One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: vegan cheese

Dairy-free cheese has taken off with the increase in plant-based eating, as supermarkets introduce ranges to their chilled sections and restaurants put it in dishes.

26 July 2018
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The trend

  • At the start of the year supermarket chain Sainsbury's reported that sales of its vegan cheeses surpassed the company's predictions by 300%. The supermarket launched five vegan coconut milk-based cheeses in 2017 under its Freefrom brand.
  • Dairy-free cheese can be made from a wide variety of ingredients. Most mass-produced cheeses are coconut oil or soy-milk based, while more artisan cheeses are nut-based with cashew used most frequently. Rice and vegetables are also used as base ingredients.
  • Vegans hoping to eat a pizza topped in a similar way to their non-vegan counterparts can do so across the UK with a number of pizza chains, such as Zizzi, PizzaExpress, ASK Italian and even Pizza Hut, now offering vegan cheese as an alternative to dairy mozzarella.

As the number of people adopting a vegan diet rises in the UK (542,000 in 2016 according to the Vegan Society), so to do the number of chefs and restaurants eager to cater for this growing market.

In some instances, placing elaborately prepared vegetables, pulses and grains centre stage is the answer, while other times chefs seek out meat and dairy substitutes to please their plant-based punters.

image credit: Vegan Recipe Club

Cheese is a product that features in many dishes, yet for so long vegans have resorted to chowing down on rubbery blocks of non-dairy 'cheese' found in the chiller sections of health food shops.

Thankfully, the (cheese) wheels are turning in vegans' favour, with food producers and chefs making an array of vegan cheeses in different styles – from a soft, creamy mozzarella to a hard, tangy cheddar.

As Theresa McGuinness, whose Dublin chipper McGuinness Takeaway serves a wide vegan menu, says, "no-one would say making vegan cheese is hard." However, making one capable of slicing and grating like its dairy-based counterparts is "more challenging" and may require the addition of a thickener and emulsifier like carrageenan.

One restaurant that has arguably nailed vegan cheese making is vegan pizzeria Purezza. The group, which has two sites – in Brighton and London – is planning to open a dairy-free cheese factory where it will manufacture a plant-based alternative to the mozzarella that is used on conventional pizzas to supply its own restaurants and others.


The trailblazers

Maryanne Hall, food and cookery manager at Vegan Recipe Club: 

We have several vegan cheese recipes but our favourite is a white ‘cheddar’ cashew cheese. It’s a semi-firm artisan-style cheese with a tangy, quite strong taste and is light years away from most commercial vegan cheeses (although we love these too!). It’s not difficult to make but you need to plan ahead – it takes six to seven days, most of which is spent soaking, culturing and developing the flavour. The actual cheese-making is very simple. As well as the cashew nuts, you need a probiotic – we give two choices, either Rejuvelac (made from sprouted quinoa) or raw sauerkraut liquid. The recipe also contains miso to help enhance the cheesy flavour and nutritional yeast, which again adds more of a cheesy flavour and umami taste. When the cheese is ready it can be served on a cheese board with crackers, fruit and pickles; in sandwiches or anywhere cheese might be required. It also melts so can be used on pizza, lasagne, moussaka or cheese on toast. The list is endless.


Theresa McGuinness, owner of McGuinness Takeaway in Dublin, Ireland, makes a mozzarella-style cheese for pizza with a cashew nut base: 

I use organic cashews and a few spices, then add tapioca to make it a bit thicker. I don't use agar agar and other thickeners because personally I don't like them. I put the ingredients in a blender and then boil. I find vegan cheese making is all about timing. How long to leave it boiling and at what temperature will depend on how much you are making in a batch. I'll be serving it on pizza at my chipper in Dublin, which has a massive vegan menu, in the next few weeks. It will be poured on, giving it a melted look, before it goes in the oven to bake. The cheese is delicious, like a cashew cream. I can eat it off a spoon.


James Morris, chef-owner at Eat Vital Cafe in Leeds: 

I use cooked sweet potato, oats, nooch (nutritional yeast) and agar agar, which is blended together to make the cheese. I then add pink salt, herbs and spices, depending on the type of dish I'll be using it in. We make our cheese in-house because of the unidentifiable ingredients in most shop-bought brands. Once it's ready we serve it on wholewheat macaroni for mac and cheese. It's also great for nachos, or as a dip when not cooked with agar agar. If you do make it with the latter, it's fab in a toastie or with crackers. Our cafe will open in Leeds in the next few weeks, so we'll be finding lots of new inventive ways to use it.

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