Cheese, how do I love thee let me count the ways! I think we can agree that cheese is one of the stars of the holiday food season, but for a variety of reasons; allergies, ethical, or otherwise, we can't all abide in animal dairy. So in the name of inclusion, and to aid in the continuation of the cheesy love affair, we are including two recipes today. The first, from Mastering Basic Cheesemaking: The Fun and Fundamentals of Making Cheese at Home, is for paneer, traditionally used in Indian food, using cow dairy. The second is a plant-based soft-cheeze from The Art of Plant-based Cheesemaking: How to Craft Real, Cultured, Non-Dairy Cheese.
If you are at all familiar with Indian food, you might have encountered a firm, non-melting cheese called paneer. A virtual twin to many other cheeses made throughout the world, such as pressed queso blanco and Lithuanian white cheese, paneer is — in my opinion — one of the most perfect cheeses. It can be made quickly, it is versatile (since it won’t melt), it can be frozen, and it is higher in protein than almost any other cheese (since very little protein is left in the whey thanks to the higher heat used to make it). Making paneer will be your first lesson in pressing cheese, so you are on your way to becoming a pro.
What You'll Need
- Milk: 1 gal. (4 L) whole milk
- Acid: ½–⅔ cup (118–158 ml) cider or white vinegar, or fresh or bottled lemon juice
- Salt: ¼ tsp (1 g) pure salt
- Utensils: 1.5–2 gal. (6–8 L) pot, spatula, colander, cheesecloth, 2 plates, heavy skillet
Process in a Nutshell
- Time: 20–30 min. active, 1 hr. inactive
- Steps: Heat milk, add acid, set, drain, salt and press, store and use
Step by Step
- Heat Milk: Pour the milk into the pot, and place the pot over medium-high heat. Heat the milk, stirring constantly with the spatula, until gently boiling, 20–30 minutes.
- Add Acid: Remove the pot from the heat. Slowly drizzle the vinegar or lemon juice into the milk while stirring gently; the curds will begin to separate immediately. Continue stirring gently and constantly, until the whey is a translucent yellow, about one minute.
- Set: Let the curds set in the pot, uncovered, for 10 minutes; this gives them time to collect and
- Press: Place the curd bundle onto an inverted plate set inside of a large bowl or in the sink. Place another inverted plate on top of the bundle and set a heavy skillet or other weight on top of the plate; the combined weight should be 3–5 pounds. Press for 1 hour. Remove the bundle from the press, unwrap the cloth, and — voilà! — your first pressed cheese.
- Store and Use: You can use the paneer right away, but if you let it chill overnight, it will be easier to slice. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or a zipper-lock bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for several months.
Cheese has lots of openings in it and isn’t smooth in texture: Use more weight the next time and tie the knot more snugly against the ball of curd.
Semi-Soft Cheeze Base Recipe
Like the soft cheeze base, this is a base recipe which you can adapt to different flavors and densities. Semi-soft, for the purposes of my classification system, mirrors the texture style of some of the dairy based cheeses that are also classified as semi-soft such as many of the blue cheeses, havarti, gouda, muenster, mozzarella, fontina, and Monterey jack.
Unlike all of the traditional cheeses, the cheeze base recipe below will not yield as many varieties as listed above, because of the lack of cultures, but it is very suitable for getting creative with flavors.
- High-speed blender
- Wooden or silicone spoon
- Thick cast sauce pot
- Springform pan (or other circular mold) 6–8 inch (you can use other alternative forms, or loaf pans if you like)
- 2 Cups cashews, soaked, OR 3 cups soaked and peeled almonds (you can also substitute macadamia nuts)
- ⅔ cup nutritional yeast
- 3 tsp salt
- ½ cup lemon juice or ⅓ cup
- apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup coconut milk (from can)
- 2 tbsp tapioca starch*(optional)
- 2 tsp powdered agar agar (powdered rather than flake)
- 1–1½ cups filtered water (for once the mixture goes into the pot)
*Tapioca starch is optional, but if you are looking to create a cheeze that will have some stretchy texture under heat (i.e., melted), then tapioca starch does help. Since nuts and seeds do not have the same protein structure as dairy, it is a constant challenge to achieve the full-on meltability that occurs with dairy-based cheeses. Tapioca starch should not be replaced with potato, corn or arrowroot. Tapioca starch behaves very differently than the other starches, and does indeed impart stretchiness to mixtures.
- Soak cashews for 1 hour to overnight. If you are using almonds, use organic ones in skin. It is more work, but you will get better results. Soak the almonds in 6 cups of filtered water for a minimum of 3 hours to overnight. I use a little bit of very hot water to soak the almonds in as I find this helps in removing the skins. Keep in mind that almonds are less sweet than cashews so they will result in a different tasting cheese.
Place all ingredients, except the tapioca starch and the agar agar, into a high-speed blender starting with the liquids (coconut milk and lemon juice or vinegar). Start on low speed, then work your way up to high speed. Stop periodically to scrape down the sides of the pitcher and continue repeating the blending and scraping process until very smooth. To judge smoothness, you can take a small amount of the mixture and rub it between your fingers. If you feel any graininess, continue the blending and scraping, and use a small amount of filtered water to assist with getting the texture smooth. Most importantly, during this process be patient, as the blending process can take some time.
After you have finished the blending process, scrape all of the material from the blender pitcher into a thick cast pot. The texture will be quite thick, which means that when heating it will have a tendency to stick to the pot and be at risk of burning. Add the 1–1½ cups water to the pot, and stir in well with the wooden spoon.
Turn the element on to low heat and monitor the mixture closely. Taste-check for seasoning (namely salt, nutritional yeast and acidity). Stir frequently to prevent the nut paste from becoming burnt.
Add the agar and the tapioca starch (if you are using it), and stir thoroughly into the mixture to prevent lumps forming. Gradually increase the heat and stir frequently. Avoid the temptation to increase the heat rapidly and too high too soon. Tapioca starch likes to coagulate and will need time to bind with the rest of the mixture. Whisking will help the starch emulsify with the rest of the mixture.
As you are stirring and monitoring and gradually increasing the heat to medium-high, you should notice the texture becoming smooth and glossy. This will mean that the tapioca starch is well combined, and now you are paying attention to how the agar will respond. Agar needs to be heated at 186°F (85°c) for at least 5 minutes to “bloom,” that is to become activated.
The reason this matters: agar is being used to set the cheeze mixture, as it cools, into a medium-firm substance. Agar is commonly used as a vegan alternative for gelatin in recipes; but, depending on how much and what kind (powdered or flake), will set more firmly than gelatine.
Continue stirring the mixture until it feels somewhat difficult, and you have surpassed the 5 minute blooming time for the agar. Taste test one more time, and adjust seasoning accordingly. The flavor is intended to be mild to moderate so that you can add other components if desired.
Turn the heat off and leave the mixture for a few minutes. Ready the springform pan by lining it with enough cheesecloth that the cloth spills over the edges and there is enough to fold over the top of the cheeze.
Pour the cheeze mixture into the springform pan and spread smooth with the spoon or offset spatula. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature prior to setting in the refrigerator. The cheesecloth is important because it absorbs residual moisture from the mixture as it cools. Removing moisture will extend the shelf life of the cheeze.
After the cheeze has reached room temperature, pat it to test the firmness. It should be firm to touch, but have a very small amount of spring back. Keep in mind that as it continues to cool, it will firm up further.
Store the cheeze in the refrigerator in the springform pan, and cover the top with cheesecloth. Do not cover it with plastic wrap or put it into a covered container, as this will lead to condensation developing and is a food safety risk as this moisture can become a prime environment for unwelcome microbes. Even though the cheeze has cooled to room temperature, it will take several more hours for all of the residual heat to evaporate.
Allow this cheeze to fully cool and set overnight within the cheesecloth (you can use parchment or butter muslin to line the springform/mold). The next day check its firmness. Change the cheesecloth wrap (if you used cheesecloth; remove the parchment if you used parchment), remove the springform round, and store on a bamboo or wood board for 1–2 days more, as you allow a little moisture to continue evaporating. Make sure to flip or turn the cheeze every day, and to move to a dry board.
Spicy hot pepper
Add ¼ cup very finely sliced hot peppers of choice, pickled or fresh. My preference is pickled: one, for flavor, and two, because they are less likely to impart foodborne pathogens. I also like to add 1 tsp powdered turmeric to change the colour of the cheeze. Add these ingredients when you add the cheeze mixture to the pot.
While this particular cheeze mixture won’t sustain an actual smoking process all that well (i.e., being smoked over wood chips), you can impart a smoky element in a number of ways.
Add 1 tbsp smoked salt in place of the salt in the recipe, 2 tsp smoked paprika, and 1 tsp liquid smoke.
These elements should be added during the blending process. You can, and should, adjust them to your preference. If you want it quite smoky you should also add more nutritional yeast and increase the acidity slightly by adding either pasteurized (bottled) lemon juice or vinegar.
It ultimately comes down to your taste preference so be sure to taste frequently during the process, and gradually adjust the key elements of salt, umami (nutritional yeast), and acidity (lemon juice or apple cider vinegar) as you work.
Apricot or cranberry
Add ½ cup chopped dried apricot or dried cranberry, and ⅛ cup lemon zest. Optional: add ½ cup white wine such as a Riesling or Viognier. Add these elements when you add the cheeze mixture to the pot. For all three amendments, be sure to follow the rest of the process as outlined in the base recipe. For an additional presentation element, while the cheeses are cooling add dried fruit or slices of hot pepper into the surface.