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SAY ‘VEGAN CHEESE’: Cheesemakers are pushing the boundaries of cultured and plant-based milks

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This newer generation of packaged cheese is more convincing, in part, because it’s made from cultured plant-based milks that develop texture and flavor through fermentation, rather than solely through additives.

TEJAL RAO: In the last few years, as the national demand for vegan foods has increased, the vegan cheese industry has boomed. Competition is fierce, and the best slices, shreds and other mass-produced vegan cheeses are nothing like the disappointing, often repulsive, starchy goop that I remember from the early 2000s.

This newer generation of packaged cheese is more convincing, in part, because it’s produced in roughly the same way as dairy cheeses, made from cultured plant-based milks that develop texture and flavor through fermentation, rather than solely through additives.

On a much smaller scale, specialty cheesemakers like Blue Heron Creamery in Vancouver, British Columbia; the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis; and Vtopian Artisan Cheeses, in Portland, Ore., are pushing the limits of those fermentations to create vegan cheeses with flavors and textures I’d previously thought impossible.

To make that ashy-centered Barn Cat, Stephen Babaki of Conscious Cultures Creamery, in Philadelphia, inoculates the surface with various strains of Penicillium candidum, typically used to ripen Camembert and Brie, then ages it for two to three weeks. “You can’t fake time,” Mr. Babaki said. “And if you don’t give cheese time, it can’t develop flavor”…

Using cashews, Mr. Babaki has made a vegan blue cheese and aged it for three months. He has soaked whole wheels in kimchi brine, and washed other cheeses with wine. His most popular vegan cheese, the Maverick, is a downy, cream-colored puck with a sharp flavor and a persuasively buttery texture…

“The cheeses from the early 2000s and the cheeses today, you can’t even compare them anymore,” said Michaela Grob, the owner of the Manhattan vegan cheese shop Riverdel, in 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-like cheeses.

Ms. Grob, who also makes her own cheese for the shop, attributes this creativity to the availability of more and more vegan cultures — the same microbes used to make dairy cheeses and transform the flavors of milk, grown in a vegan environment.

“Think of it this way,” she said, “Cow milk doesn’t taste of Gouda — you’re using a certain culture that gives you that Gouda flavor.” Those cultures might work completely differently on a plant-based milk, but until recently, it was impossible for most vegan cheesemakers to even have a go. The culture houses that sell strains to cheesemakers couldn’t be bothered to grow vegan versions…

As recently as 2014, when Miyoko Schinner published “Artisan Vegan Cheese,” her cutting-edge recipes relied heavily on homemade Rejuvelac — sprouted, fermented grains filled with probiotics and lactic acid… Early tests involved coagulating macadamia, cashew, oat and almond milks. She worked with commercial vegan yogurts to experiment with their vegan cultures.

The book was a hit, though Ms. Schinner quickly learned that most readers wanted to buy their nondairy products already prepared, not make them from scratch. The same year she released the book, she opened an alternative dairy business called Miyoko’s Creamery.

Though Ms. Schinner is not without large-scale competition, she was a pioneer when it came to culturing plant-based milks, and her cheeses still carry a certain cachet among cooks… Ms. Schinner influenced a generation of cheesemakers, but less than a decade ago, when she called culture houses to source vegan cheese cultures, she couldn’t get anyone to take her seriously.

“Because who was I? 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’re sizable enough that they can smell the business,” she said. Today, there are culture houses all over the world selling vegan cultures. Some can produce buttery notes, peppery qualities, stretchiness and more. Ms. Schinner estimates there are about 30 cultures in her library, pelletized or freeze dried, and stored in the freezer…

Like Ms. Schinner, Aaron Bullock and Ian Martin of Misha’s Kind Foods experiment with vegan cultures and work with their own proprietary cultures, which they guard closely. Misha’s sells flavored cream cheeses made from cultured cashew milk — soft and thick, satisfying and gently tangy — as well as vegan, ricotta-like curds…

Denise Vallejo runs Alchemy Organica in Los Angeles, and makes vegan Mexican cheeses for the restaurant’s pantry, including quesillo, the stretchy Oaxacan cheese, a cultured nacho cheese and a crumbly, stinky Cotija from fermented, grated coconut…

Kirsten Maitland and Fred Zwar opened their vegan deli and wine store Rebel Cheese in Austin, Texas, just a few months before the pandemic hit. And like Ms. Vallejo, they work to recreate specific cultural touchstones for their customers — vegan versions of Parmesan, Brie, mozzarella, Gruyère and pepper Jack…

Their Chebrie is harder to categorize. It’s marketed as a Cheddar-Brie hybrid, which would, I think, be a little monstrous if it were made of milk… Like some of the most exciting cheeses in this new, experimental wave, it wasn’t a flawless replica of something familiar. It was its own curious, delightful new thing. SOURCE…

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