How I make Aged Vegan Camembert Cashew Cheese

How I make Aged Vegan Camembert Cashew Cheese
By Aaron Kreider
aaronkreider7@gmail.com

Edit: This is only 99.9% vegan. It turns out that mesophilic culture is cultivated on lactose. You can replace it with vegan probiotic pills/powder, or homemade rejeuvelac. Geotrichum candidum is also made on lactose. HP 6 Penicillum Candidum is vegan. Other variants of penicillium candidum are made on lactose.

That said, 99.9% vegan is pretty good! I'd be more concerned about the economic exploitation and environmental unsustainability of using cashews.

Recipe First
-1 lb raw cashew pieces
-60 ml of water (or coconut oil) (aka 4 tbsp) - might need more if using a blender
-1/8 tsp penicillium candidum
-1/8 tsp mesophilic culture
-1/16 tsp geotrichum candidum (optional)
-1.8 tsp of non-iodized salt (more if you are using sea salt as it has more air)

Equipment
-refrigerator
-food processor or blender
-plastic grid sheets
-sandwich size Ziploc bags

Optional Equipment
-cheese cave (wine cooler or a fridge/freezer with a temperature controller)
-small measuring spoons (1/16 tsp, 1/8 tsp)
-drying wire rack
-paper towels
-temperature and humidity gauge
-Kill-a-Watt

At the core, a “cultured” or “aged” cheese is fat, protein, salt, and acid that is partially transformed by a bacterial culture. We can use very similar processes to traditional dairy cheese making to make vegan cheese! We just need to replace milk with cashews.

Why make it? It's the best vegan cheese I've had. Non-vegans love it too! Soon I expect commercial producers to start making it, but even then it is likely to be expensive ($10+ for a ¼ pound) and not available in most places.


Cats checking out the catshews




Cashew closeup

1. Soak the Cashews
The first step is to soak the cashews overnight to make it easier to blend them and to remove the phytic acid which makes most nuts harder to digest. I use a glass container and place it overnight in the fridge. The fridge is optional, but it is a bit safer than room temperature. If I exposed cashews in my kitchen to room temperature they will pick up wild lacto cultures and start lacto-fermenting. This is fine, but I prefer using a standard mesophilic culture. Another advantage of the fridge is that your soaked cashews are colder and less likely to overheat when you use the food processor to blend them.

Optional: pasteurize the cashews in near boiling water for 3-5 minutes before soaking them to kill harmful bacteria. I don't do this as I haven't noticed any benefit. If you do this, you'll need two to three times more water in your recipe.


Starting the soak




After the cashews have absorbed the water.


Draining the cashews in a colander

2. Blend the Cashews
Rinse the cashew pieces and drain them. For blending I use a Cuisinart 11 cup food processor which can handle my typical batch size of 1.8 lbs of cashew pieces. I often do a double batch. I've found that the food processor can blend cashews without requiring you to add as much water (or coconut oil) as a blender. That said, I haven't tried using a high quality blender.

You have a choice as to how much water or coconut oil to add. The more you add, the easier it is to blend - however it also makes the final product too wet and it can require longer to dry as well as be hard to work with. So I like to use 50-100 ml, depending on how well I've drained the cashew pieces.

For my food processor, with the the ideal amount of liquid it can take 4-8 minutes to blend one pound of cashews (1.8 pounds takes longer). If you are blending them faster, you probably have too much liquid. If blending is too slow, you risk overheating the mixture. Once I overheated it so much that the oil separated from the rest of the nuts and it looked like the 100% natural peanut butter that you can buy in the store. I was able to save this mess by cooling it in the fridge overnight, adding water, and re-blending.

Once the cashews and liquid are well blended, add the penicillium candidum, mesophilic, and (optionally) geotrichum.

If you want a creamier product (eg brie has more fat content than a camembert, and the fat content in cashews is slightly lower than a typical camembert), you can use refined coconut oil instead of water. This has the advantage of solidifying at room temperature (and at fridge temperature), making it easier to work with. I like to melt the coconut oil in the microwave before mixing it in with the nuts in the food processor. You want to use refined coconut oil so there is no coconut flavor.


Blended cashews

3. Start Acidification
Place the mixture in a container at room temperature to let the mesophilic culture start growing. I typically do this for 18-24 hours at around 70 degrees. If your room temperature is higher you can use less time (say 12 hours at 75 degrees, 6-8 hours at 80 degrees).



After 20 hours the acidifying cashews have developed air bubbles

4. Add Salt and Dry
Add non-iodized salt (iodine kills or at least slows down the growth of beneficial cultures) and form the cheeses. I like to put the acidifying cashews in the fridge for an hour or two to make them firmer and easier to handle, but this is optional.

I form the cheeses by hand into the typical camembert round shape. Recently I've been making them a bit bigger as having fewer makes it easier to package and flip them. I make approximately three round cheeses per pound of nuts. You can use a plastic form and wax paper if you want to get a perfect shape, but I don't care about that.

You might be able to use less salt, but it is useful to to prevent harmful bacteria and also for flavor. If you use sea salt, you need more as it has a greater air content (eg. 1 tsp of regular salt weighs more than 1 tsp of sea salt).

I dry my cheeses on a wire grid rack in the top fridge shelf where it has fans that push cool air from the freezer into the fridge. So this air current increases the drying speed. Most fridges have very low humidity due to how compressors work. I dry the cheeses for 1-3 days depending on how much liquid I added to the recipe. It's useful to flip them once a day or more.


Drying on a wire rack in the fridge


After one day of drying they have a bit of crust

5. Aging
Next you want to age the cheese for 3 weeks or longer in 50-54F at 85% Relative Humidity (RH).

You can age the cheese in your fridge. I haven't actually tried this. I expect the rind development to be slower as a typical fridge is closer to 40F or less.
Update: I tried it and it works! It can take an additional week or more for the rind development.

To reach 85% RH, most people put their cheese in a container. The cheese will release enough moisture in the container to reach 85%.

To get 50-54 degrees, you want to either use a wine cooler, or an upright freezer or refrigerator with a temperature controller (see below).

I have been wrapping the cheese with a plastic grid that I cut to size. Then I place it in a plastic Ziploc sandwich sized bag. The plastic grid lets the cheese have some air flow which is essential for rind development. The Ziploc bag can be closed (to maximize humidity) or opened (to decrease humidity) or partially open/closed.

I like to label the bags using masking tape and a marker with my batch number. I keep notes on when I started the batch and any modifications I made to the standard recipe.

Using Ziploc bags is also ideal if you want to are low on space or have shelves with very little clearance (ex. the wine cooler I've used).

You can eat the cheese at any time. Most people think the flavor is better and more developed after a month or longer of aging.


Packaged in a Ziploc bag, with plastic grid, and labeled.

6. Flipping / Monitoring
Some people say you should flip the cheeses everyday. I think every two days is sufficient. It's most important to flip them during the first 1-3 weeks of rind development. With my method, the cheese is also likely to stick to the plastic grid as the rind grows around it. If this happens, I will manually separate the plastic grid from the cheese as gently as possible. Sometimes this damages the rind as you end up pulling off small pieces of it, but most of the time it will grow back.

After 3 weeks, your cheese is hopefully covered by a nice full layer of white mold. If it isn't, and you have been aging it at 50-54 degrees, then the cheese should probably be thrown out.

I tentatively think that having droplets of moisture form inside the Ziploc bags is fine for the first 1-2 weeks (and into the third week if you have good rind growth). Previously I was drying the cheeses with paper towels at this point, but I think I overdid it and ruined them by removing necessary humidity.

Update: my latest method is to leave the ziploc bags open for the first several days when the cheeses are still very moist. And then close them to maximize rind development. I sometimes will open them again if there is too much moisture (eg. widespread water condensation droplets on the inside)

Harmful Molds
To be on the safe side, if I see anything other than a nice white rind covering my cheese, I tend to throw them into the compost pile. So far I've probably thrown out 80% of my cheeses that were made with a base other than pumpkin seeds or cashews, and approximately 20% of my cashew and pumpkin seed cheeses. I think I've finally got the spoilage rate down to 5%, but it is has taken a while.

I'm not an expert on molds. The typical guidance is that you can cut a mold out of a hard cheese if you remove an extra 1 inch of material, but for soft cheeses (or many other things like sauerkraut) if there is any mold you must discard the entire product as there are small strands of mold that have likely penetrated the entire product.

You may see a pink or orange mold. These are bad and you should definitely not eat it.

If I don't get a good white mold layer, I will usually get a spot of moisture that is slightly slimy. I throw it out. (I think a lot of my problems came from aging these cheeses in under 85% RH and thus getting insufficient white rind mold growth).

Also - If you have tried making blue cheese, you are likely to have an aggressive blue mold culture that will colonize your cheeses. I've stopped making blue cheese to avoid this problem.

8. More Aging
I've aged cheeses up to three months. I don't know if there is a limit and I haven't figured out what the ideal amount of time is. At a certain point, after 3-5 weeks, the rind growth is zero. You can stop flipping them or only flip them once a week. And you might want to put them in another package, like cellophane.


Ready to Eat!

9. Packaging / Eating
I haven't perfected my packaging method. You want a slightly breathable wrap. I've been using cellophane wrap with masking tape to keep it together.

I store most of my cooked leftovers in glass tightly sealed containers in the fridge. However when I use this for cheese, it accumulates a lot of moisture and creates an environment that is too humid. The cheese still tastes great and lasts at least one (and possibly two) weeks in the container, but the humidity is less than ideal. More recently, I started experimenting with just putting tiny holes in the Ziploc bags which tentatively works better.

Notes on Cheese Caves
I first bought a NutriChef PKTEWCDS1802 18 Bottle Dual Zone Thermoelectric Wine Cooler as it has digital control temperature in the range I wanted (50-54 degrees) and the lots of shelves with low height which can fit a lot of cheese. I put drying racks over the shelves so it would do a better job of supporting cheeses. To increase humidity I tried storing water at the bottom and also in between the two zones/sections. I even tried caulking (with silicone) it so I could have two pools of water, however the caulk didn't last that long.

This wine cooler did a decent job of maintaining temperature. However sometimes it would still be a warm 60 degrees several hours after I had last opened it.

As it used a thermoelectric design that does not (or at least should not) exchange air with the outside, I thought it would be great at maintaining 85% Relative Humidity. However I've run a small humidifier inside it to get humidity up near 100%, and within a couple hours it falls back to 60% RH or less. So it probably leaks air.

To hit 85% RH I resorted to fully closing my Ziploc bags with cheeses in them. This is probably not ideal. I've heard they should breathe a bit.

It runs a lot and is very inefficient. It typically uses 2 kWh/day at a room temperature of around 72-74. This is 700 kWh/year which is more than most modern full sized refrigerators! I expect it suffers from the lack of government efficiency standards, very little (if any) insulation, and thermoelectric cooling being less efficient than a compressor.

Secondly I bought a Insignia upright freezer (7 cubic feet) and an Inkbird temperature controller. The temperature controller is very easy to use. It has several options, but you just need to set a target temperature and put the temperature sensor inside your freezer or fridge. This can be done without drilling as the rubber sealer around the edge of the fridge or freezer can easily accommodate the thin wire that the temperature sensor uses.

The temperature controller turns the freezer on when the temperature sensor is too warm. This maintains the freezer at the correct temperature.

I chose the Insignia upright freezer because it was a good price ($200), and had a good shelf system with lots of square footage of shelving. I wanted an upright freezer because it'd be much easier to work with. I cannot imagine flipping cheeses every day in a chest freezer!

The Insignia upright freezer uses approximately 1/5 of the electricity that the wine cooler uses and has twice as much space. I use a Kill-A-Watt meter to measure this.


Cheeses aging in the upright freezer. Relative Humidity is at 92% (normally it is 85%)

Notes on Humidifiers
I am looking for a small humidifier that can be controlled by a humidity controller as that would be the best method to control humidity for a cheese cave. So far I've only found small ones that are controlled by an electric switch/button. So they do not turn on when the humidity controller turns power on to its outlet. I need a humidifier that uses a manual switch (like some of the larger units have). If you find one, plesase let me know!

Update: so far I've ran my freezer in both winter and summer and it has never needed additional humidity. The moisture from the drying out cheeses is sufficient to keep the fridge at 70%+ RH (and the humidity inside the plastic bags or containers is greater).

Notes on Cultures
Penicillium candidum (PC) is the standard culture that is used in most cashew camemberts (and probably most dairy camemberts in general, I don't know!). There are several varieties of PC cultures. I've tried them, but haven't figured out the difference. There are also several varieties of mesophilic cultures, but I've only tried one. You can also add Flora Danica or Proprionic Shermanii to get holes from the cultures that produce gas and air pockets in your cheese, and they produce different flavors (Edit: the Danica versions of these cultures are grown on lactose).

The biggest difference I've noticed is when adding geotrichum. It makes a much milder, but equally tasty cheese to using PC by itself. I strongly recommending trying both PC alone and PC with geotrichum!!!

Where can you buy it
Most vegan cheese isn't cultured (ex. the meltable Daiya, Violife, etc). Most of the cultured cheese is only cultured for a couple days to a week. Real cashew camembert is only produced by a small number of businesses, and it's hard to say if anyone is using geotrichum. I haven't found anyone who lists both a PC and PC + geotrichum cheese. I expect we'll see a massive boom in aged vegan camembert in the next five years.

What worked but wasn't as good
Raw pumpkin seeds are a great alternative if you are allergic to cashews (or morally opposed) or just want to try something different. They have several times more fiber than cashews so that final product is not as smooth, but is more nutritious. Of all the bases I tried they were the pumpkin seeds were the only one that came very close to cashews in rind development. Pistachios did fine as well. Other nuts didn't do as well because they had too much fiber and grit. I didn't try peanuts.

What Didn't Work
I also tried using bases like sunflower seeds, soy beans (cooked and mashed soy beans, and cultured soy yogurt), almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, flax seeds (a very bad idea as the texture is completely unsuitable), cooked potato, firm tofu, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seed milk (I didn't even try to curdle it as the milk tasted very weak even after I boiled it down). The results ranged from almost acceptable to complete failure. Some other people have had suceess with these, but I'm not sure as if they are as good as cashews. Almost all the professional and commercial aged vegan nut (or seed) cheeses use cashews.

Cashews and Globalization
The US does not produce any cashews. They are produced in poorer countries like Vietnam, India and Ivory Coast and manually shelled one at a time, presumably by low-paid women workers. So there are ethical issues.

Conclusion
Feel free to email me with your stories of success, failure and questions. I also strongly recommend joining the 33,000+ member FB group
https://www.facebook.com/groups/vegancheeze/
as the best place to post your questions and stories.

Sourcing Ingredients and Equipment
Cashew pieces - https://www.ifsbulk.com/wholesale-raw-cashews-large-pieces
I've ordered four batches of 25 pounds from them. So far three batches were great and one of them had some shell pieces and black bits that I manually removed (taste wasn't affected).

Cheese cultures and supplies: https://www.thecheesemaker.com/vegan/
https://cheesemaking.com/ (also has many recipes which could be turned into vegan)

Cheesemaking draining mats - aka plastic grid sheets -
www.thecheesemaker.com/products/Cheesemaking-Draining-Mats.html

Insignia upright freezer - https://www.bestbuy.com/site/insignia-7-cu-ft-upright-freezer-white/6346184.p?skuId=6346184

Inkbird temperature controller: https://www.amazon.com/Inkbird-Thermostat-Temperature-Controller-Fermentation/dp/B015E2UFGM/

Kill-A-Watt - many places