Make Your Own Basic Vegan "Cheese"
For those trying to avoid consuming animal products such as dairy, vegan cheese may be an option. This can also be great for those having problems with lactose intolerance or a true milk protein allergy.

Ricki now has a new book: "Artisan Vegan Cheese" by Miyoko Schinner. That may be a true inspiration for some of our customers with dairy issues or those just trying to eat closer to the food chain.

Vegan Cheese: What is it?

How does this differ from “true" cheese?

A true cheese is made by consolidating milk proteins (casein) with calcium and a combination of enzymes (rennet). Then, developing acidity using a lactic culture which converts milk sugars (lactose) to lactic acid. The consolidated protein (curd) is then cut and heated to encourage moisture release, thus separating the solid from the liquid phase.  The resulting cheese can undergo a modification of protein during aging resulting in the textures and flavors associated with a ripened cheese.

A definition of cheese from Codex Alimentarius, FAO/WHO - they have issued their Standard A6 as a definition for cheese products:

Cheese is the fresh or ripened solid or semi-solid product in which the whey protein/casein ratio does not exceed that of milk obtained:

(a) by coagulating (whole or partly) the following raw materials: milk, skimmed milk, partly skimmed milk, cream, whey cream, or buttermilk, through the action of rennet or other suitable coagulating agents, and by partly draining the whey resulting from such coagulation; or

(b) by processing techniques involving coagulation of milk and/or materials obtained from milk which give an end product which has similar physical, chemical and organoleptic characteristics as the product named under Classification of Cheese.

Vegan cheese is simply the consolidation of the protein mass from nuts, coconut, beans etc.  A lactic bacteria may also be used to provide the acidity for this. For a firmer vegan cheese, emulsifiers, oils and thickeners must also be used.  The consolidation is simply a matter of compaction of the proteins and unlike real cheese, there is no physical bonding of the proteins. Vegan cheese does not undergo the natural ripening which the proteins do in a real cheese, so it will not have the complex flavor profile of a true cheese that has been aged. 

How this works:

The process is really quite simple and involves the preparation of a natural lactic type of bacteria which you can create yourself from grains.  In the vegan world they call this rejuvelac (a lactic culture to rejuvenate the system, I guess).
Then you will need a source of protein such as a nut or bean base. Here we will be using cashew nuts... that's it!

The grains are allowed to germinate for a day or so and then allowed to ferment with the natural bacteria that they bring to the table. After about 3 days you will have a rather tangy liquid with a natural lactic bacteria population ready to ferment the protein that you will now prepare.

Once you have your natural bacteria "starter" you are now ready to prep the cashews.  This is done simply by soaking the cashews in water for about 6-8 hours to soften them up a bit.  Once this is done you simply need to reduce the nuts to a smooth paste, then add the starter rejuvelac, and set it all in a quiet spot at room temperature for 2-3 days depending on the flavor you desire.

At the end of this time, it will have a nice tangy flavor from the fermented sugars supplied by the cashews and it is ready to eat as is.  The book does go on to give you many ideas to enhance your new vegan cheese and it will look much like a chevre or any spreadable cheese.

At this point Schinner goes on to describe many other options using this prepared cashew base or using other non-diary bases for many other "cheeses."  As mentioned above, there is no real chemical consolidation in vegan cheese.  The more advanced cheeses, however, do call for the additions of oils, thickeners, and other additions to achieve the texture and slicing ability of a true cheese.

A Method for Making a Basic Vegan Cheese

You can forget the milk and rennet for this cheese, plus you will learn to make your own "starter culture" here.  This will be much like the starter for a true natural pickle or sauerkraut.
So add another skill to your life list and become a healthier person in the process.

Before You Begin:

You will need:

  • No milk rennet or culture (you will make your own starter here)
  • 2 cups of raw unsalted cashews (buy online, if necessary)
  • Approximately 1-1.5 cups of grains which can be raw or malted grains as explained below
  • Salt ... just a pinch
  • A colander and butter muslin to drain the cashews
  • A blender or food processor to reduce the cashews to a paste (Yes! ... cashew butter).

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.

Lets begin:

The first thing we need to do is turn our attention to the sugar part of the cashews and a plan to ferment the sugars.

Preparing our lactic starter:

We are first going to make our own lactic bacteria starter culture.

All grains, such as wheat, barley rice, etc., come complete with their own population of natural bacteria. We can access these by changing the grains a bit:

  1. Choose your grains and after soaking and rinsing the grains over a few days you will see small sprouts beginning to form. This is a natural event in all plant grain/seeds and when it happens - the starch in the grain/seed changes into a more accessible food for the bacteria.  Schinner details this sprouting in her book.
  2. My variation here is to begin with some malted barley (or wheat) since the malting process has already taken care of the change in starch and it is ready for fermentation. This can be found at most health food or homebrew stores.

You can now take the sprouted or malted grain and add it to a jar of water at room temperature.

Place this in a quiet place at room temperature for 2-3 days. You will see some bubbling and will notice a very tangy change to the flavor. This is the result of enzymes in the grains and lactic bacteria growing.
This will be the lactic starter culture to ferment the sugars in the cashews which creates that nice tangy flavor we are looking for.  Once the fermentation tastes a bit tangy, place it in the fridge to slow things down. This will keep for a few weeks and remain active.

Preparing the cashew paste:

For this, it is simply a matter of soaking the 2 cups of cashews for about 6-8 hours, draining them well, and transferring them to your blender or food processor.

You will now add about 1/4-1/2 cup of the starter/rejuvelac and begin turning it all into a smooth paste.

Begin with the smaller amount of liquid and add more as you need it. I find that it works best to begin with a coarse chop and then switch to a slower speed for the paste.

You will find that you need to stop and scrape it all back into the center frequently.

You now have a cashew paste to supply the protein mass and sugar along with an active bacteria culture that is ready to convert the sugars to lactic acid.

The fermentation:

Now, all that you need is a bit of time in a quiet place to keep it at room temperature (68-72F).  You will begin to notice that after about 2 days, the flavor of the sweet paste becomes somewhat tangy.  This is due to the lactic bacteria you prepared in the starter as it converts the sugars in the cashew paste to lactic acid.

Allow this fermentation to continue until the flavor seems best to you.
Some people like it balanced to the acid side while others like it a bit sweeter. It's all good in my book.

As soon as it seems right to your taste, you can refrigerate your vegan cheese.

If it seems to be too dry at this point, you may add some more liquid as you mix it.
Lemon juice can sometimes add a nice fresh flavor.

The best part:

The best part of course is when it is ready to eat.  You can now leave it in the bowl as a spread, roll it into a log or other form, mix in any herbs or spices you care to add, or use it as a base for one of Schinner's other cheeses.  Its all good!

This will now last for a couple of weeks refrigerated.  Just wrap in a breathable wrap and store in a covered plastic container.

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