Making cheese is a labor of love (emphasize labor). This may be an incredibly obvious statement — but perhaps not so obvious for Americans used to buying their cheese (dairy or non-dairy) processed and plastic-wrapped at the grocery store.
With the release of The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking: How to Craft Real, Cultured, Non-Dairy Cheese by chef Karen McAthy, I thought I’d give actual cheesemaking a go. Food writers should know how to make what they’re writing about, right? (Though I have made vegan cheeses before, they’ve all been simple, 20-minute recipes using pretty standard ingredients.)
The important thing to note about McAthy’s cheeses is that the process is legit cheesemaking; most of the recipes utilize plant-based rennet (traditionally made from an animal’s stomach lining) and/or non-dairy kefir (a fermented milk beverage). Obviously, both are specialty products which require ordering online. In addition, her cheeses (except for the fresher varieties) need to be aged. I was up for the challenge.
In addition to a play-by-play for each individual cheese, the book also has lengthy descriptors on the process of cheesemaking in general. After reading, the home chef will have a thorough understanding of how cheeses come into this world — plant-based or otherwise.
As far as choosing a cheese, I opted to make the coconut kefir and macadamia garlic and herb.
After ordering the specialty ingredients in the mail (kefir, cheesecloth, raw macadamias), I kicked off with the first step: sanitizing. As with traditional cheesemaking, McAthy’s recommends sanitizing (meaning, washing and then using a sanitizing liquid) the entire kitchen area, all utensils, and hands. For someone who’s an average housekeeper (at best) — this seemed ambitious. Did I cut corners? Perhaps, though for safety’s sake, McAthy wouldn’t want you to. I did my best.
From there, the kefir process began. Kefir is a fermented beverage traditionally made with cow’s milk. The company Cultures for Health, however, offers a non-dairy kefir that can be made using coconut milk (or coconut water, or juice).
McAthy’s book includes detailed instructions on how best to make the kefir; basically, you pour the kefir granules into a container of full-fat coconut milk (or coconut water or juice, though McAthy recommends the coconut milk) and let it sit for a half a day or so.
Photo by Hannah Sentenac
After cultivating the kefir, the first step was to soak the macadamia nuts overnight. Then I had to blend them with lemon juice, salt, garlic, and a little bit of water. At this point, I made a minor error. Because the mixture didn’t seem quite smooth enough, I added a little extra water. Whoops. That excess liquid followed me through to the end.
Next up, I added the coconut kefir and the herbs. McAthy recommended fresh or fried rosemary, dill, and tarragon. Instead, I opted for a salt-free spice mix a la McCormick’s. It worked wonderfully.
The next section had me draining the cheese via cheesecloth for several hours. Because of the extra liquid, I don’t think I drained it long enough; the end result was a little wetter than the ideal.
Then, the book recommended using a small springform pan without the bottom to shape and hold the cheese. I didn’t have one, so I shaped the cheese by hand and put it on a wooden board to age.
From there, the cheese needed to sit in temps below 68 degrees for several hours before being transferred to the fridge for the duration.
In total, I let it age for five days, partially because I thought it might dry out a bit more over time. It didn’t. Again, likely because of the extra water. The book calls for flipping the cheese, lightly salting it, and replacing the board (as needed) daily during the aging process. Five days in, I gave up on trying to dry it out any further.
The end result — despite my minor errors — was a moist, fresh-style, absolutely delicious and flavorful cheese. It was extremely spreadable and ideal paired with crackers. The final product was generous in size, so I shared it with two friends who agreed it was aces.
For anyone who enjoys the process of making cheese — or is totally curious and wants to give it a go — this book is an excellent reference, full of creative, not-too-difficult ideas for the home kitchen (just follow the directions, y’all).
I’ll definitely try one of the other aged recipes if I’m feeling ambitious — because who says vegan cheese isn’t just as good as the alternative? I’ll let the cows keep their milk and stick with macadamias (or almonds or cashews), instead.
Hannah Sentenac is a freelance writer and journalist who covers veg food, drink, pop culture, travel, and animal advocacy issues. She’s written for Live Happy magazine, Foxnews.com, MindBodyGreen.com, and numerous other publications and websites. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of LatestVeganNews.com, a publication dedicated to positive, original news from the vegan and plant-based world.