Adventures in Vegan Cheese: IntroductionMarch 23, 2015
As I said to Charlie when he nervously asked: "So what's this for then, I mean, can we still have real cheese?", I just want to try something new.
Not all the time, but maybe some of the time. I'm typing this with a slice of actual cheese topped mass-produced-delivered-to-my-door-within-30-minutes-pizza in my hand, so clearly 'some of that time' is not right now.
I've seen a lot of posts and articles about vegan cheese, usually being scoffed by people who's dedication and precision when it comes to dairy free, gluten free, wheat free, grain free, vegan diets made me believe that dairy free cheese was not for people who end up having to wear swimwear as underwear because they didn't get round to doing laundry.
I'd put aside some time at the weekend to do some mongering of the cheesy kind, gathered my ingredients from the health foods aisle in Whole Foods (where I was apparently pronouncing 'A'-gaaaaar wrong, and unnecessarily saying it twice if the woman who helped me find it is to be believed), invested in a fancy new food processor (being thrifty, the term 'fancy' is monetarily relative..more on that later) and expected to spend my weekend covered in nut smush.
I've been pleasantly surprised by the process and outcome so I'll be writing a mini series of posts about the different types of cheese I made and how they are best used.
First things first- get your shit together.
Dairy free cheese is made of nuts, and a few flavouring and setting agents that may seem a bit chemical-y but are actually completely natural.
Nuts can be expensive so do a bit of digging in local health food store and supermarkets to figure out which offer the best value. You will need to look for raw, unsalted cashews and/or almonds. They will need to be raw to create the creamy texture and (in the case of almonds) peeled, to save your sanity.
I made 4 different types of cheese, a generous portion of each, with the sum total of 12oz/340g of almonds and 16oz/450g of cashews- so if you're giving this a go as a first timer and only want to try one style at a time you'll need about 6-8oz/170-230g of nuts.
You'll also need nut milk, which is readily available most everywhere now, choose the unsweetened kind (unless you're making a vegan cream cheese for use in desserts).
You will also need nutritional yeast, it's deactivated yeast so you won't be expanding in warm climates after chowing down on your cheese. It's what gives the cheese its cheese flavour. Now let's get one thing straight from the get go, this cheese IS NOT going to be a case of 'I can't believe it's not Cheddar'. It's going to be a tribute or reinterpretation if you will. The yeast does taste cheesy, but more like artificial nacho cheese. Mixed with other flavorings it does create a tangy, salty, savoury flavour, but this isn't going to end up rivaling artisan Stiltons.
You can get the yeast in health food stores or places like Whole Foods (Ocado and, weirdly, Asda seemed to stock it in the UK when I googled it). It looks like yellow fish food flakes and smells like cheese Doritos. I will admit to not having many expectations of it when I tried a pinch on it's own, but it's actually really tasty. Many vegans use it as a seasoning as, in addition to being surprisingly delicious, it has a decent amount of B vitamins and is often fortified with B12.
Each style of cheese varied in its required amount of yeast, ranging from 1-4 heaped tablespoons, so get hold of a small packet to start with. If kept in an air tight, cool, dry place it'll keep for about a year.
Agar (Agar?.. Whole Foods woman has made me question everything I know)
Made from seaweed, these translucent flakes are a natural thickening agent that works similarly to gelatin but are entirely plant based. I used it in different quantities in the mozzarella and cheddar style versions of the nut cheese to give them that bouncy texture you associate with the dairy variety.
Again, you can get this from health food shops, Whole Foods or in the UK it looks like you can get it in Tescos that have a decent Asian food section.
I'm terrible for scrimping on something and buying the cheapest option, realizing it's shit then having to spend more money on something else thus negating the original saving. You'd have thought I'd have learnt by now, but no.
It's not the done thing to give so much credit to your tools (a bad craftsman..etc) but there really is no point in attempting these recipes if you don't have a decent blender. Not a mixer, a blender.
There's a wealth of smoothie makers out there but you need one that's built for serious smoothie-ers, that talks about blending strawberry pips in the blurb... strawberry pips.
That being said I did not have the funds or inclination to spend a billion dollars on the blender that rhymes with Pitta Flicks, so went for (what turned out to be a fucking bargain) the Ninja. I'm not Amazon affiliated so I don't make money by sending you to Amazon to buy it (more fool me), but for anyone that's interested, here's the link: My awesome Ninja
It doesn't quite blend up strawberry seeds but it's pretty darn close. I was going to attempt this with my trusty stick blender but decided to invest in a proper one and I am so glad I did.
These are the key things you'll need to start your vegan cheese odessy, they'll obviously be augmented with other flavourings but this is your base from which to start.
There's nothing that difficult or intricate about the recipe, and the most time consuming parts of the process are blending and, if you;re making a cheese with Agar, setting.
I set aside a couple of hours on a Saturday because I wanted to play with some recipes and experiment, but with a recipe and all you ingredients to hand you won't be spending more than half and hour actually doing anything.
Check back for the first recipe: Dairy Free Almond Feta