Working with Dairy-Free Cheese

Dairy-Free Cream Cheese

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It wasn’t easy to drop dairy from my life, but the benefits of cutting it out far outweighed the joy I experienced from eating ice cream or yogurt.

I will, however, be the first to admit that I pined for cheese for a long, long time. When I transitioned off of dairy, I bought every single dairy-free cheese on the market. Most of them were gross, and full of crap ingredients that don’t support our health anyway.

Now I can’t fully recall what cheese tastes like. Still, I enjoy creating a good cheese substitute every once in awhile.

Here’s one thing you need to know about working with dairy-free cheeses: release your expectations.

Cheese substitutes don’t taste like the stuff that comes from cows. End of story. Accept it, and move on. If you are constantly trying to recreate the flavour, consistency and meltability of cheddar or Havarti, you’ll always feel bummed and disappointed.

If you’re interested in creating delicious dairy-free cheeses, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Choose a Good Base

Nuts and seeds are my favourite foundation for creating dairy-free cheeses. Select a neutral-flavoured nut like cashews, almonds, macadamias or Brazil nuts, as these usually don’t overpower your final product. Seeds will work too, though they often have a stronger flavour – I typically pick either sunflower seeds or sesame seeds.

Starchy vegetables like yams, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrots are perfect for cheesy sauces (like in my best dang sauce ever), though I’ve even seen inventive versions using cauliflower and even eggplant.

And what about nutritional yeast? It kind of approximates a cheesy taste, though I have to say it’s not my favourite ingredient to flavour a dairy-free cheese. I only like to use it in small amounts, not as the main superstar.

Enhance with Flavour

Once you’ve got your base, move on to herbs and spices. To some extent, spice selection will depend on the kind of dish in which you’ll use your dairy-free cheese. For the most part, I find that sea salt, garlic powder, onion powder and dried basil are good places to start. I’ll often add cayenne or red pepper flakes, too. If I’m making a cream cheese or dip, I like to toss in fresh chopped herbs like rosemary, dill, sage or parsley.

Raw or Cooked?

If you’re making something like a cheese sauce or nacho dip, you’ll probably want to cook up your dairy-free cheese. Some nut cheeses are incredible when you bake them, forming a nice crispy crust while maintaining a creamy interior. Others, like my herbed vegan cream cheese, are far better chilled.

Add Some Probiotics

I attended a fermentation workshop recently and walked away from it with an utterly fantastic recipe for fermented nut cheese. The process is simple – add a probiotic capsule to your cheese, leave it covered on the counter for 24 hours, then wrap it up and stick it in the fridge. It develops a wonderful tangy quality, and of course you get all the benefits of fermented foods, which include better digestion and nutrient absorption.

You can also use sauerkraut juice – check out this recipe for smoky chipotle garlic cashew cheese.

What is your favourite way to create dairy-free cheese? Please share in the comments!

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2 Responses to Working with Dairy-Free Cheese

  1. Karen July 17, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Do you think something like your herbed vegan cream cheese would work with almonds rather than cashews?

    • Sondi July 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

      Yes, absolutely. Brazil nuts and macadamias would also work nicely, though they’re more expensive nuts. I’ve also tried the herbed cream cheese with sunflower seeds, too. It still tastes great, but isn’t as visually appealing. Sunflower seeds make it look kinda grey!