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Short-Aged and Semi-Soft Cheeses
Again, the classification system I am employing is solely mine, and primarily one I use to help me understand the processes I am working and experimenting with. There is nothing like working with live cultures to teach you that you know very little about many things. The world of microbes is a fascinating one that is integrally tied with human evolution.
The short-aged and semi-soft cheeses I refer to here generally use a kefir-based culture (coconut, water, or otherwise nut-based). I work a lot with coconut and water kefir and so I'll refer primarily to these starter cultures within the recipes and processes provided. I particularly enjoy the level of acidity healthy and happy kefir cultures provide, and find that they allow the cheeses to age well. However, the methods described here can be used with other lactic acid-producing cultures such as rejuvelac or probiotic capsules .
While these cheeses will not have all the characteristics of dairy-based cheeses, my goal is to present something that can be understood as a new form of cheese in its own right, rather than attempting to copy or mimic traditional dairy cheeses.
Below I detail three types of kefir curd that I commonly use for making short-aged and semi-soft plant-based cheeses. They can all be used as young, fresh cheeses, or as the bases for short to longer aged cheeses, or cheeses to which secondary cultures are added.
While you can use this method and culture for shorter periods of time to end up with a drinkable kefir or slightly thicker yogurt, the object of the process is to end up with a thick, well-coagulated curd. The development of a curd relies on longer culturing time and you may want to add a sweetener (maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar), which slows down the rate of culturing and therefore allows flavor to develop without becoming too "sour"/ acidic too quickly. The resulting curd can then be used to mix with other nut-based pastes or on its own.
The following recipe is designed to provide you with some working curd to do with as you wish.
- Stainless steel stock pot
- Food-grade plastic or glass bowl/ bucket
- Large spoon
- Cheese cloth or butter muslin
- Bamboo mat
- Wood board
- Cheese mold (optional)
- 1 L coconut milk, full fat
- 1/8 cup coconut kefir starter (from previous starter batch)
- 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp salt added (after draining, and before shaping/molding)
To make the coconut kefir curd you may either choose to pre-heat (pasteurize) your coconut milk, or to culture it without pre-heating first. If you choose to pre-heat your coconut milk, be sure to follow the instructions for bringing it to temperature and for cooling prior to adding the kefir starter culture in order to avoid killing the culture. If you add culture at too high a temperature (above 180 degrees F [82 degrees C]) , you risk killing the bacteria and yeasts which you need to create the level of acidity required to make the kefir curd .
If you choose to culture without pasteurizing the coconut milk first, you will have to be particularly attentive to maintaining a consistent culturing temperature, and checking the mixture as it cultures.
After you decide whether to pasteurize your coconut milk or not, refer to the section on making your starter culture for the pasteurization process. If you are not pasteurizing, you can place the coconut milk in the refrigerator for a couple of hours first to separate coconut water from the fat, and then strain off the water. This is not necessary, as you can culture the coconut milk as is and then strain the excess fluid after the curd is formed, but if you want to remove a lot of excess moisture earlier on, this will certainly help to yield a thicker curd.
- Place your coconut milk (pasteurized or un-pasteurized) into a food-grade plastic container, glass bowl, or jar.
- Add the starter culture to the coconut milk and the sweetener, cover the top of the jar, bucket , or bowl, and maintain a culturing temperature between 68-105 degrees F (20-40 degrees C) for 12-48 hours. If you have a yogurt maker or a slow cooker that can maintain this low a heat, you can use them for this purpose.
- Alternatively, you can use your oven to maintain the culturing temperature: pre-heat the oven to 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) for 30 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave the oven light on to provide a suitable temperature for culturing. Just make sure that the oven is clean, and that the culturing container is well covered. Alternatively, you can use a yogurt maker to maintain the culturing temperature.
- Check the kefir every 12 hours. Taste a small amount to check the acidity in terms of flavor or use pH testing strips. Acidity should be 4.6 pH or lower. If the kefir is not starting to taste sour, discard and start again. You should also be able to see bubbles which are signs that the culturing bacteria are active.
- After the curd is finished culturing, strain it through cheesecloth/nut milk bag for 4 hours to overnight. After draining, the curd should be soft but clump together. You can use it is as a soft cheese, or follow the modifications in the previous section and make a flavored softer cheese. For instructions on dry-aging the cheese see Chapter 6.
- You can also use this curd to mix with cashew, macadamia, or almond paste to culture a new cheese . I often combine coconut kefir curd with almond paste to make an aged cheddar-style cheese.
Note: If you do not have access to water kefir grains or coconut kefir culture, but do have a friend with dairy-fed grain or are open to using a small amount of dairy-based kefir to start your first batch, remember that the "grains," as they are called, are actually bacteria and yeast, and breed very quickly.
If you do make a starter batch using this last method, strain the grain out of the fluid portion, discard the fluid portion, and place the grains with a bit of maple syrup into another batch of coconut milk. This trains the kefir grain onto a new feeding medium. After this batch they are fully plant-based friendly.
More from The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking:
Cover courtesy of New Society Publishers
Recipes excerpted with permission from The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking written by Karen McAthy and published by New Society Publishers, 2017.