomato and olive, jalapeno and Sriracha pressed cheese, and even cheese curd. (Now you can add poutine to the list of possible vegan foods.)
Here are two recipes for vegan cheese. The first is a beginner’s vegan cheese sauce. It doesn’t require aging period and can be poured immediately onto steamed broccoli, nachos, pasta, etc. The second is an “intermediate” version, if you will, and uses two thickening agents to produce a solid and sliceable cheese. The key ingredients—tapioca starch from cassava root and agar-agar from sea algae—can be purchased at most health food stores.
It is important to follow these recipes to the letter, much more so than recipes for, say, salads or smoothies. Stick to the measurements and directions to avoid creating a gelatinous blob of goop!
How do you make cheese without milk?
Before we get hung up on agar-agar and tapioca starch, let us recall the basic principles of cheesemaking. An animal’s milk is coagulated, the curds are separated from the whey, the curds are molded (usually pressed) into a shape, a bacteria is introduced to culture the cheese, and after a period of aging the cheese is ready. Some cheeses, such as ricotta or mascarpone, are even simpler than that. No bacteria or aging is involved. These ‘‘farm-style cheeses’’ are ready the same day and simply drain the curds of their whey.
The difference between a Gouda and a Parmigiano Reggiano, for example, depends upon a number of factors: the type of animal milk (Cow? Goat? Sheep?), its fat percentage, the coagulation process, the shape of mold, the extent of pressing, the type of bacteria introduced, the length of aging and its location in the world (Italy? France? A cave? A wooden shelf?), how the developing rind is treated, and other flavor elements introduced along the way. As you can imagine, there are an infinite variety of cheeses in existence. They all, however, come back to this basic process of coagulation, separation, pressing, and curing.
Knowing this, what is stopping someone from replicating this exact process, but swapping plant milk for an animal’s? Well, the first step of coagulation is the problem. Animal milk separates into curds and whey with the addition of an acid or animal-derived rennet. Plant-based milk does not separate into these useful parts. Adding lemon juice or rennet to a pot of bubbling almond milk only produces hot and sour milk. No thanks.
Instead, we soak nuts, blend them for a long time with cheesy-tasting ingredients, and cook the mixture with a plant-based thickening agent. Then, we pour the thickened mixture into molds and let them set overnight in the fridge. In the morning, we turn out beautiful cheese babies. The process is very satisfying! And, the upside is that there is no wasted yield from revised cheesemaking process. Traditionally, a large amount of whey liquid is left behind. But, our vegan version yields 100% of what we put in.
Does vegan cheese taste weird?
I like to tell people it’s like the difference between cow’s milk and almond milk. They’re both delicious in their own way, but don’t expect them to be exactly the same. Those who drink almond or soy or rice milk know exactly what I’m talking about. After the initial shock (‘‘this isn’t from a cow!’’), many people actually grow to prefer plant-based alternatives.
Thanks to the balance of rich, salty, and tangy ingredients included in vegan cheese recipes, the flavor is similar (but, again, not exact). The texture is satisfying and will melt (but not string) like normal cheese. If you can embrace these differences then you’ll probably enjoy vegan cheese. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.
Vegan Cheese Sauce (Beginner Recipe)
- 1 cup raw cashews
- ¾ cup water +¼ cup
- ⅓ cup nutritional yeast
- 2 teaspoons of any vinegar
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder or ½ clove of fresh garlic
- ¼ teaspoon of dried turmeric or ½ teaspoon of fresh grated turmeric
- 2 teaspoons of salt or 2 teaspoons of miso paste
- ½ avocado
- Soak cashews in water for 2+ hours.
- Drain the nuts and rinse well. Add them to a high-powered blender, along with all the other ingredients except the avocado. Blend until very smooth. Make use of the tamper tool and pause to scrape down the sides so there are no granules left. Be patient, it may take upwards of 10 minutes. Add the extra ¼ cup of water if you need to. Finally, add the avocado and blend until just combined.
- Pour out and store in a sealed container in the fridge.
Sliceable Vegan Cheese (Intermediate Recipe)
- 1 ½ cup raw cashews
- ½ cup macadamia nuts
- ¾ cup nutritional yeast
- 3 ½ tsp salt
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 cup coconut milk (full fat variety)
- 2 tablespoons tapioca starch
- 2 teaspoons agar-agar flakes
- 1 ½ cups water
- Soak cashews and macadamia nuts in water for 2+ hours. Line 3 small ramekins or bowls with cheesecloth, letting enough excess drape over the sides to later fold over the top.
- Drain the nuts and rinse well. Add to a high-powered blender: the nuts, nutritional yeast, salt, turmeric, lemon juice, coconut oil, and coconut milk. Blend until very smooth, creamy, and a pale yellow colour. Make use of the tamper tool and pause to scrape down the sides so there are no granules left. Be patient, it may take upwards of 10 minutes. Finally, add the water and blend until combined.
- Pour the mixture into a saucepan and turn the heat onto low. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon. Add the tapioca starch and agar agar flakes, continuing to stir. Increase the heat to medium, monitoring carefully. At 85C/185F maintain temperature and stir for 5 minutes. The mixture must simmer, but not boil!
- After 5 minutes, the mixture will thicken and hold itself together in a blob. Remove from the heat.
- Pour mixture into the cheesecloth-lined molds and jiggle to settle evenly. Let mixture cool completely on the countertop (about 3 hours). Fold over the excess cheesecloth to cover the top. Refrigerate overnight and turn out the molds in the morning. Peel away the cheesecloth and serve.
*When storing thereafter, place uncovered on a wooden/bamboo/glass surface (not plastic) and flip over every morning. This will help develop the rind and avoid any mold developing. You can slice the cheese and use as normal on pizzas, pasta, in salads, or appetizers.
A few more vegan recipes to experiment with:
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