A Cheese Revolution: Plant-Based Alternatives Make Huge Strides

A Cheese Revolution: Plant-Based Alternatives Make Huge Strides

“It’s by far the number one thing we hear when people express concern with switching to a plant-based diet. “BUT I CAN’T GIVE UP CHEESE!” It’s also by far the hardest flavor and texture profile to find alternatives for, though many have tried. For those of you who remember the fake cheeses of yesteryears, most of them were inedible. But then, came science.

“What is important about this new breed of vegan cheeses is that they have integrity as food,” says Gordon Edgar, head of the cheese department at Rainbow Grocery, which stocks the area’s biggest selection of the products.

We found Edgar’s sentiment, and more, in a new article by Jonathan Kauffman recently published by the San Franciso Chronicle. Kauffman goes over the history of vegan cheese alternatives, and more importantly, the future of it. The article is laid out amidst style and intrigue while mainly focusing on a pioneer in the vegan foods and cheese space, Miyoko Schinner.

To give you some perspective from the start, Kauffman shares this stat: According to natural-foods market analyst Spins, natural groceries saw annual sales of vegan cheese rise 22.7 percent in 2014 alone — to $30 million.

With that sort of increase, one could argue that both demand and quality may be on the rise. And that seems to be largely contributed to the shift in using nut-based milks in the same ways classic cheese makers have used mammal-based milks.

Where We Came From

In the eighties and early 90’s, vegan chesse was still an oxymoron. There were recipes out there for some yellow-tinted sauces, spreads or even jello like blocks, but it’s fair to say these were for the die-hards and not anything that would replace your cheese cravings for long. Kauffman explains:

“Shoppers at natural-foods markets started seeing nondairy cheeses like Soya Kaas and Tofurella in the 1980s — horrific substances that disgraced the flavors of chalk and rubber. Some were made with dairy-derived casein, the protein that gives cheese its solid, stretchy, creamy and melty textures…The vegan cheese that Miyoko Schinner made in the mid-1990s was nothing like the ones she is producing now. It was usually some sort of melty nut cream flavored with nutritional yeast and vinegar. “You wouldn’t want to eat it on your own,” she (Schinner) says. “You could get away with cooking, but that’s it.”

Though the cheese of the time wasn’t living it up to its animal-based counterparts that didn’t reduce the demand for it. So much so that many vegans, us included, would buy the latest vegan cheese from all over the world.

Seeing the Light

The shift to using more classic cheese making techniques was something Schinner herself starting noticing in the mid-2000’s. Cheese alternatives historically had used things like vinegar or mustard to recreate the tang of mammal-based cheeses. However, cultured nut-cheeses started to focus on the fermentation process by using acidophilis strains or rejuvelac (a fermented grain drink).

“If you’re Kite Hill’s Tal Ronnen, author of “The Conscious Cook” and chef at Crossroads Cafe in Los Angeles, it’s about process. He believes cheese is made by introducing enzymes and cultures to milk, whether that milk comes from macadamias or goats. Ronnen founded Kite Hill after a biochemist from Stanford introduced him to an enzyme that would curdle almond milk much as rennet does animal milk, something that no one had done before.”

These developments completely changed the feel of the cheese, as well as the cheeses lasting flavors and even digestion.

The new vegan cheese “isn’t trying to be something that it’s not,” says Rainbow’s Edgar. “(These new cheesemakers) are trying to coax flavors out of cashews as opposed to hiding the flavor of what they’re using.”

With that new perspective, Schinner has managed to create a line of nut-based artisanal cheeses that have been a huge hit with almost everyone – our favorite of which we reviewed here.

In addition to the amazing cheeses that Schinner is producing, she’s helped influence the next generation who’ve popped up shops in Oregan, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. These shops include:

Are Labs the New Kitchens?

While there seems to be much support for the evolution of nut-based cheese alternatives utilizing cultures, others are taking it a step further. According to Inside Scoop SF, a group of 30 volunteers set out to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in order to accomplish one thing: derive casein (milk proteins) from baker’s yeast.

Though a much more controversial approach to creating a cheese alternative, the roots seems to be founded on the same issue. People love cheese and that love makes a plant-based diet seem like a pipe-dream. In that regard, it’s no surprise to us that so many have joined the race to satisfy our cheesy cravings while still keeping the earth, animals and ourselves in mind.

You can read the entire article by Kauffman here: “Artisanal vegan cheese comes into its own
You can check out more about the lab competition here: “Bay Area scientists are trying to bioengineer vegan cheese

What’s your favorite cheese alternative? Drop in some comments below!

Header photo credit: wayneandwax via photopin cc

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