It’s no surprise that cheese is one of the hardest things for most people to give up when they go vegan. It’s salty, it’s fatty, it’s creamy–it’s comforting. But it’s also full of hormones, antibiotics and possible pathogens, not to mention that it’s the byproduct of the massive amount of cruelty that goes on in the dairy industry. On top of all that, cheese may actually be addictive.
But people love it, and it does lend a certain something to many dishes. I’ll admit that cream cheese was a hard one for me to part with when starting my vegan journey and may have been even harder had lactose intolerance not forced my hand. Unfortunately, the words “good vegan cheese” rarely keep company. Despite the multitude of commercial options out there, very few adequately deliver on the promise of being a viable cheese replacement, and even fewer are friendly to those of us who prefer to avoid oil. So what’s a plant-based eater to do?
Up until that point, the only cheeses I’d made were simple sauces and spreads that, while quite good, didn’t always have an authentic cheesy quality. And growing up Italian, I ate a lot of cheese. It’s only reasonable to want something that stands up to those memories.
So I did what any kid on Christmas would do and proceeded to play with my new toys–in this case, Miyoko’s book. I saw part of her food demo this past year at Vegetarian Summerfest and I’ve got to tell you, she’s really on the ball. She knows exactly what she’s doing and can juggle a lot of tasks at once in front of an audience, something that I’d really like to learn to do since giving talks and demos is one of my favorite things to do. Her recipes reflect that competence with clear instructions that make them easy to understand and follow despite the number of steps involved.
Being a fan of cheddar cheese in the past, I settled on making a small batch of the Air-Dried Cheddar to give the book a test run. Like most of the cheeses in the book, it’s cashew-based to give it a creamy feel and firm texture. Step one, however, was not soaking cashews, but making my very first batch of rejuvelac:
Impatient as I was to get started, I tried to buy some only to discover that no stores in the area even knew what it was, much less carried it. Turns out it’s simple: sprout some whole grains, then soak the sprouts in water until it ferments and tastes lemony. This took a couple of days longer than it should have due to some very cold weather that made the rice I used take its sweet time sprouting!
Step two, mix together the “cheese” ingredients, including both the rejuvelac and some unsweetened soy yogurt to help it culture:
That had to sit for a couple of days to let the cultures do their work and develop a sharp, cheddary flavor. Impatience continuing, I took it down from its spot every so often to give it a whiff and see how it was doing. Yeah, it smelled really good. I was more than ready for step three when the time came, which was to add the thickening agents and put the cheese back in the bowl to set:
Then it was in the fridge to cool for a few hours before–at last!–the final step, drying the cheese. That was the bit that made me most impatient. After popping it out of the bowl (which I used as I lack a cheese mold), the surface needed to be salted, and then the cheese had to sit and dry–for four days.
Oh the agony! Because at this point, it was starting to smell amazing. That’s saying something, given that the smell of cheese usually puts me off. This, though–this promised to be good. I waited the four days, sneaking a sniff here and there as it turned from a slightly wobbly lump into, dare I say it, a cheese.
Not just a viable vegan cheese, not even just a vegan cheese, but a cheese. To call it a cheese substitute would be an insult. It’s so so incredibly authentic that every alarm bell in my brain went off when I tasted it, warning me that this was, in fact, cheddar cheese and my lactose intolerance was going to act up at any moment.
Fortunately, my body ignored my brain’s power of suggestion and I was able to enjoy this cheese as it deserves to be enjoyed–slowly, savoring each bite. It has all the elements of cheese that make it enjoyable–with none of those that make it so horrifying. It’s smooth and just a bit salty with a hard exterior and soft interior like a wheel of aged cheddar. It’s even a little crumbly. I snacked on it along with an apple, as I used to enjoy apple and cheese back in the day, and wow. It was worth every minute of every step.
Honestly, I’m making too big deal a out of the amount of time this took. It was so much fun that the process flew by. Thanks to Miyoko’s well-structured recipe, it wasn’t difficult to do and is something I’d do again (and again, and again), no problem.
One side note on this: even though it is a vegan cheese, it’s not technically a health food. It’s free of all the additives and potential hormone disrupters in regular cheese, and of course it has no cholesterol, but it’s high in fat thanks to the nut base and contains quite a bit of salt. So as a mainstay of the diet, it’s still not a great idea. But as a treat? HECK YES.
What do you think of making your own vegan cheese? Would you want to take the time?