The fun of crumbly-crust cheese begins before it’s sliced - the wheel is gently wrinkled, mottled and sunken like the face of the moon. The promising scent only gets stronger with time.
But I thought of the velvet shell of a two-pound Barn Cat with more than one glimmer of doubt. This cheese was made of cashews and coconut, passing through it a dark streak of vegetable ashes, and I doubt these ingredients could undergo any kind of purposeful transformation.
I was wrong. I wasn’t ready for the sweet, luscious flavors of a soft, ripe goat’s cheese, for a mild peppery tang, for a luxurious, dense, creamy texture.
When I was a vegetarian, in college, cheese was the last boss of everyone I knew thinking about going vegan, and it’s the last and hardest food to give up. And it seemed that no one could win – cheese made from milk was very tasty, and vegetarian cheeses available in specialty stores were light and tasty.
In the past few years, as the national demand for plant-based foods has increased, the vegan cheese industry has flourished. The competition is fierce, and the best slices, shreds, and other mass-produced vegetable cheeses are nothing like the disappointing, often disgusting viscosity that I remember from the early 2000s.
This new generation of packaged cheese is more compelling, in part, because it’s produced in much the same way as dairy cheeses, which are made from plant-grown dairy that develops texture and flavor through fermentation, not just through additives.
On a smaller scale, specialty cheesemakers like Blue Heron Creamery in Vancouver, British Columbia; Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis; And Vtopian Artisan Cheeses, in Portland, Oregon, are pushing the boundaries of that fermentation to produce plant-based cheeses with flavors and textures I previously thought impossible.
To make the ash-centered Barn Cat, Stephen Babaki of Conscious Cultures Creamery, in Philadelphia, inoculates the surface with different strains of Penicillium candidum, which are typically used to ripen Camembert and Brie, and then aging them for two to three weeks.
“You can’t fake time,” said Mr. Babke. “And if you don’t give the cheese time, it has no taste.”
Using cashews, Mr. Babke made vegan blue cheese and aged for three months. We’ve soaked whole wheels in kimchi brine, and washed down other types of cheese with wine. Its most famous vegan cheese, Maverick, is a soft, creamy custard with a sharp flavor and a disguised buttery texture.
The cheese will likely be at its peak at about six weeks of age. But Mr. Babke knows some clients who would like to make it at home for three months, sometimes longer. “She gets…really funky,” he said, pausing.
Mr. Babaki once allowed the cheese to ripen for 15 months and found that its peel had turned pink, giving off a slight whiff of ammonia, like sweaty dairy cheese after its time.
Inside, it had the nutty flavor of an aged gouda, along with a matrix of tiny crystals typically found in hard, long-aged milk cheeses. The cheese needed work, but Mr. Babaki took it as an encouraging sign of the possibilities still ahead.
Trial and error seems to be the unofficial dogma of most vegan cheesemakers, and to some extent it should be.
Preservation of dairy products is ancient and well documented, with well-established techniques for coagulation of milk, as well as curd formation and ripening – early versions of salted feta date back about 5,000 years to Central Asia and the Middle East. But vegan cheeses are relatively young, very experimental and rapidly evolving year after year.
“Cheese from the early 2000s and cheese today, you can’t compare them anymore,” said Michaela Grob, owner of vegan cheese shop Riverdale in Manhattan, at the Essex Market.
Her shop has been open for five years, and even in that short time, Ms. Grob says she has seen the range and quality of vegan cheeses grow exponentially, with a recent swell of blue-veined and brie cheeses.
Ms. Grob, who also makes her own cheese for the shop, attributes this creativity to the availability of more and more plant cultures — the same microbes used to make dairy cheeses and transform the flavors of milk grown in a vegan environment.
She said, “Think of it this way. Cow’s milk doesn’t taste gouda – you’re using a certain culture that gives you gouda flavor.” These cultures may work quite differently on plant-based milk, but until recently, it was impossible for most vegan cheesemakers to even do so. The role of a culture that sells strains to cheesemakers in cultivating vegan versions cannot be underestimated.
As recently as 2014, when Mioko Shiner published “Artisan Vegetarian Cheese,” her cutting edge recipes relied heavily on homemade Rejuvelac — puffed, fermented beans packed with probiotics and lactic acid.
Ms. Shiner, who researched her book by taking cheese-making classes and studying traditional cheese-making methods, then experimented at home in San Anselmo, California, giving her kids a taste of her vegetable blends when they came home from school.
Early tests included coagulation of macadamia, cashew, oat, and almond milk. I worked with commercial vegan yogurts to experiment with their vegan cultures.
The book was a huge success, although Ms. Shiner soon learned that most readers wanted to buy their already prepared dairy-free products, not make them from scratch. The same year she released the book, she opened an alternative dairy company called Miyoko’s Creamery.
Although Ms. Shiner is not without competition on a large scale, she was a pioneer when it came to plant-based dairy farming, and her cheeses still hold a certain character among chefs.
Her products are untouchable,” said Brooks Headley, chef and owner of the Superiority Burger in New York City. “When we juggle new recipes for non-dairy creamers, yogurt, and ricotta, we often come to a consensus among employees, ‘Okay, it’s very good, but it’s not myoko. “
Mrs. Shiner influenced a generation of cheesemakers, but less than a decade ago, when she called the Houses of Culture for vegan cheese cultures, she couldn’t get anyone to take them seriously.
“Because who were you? Just some crazy vegan cheesemaker,” she said. That changed as it became clear that vegan cheese was a growing market. “Culture houses want to work with you when you are big enough that they can smell the work,” she said.
Today, there are culture houses around the world that sell plant cultures. Some can produce buttery notes, peppery recipes, extensibility, and more. Ms. Shiner estimates that there are about 30 farms in her library, grained or freeze-dried, and stored in the freezer.
Like Ms. Shiner, Aaron Bullock and Ian Martin of Mischa Kind Foods experiment with plant cultures and work with their own, which they closely guard.
Mischa sells flavored cheeses made with cashew milk—soft, thick, satisfying and delicious—plus vegetable curds similar to ricotta.
“As black men, we belong to one of the groups most affected by poor diets,” Mr. Bullock said, when I asked him why they had started a new vegan business in south Los Angeles.
The company, which began selling an alternative cream cheese made from cultured cashew milk at farmers markets in Los Angeles, now employs a team of 20 people, and plans to convert more carnivores to plant-based cheeses.
“I eat meat, consume dairy, and eat meat from Texas,” said Mr. Bullock, explaining that as a serial entrepreneur, he also saw opportunity in high-quality plant-based cheeses.
Denise Vallejo runs Alchemy Organica in Los Angeles, and makes vegan Mexican cheeses for the restaurant store, including Quesillo cheese, chewy Oaxacan cheese, cultured nacho cheese, and stinky crumbly Cotija from fermented and shredded coconut.
In her first experiments, several years ago, Ms. Vallejo looked at Miyoko Creamery labels for ideas on which ingredients to reach for, make substitutions when she has to, and learn as they are.
“I started with soy milk, but moved on to cashews,” she said. “I’ve looked at some independent companies that sell different enzymes for growing Camembert or Brie, and I’ve also received store-bought yogurt.”
Ms. Vallejo found that tapioca starch added a bit of elasticity and viscosity to her quesillo, and that the agar added body when it crystallized. Cheese, once mastered, became a standard and much-needed item on her menu, and a “money-making”.
“To be able to make regional dishes with these cheeses, and have Harina tortillas with quesillo, that’s a really big deal,” she said.
Kirsten Maitland and Fred Zwar opened their Rebel Cheese deli and wine shop in Austin, Texas, just months before the pandemic hit. And like Ms. Vallejo, they are working to recreate specific cultural features for their clients – vegan versions of Parmesan, Brie, Mozzarella, Gruyere, and Pepper Jack.
Their Chebrie is difficult to classify. It’s marketed as a wild cheddar mix, which would, I think, be a bit wild if it was made with milk. Cut it into a fuzzy, healthy white crust, revealing the orange interior of the baby food that’s sharp and creamy, keeping its shape but soft enough to spread. it is delicious.
When I sliced Chebrie to taste with some crackers, along with a glass of cold wine, I found that the language of dairy, the familiar cheese world I know, wasn’t enough. I needed new words, new categories, new reference points.
Was it really worth thinking of this delicious little cheese as a wild cheddar blend, or did it limit my appreciation for it? It was neither of those cheeses, not really, but the original product of Mrs. Maitland’s relentless experiment with plant-based dairy farming—in this case, cashews, soybeans, and coconut.
Like some of the more exciting cheeses in this new experimental wave, it wasn’t a flawless replica of something familiar. It was something new, curious and interesting.