If you’re following a vegan or plant-based diet but hankering for some cheese, you may not need to skip it. While real cheese traditionally comes from the milk of cows, goats or sheep, alternatives made with nuts, nutritional yeast and vegetable oils are popping up. Thank food technology, human ingenuity and the popularity of vegan diets for bringing cheese into the dairy-free world. But what exactly is vegan cheese and what do you need to know before you try it?
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Vegan cheeses are 100 percent animal-free and made using vegetable proteins. Usually they’re made from soy; nuts, such as cashews and macadamias; and vegetable oils, such as coconut oil. You can also find cheeses that derive from agar, tapioca, peas and arrowroot.
The ingredient list on some vegan cheeses may raise the eyebrows of those trying their best to eat clean and minimally processed foods. Many contain added starches and thickeners such as carrageenan and xanthan gum.
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When vegan cheesemakers first began creating vegan cheese, the main goal was to make it look like traditional cheese. But over time, they realized that wasn’t going to cut it. They had to figure out ways to make the animal-free cheese taste and act more like the real deal—think melting on toast.
Vegan cheese is created using a process that shares some similar steps with traditional cheesemaking—sans animal milk, of course.
Plant proteins are separated using bacteria. Then ingredients such as oils and thickeners are added to help create the desired cheeselike consistency.
Just like traditional cheeses, the next big thing needed for a tasty vegan cheese is time. The vegetable protein and bacteria sit and break down further. Unlike the animal proteins in dairy cheeses, however, those in vegan cheeses don’t naturally bond to one another. The result is flavors that tend to not be as complex and unique.
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The biggest thing you’ll notice with your dairy-free cheese is that it doesn’t melt quite the same. Don’t expect quite the same ooey-gooey experience when you top your pizza with vegan cheese. Keep in mind that all brands are different, so if you try one brand you don’t like, don’t give up on the rest. Vegan cheesemakers are coming up with new processes all the time that are making these cheeses taste even more like the traditional stuff.
If you’re avoiding regular cheese because of the saturated fat, you may not need to. Recent research shows cheese may actually be good for your health and reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Vegan cheeses are typically lower in fat, protein and calcium than regular cheese and are likely gluten-free. Because vegan cheese is a processed food, it tends to be higher in sodium, so check your labels. Vegans can’t count on vegan cheese as a protein source, the way that vegetarians may sometimes rely on regular cheese. So while it’s not a super vegan health food the way kale and lentils are, vegans may rejoice in eating pizza, grilled cheese and queso dip again.
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We reached out to vegan cookbook author Dreena Burton of Plant Powered Kitchen and The Colorful Kitchen blogger Ilene Godofsky Morenoto find out their recommendations for the best vegan cheeses on the market. Here’s what they said:
Vegan Parmesan Cheese: Parmesan substitutes vary from simple shakers made with blends of nutritional yeast and nuts by companies like Parma to more authentic-looking shreds and wedges from Violife, Burton says.
Vegan Mozzarella Cheese: “Miyoko’s Kitchen Fresh Italian-Style Vegan Mozz is the real deal,” Moreno says. “The texture is eerily similar to traditional mozzarella, and it’s delicious fresh in a caprese salad or melted on pizza.” Burton agrees that Miyoko’s Kitchen makes a terrific mozzarella substitute.
Vegan Cheddar Cheese: Moreno’s go-to Cheddar is Daiya Cheddar shreds: “It gets super melty when grilled in a sandwich or mixed into pasta.” Other good brands of melty vegan cheeses, according to Burton, include Follow Your Heart and So Delicious.
Vegan Ricotta Cheese: Kite Hill has nailed the unique texture of ricotta cheese, Moreno says. “My mom recently started swapping out the traditional ricotta in her famous lasagna for Kite Hill’s vegan version, and no one in my family could even tell the difference!”
Vegan Cream Cheese: Toffuti and Go Veggie are among the best companies offering soy-based cream cheeses, says Burton, who also recommends trying out artisanal nut-based cream cheeses.
Many artisanal cheeses have their own unique flavors that you may enjoy, so if you’re looking for a fun Friday night activity, buy a few and create an at-home cheese plate taste test.
“I think artisanal cheeses are the best representation of plant-based cheese because the flavors generally taste very real and fresh,” Burton says. “They come in outstanding flavor varieties and their textures rival any dairy cheeses.” She recommends checking out varieties by Treeline, Dr-Cow and Punk Rawk Labs.
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