This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Who Faked My Cheese?, first released on April 10, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CHRIS: Hi, I’m Chris and I love cheese in any shape or form.
TIM: All of the cheese is the kind that we eat. We eat cows’ cheese and goat cheese and hard and soft and aged and funky and blue.
TAMAH: I like cheddar sharp—extra sharp.
ANNE: I love cheese. I like it because it’s creamy and it also has a little bit of a tartness, acidity to it. And it’s just really yummy.
KANTHA SHELKE: I think one of the most important aspects of cheese is that it is delicious.
MIYOKO SCHINNER: Oh my gosh, the whole experience of high-end cheese. That beautiful platter, the crackers, the glass of wine, just reaching over there and just taking unctuous bites of all these different types of cheese.
MARIA CHAVEZ: I am a heavy cheese lover. I am a vegetarian with vegan-leaning tendencies and I’m a member of the team that is holding out for a really good cheese to take me all the way vegan.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Nicky, my friend’s daughter said to me last summer, “Auntie Cynthia, I could never be a vegan because I LOVE CHEESE.” Lucine, I’m right there with you.
NICOLA TWILLEY: You, me, her, and the majority of the universe. In fact, here at Gastropod HQ, we love cheese so much that this is our second cheese-focused episode.
GRABER: And, as you just pointed out, this is indeed Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And there are no prizes for guessing what today’s episode is all about. CHEEEEEEESE.
GRABER: Today we’re exploring an aspect of cheese that we didn’t get to in our first cheese episode. What is it that makes cheese so frigging amazing? What’s the science behind cheese’s magic?
TWILLEY: The meltiness, the texture, the sharpness and funk and creamy mouth coating awesomeness—turns out there are scientific explanations for them all.
GRABER: I know we say this frequently, but I’m already hungry. Talking about cheese does that to me every time.
TWILLEY: Once again, a lot of cheese was consumed during the making of this episode. And some non-cheese.
GRABER: And that’s because the other major question we’re tackling this episode is: Why is it so hard to make a good cheese substitute? What are the challenges, and who’s taking them on?
TWILLEY: And what do their cheese substitutes actually taste like?
GRABER: A quick note, you’ll hear some tape from our trip to Italy in this episode, and for the final time, we’d like to thank the amazing Toni Mazzaglia. Check out her company Taste Florence, at tasteflorence.com. A limited number of Gastropod listeners can put in the code Gastropod18 to get $5 off per ticket for her food tours in Florence.
TWILLEY: We also want to thank a few different listeners for the inspiration to make an episode on plant-based cheeses. Art Posocco, who is also a supporter on Patreon, so extra big thanks there.
GRABER: Audrey Waller also suggested we look into this, as did Jonathan Cope. We always love hearing your ideas, so send them in.
TWILLEY: Another thing we want to tell you about is that we’ve just released our second special bonus episode for Stitcher Premium subscribers. It’s a behind-the-scenes backstage pass to our conversations with superstar cookbook authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson. If you want to listen to it, and ad-free versions of all our episodes, go to StitcherPremium.com/Gastropod and start your free trial today!
GRABER: So, if we haven’t already made it clear, we love cheese. In fact, when we were on our insane reporting trip last summer, we spent hours one morning watching Parmesan being made. Toni Mazzaglia was there with us and she also translated what the white-haired Italian cheesemaker told her he was doing.
GRABER: The milk is just pouring—it’s like a really big hot tub for milk.
MAZZAGLIA: Yeah, I’d like to swim around in that actually.
GRABER: I would totally swim around in this.
TWILLEY: Honestly, we were all a little delirious because it was very early in the morning. Toni had driven us to just outside Bologna, on the road to Modena, to a school that teaches aspiring Parmesan makers how to turn fresh milk into glorious, glorious cheese.
MAZZAGLIA: 580 liters of milk. From about 50 cows.
GRABER: The first step was to take that fresh milk—it was so fresh that we saw it arrive in the truck at 7 AM—and to pour it into huge copper tubs and heat it up.
MAZZAGLIA: First we raise the temperature to 33 Celsius. We’re in the first phase right now, which is raising the temperature, which will go up to 33 degrees Celsius. But he basically said to me, stop asking questions, I’m going to tell you everything, so just let him talk.
TWILLEY: The raw ingredient—the milk itself—is extremely important. For real Parmesan like this, the cheese maker has to use raw milk from local cows that have only been fed on grass.
SHELKE: So what is milk? In the traditional sense of the word milk is a fluid that mammals produce to nourish the newborns.
GRABER: Kantha Shelke is a food scientist, she runs a company called Corvus Blue and she teaches at Johns Hopkins University. She says you can’t talk about why cheese is so awesome without talking about why milk is so awesome.
SHELKE: So it’s a concentrate of nutrients, and it is produced to nourish her young. So these nutrients are very, very important when making cheese. So it’s a sugar—lactose, fat, and protein. And then the rest of it is just simply water with the number of different salts, etc.
TWILLEY: Back in the Italian countryside, this precious milk was heating up in the copper hot tub.
MAZZAGLIA: We’re still watching the milk!
TWILLEY: Then the Parmesan makers added a bucket-full of whitish liquid. They told us it was whey that they’d saved from yesterday’s bunch of cheese. The whey is acidic from all the lactic acid bacteria in it.
GRABER: It smells like really ripe milk.
TWILLEY: This would be the stage where I would be like, I should probably throw this away now.
GRABER: That would definitely be a mistake. In this stage, what they’re actually doing is using that whey, that culture, to make the milk more acidic. This helps prepare the milk for the next stage. That’s when the cheesemaker added rennet, which is an enzyme that comes from an animal’s stomach and makes the milk curdle. It’s actually and kind of weirdly just like what happens in an animal’s stomach.
SHELKE: When a baby drinks this milk, the baby’s system digestive system produces an enzyme to begin the digestion. That’s exactly what we’re doing when we make cheese.
TWILLEY: This is something I’d really never thought about, but when cheese makers make the milk acidic and add rennet, they’re literally recreating the conditions in a calf’s stomach. A baby cow turns its mother’s milk into soft cheese inside its stomach—not for the pleasure of eating cheese obviously. But because cheese passes through their digestive system more slowly than milk, it gives the calf more time to absorb all its nutrients.
GRABER: And to continue to blow your mind, this is also just what happens in human babies’ stomachs. Human babies also are making soft cheese in their bellies to help with nutrition.
TWILLEY: Think of that next time you clean up baby vomit.
GRABER: I’m really starting to get a whole new appreciation for baby vomit right now. But let’s get back to Parmesan. The cheese maker adds rennet as a coagulant.
TWILLEY: When you see this happen, it looks like a magic trick. The milk hardens into solid lumps in front of your eyes. But of course it’s not magic—it’s got some very specific, well-understood science behind it. It’s all to do with a thing called a micelle.
CHAVEZ: The micelle is like a glob of protein. And they’ve got a very specific structure and it’s what makes milk science so exciting and so interesting is the structure of these proteins.
GRABER: Maria Chavez is the executive director of a community biotech lab called Biocurious and a member of the real Vegan Cheese Project.
TWILLEY: She told us that micelles are basically little teams of protein molecules. The protein that we care about when it comes to cheese is called casein.
SHELKE: We’ve got a few wonder proteins out in nature and casein is definitely one of them.
GRABER: There’s really nothing else like it in nature.
TWILLEY: And, in fact, there are four different kinds of these awesome casein molecules in milk, floating around in micelle gangs. And one of the types of casein has these little tails that attracts water molecules. In fact, this is what makes milk a liquid in the first place—without this special casein micelle structure, the water and protein and fats would all separate. So it’s what makes milk milk.
CHAVEZ: And it’s the magic sauce that makes cheese cheese. And what makes cheese cheese is that something in our stomachs—chymosin, which is the enzyme in rennet—cuts off those tails in the kappa casein and then these micelles actually start sticking to each other. And that’s what a cheese curd is: those tails being cut off of those proteins and sticking to each other like sticky balls.
TWILLEY: And those sticky balls are … curds!
GRABER: To quickly go over this, chymosin is the main enzyme that’s in rennet. The words are often used interchangeably. And when you add rennet to milk, then those little micelles no longer can do that amazing job of making milk milk. Their tails can’t hold onto the water because they’ve been cut off. So now the micelles—and the casein in those micelles—sticks together. And, as Maria says, we can actually see the casein clumping together as curds.
MAZZAGLIA: He’s putting his hand and he’s feeling around, you can see that it’s gotten to be chunky to be underneath the surface of the milk now.
TWILLEY: Supposedly these Parmesan makers have the softest hands in all of Italy. Our guy had been making cheese for 51 years, swirling his hands around in this acidic, enzyme-y milk bath for hours every morning.
GRABER: As the curds and whey were separating, the cheese maker was heating the copper vats a little more, up to 55 degrees Celsius or 131 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve been talking about the importance of casein in milk becoming cheese, but as the milk gets heated and broken up, a lot of other things are going on with the other ingredients. The sugars are starting to cook. The fats are getting turned inside out.
TWILLEY: What I will say is that the smell has moved on from a cheesy milk smell to the milk sugars are starting to caramelize, so you’re starting to get a tiny caramel note, don’t you think?
GRABER: Well, we can tell that the fat’s coming apart because it’s getting more and more yellow.
TWILLEY: I hadn’t had breakfast so by this point I was pretty much ready to dive into the copper tub. Finally, our cheese maker decided the curds were ready.
GRABER: And here comes the cheesecloth, look Toni, it’s a cheesecloth!
MAZZAGLIA: Whoa, that is so cool.
GRABER: The wedge of curds is rising out of the water and it’s all kind of knitted together at this point.
MAZZAGLIA: It looks like a giant sponge, doesn’t it?
TWILLEY: That whirring sound, that’s the motor that’s raising the rod that this heavy cheesecloth full of curds is tied to—it’s pulling it really slowly out of the copper tub.
GRABER: The Parmesan is in its own baby hammock.
MAZZAGLIA: It looks like the stork just brought it.
TWILLEY: Little Parmesan baby in there! Then they cut the one big Parmesan baby into two cheeses. All this for two wheels of cheese!
GRABER: Two monster wheels, though… I could probably dine out on one of those wheels for more than a year.
MAZZAGLIA: He’s caressing it. His wife says he caresses the cheese forms more than he caresses her.
GRABER: As the cheese maker caresses and forms the Parmesan round, he’s also pressing out extra liquid with the help of a large wooden weight and helping the curds stick together even more.
TWILLEY: And then the baby cheeses get put in a special cheese elevator and lowered into a brining pool. They stay there for nearly a month—all the salt helps control which microbes are getting busy in the cheese. Plus it firms up the proteins, which helps harden up those soft baby cheeses to get them closer to the Parmesan we know and love.
GRABER: Next stop to age the cheese? A cheese cave. So that was our next stop, too.
TWILLEY: But don’t picture an actual cave—it was really more of a refrigerated room with lots of wooden shelves for the rounds of Parmesan to sit on and grow old together.
GRABER: That tapping sound wasn’t just us playing around with these large drums of cheese. The cheese makers tap them all the time there. They listen to check if there’s a problem, like to hear if there’s an air bubble. And these experts can also tell how well formed the rind is by the sound it makes, they can hear when the cheese is almost ready to sell.
TWILLEY: For Parmesan, what’s happening while it sits of the shelf getting flipped and tapped for two or three years is that the cheese is losing moisture, the proteins are moving around and forming a crystal structure, and the salt is penetrating very, very slowly all the way through the cheese. Basically, lots of good stuff.
GRABER: But that really hard, grainy, delicious, super umami end result, the Parmesan many of you have in your fridges right now, that’s only one of the bazillions of kinds of cheeses out there. Some are gooey, some are hard but squeaky, some are hard but smooth and not grainy, some are soft and spreadable. Some have holes. Some are covered with mold, others have mold rippling through the cheese. And really, most of that variety that makes solidified milk into the fabulous wealth of cheeses we love so much—that emerges during the aging process.
TWILLEY: Everything that we watched the man with the soft hands do to his cheesy Parmesan milk was all in order to set up what happens in the cheese cave. The precise temperature to heat the milk to, how long to hold it at that temperature, which cultures to add—it all matters because it affects the size of the protein molecules and the way the fat molecules are broken down into smaller fats. And those are the variables that make a difference during aging.
GRABER: As Kantha told us, part of this happens because of the microbes that were added to the milk during the cheese-making process. Then there are microbes in the aging room that affect the cheese. And sometimes for some cheeses—not Parmesan, but say, Brie or Camembert or blue cheese—microbes are added to the aging cheese.
SHELKE: For microbes, cheese is the veritable buffet. So they’ve entered this cheese and now they no matter which way they turn, they have delicious fats and they have delicious proteins which are all nutrients for them to act upon and to break down into smaller, more digestible pieces. So if you have mold for example, mold spores can cause enzymes which breaks down the crumbly cheese into a creamy cheese. And the bacteria do the same.
TWILLEY: But you can put down your shot glass now, because there’s more to the magic of aging cheese than just microbes.
SHELKE: You know, there’s a number of factors that can affect how a cheese holds itself, how its texture is, and how it melts. So the most important thing is its moisture content.
TWILLEY: If you leave a lot of moisture in the cheese, like in mozzarella, the proteins are only loosely packed together, with tons of water molecules in between. That’s what makes those cheese soft.
GRABER: For Parmesan, as we saw, a lot of the water was squeezed out, and then also as the Parmesan ages more water evaporates. And the lack of water in the cheese means the proteins are packed together really tightly so you get a harder cheese.
TWILLEY: The aging process affects more than just how soft or hard the cheese is.
SHELKE: One other thing that works is the age. Age of the cheese matters. In fresh, un-aged cheeses the casein, the protein molecules are large, they’re stretchy, they tend to get tangled into ropes, and so they stay very loosely fit.
GRABER: But if the salt and microbes are given a long time to act on the cheese as it ages, the casein gets broken down, the proteins are smaller, they’re no longer so tangled up.
SHELKE: So this is why mozzarella, which is a young cheese, gets all tangled up and very stretchy when you melt it. Whereas a cheddar is a little more firm but when it melts…
TWILLEY: Ah, when it melts. When it melts, cheddar is really smooth. Let’s talk about cheese melting a little, she says, wiping away the drool.
SHELKE: You know, the melting of cheese is a very sensual experience and people love it. So when you’re heating up the cheese, the solid milk fat that’s in the cheese begins to liquefy and the cheese softens.
GRABER: When you’re melting cheese, whether it’s on the stove top or in your mouth, the chemical bonds holding the proteins together start breaking up.
SHELKE: And when the bonds break, the cheese collapses, from the structured piece that it was into a thick fluid.
TWILLEY: So that’s the science behind all these unique textures and flavors and the beautiful meltiness. But, more to the point, these delightful qualities—all of which depend on casein—these are the reasons people love cheese.
SCHINNER: It was so fascinating to me that you could start with one ingredient, milk, and that just by inoculating it with certain cultures you could render all these different flavor profiles and texture profiles.
GRABER: Miyoko Schinner is the head of a vegan cheese company called Miyoko’s Kitchen. She’s also written a cookbook called Artisan Vegan Cheese. But back in her 20s, she absolutely loved real dairy cheese.
SCHINNER: And I loved all the different fancy cheeses and the whole experience of a glass of wine with your cheese. To me, that represented the good life. And, you know, I always hoped that someday in life I would be successful enough that I could enjoy that fancy cheese platter and a glass of wine on Friday nights. That was my goal in life.
TWILLEY: And then Miyoko gave it all up. She still loved cheese a lot, but the relationship had gone sour.
SCHINNER: Well, it didn’t like me very much, we’ll put it that way. In my mid 20s, I realized that, you know, my stomach hurt all the time. I lived with perpetual stomachaches. And I thought it was normal—like your stomach was supposed to hurt. And someone one day said what do you mean your stomach hurts all the time? That’s not normal. And then I realized gee, maybe, you know, I’m Japanese, maybe I have a dairy allergy. So I gave up cheese and voila, my stomach ills went away.
GRABER: I have to say, I might be more like Miyoko than I care to admit. I can’t drink much straight milk, or eat a lot of ice cream—my partner Tim calls me lactose barely tolerant. It’s common among Jews.
TWILLEY: I am all northern European, genetically speaking, which is an abnormally lactose-tolerant culture. In the world as a whole, about 60 percent of adults have trouble digesting dairy. In China, that number rises to 90 percent.
GRABER: A quick note—as cheese like Swiss and Cheddar and Parmesan age, the bacteria break down lactose into lactic acid. And so for people like me, these cheeses are much easier to digest, because they don’t have much lactose left.
TWILLEY: But stomach troubles are not the only reason why some people might not want to eat cheese. There are legitimate issues with how industrial dairy is produced in terms of animal welfare and antibiotic dosing and even carbon footprint. Miyoko is now in this second camp, too.
GRABER: And some people just don’t think we should consume any animal products at all, including dairy or cheese. They think it’s immoral.
TWILLEY: And so all of these groups of people have been motivated to try to find substitutes that embody all of cheese’s delight but are made from plants. Which is not easy.
SHELKE: Nature has made it such that finding a slam dunk replacement for lactose, for casein, and for the fat in milk is almost impossible.
GRABER: Of course that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The oldest example of a cheese alternative wasn’t actually created as an alternative to cheese.
SHELKE: Fermented tofu is—it’s not the same as the tofu that you see in stores. Fermented tofu is a soft, creamy, a little salty but a cheese-like food that is believed to have originated somewhere in China or the islands around Okinawa and Japan. And there are fermented tofus that have very strong aromas that are reminiscent of say, a European mold ripened cheese, like Roquefort or Brie or Stilton or Gorgonzola. And then there are fermented tofus that are very mild and creamy almost like a Neufchatel or cream cheese.
TWILLEY: The first European reference to this fermented tofu came in 1855. The French consul in Shanghai, Baron de Montigny, wrote a report on fermented tofu. His conclusion was that this Chinese cheese, as he called it, was a “very powerful appetizer, which is hard to resist.”
GRABER: A few decades later, the Horticultural Society of Marseilles was making two types of this Chinese cheese. They called it fromage blanc, and fromage rouge. The fermented tofus had slightly different flavorings, and the French aged the fake cheeses for four and a half months. The society did taste tests on local French people without telling the tasters what they were eating.
TWILLEY: And the response was positive—so much so, that the society concluded that “these cheeses will be acceptable to French tastes when they are widely available.”
GRABER: They still aren’t widely available in the west, but you can find fermented tofu today, maybe at a Chinese restaurant or grocery store. But it’s not marketed as cheese. And it doesn’t melt, which is pretty crucial for a cheese substitute.
TWILLEY: There are some vegan cheeses made from soymilk or other beans like peas—they’re not the same thing, and usually they’re not fermented. But today, most of the vegan cheeses you’ll find are made from nut milks.
SHELKE: The concept of cheese from nuts is a very old one that comes from the Middle East and from India, where depending on what the occasion was, nuts were used to create a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth type of a product. Generally sweet and used as the dessert.
GRABER: A thickened cheese-like dish based on almond milk was also popular in medieval Europe. But this was not something that most people were eating.
SHELKE: And the reason for that is nuts were a luxury and they were largely reserved for the wealthy and the elite.
TWILLEY: The next big move forward in vegan cheese came in the U.S., prompted by the rise of Seventh Day Adventists. They follow a vegetarian diet, but many are actually vegans.
GRABER: Starting in about the 1930s, Seventh Day Adventists formed companies to make and market vegan cheese made from soybeans. From the descriptions of it, it was pretty grim stuff.
TWILLEY: Less importantly but still painfully, it also had terrible names, like Soymage. But if you wanted a plant-based cheese substitute, soy was pretty much your only commercial choice until 1992. In December of that year a company called Wholesome and Hearty Foods introduced Almond Cheeze—spelled with a z—the first non-soy-based cheese alternative in modern times.
GRABER: A couple of years later, a company called Sharon’s Finest introduced a new cheese made from Brazil nuts. Apparently some critics—probably critics who hadn’t eaten cheese in a long time—they thought it was pretty decent. Miyoko was newly broken up with real cheese, and she was not a fan.
SCHINNER: Back in the 90s there was this—I don’t know if I should say anything just because you know, the maker of this cheese might be listening. But there was a horrible cheese on the market called Veganrella. And I remember when it first hit the market and I thought, Oh my God, it’s a vegan cheese. And it was not the kind of high-end cheese, it was the kind that was in plastic, you know, like a processed cheese that you would melt on your burger or something like that. And I bought it, I was so excited—I went home and I opened up the package and I took a bite and I practically threw up. I mean it was just awful. You know, it’s kind of a joke now. People today joke about the Dark Ages of vegan cheese. And what we had to put up with. And so to me that was like, it wasn’t even worth eating. So I never bought it again.
TWILLEY: So here we are, in the 1990s. It is, as Miyoko told us, the Dark Ages of vegan cheese. Fermented tofu is OK flavor wise but it doesn’t melt—and isn’t really sold as cheese anyway. And the rest… as Miyoko said, forget it.
GRABER: But that disgust Miyoko felt fueled her desire to make something better. In fact, Miyoko was one of the people who came up with a new technique to develop something far tastier than Veganrella. And maybe something closer to the real thing.
TWILLEY: So as you may remember, Miyoko Schinner really, really loved cheese.
SCHINNER: I travelled through Europe when I was 20 and my goal in Europe was to go to every single cheese shop throughout France and Switzerland and Italy and just nosh on all the hundreds of varieties that you cannot possibly get in the United States.
GRABER: But as you also may remember, cheese did not love Miyoko back. And so she tried to find cheese alternatives, which she hated. So she started to make her own.
SCHINNER: My first cookbook came out in the 90s, I think 1990—it was called The Now and Then Epicurean. And in that book I did have a recipe for a vegan cheese that I made out of tofu. And this was based on seeing a TV show in Japan where nuns were taking tofu and they were doing various interesting things with it. They would bury it in ash for weeks, they would bury it in miso, etc. And it completely transforms the texture from kind of a crumbly tofu to something buttery and smooth and fermented in flavor.
TWILLEY: And so Miyoko played around with that. And the flavor of her fermented tofu was great, as Japanese nuns and Chinese chefs and the Baron de Montigny and the people of Marseilles had already confirmed. But fermented tofu doesn’t melt.
GRABER: Then, in about the early 2000s, Miyoko noticed that some of the raw food folks were making cheese out of nut milk and fermenting it with microbes to try to make cheese just like you would from dairy milk.
SCHINNER: I found that very, very inspirational—the idea that you could take other milks besides soy milk and and possibly make something like a cheese with it. So then I started reading books on cheese making and understanding the processes. And I took a few cheese making classes. These are really dairy cheese making classes. I was the only student who didn’t actually eat the cheese. But I was in the classes observing the science and seeing what happens. And then I just started playing around. So it was many, many years of experimenting with different nut milks and figuring out what what coagulates, what doesn’t coagulate. If it doesn’t coagulate how else can you thicken it? And things like that.
TWILLEY: This is a really hard problem. At the start of the show, we described exactly how magical milk is—the micelles, the casein, the exact ratio of sugars and fats and protein. Nuts are also great, but they’re different. We asked Kantha to explain.
SHELKE: Most nuts are mostly carbohydrate and don’t have as much protein as milk has. And certainly not the type of casein-like protein that milk contains. So it requires a lot more skill and a lot more manipulation to be able to get that rich creamy mouthfeel and the flavors and the textures that one expects from the traditional cow’s milk cheese.
GRABER: Miyoko played around with all sorts of raw materials for her vegan cheeses.
TWILLEY: Homemade almond milk—which is much thicker than the watery store-bought kind—that can have a high enough protein content that you can add rennet or vinegar and curdle it into curds and whey. Not big curds, but still. Something you can work with to make a cheese.
SCHINNER: Otherwise you can use something like cashews, which are fairly low in protein. And you just make more of what I would call a slurry. It’s like a very, very heavy cream, you can still pour it. But what happens is that cashews are high in starch. So through fermentation, the starch actually thickens the cheese and changes the texture. And then over time if you age it, you know, you can make a cheese that’s kind of like a cheddar in texture.
TWILLEY: So there’s a lot of trial and error involved, but it is possible to make nut milk cheese with a dairy cheese-ish texture. But then there’s the flavor problem.
GRABER: Miyoko said that those early vegan cheeses she hated? The companies weren’t bothering to inoculate the cheese with microbes and age it. They just made it kind of solid and added lots of flavorings to it. But to get the flavor right, you really need microbes to work their particular magic. That’s one of the reasons fermented tofu is so great. Yes, take a drink.
TWILLEY: So Miyoko started inoculating her nut cheeses with microbes and aging them.
SCHINNER: They can develop all sorts of flavors. The cultures can work over a period of weeks or months. Same thing with the ambient yeast in the atmosphere, etc. I can have a cheese, for example, one of our Mount Vesuvius black ash cheeses, and it can taste one way, you know, two weeks after I’ve aged it, and even after packaging it will continue to age. If I taste around a year later, it’s phenomenal.
GRABER: But really, the holy grail of cheese is that awesome meltiness. Kantha called it sensuous. It’s one of the most amazing things there is. And vegan cheese? Well, that’s hard to get melty.
SHELKE: But now look at nuts. The fat in nuts is mostly in the oil format, which is it is a fluid. It’s already a liquid at room temperature.
GRABER: Whereas milk fat is solid at room temperature—just think of butter.
TWILLEY: So to give the fat in nut milk more cheese-like qualities, you have to add things that keep the oil solid at room temperature—and those usually mean it also stays solid in your mouth. Which is sad.
GRABER: Miyoko realized that to get a vegan cheese to melt, she needed to try something different. She experimented with starches and found one that would cause the nut milk to thicken. But then the mixture breaks down when it’s heated and gets liquid-y again, kind of like dairy cheese.
SCHINNER: There’s no casein in it. Which is, you know, one thing that allows things to sort of stretch and melt.
TWILLEY: Miyoko’s trick is to add an extra fat that is solid at room temperature, like coconut oil. So when the nut milk cheese warms up, the coconut fat melts, the starch re-liquifies, and it kind of works.
SCHINNER: Well our mozzarella is really melty, and, you know, we serve it on pizza or panini. And most people are eating it and they don’t realize it’s vegan. So, you know, a very discriminating person might notice, but the average person just eats it and thinks it’s delicious.
TWILLEY: This is obviously something we had to try for ourselves. And we did. But first we’ve got the story of real vegan cheese—that’s right, cheese that’s made from milk that made by genetically modified yeasts,no animals involved.
CHAVEZ: It was the brainchild of one of our founding team members, Mark Ewell, who had been wanting to pursue this project for a long time.
TWILLEY: This is Maria Chavez again—she’s the executive director of BioCurious, the community biotech lab out in Oakland, and she’s one of the leaders of the Real Vegan Cheese Project.
CHAVEZ: And his idea was what if we use yeast? And instead of having yeast produce alcohol, for example when we brew beer or make wine, what if we have the yeast actually produce cheese proteins? And we create a process very similar to beer brewing with a few extra steps to actually make cheese that is biologically, chemically identical to the cheese you would get from a cow.
GRABER: Sounds super simple, right? I mean, how hard could it be to get microbes to make milk?
CHAVEZ: The first thing we needed to do is actually determine what genes make cheese proteins.
TWILLEY: It’s our old friend, casein! Remember the four kinds, the ones that hang out in blobs called micelles.
CHAVEZ: And so our idea is what if we find genes that create these proteins and insert them into yeast and then have the yeast make these proteins? So we’re actually still on step one.
GRABER: It turns out it’s not so simple to just take the genes that make casein in a cow and stick them in yeast. There’s a bunch of tweaking needed so that the cow genes get comfy in an organism that comes from an entirely different and not at all related branch of life.
CHAVEZ: So people have been asking for a long time: what’s the hold up? We initially really wanted to do this using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is bakers’ yeast, because we thought that the public would be really excited about something that’s relatable.
TWILLEY: But after a couple of years of trying to coax bakers’ yeast to cooperate with these new genes, and failing, Maria and the team gave up and tried a new yeast.
CHAVEZ: So we’ve switched paths in the last year and gone to different yeast strain, Pichia Pastoris, because we’ve been having enormous problems making the kappa casein, which is the most important of the four proteins we need. But we have recently in the last couple of months started to see some results and I think we’re starting to finally produce kappa.
GRABER: Kappa casein is the one with the tails that are sliced off by rennet so they form curds. It’s the most important type of casein if you want to make cheese.
TWILLEY: OK, so now the new yeast in town is starting to make kappa casein, are they there yet? Do we have real vegan cheese in the house?
GRABER: Nope. Not yet. The Real Vegan Cheese folks also still need a vegan fat and sugar source that are basically similar to milk sugars and fats.
CHAVEZ: And then we’ve got to get micelles to actually coagulate and we’re working on some of the cheese science.
TWILLEY: This is a whole other set of problems. Some of the team have been practising actually making cheese using store-bought casein, while the others are futzing about with the yeast.
CHAVEZ: And we’ve been having some results with that and that we’ve been able to taste and try, with mixed results. We’re not great food scientists so we’re still working on trying to understand what’s happening there. We’ve done something, it was kind of like a grainy ricotta.
GRABER: That was not what they were looking for. And it’s true that this project has been taking a while. A few years, so far. It’s not just that the science is really hard to get right—it is—but it’s also that everyone working on it is a volunteer.
CHAVEZ: We are a non-profit but we are a citizen science project, so this is not a for-profit company. Anyone of any age can join the team. We’ve had students as young as ninth graders on the project as well as Ph.Ds.
TWILLEY: Even so, Maria thinks her all-volunteer team will be producing something cheese-like within the year.
GRABER: Even when they do get the yeast to make to milk proteins, there’s still another big challenge ahead: it’s tough to get yeast-based technologies to scale up. Sometimes yeast in a huge vat doesn’t behave the same as it does in a Petri dish.
TWILLEY: But that hasn’t stopped the Real Vegan Cheese team from dreaming big. They’re not actually stopping at just cow’s milk cheese. In fact, their initial goal was to make three different kinds of cheeses. Cow cheese, yes, but also human cheese. By adding the genes that make milk in humans to yeast.
GRABER: The team thought that a human-milk cheese would be better suited to people who can’t process cow’s milk. It might not cause allergies or the same types of intolerances.
CHAVEZ: However we discovered a few months—maybe a year or two into this project—two different things. One there’s almost zero interest from people in a human cheese. They’re actually quite disgusted by it, for whatever reason. And that was something that kind of surprised us because we thought it was kind of cool.
TWILLEY: Oh my god.
GRABER: Shocked, yes. Frankly, I wouldn’t eat that regularly myself.
TWILLEY: Try, yes. Put on a Friday evening cheese plate for friends: no.
GRABER: It turns out that the FDA was also not a fan and said they couldn’t go ahead with the project. The FDA said that in fact using human proteins might cause an autoimmune response. So, no human-milk microbial cheese.
TWILLEY: Which brings us to cheese number three.
CHAVEZ: We wanted to take most ridiculous, really unusual organism that people have never made cheese from. And when we thought, what has no one ever milked to make cheese from that’s a mammal? And we thought narwhal whales.
GRABER: Yes, narwhal whales. It’s true, nobody has ever milked a narwhal before to make cheese. These are the whales with ridiculously long, thin white tusks so they look sort of like whalish unicorns.
CHAVEZ: There’s actually some scientific reasons we were interested in it. Whales—their milk is very similar to toothpaste and what would that do as far as how their cheese proteins may be different.
TWILLEY: Toothpaste cheese! It’s what the world has been waiting for. But, in fact, the group of scientists working on sequencing the narwhal genome have been taking forever, so Maria’s group have switched focus. They flirted with the idea of mammoth cheese—an extinct flavor, which would be pretty exciting.
GRABER: Because the mammoth genome has in fact just recently been published, but the team decided to be a little more pragmatic and go with goat. They’re just getting started on the research for that one.
CHAVEZ: The bigger question for me that we haven’t figured out is how much is it going to cost actually produce this and how much do you get as a yield from these yeast.
TWILLEY: After all, yeast need to eat too, so that’s a resource input. And the whole bioreactor process requires water and energy, too.
CHAVEZ: And I think that’s something the whole cultured food industry is working on and saying: Is this really using less resources and more sustainable than what we currently do in agriculture? And my hope is yes, that we can find methods make it so.
TWILLEY: So, there’s still a long way to go. But even if the Real Vegan Cheese team never gets a product into stores, it’s still already achieved a lot of its goals.
GRABER: Because one of the things the team wanted to do was to show investors that a microbial vegan cheese is possible.
TWILLEY: And that it might be popular—which their super successful crowdfunding campaign helped demonstrate.
GRABER: Now, there’s a startup, with people who are getting paid, that’s also working on bringing vegan dairy to market. It’s called Perfect Day.
CHAVEZ: And they are a startup company with a lot of venture capital funding behind them. You know, millions of dollars. And we watch what they do and we respect what they do.
TWILLEY: But they’re not the same. Everything the Real Vegan Cheese project does is open source, anyone can get involved. The bigger idea—their real goal—is to open up the science of synthetic biology and get people comfortable with it.
GRABER: After all, there’s been quite a lot of push-back and concern in the general public about genetically-modified organisms when it comes to food.
CHAVEZ: It is a genetically engineered product. You aren’t eating the genetically engineered yeast. But the end result is made from a GMO. And that’s one thing we also like with the project is this idea of changing people’s perceptions of GMO foods.
TWILLEY: To be honest, the rennet in a lot of the straight-up normal dairy cheese you eat these days was produced by genetically modified yeast, but that’s a different story. And not one you see the dairy industry advertising. But Maria really believes we can use this technology for good—it’s not all big evil corporations selling us Frankenfoods. And she wants others to see that potential too.
CHAVEZ: We do quite a few members of our team that are very hardcore vegans and very active in the vegan community and the vegan advocacy community. But we also have team members that are meat eaters and just really like the science behind it and like some of the other ideas behind it.
GRABER: In any case, maybe you’ll be seeing vegan cheese made from microbes on your supermarket shelves in the future!
TWILLEY: I’m excited to try it. Of course this real vegan cheese still won’t be cheese cheese, even if the casein is made by cow genes. Like Kantha said, there are too many other things going on it cow’s milk for there ever to be a 100% slam dunk substitute. But that narwhal cheese—I’m so in.
GRABER: So okay, Nicky, you and I couldn’t buy some microbial cheese, narwhal or cow, to taste for this episode. But we could try out the vegan alternatives that you can find at the grocery store. Not just Miyoko’s—she’s known as one of the leaders in the industry—but there are a lot of companies selling vegan cheese today.
LINDA: This is the Treeline aged nut cheese. It’s a very nice box that it’s in.
TWILLEY: This is my sister-in-law Linda. And she is great at unwrapping vegan cheese.
LINDA: It looks not very um—very good at all actually. It has a horrible color. It’s almost like a grayish tan hockey puck wrapped in a very hard plastic wrapper. I probably would choose not to have this, I’d throw it away after I opened it. But because we were doing this for Nicky, I’ll go ahead and open it.
TWILLEY: Note to self: do not make your in-laws taste test vegan cheese for your podcast if you wish to remain on good terms with your husband’s family.
GRABER: I had a perhaps easier crowd with me—it was my partner Tim, my mom, who’s also been on Gastropod before, and my high school friend Minda.
MINDA: My nieces are dairy free so there’s fake cheese at their house. But they usually also have real cheese so I let them have alternative cheese and then I eat the real cheese .
TIM: But I like the idea, right? Like, what’s not to like? If it’s something that’s tasty and better animal welfare than great. I’m open to it.
GRABER: OK. So one person at the table is open to it. Mom, I don’t think you’re so open to it
TAMAH: Hmm, I’ll see…that I’m not sure of at all.
GRABER: For all that you say you’re open to it, you’re the one who hasn’t been—you’ve been looking at the cheese going I don’t want to do this.
TIM: I am open to it. I’m skeptical.
TWILLEY: Between us both, we had gathered a whole array of vegan cheeses. I had that cashew nut one that Linda unwrapped, I had some tofu-based American cheese slices, there were a couple of Cheddars—one almond-based and one that was a sort of coconut oil, tapioca starch, pea protein combo. And I had one of Miyoko’s cheeses—a double cream chive.
GRABER: We had similar cheeses to yours—the same American-style slices, one of the same Cheddars. We had that Miyoko chive spreadable cheese. And then we also had Miyoko’s mozzarella, the one she said was really melty, and we had a shredded pepper jack from cashews.
TWILLEY: We started with that aged cashew nut cheese. Around the table it was Linda, her daughter Olivia, my sister-in-law Chris, my mother-in-law Anne, and my husband Geoff.
LINDA: This is pretty disgusting.
OLIVIA: It’s sour. And it’s really.
OLIVIA: Yeah, it doesn’t feel good in my mouth.
CHRIS: There’s a very bad aftertaste.
ANNE: The texture.
TWILLEY: What does the texture remind you of?
ANNE: Nothing I ever wanto to eat again.
GEOFF: Yeah, I think mealy is a good description but I feel like it’s more smoky and it’s not… It’s not that bad. I just don’t like the texture at all.
TWILLEY: So… not a winner. I took one bite and I couldn’t believe how gross it was. It was bitter and grainy and truly disgusting. Although then I tried a piece on a cracker, and that was easier to deal with.
GRABER: That’s how we ate it, we didn’t try it by itself, we kind of spread it thinly on matzah.
TIM: This one smells, you know, like a cheese dip.
MINDA: I don’t think it does. I think that it smells like something but not like a cheese to me.
TAMAH: I don’t immediately say, oh, this is cheese. But I’ll see how it tastes.
GRABER: I like it actually.
TAMAH: Got a little bit too much sour for me. There is a real tang, a sour tang, a little bit too much for me.
GRABER: I actually really like that.
TAMAH: Not bad, though, not bad.
TIM: I like the sour tang. I think that’s what makes it seem more like actual cheese. Yeah, I like the flavor. The look and the consistency is kind of like…
MINDA: Off putting?
TIM: You know, wall spackle.
MINDA: It is.
TAMAH: That is exactly what it looks like!
TWILLEY: Chris actually thought it looked more like cat food, but I can see the wall spackle resemblance. Moving swiftly onward. Our next one was the pea-coconut-tapioca Cheddar.
CHRIS: OK, that smells like Cheddar. That doesn’t smell bad at all. I would believe this was Cheddar if someone put it in front of me.
LINDA: I would agree, it almost smells a little bit like Velveeta
LINDA: We can question whether that’s cheese or not.
CHRIS: It tastes the flavor of a Cheez-It.
LINDA: There isn’t the horrible aftertaste of the first one. So if I had to eat this I could.
GRABER: We had kind of the same meh-but-okay reaction to that Cheddar. My mom’s first comment was that it wasn’t hard enough, the texture was too soft when she cut into it.
TAMAH: Although this smells like Cheddar.
MINDA: It does smell like Cheddar.
TAMAH: It smells like Cheddar cheese. Too easily broken up in your mouth.
GRABER: The texture is totally off for you.
TAMAH: It’s really off. Yeah. It’s not bad as far as the Cheddar goes. It just has the wrong texture.
TIM: To me it tastes like institutional Cheddar, right? So it’s not Cabot clothbound from Vermont. But like if you got, if you were on an airplane and you got like a little cheese plate, you know it has that kind of mass-produced Cheddar.
TWILLEY: This is a very qualified endorsement. Which was kind of the same thing with us. Miyoko’s chive one—that was nice-enough thinly spread on a cracker. It was a little over-chivey for us, but no complaints on the texture. And the tofu-based cheese slices—people were like sure, they taste like processed American cheese. If you like that, you’ll like this.
OLIVIA: It’s fine. It tastes like a cheese slice. So.
GRABER: We thought so, too. The one we absolutely despised was the shredded pepper jack.
TAMAH: I don’t like the texture. I don’t like the smell and I don’t like the taste.
GRABER: Nicky, you all stopped at tasting them straight.
TWILLEY: There was a limit to what I could ask people not related to me by blood to do.
GRABER: My group was totally open to the next step, which was testing out their meltability. We tried the American-ish slices, the Cheddar, and Miyoko’s mozzarella. We put them all on matzah.
GRABER: The mozzarella looks kind of weird.
GRABER: It does, it’s very…
MINDA: It’s sweating.
TAMAH: It’s iridescent.
GRABER: So it looked funny, but actually when we tasted it we were pleasantly surprised! We all thought it tasted pretty good, and the melted consistency worked. In fact, we liked it better than unmelted. Because since vegan mozzarella has none of that miraculous dairy protein, casein, when it was straight out of the package it didn’t have the tug and stretchiness of dairy mozzarella. The same with the melted cheddar and the American slices. In fact, Tim came home and did a taste test on a tuna melt, and both the American and Cheddar were, you know, totally fine, if you want a kind of processed-type melted cheese.
TIM: If you’re doing a high-end tuna sandwich with really nice bread and great cheese and awesome tuna… this isn’t it. But if you want—it’s kind of a snowy cold day here, I just made this in the toaster on a slice of bread. It’s perfect for that. So we have eggless mayonnaise and cheeseless cheese. So we’re good.
GRABER: Now we need tuna-free tuna and we’re set.
TWILLEY: Oh brave new world. Over in sunny California, Geoff reached exactly the opposite conclusion.
GEOFF: Yeah, I mean, I just feel like the whole world of making one product taste like another product is so incredibly strange that I don’t know. Like, if I went vegan I wouldn’t want something that is the functional equivalent of cheese—I would just move beyond cheese.
TWILLEY: But see, I can’t move beyond cheese.
GRABER: Tim and I can’t, either.
TIM: I would absolutely not want to put out a nice bottle of wine and eat these cheeses the way you eat regular cheese. But for cooking or for making a dish that needed cheese, if I had a friend who was vegan, I would be perfectly comfortable with them.
GRABER: He could even imagine these vegan cheeses in his life, too. Usually we buy cheese from the farmers market and we’re both quite comfortable with how those cows are raised. But, for Tim, there are times when only processed cheese will do.
TIM: Yeah, well, so if I’m craving that kind of cheese, right? I’m having my nostalgia for my old grilled cheese on crappy bread with a can of tomato soup. You can only get that flavor from those slices. And those I think are coming from industrial sources. So I would feel better about using one of these slices than you know Kraft Singles wrapped individually in plastic.
TWILLEY: This is not a craving I ever have, because I didn’t grow up here eating that, but I respect the urge to fulfil nostalgic food choices without causing cruelty. I’m going to be honest—I hate wasting food more than anything, and I threw out these cheeses. They just weren’t good enough.
GRABER: I threw out some, but I’m keeping around the spreads and a couple of the melty ones. They can’t measure up to real cheese for me, but if I think of them as their own thing, they’re okay.
TWILLEY: And actually, on that same note, I can recommend fermented tofu pretty highly, although I’ve never thought of it as cheese, really. Or had it on a cracker with wine. But what exploring the science of vegan cheese has stressed to me is how amazing real cheese really is. The science! It’s incredible!
GRABER: I am quite sure that this will not be our last episode devoted to cheese.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the fabulous folks at the Istituto Lazzaro Spallanzani for showing us how to make delicious delicious parmesan, and to the incredible Toni Mazzaglia of Taste Florence for making that happen and translating. We have links and lots of awesome photos on our website.
GRABER: Thanks also to Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue and Miyoko Schinner of Miyoko’s Kitchen, and Maria Chavez of the Real Vegan Cheese project. As well as Rebecca Willbanks who talked to us about it. We have links to their research and their products on our website, gastropod.com. And thanks to all our listeners who suggested this episode!
TWILLEY: And of course a huge thanks to our guinea pigs: Anne, Chris, Linda, Olivia, and Geoff, I love you and I’m sorry.
GRABER: Minda, Tim, and Mom, thanks for being good sports!
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with an old-fashioned food adventure.