Vegan cheese sauce (Mornay)

I’ve just been asked how to make a dairy free vegan cheese sauce, and I don’t have a simple answer. However, it’s actually very simple – but I’ll start from the beginning.

But first, vegan food isn’t supposed to be identical to the meat/dairy original. That’s boring anyway. It’s supposed to work the same way when you eat it – similar texture, strength of flavour and so on. I’d gauge whether something has worked when it can replace the the meat/dairy portion of a meal without feeling something is missing.

I’m not in a good position to judge this for myself where meat is concerned, but I do eat dairy without a fuss when it comes up, as it doesn’t have the same “yuck” factor. I just don’t buy it or cook with it for myself.

So, on with the sauce. The posh name for cheese sauce is a mornay, which is made using a basic béchamel sauce and adding cheese to it – usually a strong cheese like parmesan or gruyère, or extra mature cheddar if these are off the menu following Brexit. If you’re a vegetarian, beware of parmesan, as it’s definitely NOT a vegetarian cheese. Fortunately the EU ruled that to be called parmesan it must contain the animal rennet, so if it says it’s parmesan on the label it will never be vegetarian. Look for
parmesan-style hard cheese instead, and then read the back. (Or just skip the dairy altogether, which is the point here).

And it looks like I’ve digressed again. So how do you make a vegan
béchamel sauce? Traditionally this is made from a roux (I’ll come to that) and cream. We’re not going to use cream here, so what can we use instead? You can now by soya cream which may be great, but I never started using it in cooking. Soya flour is much cheaper and easier to store, and I’m digressing again.

You can use creamed coconut to give a creamy texture and flavour to cooking, and it’s an essential ingredient of many of my “curries”. However, it tastes a bit of coconut, which may not be appropriate for your cheese sauce so it’s questionable on the ingredient list here. However, if you do want to try it, this is the one I usually get from my local Indian grocers; it’s cheap and cheerful and works just fine. Don’t buy coconut milk – it’s this stuff with water added, goes off once opened and you’re paying a lot for someone else to add the water.

So, if we’re not going to use creamed coconut, and not use dairy, what are we going to add? Well I don’t know about you, but I find sauces with a high cream content too rich anyway, so I’m not going to replace it.

Well I am; I’m going to replace it with more fat as the fat content is important. And speaking of which, if you’re gonna use margarine then don’t expect it to be dairy. This is the brand I usually buy, although it’s available in an ever increasing number “flavours” (currently five) and I’m still trying to figure out which is best for what.

So how do you make your sauce?

First you make your roux. This is basically plain flour and fat cooked into a paste in a saucepan (what else). There’s a bit of a knack to this, and the extent you cook it alters the flavour. Use the same weight of margarine as flour, say 50g or 2oz of each.

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Now people will tell you the proportions are important, and that you should never add water. I say margarine (and butter) contain water and fat in varying quantities so this is nonsense. Just fry up some flour until it’s brown enough for you.

Once you have your roux, add the liquid. This may be milk or cream, but we’re going to use 500ml/1pint of water. To replace the lost fat in the milk, just go heavy on the margarine – another reason to throw the 1:1 rule out of the window.

You’re supposed to add the liquid hot, slowly, stirring all the time. All I can say is good luck with that. Yes, it does work, but an easier plan, if you don’t want the fried flour taste, is to mix the flour, water cold and bring it gently to the simmer, stirring continuously. If you want the flour browned, fry it and let it cool before adding the cold liquid, dissolve it and then heat.

If you mess up this process in any way you’ll get lumps, which is what a whisk is for. Get whisking. No one will know.

The best time to add creamed coconut, if that’s your thing, is when it’s simmering.

And don’t forget to flavour it. Salt and pepper make a good staring point, and chuck in your nutritional yeast. How much? A couple of teaspoons will do it, but it really depends on the taste you’re after.

The Actual Recipe

50g (2oz) plain flour
100g (4oz) vegan low-water-content margarine
Salt and pepper (and anything else) to taste
20g (3/4oz) nutritional yeast
20g (3/4oz) creamed coconut (very optional)
400ml (1 pint) water

Unless you feel that making a roux is good for the soul, just mix the flour with a bit of the cold water until it’s a paste. Then add the rest of the water, margarine (or oil), pepper and other seasonings and bring to a simmer, stirring as required. Once it’s simmering, add the creamed coconut if you like a creamy nutty taste. Cook for ten minutes. If it gets lumpy, whisk it. Add the nutritional yeast and salt to taste, near the end of the cooking – so you can taste it what it’ll be like.

Obviously, if it’s not thick enough for you, use more flour. If it’s too thick, add less flour. In other words, make it the way you like it; people have wildly differing ideas about how thick a sauce needs to be. Bear in mind it thickens when removed from the heat. If it’s really too runny for you, mix 5g cornflour in cold water, stir it in and return to simmer for a minute. Repeat until thick enough.

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