Monday, June 21, 2010

Becoming a Cheesemaker

Fresh Chévre over summer squash and greens

In college, a friend had me over to his small apartment for dinner. It was hot, and he announced that we'd be starting with a "light summer appetizer" of bruschetta with ricotta and peaches. "I usually make my own cheese, but..." he trailed off apologetically. But that was all I needed to hear. I was smitten.

That man later confessed, with some trepidation, that he had never, in fact, made his own cheese. And I'm sure it struck me as a terrible lie at the time. But he's since overseen every pancake flipped in our home--a number in the thousands now--and also fathered [almost] two of my children, the combination of which I think atones for the indiscretion.

Get Cultured

Not many people make their own cheese using an actual fermentation process, but it's absolutely worth trying. Here are some reasons why:

The fermentation process adds good things. Probiotics. Beneficial bacteria. They're all in here. Cultured foods are rich in healthy micro-organisms and lactic acid, which help maintain the balance of bacteria in the intestines. And a proper balance of intestinal flora means more effective synthesis of things like B12 and Vitamin K2, both particularly important in vegan diets.

Cultured nuts, seeds, and beans are predigested for optimal nutrition. The culturing process breaks down complex proteins in nuts and seeds, making them simpler to digest and absorb. If you have stomach trouble with a particular nut or seed, try the cultured version. As with soy products, the fermentation process often makes them easier to digest (think tempeh or miso), and the cultures make for easier assimilation of nutrients. Soaking is also a helpful component, as it removes some of the enzyme inhibitors in raw nuts, which can contribute to digestive issues.

This cheese is versatile. Got a cheese recipe that calls for raw cashews? Try fermenting them into cheese first. Making sunflower pate? Add the tang of beneficial cultures. Once fermented, these nuts and seeds can be used in equal amounts in any recipe that calls for them (just add after the soaking phase). Try it in Chévre, Baked Macaroni, raw Cashew Nacho Sauce or even Cheesecake.

It makes you a culinary badass. Omnivores and vegetarians eat cheese all the time, but do they make it? Hell no! But you do. Because you are a cheesemaker. Now get out there and grab some nuts!
[Insert agressive athletic style ass-slapping, and a hearty cry of whatever it is Marines say here.]

Culturing basics

When working with a starter, it's important to choose a product with live cultures. Unpasteurized miso works well, as do vegan yogurts, kombucha, or the liquid from fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut. Miso, kimchi, and saurkraut can impart strong salty flavors, so be mindful of this when seasoning the finished cheese. For this batch, I used coconut water kefir from Inner Eco, an excellent vegan product teeming with good bacteria. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that you want to use less of a very concentrated starter (miso), and more of a less concentrated one (kombucha or kefir).

A quick note about safety

All the precautions that apply to consuming raw, unpasteurized cheeses also apply here. While it's unlikely you'll encounter contamination by listeria or salmonella, it's still possible. If your immune system is compromised or you're pregnant, you might want to use the finished cheese in a cooked sauce, like the Cayenne Crumb Baked Macaroni mentioned above.

First, be sure all your utensils and gadgets are very clean; the cheese base is an ideal environment for growing bacteria--good and bad--and you want to prevent the latter. Your nuts and seeds should be relatively bacteria-free, but if you have any concerns about this, rinsing them in a mixture of pure water and hydrogen peroxide will eliminate the bad stuff.

While fermenting, try to keep the temperature as consistent as possible, which will keep your good cultures growing at a rapid rate, with no room for the other stuff. Also, don't allow the cheese to ferment beyond 10 or 12 hours, as this can encourage spoilage and ruin the batch. These tips should ensure you have no potential issues with your cheese, but if you feel like the finished product is off somehow (bad off, not good, cultured off), err on the side of caution and toss it.

A jar of fermenting nuts and seeds, in ghostly outline

Nut and Seed Cheese
About 1 cup
The cheese pictured here is made from a combination of cashews and pumpkin seeds, but you can use whatever varieties you prefer.

1 cup raw nuts, seeds, or a combination
1-3 tablespoons live cultures (see above)
4-6 cups fresh water

The best vessel for making seed and nut cheeses is a large, wide-mouthed jar, like those used for sprouting, which have a screen covering the lid (pictured above). If you don't have a screened lid, simply cover a large jar with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel, and secure with a rubber band.

In the large jar, soak nuts and/or seeds with enough water to cover for 6 hours or overnight. Drain, rinse, and drain again. Wash jar well with hot water, and set aside to dry.

In a blender or food processor, combine nuts/seeds, cultures, and just enough water to cover. Process until well mixed, but not smooth. The finished texture should appear mushy, like small-curd cottage cheese. Return mixture to jar, covering the top with the screen or cheesecloth, and place in a warm spot. Inside a dehydrator or next to a heating vent is ideal. You can also place the jar in a bowl of warm water, then loosely cover it with a towel (don't allow it to get wet), switching out the water as it cools.

The temperature should be between 85 and 95 F at all times. Too cool, the cultures won't activate quickly enough. Too warm, the beneficial bacteria will be killed.

I've found that the easiest timing for me is to soak nuts/seeds overnight, then ferment them through the next day. While fermenting, I keep the jar in a bowl of water, placed in the oven, where I can easily refresh the warm water as needed, in between other household stuff.

It's going to be tempting to poke at and examine your cheese, but let it sit undisturbed for 6-12 hours. The bacteria in the culture will begin to work, consuming the sugars and fermenting everything into cheese. The mixture may darken, separate, or bubble, and this is all okay.

Pressed cheese "curds" with the whey drained away

Once the fermentation has occurred, transfer to a clean kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, and gently squeeze to remove excess liquid. The remaining cheese is ready to be used in recipes, or blended smooth into a dip.

The cheese should keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly against the surface to prevent further oxidation and darkening.

Congratulations! You're a cheesemaker!

The finished product, blended smooth


Mihl said...

How interesting! I thought I needed expensive and hard to get starter cultures to make my own cheese. Glad to know I was wrong. I think I'll try this with yoghurt as the sauerkraut over here is possibly pasteurized. I wonder if a sourdough starter would work as well...

Carrie said...

Wow - this looks like so much fun! I've definitely bookmarked this post. :)

Daniela said...

I totally have to try this! Will a yogurt maker work? Thanks for the recipe!

Carissa said...

Great post! I have been thinking about making some macadamian nut cream cheese!

Joy said...

Daniela, a yogurt maker would be perfect, as it's specifically for keeping the temperature consistent in growing cultures.

Carissa, you might try my recipe for Chevre for the cream cheese, substituting macadamia nuts for cashews and fermenting them first. I often use the recipe that way, and it's delicious!

haryoshi said...
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Matthew said...

Thanks for posting this! This is really cool to me but I'd like some help... I've tried making it twice now. The first time, it smelled terrible so I threw it out. I'm guessing the water got too cool. The second time, I was very careful that the water temperature stayed around 90 the entire time, and after 10 hours I took it out... I don't think it fermented it all. It just smelled and tasted like normal nut cheese that I've made before.

I'm using a half-walnut, half-cashew mixture, and using mellow white miso as a starter. Do you have any ideas what I could be doing wrong? I'm really hoping I can do this correctly. Thanks :)

Joy said...

Hi Matthew. Yes, it definitely sounds like your first batch went bad.

For the second, there could be a few things happening: The cultures in the miso might be dead or weakened, the nuts might not have been ground finely enough for the culture to spread throughout, or other factors like humidity or lack of could be at play.

You might try it with a different kind of starter. If you use the miso again and it doesn't seem fermented (and still smells okay), I would stir in an additional tablespoon of culture and let it go a few hours more. You could also bump up the heat a bit; anything under 110 or so will keep the cultures alive.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know how it goes if you try it again!