Nopers, people, your eyes are not fooling you. What you are staring at is homemade vegan cheese, shredded for prettifulness. You may be wondering how on earth I did that...
Glad you asked!
In this blog post I'm going to clue you in on the wonders of dairy free cheese. Hopefully by the time you've read this article and tested out my sample recipe, you'll understand the 'why's of dairy free cheese making and will be able to use the knowledge to make your own tasty cheese alternative.
Okay, so normally I'd launch into the many, many reasons why people choose to use or make dairy free cheeses - you know the drill - veganism, dairy allergy, dietary restrictions due to religious preferences that can't quite silence the siren call of cheeseburgers at midnight.... But my guess is that if you're searching the internet for 'dairy free cheese' or 'vegan cheese' or what-have-you, you don't really need a primer on the 'why nots' of dairy and are looking for something simple to get down to business.
And chances are if you've searched for a vegan or dairy free cheese recipe, it's because you've:
- a) just paid entirely too much for something that smelled like stinky feet and tasted like turpentine
- b) tried a recipe that just frankly SUCKED monkey eyeballs. You know the recipes.
There are several reasons typical vegan cheeses don't taste good to regular folk - among them the fact that vegans typically don't remember what real cheese tastes like and therefore have nothing to use as a Constant, to steal a term from my beloved show Lost (Best. Show Ever!)....
Penny is Desmond's constant, you see, which means he can't get lost in time anymore and(ahem...). Oh yes, this is a post about cheese. Where where we????
Cheddar is my constant. And vegans generally don't have cheddar as a constant. They have some overpriced form of soy cheese or something else barely palatable. And therefore anything homemade is bound to be an improvement. Unless you're a newbie to the whole enterprise and therefore not willing to settle for cheeze whiz flavored every-kind-of-cheese.
Another reason is that most vegan cheeses are ALL WRONG when it comes to the proportions of ingredients. The fat, sodium, and calorie count are all crazy and therefore the mouth feel is usually odd at best and nasty or worse otherwise.
Why does this happen? Mostly because people don't think aboutthose things. Fat content and protein and mouth feel and sodium are hugely important, but when you're mostly thinking about things like making a cheese 'sharper' or 'more melty' you forget that the mouth relies upon these cues as heavily as taste.
Honestly, though, I've seen enough Jo Stepaniak rip-off recipes to think that people don't really go outside of the box in how they formulate a cheese recipe, even for taste. If tahini worked for Jo, tahini works for them. And they forget to specify which tahini (trust me, people, it does make a difference!) or, or, or... And so they end up with a cheese that's all wrong on mouth feel and even wronger on taste.
And Jo's recipes - some of which are quite good, in all fairness - are, in the end, created by a long-term vegan. Which sometimes leads to strange cheese, indeed.
Which is how you - one of the smart ones - ended up here, learning how to make a proper cheese.
Okay, so here's the Food Science Lite of cheese making. Follow these rules and you'll be able to make a cheese to your liking:
1. Learn the Macros of the Cheese you're trying to make
By macros, I mean Macronutrients: the calorie, fat, carb, protein and (in the case of cheese) sodium content of the particular cheese you're trying to make.
This is very important, because you're going to have to replicate as closely as possible this series of numbers. The closer you get to the real macros the more likely you are to reach a satisfactory recipe.
Most dairy cheeses are high on three counts: Fat, Sodium, and Protein. If your macro count is too low in these three areas, your cheese will taste and feel 'off' or 'flat'.
Dairy Cheeses also happen to generally be low in carbohydrate. If your count is too high in this area, you'll end up with a 'sweet' cheese that tastes too much like a processed cheese or a pudding. You see this mistake in a lot of cheeses that rely on oats as a binder.
2. Find acceptable substitutes for those macros
You absolutely must match each macro for the cheese to 'feel' right in your mouth and to satisfy you properly. The easiest way to do this is to plug your ingredients into an online software like fitday or The Daily Plate and see what your macros look like compared to the dairy cheese you're trying to replicate. Let's take each macro at a time and list some of the possibilities you could use, by way of example:
Calorie - Calories will generally take care of themselves. If your other macros are right, that is. If your calories are low and your macros are not right, look for ways to boost the calories using ONLY the macros that you need.
Fat - Dairy Cheeses utilize saturated fats. This is very important for the mouth feel and consistency of the cheese. If you want a shreddable cheese that melts under heat, you're going to need some form of solid fat. You could use any number - Crisco, Earth Balance sticks, Palm oil... but I think virgin coconut oil is perfect for this application and tastes best in the finished product.
Coconut oil is also a beneficial saturated fat - it boosts your metabolism, helps your nerve function, and does all kinds of friendly things to your system, so you don't have to feel quite so bad about chomping it up. It also gets really hard in the fridge, which will help when you're attempting to shred your finished dairy free cheese.
Other great sources of fat are nuts (which also add protein and body) and tahini, which also adds a 'bitter' or cultured taste for those who wish to avoid soy.
Carbs - Most dairy cheeses are low in carbs, so you're going to want to avoid high carb ingredients in many applications. Keep this in mind when formulating a recipe. There are a few exceptions, I've found, but in general adding grains or sugars to a cheese recipe is a big no-no.
Protein - Most dairy cheeses have about as many grams of protein as fat. This can get tricky. Vegan sources of protein also tend to be higher in carbohydrate, so you're going to have to carefully balance a few protein sources in a single recipe to ensure that the ratios stay in place. Great sources of vegan protein include: nutritional yeast (which also tastes cheesy), nuts, soy, tahini (ground sesame seeds), miso (fermented soy paste - which helps add a 'cultured' or aged taste to a cheese), and protein isolates, like pea protein isolate and soy protein isolate.
In general I avoid the isolates - you can usually get a good ratio of protein and fat from other nonspecialized sources and the texture tends to be better. Those with a nut or soy allergy, though, may need to utilize something like a pea protein isolate.
It's important here to add something that, while it doesn't actually add protein, does something that the casein protein in dairy cheeses usually does - this is agar. Agar is a dried seaweed/seaweed extract that can be used interchangeably as a substitute for gelatin. It comes in two forms - flakes and powder. The powder is about twice as strong as the flakes and dissolves more easily, meaning less time in the kitchen. Agar is pretty expensive, so once you find you'll be making a lot of cheese you should probably buy it online. Non vegan people could use gelatin instead of agar, in roughly the same amounts, and this will also add protein to the finished recipe, but I wouldn't recommend it. An advantage agar has over gelatin is that it sets at room temperature, so you can leave your finished cheese on the counter without it turning into a pile of goo. Agar seems to melt more easily, too, which makes it the preferred of the two, even for non vegans.
Sodium - Here you can use normal salt to increase the sodium to the proper levels. The reason dairy cheeses tend to be so high in sodium is that many of them are salted during the curing process. This helps leach out fluids, preserve the milk until it ages, and adds a pleasing taste dimension. This, next to fat, is one of the most important macros to check for correctness. Another less effective method of adding sodium is using celery juice in place of water.
3. Determine which taste components are needed
Every dairy cheese has a 'flavor profile' - sharp, sweet, bland, smoky. This flavor profile is very important to match, if you want the cheese to taste right, as well as feel right. Your homemade cheese will benefit from melding for at least 4 hours or overnight - this allows separate taste components to mellow and mesh and will give you the most authentic taste. It's important to note that some seasonings sharpen over time (like garlic) which others mellow, and what tastes 'right' when the cheese is fresh may be too strong or weak once it's set.
These are the flavor components of most cheeses:
Salty - Most aged cheeses are very salty. In general the sharper the cheese, the saltier the taste. Also, anything brined (like feta) will be sharper. Flavor enhancers for this include: salt, nutritional yeast, miso
Sweet - The fresh, unaged cheeses tend to be higher in carbohydrate content due to the higher lactose content (aging destroys or eats this sugar in aged cheeses). This includes cream cheeses and ricottas as well as some 'stretchy' cheeses like mozzarella. Flavor components that add to this are sugars, some nuts like macadamia or almond, some grains like rice or corn. In general unless you're creating an unaged cheese sub, you won't need a lot of additional sweetening.
Savory/Umami - This flavor profile comes from the aging process of cheeses. THe more aged a cheese, the more important this flavor profile becomes. You'll want to use things like miso, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, ume plum vinegar, and onion and garlic powders.
Bitter - Bitter taste in cheese is often so slight as to be unimportant, but the bitter taste profile can exchange to a degree with umami or savory taste. A good example of this is Tahini, which can sometimes substitute for the umami taste for those who do not want to use a soy miso.
Sour - Sour taste is a by product of aging or brining dairy cheeses and is an important compenent of taste as long as it doesn't overwhelm the palate. Flavor components here can be: vinegars, lemon juice, citric acid or cream of tartar, or lactic acid cultures (which can be vegan, if ordered specially). This is particularly important in cultured dairy subs like sour cream and cream cheese, where a lactic acid culture or probiotic is ideal for recreating the essential flavor of the item.
Others- taste components like annatto (common in orange cheeses), turmeric, tomato paste, liquid smoke, and others can all be part of the non dairy cook's arsenal. Used sparingly these flavor constituents can all play a part in bringing together a taste reminiscient of the real thing.
Some things to note about non dairy cheeses:
While you may be able to replicate the taste and mouth feel of a cheese, it is very hard to replicate EVERY aspect of dairy cheese.
A 'for instance': It is possible to get a melty cheese that stretches, for instance, but you must use gelatin in place of agar (and enough of it to make the room temperature cheese gagolicious) - certainly not an ideal situation for a vegan. Most vegan melty cheeses will not truly melt until direct high heat is applied (like a broiler) and then a gently spreading of the 'melted cheese' with a knife may help the process along. And then they will not stretch - you end up with more of a cheese sauce type thing, with a lovely skin. Not bad, but not 'stretchy'. Be warned.
Another 'for instance': A good vegan cheese is shreddable, but it doesn't usually hold up as well to rough handling as dairy cheese. The reason is that the casein, which forms strong webbed bonds in normal cheese, makes for a stronger support system than the agar. The solution is to only shred very cold non dairy cheese (allowing the fats to be as solid as possible and the agar to be as firm as possible) and to do so gently working in one direction as you glide the cheese along the shredder.
You're going to want to create your cheese to be ideal for the final presentation - will you be melting it on a pizza? shredding it for salad? putting it in a sandwich? Each of these options will require you to make some decisions about ratios of things like agar and flavor components, and you should keep that in mind when deciding how to tweak your recipe. For example, I tend to use less agar in my cheddar cheese when I'm using it for a baked mac and cheese (where I use it hot as a melted cheese sauce) than I do when I want to shred it for salads.
Moving on to the recipe....
Here's a basic recipe for a good block (shreddable, meltable) cheddar cheese. You'll need to let the cheese 'cure' in the fridge at least overnight, in order to allow it to set properly and to ensure best flavor. This cheese was created to replicate Helluvagood's sharp cheddar cheese and makes slighly more than a pound of cheese. Remember - you may prefer a sharper or milder cheddar cheese, so feel free to play with the flavor components until you get a taste you prefer, but don't forget to double check your macros!
I think you'll find this equal to or superior to the vegan cheddars available commercially or in recipe form on the web.
This is NOT a tweak on anyone else's version of vegan cheese and is original to me, so you'll need to notify me if you do share this recipe (feel free to share with everyone! If you want to post this recipe elsewhere, please feel free, but remember to link back to this post and my original recipe.) Thanks!
(Notes for tweaking to omit tomato produces, nuts or soy are below the recipe)
Naomi Poe's Vegan Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 1/2-3 c water
1-2 Tbsp agar powder (or 5 tbsp agar flakes) - please note, brands of agar perform differently, and this amount needs to be altered to YOUR brand's strength
2 Tbsp coconut oil
1 1/2 c blanched, slivered almonds *
1 c nutritional yeast
1/4 c white miso **
2 tbsp tomato paste ***
1 lemon -flesh and juice only (NO seeds or skin)
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
Oil, spray or grease a small rectangular container or loaf pan.
In a small saucepan, mix the agar powder and 1 1/2 c water and let sit for a few minutes. Bring to a boil on medium heat, adding the coconut oil. Let boil, stirring occassionally, for abotu 3 to 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of your food processor, blend the almonds. At first they will turn into almond meal and then will begin to turn into almond paste. Add the miso and nutritional yeast and process until the mixture leaves the sides of the bowl and turns a bit doughy. Add the tomato paste, lemon, onion powder and salt and blend until thoroughly combined.
At this point, the agar and coconut oil should be melted and bubbling like thick syrup or hot gelatin. Quickly pour into the food processor. Process the whole thing until smooth. This should be about the consistency of cake batter or smooth cheese sauce. Add a little water if necessary - up to 1 1/2 c, if you find your mixture is too thick, and blend again.
Scrape into the prepared container and let cool uncovered, at least 3 hours or overnight, in the fridge. You may cover it after 3 hours. This will continue to flavor-meld and is better if left overnight. May be shredded or used anywhere cheddar is called for.
* Those avoiding nuts can use plain whole fat soy milk instead of the water in the recipe (omit the nuts entirely) OR may substitute raw hulled sunflower seeds instead. You should also increase the agar by 1 tbsp ( 3 tbsp of flakes) to thicken the body. This will yield a smoother, softer cheese.
** Those avoiding soy can use tahini instead, and should also do one of the following:
-substitute 2 tbsp ume plum vinegar for half of the lemon
- increase the onion powder by 1-2 tsp
*** Pureed red pepper can be used instead of tomato products. Those avoiding nightshades can use 1-2 tsp ground annatto (american saffron) and a dash of turmeric instead
Real Dairy Cheese:
114 Calories, 9g Fat, 176 mg Sodium, 0g Carbs, 7g Protein
Naomi Poe's Vegan Sharp Cheddar Cheese:
119 Calories, 9g Fat, 208 mg Sodium, 6.5g Carbs, 5.4g Protein