One thing Hitoko Sakai knows is how to cook without animal products. Sakai, a long-time vegan, began her culinary career while working as a chef in Michigan. Now she owns a vegan cheese company headquartered in Englewood.
Dairy Free Creamery is precisely what it sounds like—a cheesemaker that specializes in dairy-free gourmet cheeses. Unlike some vegan cheese alternatives found on grocery store shelves, these are free of starches, oil, sugar, gluten and other additives.
Each cheese starts off with cashew nuts, Sakai’s preferred base. “I’ve made many different cheeses from different kinds of nuts and seeds,” says Sakai. “But the cashew is just amazing. I love the taste of it.”
Dairy Free's cheeses go through a two-step fermentation process. “I do a faster fermentation and a second fermentation, which some people call aging,” says Sakai. “I soak the cashews in salted water, which activates the nut and makes it easy to digest.”
Nuts, along with many other plant-based foods, contain phytic acid, a naturally occurring acid that blocks the absorption of minerals like zinc, calcium and iron. Soaking the nuts not only makes them easier to blend into a creamy consistency, but it removes a significant amount of phytic acid, allowing the nut's nutrients to be put to good use. After being soaked, the cashews are mixed with a probiotic or vegan culture, followed by the first fermentation.
“The second fermentation process, or aging, can take days or two weeks,” says Sakai. “It depends on the cheese. Some take three months or longer.” Dairy Free's "parmesan," for example, ages for three months. This creates a harder cheese that can be grated.
Texture is an area where many commercially available vegan cheeses fall short. They’re often plasticky or chalky, a result of added starches or oils—two ingredients omitted from Sakai’s cheeses.
“I like my recipe to be very simple,” says the creamery owner. “I like to use five ingredients or less.” Instead of adding more ingredients to make harder cheeses, Sakai simply ages them longer. She says customers, however, often prefer her softer, spreadable cheeses. Her most popular at the moment is her Chive Chèvre, a soft, creamy cheese log coated with fresh chives. Sakai is in the middle of developing a new cheese recipe—one intended to resemble cheddar. To do so, she is experimenting with annatto seeds.
“My favorite is the Horseradish or Cranberry Ash,” says Sakai. “I also like the cream cheese and mozzarella. They can add creaminess to soup, taco salad or anything, so I like to have them on hand at all times.”
You can find Dairy Free Creamery’s products at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market, the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market and the One Stop Co-op in Englewood, where you can make a purchase from the stand or pick up an online order. You can also shop Sakai’s cheeses at local retailers like CROP Juice and Jessica’s Organic Farm. For more info, or to place an order for pickup, visit Dairy Free Creamery's website.