If you’ve ever wondered how to make vegan cheese, you might be surprised to learn that the process is easy and kind of magical. All you need are a few ingredients and a healthy sense of adventure.
Maybe you want to make that creamy, melty, gooey cheese for nachos or even mac and cheese from the comfort of your home. It just happens to be nondairy, or vegan cheese. But how is such deliciousness possible?
Here’s everything you need to know about churning out quick and easy plant-based cheese from your kitchen.
Base ingredients: Coconut milk or cashew cream
You’ll need a certain degree of fat content and density for accomplishing that cheese “feel” in your mouth. Utilize full-fat coconut milk (from the can, not the carton). Cashew cream from soaked and ground cashews is also common in making vegan cheese.
Both coconuts and cashews are well-tested in the vegan community for adding that familiar 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 says Monica Davis, vegan chef and author of The Hidden Veggies. Davis 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 usually available in conventional grocery stores and has a long shelf-life, so you can keep it on hand whenever cheese-making inspiration strikes.
Texture ingredients: Agar-agar and tapioca starch
It’s safe to say that both the firm but creamy texture of the cheese and the consistency or “pull” of melted cheese are crucial when creating a product worthy of the title of cheese. But both can be easily achieved through plant-based means.
“About 10 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, when boiled.
Davis recommends powdered 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 there’s not enough, it won’t melt and stretch.”
Flavor ingredients: Nutritional yeast and whatever you want
Finally, how do you take coconut, or cashew, or other nondairy 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 from yeast that you would use to make bread in that the yeast cells are deactivated. But like traditional yeast, nutritional yeast helps to get that earthy, umami flavor we associate with cheese. In addition, variations on the basic formula can be procured 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? You got it. Garlic powder and fresh or dried herbs are tasty additions. And add a tang of sharp cheddar with a squeeze of lemon or even miso paste. Salt and lemon juice are also key for many cheeses.
Let’s try this out! Here’s an example recipe for a firm, sliceable smoked Gouda-style cheese:
What you need
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 13-ounce can full-fat coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons agar-agar powder
- 1 tablespoon pectin
- 1 tablespoon liquid smoke
- 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon tapioca starch
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- In a blender, combine water, coconut milk, agar-agar powder, pectin, liquid smoke, salt, lemon juice, and nutritional yeast until fully mixed.
- Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring until it comes to a boil.
- Reduce heat to medium and continue to stir for 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the tapioca starch, potato starch, and xanthan gum in a separate container.
- Remove the liquids from the heat, and carefully pour the cheesy liquid and powder mixture into a blender. Mix until thick and well combined.
- Transfer the mixture into a greased container in the general shape you want your cheese to be, like a glass bowl.
- Allow the cheese to firm up for at least an hour, and then slide it out onto a plate to continue to set for a few more hours or overnight.
- Store the cheese in an airtight container and use or freeze within a week or so.
More vegan cheese methods to try
If you’re living the vegan lifestyle or just want to branch out into less animal products, vegan cheese is not nearly as hard to make as you probably imagine.
Snag your base ingredients, grab a blender, and get to cultivating a new era of cheese flavor experimentation. WE call dips on your garlic and chive.