For those considering a vegan diet, dairy is often the last hurdle, the most difficult to give up. Many who want to eat lower on the food chain, and reduce their environmental impact, think “I’d go vegan, but I can’t give up cheese.”
Thanks to two Bay Area companies, giving up cheese has become that much easier. Between the Hayward-based Kite Hill and Fairfax-based Miyoko’s Kitchen, vegans and those who are lactose-intolerant now have numerous artisanal cheeses to choose from. And while the two companies are competitors in that there is nothing else on the market that remotely comes close to what they’re offering, the products they make are so different from each other, that it seems both companies could be poised to be game-changers in terms of making non-dairy cheese products that are close enough to the real thing that even non-vegans will enjoy them.
Most vegan cheeses now on the market are highly processed, with upwards of 15 ingredients, and many vegans avoid them because they don’t come close to the real thing.
Kite Hill was co-founded in 2012 by Tal Ronnen, a vegan chef who is chef/owner of L.A.’s Crossroads restaurant, and who gained notoriety for designing a cleanse for Oprah Winfrey. Ronnen, who is also a collaborating chef for the Wynn and Encore Hotels in Las Vegas, brought a vegan cheese there for a chef to try on his menu. The chef spit it out.
With the help of some friends and colleagues, his experiment began. Pat Brown, a Stanford biochemistry professor who had been experimenting with nut milks, would FedEx freshly-processed almond milk to Monte Casino, a chef and instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Boston. With Silicon Valley investors backing the project, Casino was convinced to move to California, and the team hired Jean Prevot, a Frenchman steeped in cheese-making, who worked most recently for Laura Chenel, to oversee building its facility in Hayward. In July of 2012 they bought an empty warehouse, creating a cheese-making facility and began production in March of 2013.
All of Kite Hill’s cheeses come from almonds grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, over 20 varieties of almonds were tested until they got the results they were looking for. The almonds are not organic, to keep prices down, but in six months, they will have non-GMO as well as kosher certification. They make four products now, with a cream cheese hitting the market early next year. The Soft Fresh Original and Soft Fresh Truffle Dill & Chive both fall into the soft fresh category, somewhat resembling farmer cheese. The Soft-Ripened is aged for 15 days, and has a silky texture and fluffy rind, and while careful not to draw a comparison, Prevot said it’s most like a Camembert. And then there is the Ricotta, which is currently being used in vegan lasagnes and other items made in the Whole Foods prepared foods section, but can be sold by weight, and will be available in individual packages next year.
Prevot emphasized that most almond milks on the market use various thickeners and additives, and it was important to them that they have a product that is as unadulterated as possible: the ingredient list on all of Kite Hill’s cheeses is just almonds, water, cultures, enzymes and salt.
While Kite Hill has an exclusive deal with Whole Foods, and is sold nationally there, its ricotta is used in its prepared foods department in vegan entrees and can be dished out into to-go containers for home use; it will soon join the lineup and be sold in tubs.
While most of the team members – except for Ronnen – aren’t vegan, both Prevot and Casino said they eat much less meat and dairy than they used to.
Prevot said he wasn’t drawn to the company by the goal of putting a vegan product on the market, per se, but by the challenge of figuring out how to make a dairy-free product using age-old methods for cheese-making.
“The challenge was to put a cheese on the market, not a substitute or an alternative,” he said. “To make it by applying traditional techniques to a non-dairy milk was very interesting to figure out.”
Matthew Sade, CEO of Kite Hill, added that he preferred the term “plant-based” as “any time you put vegan in front of it, people presume it’s a subpar substitute for something you’d rather be eating, which isn’t the case here.”
Meanwhile, while Casino is the day-to-day developer, and cooked a fabulous lunch for me using Kite Hill Ricotta in stuffed shells with tomato sauce, and an amaretto cheesecake which completely would have fooled me had I forgotten where I was, Ronnen uses his Los Angeles restaurant as a development lab; Kite Hill cheeses appear regularly in dishes in his restaurant, where he can solicit feedback from diners that same night.
Of course, exactly what enzymes they use to make their cheese is top secret – as is the secret behind Miyoko’s Kitchen’s cheeses, which unlike Kite Hill’s, are made from cashew milk.
Organic and fair trade cashews are grown by a collective of farmers in Vietnam, and are processed into nine varieties of cheese in a facility in Fairfax. Soon customers will be allowed to buy the products on site, as well as attend events in its demo kitchen and event space.
The Miyoko behind Miyoko’s Kitchen is Miyoko Shinner, whose 2012 Artisan Vegan Cheese cookbook is a must-have for many vegans. A former vegan caterer, she also was the chef/owner of the now defunct Now and Zen in San Francisco. A vegan for many years, Shinner said the company grew out of her own desire to relax on Friday nights with a glass of wine and a cheese plate.
“I have really good palate memory,” she said. “I was a true cheese aficionado, and was addicted to fine cheeses, it was very hard for me to give up. I missed cheese so much, that I decided it’s now or never, I might as well develop these, which I’ve come up with, after many years of experimentation.”
Shinner already knew her cheeses would pass for the real thing; at catering gigs she sometimes put her own cheeses among those on a cheese plate, and even non-vegans couldn’t tell the difference.
Her cheeses include several flavors of creamy cheeses like truffle and sun-dried tomato, and her hard cheeses include a rustic alpine style, a goat-like one covered with Herbes De Provence, and one wrapped in a wine-cured fig leaf.
Shinner felt it was important to offer a variety of cheeses and didn’t feel comfortable launching her company until she had accomplished that goal. “We’re the only one with this range of flavors and styles, which was one of my goals,” she said. “I didn’t want to start out with three kinds of cheese, I wanted a cheese platter for a party, I wanted to be the one-stock source for fine vegan cheeses.”
“We’re a mission-based company,” said Shinner. “I’m an ardent vegan, and have been for almost 30 years. We’re doing this because we believe in the mission, to save animals and create a lower environmental footprint, to save the planet and people’s health. Our products are not just for vegans, as there are so many lactose-intolerant people or those watching their cholesterol.”
Shinner says all of her cheeses can be used in cooking, for example, she recommends using several in risotto. Recipes can be found in the blog section of her website.
Whole Foods in Northern California are now carrying four varieties of Miyoko’s Kitchen cheeses and since her website went live three months ago, she has been doing a brisk mail-order business (one must buy three units in one purchase). Locally, her cheeses are also for sale at Republic of V in Berkeley and at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax. She plans to be in more natural food stores and Whole Foods nationally by next year.
Shinner won’t reveal what cultures she’s using, but she does use chickpea miso in addition to the cashew milk, sometimes uses nutritional yeast and all her products are certified organic.
And while Shinner’s repertoire is more varied than Kite Hill’s, both companies have more cheeses in the works.
Shinner is working on a lower-end line of products to use in making grilled cheese sandwiches and Casino said hard cheeses are next up at Kite Hill. “While we work on one project, we always have another project in mind at all times,” he said.
And while Kite Hill is not available online yet, it will be in the future.
A guide to Kite Hill and Miyoko’s Kitchen’s plant-based cheeses
I’ll admit I’m not vegan, and I love cheese. But I was so impressed by both company’s products, that I would happily cook with them for dairy-intolerant guests (and there is no other product I’ve tried that I would say that about). My interest in these products was as a cheese-lover, and was pleasantly surprised to find two companies making products that I would be more than happy to eat, and perhaps most importantly, wouldn’t feel like I was sacrificing my own enjoyment just to please my guests.
All of Kite Hill’s cheeses are sold nationally at Whole Foods, and sometime next year they will be available for purchase from the Kite Hill website.
Kite Hill’s cheeses:
Soft Fresh Original: like a farmer cheese, it’s good on crackers or sliced in salad.
Soft Fresh Truffle Dill & Chive: also good on crackers, but with more flavor than Soft Fresh Original.
Soft Ripened: Aged for 15 days, this one is bit like Camembert, with a fluffy rind. Pairs well with grapes.
Ricotta: I tasted this prepared two different ways by Kite Hill’s chef, and his cheesecake could have fooled me. The flavor and mouth feel was as good as a regular cheesecake, and I would probably use this again since many people who love dairy maybe don’t want that much of it.
Cream Cheese: while not on the market yet, another excellent product. This was exceptionally close to the real thing.
Classic Double Cream Chive: This one is the only one of Miyoko’s that has any similarity to what Kite Hill is doing. A soft, spreadable cheese flavored with chives.
Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic: Miyoko recommends this one for a pasta sauce, while this cheese would be my preference for a bagel topping.
High Sierra Rustic Alpine: Miyoko describes this one as “slightly nutty with sweet overtones and a lot of umami finish.” It gets harder as it ages.
Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf: the most similar to a soft, fresh goat cheese.
French Style Winter Truffle: This was my favorite of Miyoko’s. While she recommends this one tossed in risotto, it’s equally delicious as is, on a cracker. It also has a real funk to it, due to the truffles, I used it in a veggie casserole with mushrooms.
Aged English Sharp Farmhouse: Miyoko recommends using this one with your favorite non-dairy milk for mac and cheese.
Aged English Smoked Farmhouse: Similar to Aged English Sharp Farmhouse, except with a delicious smoky flavor.
Country Style Herbes De Provence: This one is more like an aged goat cheese, covered with said herbs.
With so many to sample, I liked some of Miyoko’s cheeses better than others, and some were more likely to fool me than others. Eating a wedge makes it easier to discern that it’s not real cheese, so I can’t say that hers fooled me like Kite Hill’s Ricotta. However, I enjoyed eating all of her cheeses, would buy them to serve to guests, and would be happy to eat them again myself.
Classic Double Cream Chive Mashed Potatoes
Recipe courtesy of Miyoko's Kitchen
Serves 8 to 10
4 lbs. potatoes, peeled or well-scrubbed, quartered
2 teaspoons sea salt
Water to cover
1 cup plain, unsweetened non-dairy milk (soy, almond, coconut)
Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Add salt, bring to a boil, and simmer until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Return to the pot, and add the milk. Using a whisk, mash the potatoes well. Stir in the Classic Double Cream Chive until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
This same simple recipe makes an excellent filler for twice baked potatoes. Simply bake six large fork-poked potatoes (an hour at 400°) and set aside to let cool. Cut each potato into a bowl shape, removing the top 1/3 of each potato, and scoop out the filling (don’t forget the extra potato in the “lid.”) Follow the directions above for mashed and using this mash, over-stuff each potato. Bake again at 400° for 20 minutes and top with your favorite toppings.
Kite Hill Meyer Lemon Cheesecake
Recipe courtesy of Kite Hill
Use 10-inch spring form pan
5 oz. graham cracker crumbs
1 oz. organic sugar
3 oz. vegan butter (Earth Balance)
Melt butter, allow to cool. Add graham cracker crumbs and sugar in food processor, and pulse to mix. Add cooled butter to dry mix and stir with spoon.
To Shape Crust:
Sprinkle crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and press evenly to 1/4 of an inch thick. Store pan in freezer for 10 minutes to chill.
20 oz. Kite Hill Ricotta
4 oz. organic sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice
1 teaspoon Ener-G egg replacer hydrated in 1/8 cup of cold water
Blend first four ingredients in food processor until smooth and creamy consistency is achieved.
Add blended filling and hydrated egg replacer in a bowl and stir evenly. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Place onto a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 300 degrees for 25 min. Rotate pan in oven halfway through baking. Allow to cool thoroughly and refrigerate four hours before serving.