I thought I’d revisit in a blog post about some of the most common questions I keep getting from vegan cheesemakers all over the world. I keep experimenting and developing newer methods, techniques, and flavors, and while it’s not possible for me to send out an addendum answering the most frequently asked questions, I can address them here. So I’ll just jump right in…
1. Rejuvelac. I know, I know. Everyone seems to struggle with this (well, not everyone). But here’s the first thing to remember: it takes anywhere from 4 to 7 days, depending on the grain you use. I’ve found quinoa, rye, and wheat berries to be the easiest to sprout. Don’t mix your grains, and make sure that the package doesn’t say “pre-sprouted.” It’ll take 12 – 36 hours for your grains to sprout, depending on how warm it is. 70 – 80 degrees is ideal (Farenheit). In the winter, try to find a warm spot in your house out of direct sunlight. White foam can collect at the top, but don’t worry. If you’ve sprouted your grains, it will smell fermented, like beer, perhaps, but not smelly feet. You can drink this stuff – after all, that’s what Ann Wigmore invented it for. It’s a great probiotic drink, and you can add a little ginger and sweetener (agave, perhaps) to make gingerale, a suggestion a student of mine made.
2. Substitutes for Rejuvelac – okay, so you don’t want to bother. If not, get some saurkraut at the store and use the liquid. Basically, most fermented liquids will work, although I have experiemented side by side with various starters, and have found rejuvelac cultures faster than saurkraut (or other fermented vegetable) juice. You can also use a plain kombucha, although this takes the longest to culture. Kombucha has sugar in it, so it adds a bit of sweetnenss to the cheese. Some people ask about using powdered probiotics – that’s your choice. I don’t recommend it. Many of them aren’t vegan, they’re expensive, and sometimes, they don’t work. Also, they are usually a mono-culture, so they don’t capture the wild lactic acid bacteria that are in grains and the environment, which contribute so much to flavor.
3. Carrageenan vs. Agar. What’s the difference? Carrageenan melts, agar does not. That’s why it’s used for the meltable cheeses. What if you can’t get carrageenan or don’t want to use it? What to do? Well, if you’re making the meltable cheeses and only care whether or not they actually melt (and not whether they are sliceable), just omit it. You’ll end up with a glob or a thick sauce, not a sliceable cheese, but it will ooze, brown, get stretchy, and melt in your sandwich, on a casserole, or a pizza, just the same. So, for the meltable cheeses, as Buddy says, “just forget about it!” It’ll all be fine in the final product.
4. Still on the topic of carrageenan vs. agar, but for the aged cheeses. The reason I use carrageenan instead of agar in the “hard” cheeses is because agar requires dissolving in water or some other liquid first. This introduces liquid into the cheeses, which not only dilutes the flavor, but leads to a higher water content, making the cheeses more vulnerable to mold. The idea is to minimize the liquid content while air-drying. Carrageenan can be added directly to the cheese and heated, at which point it will bind. If you can’t get it or don’t want to use it, you can still use agar. Here’s what you have to do: put 2/3 cup water into a narrow saucepan, and add two tablespoons of agar POWDER (don’t use flakes!!!). This is a very small amount of liquid for this amount of agar, so you’ll have to put a lid on the pot. Over medium heat, bring it to a boil. If you lift the lid, you’ll first see the agar turn solid, but after several minutes, it will eventually liquify, although it will be like a thick gel. Now very quickly whisk your cheese into the agar, making sure that it is incorporated quickly and thoroughly. Make sure that the cheese is at room temperature (and not cold) so that the agar doesn’t set into little threads the moment the cheese hits it. You’ll have to keep heating the cheese for a few more minutes – the idea behind heating the cheese is to stop the culturing process so that it doesn’t continue to get tangy over time. Pour the cheese into a lined mold (line with cheesecloth), then let cool completely in the fridge overnight. After you unmold it, don’t expect it to be completely firm! I should have stressed this in the book. Dairy cheddar isn’t firm on day one, or even week one, either! It hardens over time. So wrap it up in some cheesecloth and store in your fridge, where it will firm up and become sliceable over a couple of weeks or longer. You can air-dry it following the directions in the book as well if your house is cool, but in summer or warmer climates, it’s best to dry it out in your fridge.
5. The most important ingredient for vegan cheesemaking? Patience. Whether you’re going for depth of flavor or a firm texture, you won’t get them in a couple of hours or days. The hardest, firmest cheeses (and I mean as firm as a dairy gouda or cheddar) that require a sharp knife to cut take me weeks to make. They are not instant.
6. The cream cheese, or other cheeses that use yogurt as a starter, like a warmer environment than ones made with rejuvelac. If your house is really cold, you may have trouble getting a really thick, tangy cream cheese. Yogurt bacteria like the warmth, so this is one you could actually make in your dehydrator or an oven set to a low temperature (100 or 110).
7. The book says to “cover the cheese” while culturing. What to use? You can use a lid, as long as it’s not airtight (that’s what I use), plastic wrap just loosely thrown on top, a towel, a plate, just about anything. Note that a towel or other fabric might create a little “rind” on top. No worries.
8. What ‘s the cheese supposed to look like after it has cultured properly? It will be much thicker (and will get even thicker as it chills in the fridge), will rise slightly, and air pockets will be visible. That’s lactic acid doing its job! Here’s a picture of all the air pockets visible after the cheese has cultured and risen.
I’ll have to go through my emails and FB messages and see what else I’ve been asked, but these issues come to mind as being asked most often. Hope these few tips help in the cheesemaking process!