It’s not every day that I go into a laboratory to try food.
But today, I walk into a room with steel containers and refrigerators, where researchers are wearing lab coats. I’m about to taste some new oat ‘cheese,’ and I’m excited.
Before I get to taste the oat cheese, research chef, Maynard Kolskog has me try his version of miso, a paste made out of fermented soybeans that is a food staple in Japan. To create his miso, Kolskog first ferments barley to make something called koji.
“In traditional miso, they use rice for their koji and then use soybeans for their miso,” says the longtime culinary arts instructor at NAIT who for the past few years has been playing around with food ingredients, trying to make new products.
“So they inoculate for the koji that they’ve made. We’re making koji out of Alberta barley and then inoculating oats.”
Like sausage making, you may not want to know the details of this process (which starts with spores and bacteria, and requires four months of fermentation).
But the end result has a great flavour and tastes a lot like traditional miso — salty, savoury, and with the mouth feel of a tamari or soy sauce. It’s also the right dark-brown colour and consistency.
While describing his recipe, Kolskog is extolling the merits of oats.
Dietitians have long loved their nutritional benefits — they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and a type of fibre that can control blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. But it’s their culinary potential that has Kolskog excited.
“We’ve got great crops here in Alberta,” he says while I nod in agreement.
Some food developers are interested in masking flavours of the cereal, which is synonymous with porridge, but that’s not Kolskog’s game. He’s interested in pushing the flavour envelope and what he can create by blending and fermenting.
So it’s on to the cheese made from oats.
The first one I try is smoked and flavoured with miso and nutritional yeast. It’s made of simple oats with probiotics. Kolskog tells me that the cheese continues to age in the packaging.
“We’re really happy with the way this turned out,” he says. “It’s just like regular cheese — it gets better with age.”
I’m unsure of what to expect, but it tastes a bit like a smoked gouda. It’s creamy and salty, and seems like cheese to me. I’m having a bit of trouble thinking of it as cheese when I know that it is actually oats, but if it was served at a party, I wonder if I’d even suspect its origins.
Still, since I’ve developed an interest in non-dairy cheeses, the idea of an oat-based cheese is appealing.
Cashew cheeses are really popular, but since I’m allergic to nuts, I can’t eat them without fear of anaphylaxis. Moreover, Kolskog points out, cashews are expensive, while oats are cheap — and there’s plenty of them grown in Alberta. As well, he adds, most vegan cheeses contain a lot of gums, emulsifiers, and flavouring, and he wants to make cheeses without those.
The next oat cheese I try is one made with lacto-fermented oyster mushroom instead of miso (lacto doesn’t refer to the milk ingredient, but is short for lactobacillus, the bacteria used in this type of fermentation). This cheese is creamy, smoky, and salty with a great texture.
And his blue cheese tastes just like the regular dairy version. I like the bitter, pungent taste.
Kolskog’s pretty proud of that one.
“The blue cheese keeps getting better and better,” he says. “I think we’ve really nailed it in terms of the texture and consistency.”
It’s not just cheese coming out of Kolskog’s test kitchen. He’s also made hard ice creams out of oats and yellow peas. (Pulses are another of his interests.)
I really like the cherry-flavoured oat-based ice cream. It doesn’t taste like oats at all, although the beta-glucans in the cereal — the healthy fibre mentioned earlier — makes it naturally creamy and gives it a good texture.
And it just tastes like cherries. Even my mom, an ice-cream lover who turns her nose up at non-dairy ice creams, would probably like this one.
But, alas, she can’t go to the store to pick up a tub of oat ice cream, or any of Kolskog’s cheeses.
The work done in his lab (part of a collaboration with the University of Alberta and the Prairie Oat Growers Association) is strictly focused on product development. The hope is that food companies will take note and undertake the years-long process of commercialization. (The oat cheese project was sparked by a request from Manitoba oat processor Emerson Milling.)
“What we’re doing with a lot of these is we’re experimenting and learning more about the functionality of ingredients,” says Kolskog. “It expands our knowledge of the ingredients. When we have the projects, we do know what the ingredients can do and how far we can push it.”
And thanks to rising interest in new plant-based foods, he’s convinced oats and other Prairie crops have a great future.
“The more I work with Alberta crops, the more I get excited about them,” he says. “We take it for granted. There’s amazing things that could be done with these food products and the value added.”