It's easy to find conflict on the Internet about vegan cheese:
One camp says that, by definition, vegan cheese isn't cheese because it doesn't use 'real' milk.
The other argues that vegans have the right to enjoy cheese in their diet just like anyone else, especially if a convincing alternative to dairy can be made at home.
With a vegetarian wife, a vegan friend and a love of cheese, I fall firmly into that second camp.
This article looks at what it takes to make vegan cheese at home, and provides a recipe for you to try,
Making Vegan Cheese at Home
Cheese is one of the biggest barriers to people trying or staying on a vegan diet. In 2012, the average American ate more that 33 pounds of dairy cheese. It's an unavoidable part of meals at restaurants; those that offer a vegetarian option usually only offer one based on dairy cheese.
Let's be honest - dairyless cheese previously had a poor reputation and for good reason. If it could be found in restaurants or stores at all, it was nutritional but not much else.
Vegan cheese substitute generally had one waxy texture and, though it claimed to come in multiple flavors, all you could really taste were soy and salt. It didn't taste or melt like the dairy cheese it was supposed to replace.
Thankfully, with greater emphasis on making craft food items at home and more Americans going vegan than ever before, (2.5% according to a recent Harris Interactive poll), there are many great new options for making your own cheese. Unlike the cheese replacements of the past, modern cheese recipes can produce a wide variety of textures. Generally, a vegan cheese recipe makes one one of these four types:
Hard cheeses, like Parmesan
Firm cheeses, like Monterrey jack
Melty cheeses, like mozzarella
Soft cheeses, like Neufchatel
One of the benefits of making your own cheese is that it allows for experimentation to get the texture and taste that you want. Every dairyless cheese recipe has the same basic ingredients:
Vegan Alternatives to Dairy Milk
Just as the first building block of dairy cheese is high quality dairy milk, the first step in making dairyless cheese is to find or make a milk alternative. Popular choices include:
Soy milk is perhaps the most popular of the three because of its neutral flavor and smooth texture. Almond milk and cashew milk have pleasant, sweet flavors that make them ideal for cheese and both nuts are readily available.
Pretty much any nut that will emulsify into the right consistency can work, though. Hazelnut cheese, macadamia nut cheese, and even pine nut cheese are all possibilities.
Nut milk is easy to prepare at home and much more economical than buying the commercial versions. Here's a basic recipe:
How to Make a Nut Milk for Cheese
You will need:
1 cup whole raw unsalted nuts
3 Tsp. neutral oil (olive oil or rape seed oil are good for this)
3 Tsp. lemon juice
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water
24 hours before preparing the milk, soak the nuts in cold water. Remove them from the water when ready to use. Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth, which will take 4-5 minutes.
Raw cashews already come ready to use, but raw almonds are likely to still have the skins on (although these almonds are ready blanched). While you can leave the skins in and still get almond milk as long as you follow the rest of the steps in the recipe, it won't be as smooth and will have flecks of brown which may not strain out and will probably show up in your finished cheese.
If you don't want to worry about the skins, buy almonds that have already been blanched or remove the skins yourself using this simple method.
Place the almonds in a shallow dish. Cover with boiling water. Let almonds sit for 5 minutes. Drain the water, rinse the almonds with cold water, and let them cool until you can comfortably handle them with your fingers. The nuts should pop out of the skins with some gentle squeezing and peeling. Rub the almonds with a clean kitchen towel to get stubborn bits of skin off.
If you're in a hurry or just forget to do it, the 24 hour soaking period isn't strictly necessary. Many home cooks find that soaking makes the nut milk smoother, some don't notice any difference, especially when using it for making cheese.
All of these ingredients have the same major drawback: soy and nut allergies are very common. Thankfully though, there are recipes with vegan cheese ingredients that use other bases, like oats or vegetables.
Setting Agents for Firm Vegan Cheeses
Softer cheeses just need to have excess water strained out of the milk before being refrigerated to set.
If you are looking to make a firmer cheese instead, the next essential building block for your recipe is a setting agent.
Most recipes call for either pectin, a plant-based jelling powder that is probably already in your pantry if you do any other home canning, or powdered agar, which comes from algae. Agar is typically used in recipes for the firmest cheeses.
Flavor and Flavorings for Vegan Cheeses
One of the biggest problems for dairyless cheese in the past was that it just didn't taste "cheesy."
Most recipes solve this problem by including nutritional yeast in the ingredients. Nutritional yeast comes in small flakes and is often used as a condiment or to directly replace hard cheeses like Parmesan in vegan pasta recipes.
It gives vegan cheese both its savory flavor and adds to the amount of complete protein. The stronger the flavor of the cheese you're making, the more nutritional yeast a recipe will call for.
One of the biggest benefits of making your own cheese is being able to add whatever other flavorings you want from the beginning. Fresh or dried herbs, hot peppers, sun dried tomatoes, even dried fruit are all things you can add to a vegan cheese recipe at home to get precisely the flavor that you want.
Heat and Refrigeration
To get the whole range of textures that are possible with vegan cheeses, heat, refrigeration, or both, are a must. Every recipe is different because this cheese is so versatile, but almost all recipes require at least overnight refrigeration.
Like any other cheese making, making dairyless cheese needs some things you may not already have in your kitchen. Soft cheeses must be strained through and stored in cheesecloth so they lose excess water as they set in the refrigerator.
Firmer cheeses need to be put in a mold to set. Silicone muffin tins work well for making small rounds and are easy to unmold.
A durable food processor or blender is a must for making regular batches of vegan milk. the 5 minutes it takes to get the vegan milk to the right consistency is not a job for a blender that overheats.
Vegan Cheese Nutrition
No one is ever more interested in how much protein you eat and where it comes from as they are when they hear you follow a vegan diet. Luckily, vegan cheese ingredients have healthy protein from both the milk substitute base and the nutritional yeast flakes that give it a savory flavor.
While it doesn't provide as much protein as legumes, vegan cheese substitute is a good way to add protein and versatility to your diet.
Try out a few cheese recipes. Don't give up on the whole idea if the first batch isn't to your liking in flavor or texture. Because so much more of the process is controlled by what ingredients are added than it is by biological processes, as in making dairy cheese, there's a lot of room for the home cook to experiment with dairyless cheese in a safe, fun way.