Making the Cheese
In the dairy world, cheesemaking is well documented, and knowledge is shared. The differences between the same type of cheese from two makers will be clearly apparent and come down to subtle changes to the processes that are artistic choices.
Vegan cheese done the right way should follow the same principles. However, as a young industry where many are aggressively fighting to remain relevant, trade secrets are kept by producers for their own safeguard. The story is the same for Food by Sumear (for now).
As an ex-dairy cheesemaker, the Food by Sumear range follows the same principles and methods as dairy-cheesemaking. What ever way dairy cheese is produced, the same techniques and science are used for the Food by Sumear Cheese (well, almost the same).
Though the specific secrets are not ready to be shared, a general overview can be given though ;)
The Cheese Cultures
I am a Natural Cheesemaker. A natural cheesemaker is the way of producing your own strain of cultures and maintaining a "mother starter" to develop cheese. This was the norm in the dairy world until the industrial world took over. Though this has pros and cons, we won't go over this right now.
The reason why cultures have been developed from scratch, was obtaining 100% vegan strains of bacteria when this venture started was quite complicated.
Though things have improved and can be switched to commercial options, the benefit of having these unique set of microbe allows the cheese to be tailored in a specific manner that cannot be replicated anywhere.
Having the knowledge to do this properly and safely is paramount. The results speak for themselves as the cheese created using this cocktail produce strong and have deep flavours.
The how-to on creating these cultures will be forever a secret. However, it is based on harvesting bacteria from grains & seeds, similar to how they use barley for beer-making. The bacteria is kept and developed similar to kombucha or sourdough, where a Mother Starter is maintained over time.
This process creates a healthy & safe microbial strain that packs a punch that gets better with age.
The Mother Culture has been in developed since March 2019. It would have been older if a previous batch wasn't tainted! But these things happen in this line of work.
Like dairy-cheesemaking, the process of developing the base cheese goes through a variety of methods. However, unlike dairy-cheese, most of the Food by Sumear range uses a "cheese-paste" before moulding, rather than developing cheese-curds using a milk.
As the hard cheese specialist, a specific texture is required that allows it to be matured over an extended period of time. With dairy, curds are paramount due to their strength and the ability to be processed further, such as cutting, cooking, cheddaring, etc.
Plant milk can be curdled; however, these curds can only be created using something acidic to split the milk. Dairy curds can be produced this way too but can't be used to produce hard cheese. Hard cheeses require a strong curd mass that can be processed and manipulated.
Curds created using an acid will only develop micro/soft curds that hold onto a lot of water. High water content is the enemy for long-term ageing.
At the time of writing & from my knowledge, creating firm curds with plant milk is not possible. This is possible for dairy as rennet is used that targets the unique protein bonds that exist only in dairy. As the proteins join together with the fat, a strong curd mass is created. When curds are cut for processing, further water/whey is expelled. As mentioned, this high loss of whey/water is vital along with the strong curds.
This is only a simple overview; however, it gives you the gist as the main fundamental difference between dairy-cheese and the Food by Sumear vegan-cheese.
So back to the cheese-paste. A paste is developed using a mixture of high-protein and high-fat plant matter that is cultured and fermented in the familiar setup as dairy. The Food by Sumear range has seen the use of nuts, seeds and legumes as a paste. The current range currently focusing on the use of nuts and/or seeds.
Other ingredients are often paired to develop the firmer cheese range such as starches and oils to aid in bettering the textures and the mouthfeel. Textures are often the hardest part of vegan-cheesemaking and is an area that needs manipulating, like dairy-cheese.
One major goal is dropping nuts, oils & starches and use only 100% UK grown ingredients. This is still in R&D and the purpose to have a great taste cheese that has a very low carbon footprint.
Not much to say here! Cheese is made into wheels for numerous reasons such as easier handling, stronger structure and uniform ageing.
Using a cheese-cloth, the cheese is placed into a mould. The natural weight of big wheels is more than enough to create a tight-knit structure that takes a day or so to form.
After de-moulding, wheels are either salted or brined for their protection and then air-dried. All of this, say it with me now, is the same as dairy cheesemaking. Air drying allows excess moisture to dissipate and start the development of a rind (a protective, climate-controlling jacket powerhouse).
Cheese needs to be developed in the right sort of environment so that the microbes can thrive in a controlled and safe manner.
A cave is a perfect environment, and so I have one! Well, a cave-like atmosphere. A large cold-room is used with a system that mimics a real cave's climate with a low temperature and high humidity.
The required climate depends on the type of cheese. The temperature usually ranges between 9-14c and the humidity between 80-95%.
The Food by Sumear cave is set with a humidity of 90-95% due to the production of blue-mold cheese as it needs that extreme level of moisture in the air.
In this environment, wheels of cheese develop for long periods at a slow rate. Slow development allows for richer and more profound changes and so part of my range is matured for several months.
The Food by Sumear Verdure-Mead range is actually the first UK commercial vegan cheese that is long-aged (or extra mature).
During the maturing process, cheese care is undertaken such as flipping, cleaning, salting, washing, etc. This further develops the cheese but also as a precaution to ensure things are going smoothly and ensuring nothing bad occurs.
Microbes! The most significant contributor of flavours and aromas with dairy-cheese are from the microbial community. Most of what we enjoy of cheese comes from the microbes and so it is no different with the Food by Sumear vegan-cheese.
The cultures start the process of fermenting and ripening cheese as it "eats" and reacts with the "base cheese". Natural bacteria exists in ingredients that naturally play a role with the fermentation process. And then we have microbes in the environment that also assist during the ripening phase of cheesemaking.
The microbes in the environment are unique to a cheesemaker and the location in the world which is why it is often hard to 100% replicate a specific cheese from a creator. As more cheese is placed into the cave with a varying away of microbes, the community grows as the "governing" body ward off rouge invaders. A bigger community helps develop new wheels of cheese that enter the cave in exciting ways to impart a profile of a wide range of flavours that is often associated with dairy-cheese.
They are the reason how the rinds obtain a range of colours & textures of the exterior while assisting in altering the texture within the cheese paste.
This is a fundament key of dairy-cheesemaking where the biggest contributor to flavour, is the same with the Food by Sumear vegan-cheese. Though we can taste the hint of flavour from the ingredients used whether it is dairy or nuts, the flavours we are overwhelming drawn to are things like nuttiness, floral, earthy, buttery, fruity and so on. And this is from the microbes at all stages of cheesemaking.
So rather than learning how to imitate dairy cheese. An understanding of the processes and science is required and how the role of bacteria, yeasts, and molds play a role.