What Is Vegan “Cheese”?
Vegan alternatives to cheese haven’t always measured up to the oozy, melty, rich goodness of dairy cheese. But now, plant-based foods are almost everywhere in Europe, and more and more people are reaching for dairy-free imitation cheese as a tempting alternative to the usual dairy. But what exactly is vegan “cheese” and what is it made of?
What’s in vegan “cheese”?
Cheese is usually a straightforward case of curdling then ageing raw milk. Vegan cheese alternatives, in comparison, take a lot more work. There are a whole host of plant-based ingredients that are used to replicate the same textures and flavour profiles that are found in your usual dairy cheese.
Seeds, nuts, or other fats and protein
Typically, soya beans and coconut oil are used for their milk-like juices, as well as seeds and nuts that are rich in fats and protein such as cashews, almonds, and pine nuts. Even starches like rice, potato, or tapioca can lend a rich, creaminess to vegan imitation cheeses.1
There doesn’t seem to be one specific ingredient that totally mirrors the way milk reacts when made into cheese, so it usually takes a combination of ingredients to serve the same purpose. For instance, cheese analogues made from nuts won’t melt, but fats like coconut oil can mimic the melting process that happens to cheeses like Havarti or Provolone when heated. And while refined coconut oil makes for a melty consistency, it doesn’t have a lot of flavour on its own, so it needs to be combined with ingredients like nutritional yeast to achieve a savoury depth akin to dairy cheese.2
Vegan-friendly stabilisers & flavouring
Plant-based cheese alternatives tend to be on the softer side as well, so vegan-friendly stabilisers like agar or carrageenan are sometimes added to achieve a firm texture similar to hard cheeses. Aside from that, all kinds of herbs and spices may be added to milder-tasting imitation cheese to punch up its flavour.3
Fun fact: Not all imitation cheese is considered vegan. Plant-based cheese equivalents were first invented as a cheaper alterative to dairy cheese, and they are made by replacing milk fats with vegetable oils while still using animal-sourced ingredients like rennet.4 Remember to check the packaging to see if your cheese alternative is labelled vegan or lactose-free!
How do you make dairy-free imitation cheese?
In dairy cheesemaking, milk is curdled to separate out the liquid whey before the cheese is ripened. Some plant-based juices can be put through this process too—in fact, tofu is made similarly by coagulating soya juice with salt or acid then fermenting the curds.5 In the case of nut or oil-based “cheeses” though, there is no coagulation involved. Instead, these ingredients are usually blended together and moulded into shape with flavouring added to imitate the taste of cheese.6
Fermenting vegan cheese
Without ripening, these cheese analogues are faster and simpler to make, but they miss out on flavour. So for added pungency, vegan “cheeses” can be matured by adding cultures such as rejuvelac to get fermentation going. Much like in dairy cheese-making, sugars in the base ingredients will be broken down during fermentation, and the “cheese” itself will go through physical and chemical changes that make it funkier and tastier over time.7
Fun fact: The distinctive, white crust on Brie and Camembert cheeses comes from a species of fungus called Penicillium camemberti. This particular mould is added to these soft cheeses to help them develop a buttery, creaminess while they mature.8 The good news for vegans? P. camemberti can even be used to make dairy-free cheese that is remarkably similar to dairy ones.
Are vegan cheese alternatives healthier than dairy cheese?
One of the reasons milk and cheese are eaten far and wide is that they’re rich in nutrients, so how do dairy-free and vegan options compare? Generally, cheese analogues have lower calories, protein and fat when compared to similar dairy cheeses. In terms of vitamins and nutrients, soya imitation products tend to have little or no vitamin D or carotene (usually found in milk), but they can still be good sources of calcium and vitamin B12.9, 1
While most plant-based cheese alternatives will have a hard time living up to dairy cheese as a nutrient-dense food, these cheese-like products are still a great source of protein and calcium, and some brands will fortify their imitation cheese with extra minerals to boost their nutritional profile.
Dairy-free “cheeses” have come a long way from its flavourless, powdery, unmelting predecessors and it seems like there will be even better ones to come—so even if you’re vegan or dairy-averse, you can look forward to having your pick of alternative foods that look, smell and taste just like cheese.
Have you tried a vegan cheese alternative? Tell us in the comments what it was like!