If you’ve ever wondered how to make vegan cheese, chances are you’ll be surprised to learn the process is both easy and kind of magical. All you need are a few special ingredients and a healthy sense of adventure.
There is a literal definition of cheese, and there is an emotional one. By definition, cheese is a “food made from the pressed curds of milk.” While this aptly describes the how of cheese, it doesn’t adequately express the why, the very raison d’etre of cheese. Cheese, emotionally speaking, is less a product bound by particular technicalities and is more of an iconic presence.
Cheese is about the creaminess, the meltiness, the undercurrent of natural sweetness triangulated by a sharp tang and good hit of salt. It’s worth mentioning that “cheese” is also an actual term in emotional language as a factor of “being overly sentimental,” i.e. cheesy. I would argue that one follows the other here, as there are few causes worthier of abject sentimentality than the pure basic comfort of cheese in any form.
So what if I told you that you could make cheese from scratch, start to finish, inside of an afternoon, with little more than equipment than a saucepan and whisk? That’s right. Creamy, melty, gooey cheese for nachos or even mac and cheese from the comfort of your own home. So what’s the catch? There’s no catch. It just happens to be non-dairy—that is—vegan cheese. (Nowhere in the definition above does it say that it has to be animal milk, by the way.)
“Don’t be intimidated by it!” says Monica Davis, vegan chef and author of The Hidden Veggies. “Making vegan cheese is very easy, and it’s pretty fun. You don’t even need a blender or anything, just a saucepan and whisk, and you can pour it in anything you have. You don’t even need anything fancy for the mold.” Here’s everything you need to know about churning out quick and easy cheese in a plant-based form from your own kitchen.
“You need to have a certain fat content and density to have that cheese feel in your mouth,” says Davis, whose vegan cheese recipes on The Hidden Veggies utilize full-fat coconut milk (from the can, not the carton). Cashew cream from soaked and ground cashews is also very common in the making of vegan cheese, though Davis explains that her husband “hates nuts” and she needed to find an alternative. Both coconuts and cashews are well-tested in the vegan community for imparting a certain smooth creaminess that perfectly mimics the mouthfeel of conventional cheese, and can be used in a blend of both.
“Sometimes I make it with soy or other plant-based milk,” explains Davis, who started out making vegan cheese by playing around with proportions using various dairy substitutes, “but coconut milk is my favorite.” Plus canned coconut milk is routinely available in conventional grocery stores and has a long shelf-life, meaning you can keep it on hand for whenever cheese-making inspiration strikes.
It’s safe to say that both the firm but creamy texture of the cheese, and the stretchiness, or “pull” of melted cheese are pretty critical to creating a product worthy of the title of cheese. Fortunately, both can be easily achieved through plant-based means. “About ten years ago, I figured out that you could firm things up with agar agar,” says Davis, “which is a vegan gelatin.” Agar agar comes from red algae, and contains pectin, which acts as the infrastructure in the plant itself, and is released, much like conventional gelatin, upon boiling. Davis recommends powered agar agar over flakes where available: “The powder is more concentrated. It seems to melt into the cheese better and makes it smoother and easier to use.”
As for the melty, stretchy character, the secret ingredient there is tapioca starch. “It gives it that melty cheese quality when it’s heated,” says Davis, but she cautions about being precise with measurements and proportions.
“There’s a fine balance between the agar agar and the tapioca flour, so that’s something I had to test a lot. With too much tapioca flour the cheese won’t set, and if not enough it won’t melt and stretch.”
So then finally, how do you take coconut, or cashew, or other non-dairy milk, and turn it into something that doesn’t just look and act like cheese, but tastes like cheese? “The most important ingredient to give it that cheese taste,” informs Davis, “is nutritional yeast, which is a pretty common ingredient in the vegan world.”
Nutritional yeast is different than yeast which you would use to make bread, in that the yeast cells are deactivated. But like traditional yeast, nutritional yeast imparts that earthy, umami flavor redolent of cheese. And from there variations on the basic formula can be employed for everything from mozzarella to parmesan with a few other ingredients. Smoked gouda can be made with the addition of liquid smoke or smoked paprika. Chopped jalapeños transform a basic recipe into pepper jack. Garlic and herb vegan cheese? Say no more. Garlic powder and fresh or dried herbs are on the scene. And the certain tang of sharp cheddar can be achieved by a squeeze of lemon or even miso paste.