I’m not vegan, but I understand and participate in the shift towards a more plant-based diet. Enter the meat substitutes and dairy facsimiles that start trends, line health aisles at the grocery store and ignite meaningful conversations about our food system. Again, I eat pant-based as often as I can. I’d consider myself closer to being vegetarian than vegan, but I try to stick to vegetables and grains instead of the substitute products available, especially if those products have unfamiliar ingredients or are no better for me than good old-fashioned vegetables. I guess my biggest concern is: what are in these substitutes, and how are they made?
Now, I don’t consider tofu a meat substitute. I eat it when I’m in the mood for it and in my eyes it’s a protein on its own, with recipes geared towards its unique texture and flavor abilities. I know meat substitutes are often made from tofu. You’ve heard of tofurkey, right? Therefore, I’m not considering tofu as I talk about vegan substitutes because it is not a substitute.
I had the opportunity to fully understand these substitutes when a friend recommended a vegan cheese making kit. I’ve made fresh ricotta, which is easy enough to do if you have a big pot, whole milk, lemon juice and some free time, but I have never even tasted vegan cheese. My first step in understanding the vegan cheese making process was breaking down the traditional cheese making process.
Cheese is just curdled milk. Sorry to burst your bubble. It’s basically strategically spoiled milk that tastes delicious and gives me relentless acne. As I see it, most cheeses require milk, an acid like citric acid or vinegar, and rennet. Specific flavors can be added and the curds can be aged, but at its core cheese contains those basic ingredients.
- Acid: would you drink a glass of milk followed by a shot of vinegar? Probably not. When you add acid to milk it begins to curdle, forming solid pieces. Doing this over medium heat while skimming those curds away from the whey forms ricotta in it’s most basic form. This is how most cheese making processes start.
- Rennet: rennet comes from enzymes found in cow stomachs, so not exactly vegan but plant-based substitutes have existed for years. Vegetarian rennet, derived from artichokes, cardoons or nettles, does the job just as well and has been used in traditional Spanish and Portuguese cheeses. The rennet helps the soured milk curds solidify into cheese by working with proteins to coagulate. In order for rennet to work, milk must already be high in calcium and phosphate (which is why rennet might not work well with older milk or goat’s milk).
- Aging: I love fermentation. Allowing the flavors in cheese to develop over time with bacterial growth gives certain cheese that funky allure. Earthy rinds on brie and savory umami from Parmesan turn the curdled milk into culinary delicacies.
So then how does rennet coagulate almond milk despite a lack of calcium?
In my short experience making vegan cheese, the process involves no coagulation at all. In fact, vegan ricotta involves no cooking at all. The ‘curds’ are not formed by intentionally spoiling the milk, but by incorporating macadamia nuts. The nuts add fat content as well as texture (just make sure to both soak and blend them enough so you aren’t left with any grit in the finished product). While the vegan cheese did not behave like ricotta and did not melt, I’d say that what it lacked in textural satisfaction it made up for in flavor. And yes, I love a good cheese pull and much as the next person, but I believe cheese should act as a flavor enhancer to the dish and not simply a textural layer (unless we’re talking grilled cheese or pizza, then the pull is crucial to the dish, and flavor and texture are equally important). The citric acid provided that curdled tang and the bits of ground macadamia nuts added that grainy texture that ricotta takes on after some time draining.
Vegan products, until very recently with the injection of ‘bleeding’ plant-based burgers into the main stream, have been engineered to behave like their non-vegan counterparts and not necessarily taste as such. Vegan cheeses offered textural similarities to dairy cheeses, but struggled to emulate flavors unique to cultured dairy. Slices of vegan cheese could melt like American cheese but could not offer any flavorful addition to a dish (I mean, American cheese offers very little but STILL).
Recently, vegan cheese makers have employed culturing and aging methods to better assimilate vegan cheese into the world of artisanal cheese plates, moving away from coconut oil-based emulsions and leaning towards something based on fats naturally found in cashews and macadamia nuts. Flavors from nutritional yeast add the missing umami lacking from other attempts.
Now to the more philosophical stuff: is vegan cheese even cheese?
When it comes to finding a food substitute, I understand the inherent identity crisis. Artificial meat is still not meat. Almond milk is technically not milk, but calling it creamy almond juice does not necessarily have the same ring to it. Therefore, vegan cheese by definition is not actually cheese. Cheese by definition is formed by curdling milk, and as I mentioned earlier, alt milk cannot curdle. However, who cares when environmental, ethical or dietary needs are on the line? I think progress in the vegan cheese world proves that artisanship and flavor do not need to fall to the wayside to craft a substitute. Relying on crutches like soy often minimize the clientele as more folks see soy farming as problematic to the environment, and can’t shake soy’s bad reputation despite contradictory research. With advancements in vegan cheese making, there could soon be environmentally sustainable, health conscious and flavor-comparable substitutes hitting the mainstream as hard as imitation meat burgers.