Vegan cheese may sound like a culinary oxymoron — that is, until you try the good stuff. Local chefs are proving that vegans don’t necessarily have to forgo their fromage or settle for overly processed squares of mystery cheese.
Chef Jason Sellers of Plant, whose vegan ice creams are distributed nationally through Amy’s brand, is not one to shy away from the challenge of dairy-free cheeses. In fact, diners can order an entire cheese plate at his all-vegan restaurant.
Currently, the cheese plate features aged cashew cheese and farmer’s-style soft cheese. Plant also offers an almond-based fresh mozzarella as well as cream cheese, which is currently paired with caramelized Jerusalem artichokes and ancho chili sorghum. A seitan dish features a nut-based queso, and a fermented tofu feta has been in development and is nearly ready for the menu. Sellers says it will likely be paired with melon. That’s quite a bit of cheese for an animal product-free kitchen.
So how do they do it? Actually, the process for making these vegan cheeses may sound familiar to those who know traditional cheesemaking methods.
“Often vegan cheese products on the market are made as stand-ins for other processed animal cheeses.” says Sellers. “So the result is often an imitation of the same process. But I would urge anyone to explore vegan cheese that is made with a nod to cheese-making tradition, where bacteria is responsible for the predominant flavor.”
Sellers cultivates lactobacteria and uses a 3- to 5-day aging process for the cashew cheese. “To make the almond fresh mozzarella, we first make a yogurt from almond milk,” he says. “Once the healthful bacteria is strong, it’s blended, salted and set with agar [a sea vegetable] to achieve an elasticity. The cream cheese is tofu-based and is fermented with miso, a paste made with a rice-based mold known as koji.”
While the process requires Sellers to get a bit creative, his preferred way to enjoy vegan cheese is fairly simple. “I like to eat fermented cheese with wine and something crunchy,” he says. “Traditional animal cheeses are strong; their flavors sit easily on top of other flavors. But nut-based cheeses are typically more mild. The trick to enjoying them is to pair them with foods that do not overwhelm.”
Jenni Squires, co-owner of Elements Real Food, also sees the value of featuring cheesy flavors on her all-vegan menu. If fermenting your own dairy-free cheese sounds intimidating, Squires offers some other creative and cheesy options — most of which can be accomplished with a food processor and high-speed blender. “Nuts, seeds and other fats such as avocados make a great start to a plant-based cheese,” says Squires, who mentions that nuts are often soaked overnight to prepare for the blender. “Cashews, almonds, macadamias, pine nuts and tahini are some of the most versatile ingredients for making alfredo sauce, ricotta, chevre, Caesar dressing, cheddar sauce, Parmesan and cheesecake.”
Squires is quick to point out that she and partner Zack Bier avoid any vegan cheese recipes that are heavy in processed soy ingredients and instead focus on using the flavors and textures found in organic nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. “Cheesecake is my favorite,” says Squires. “It’s so decadent and tastes just like the real thing. We make many kinds of plant-based, gluten-free cheesecake, all made from scratch using nuts, dates, fruit and coconut oil.”
And just as these chefs are eager to prove that vegans can enjoy a good cheese, Squires reminds nonvegans that dairy-free cheeses aren’t just for those who eschew animal products. “We believe that everyone can enjoy plant-based cheese and food,” she says. “You don’t have to be a vegan to like vegan, plant-based food.”