Food and Nutrition

Seriously, Plant-Based Cheese Can Taste As Good As the Real Thing—so Long As You Know What to Buy

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Photo: Getty Images/ Jack Andersen
Tell your friends who say that they cannot go vegan because they would miss cheese too much that they're in luck. “Vegan cheese has come a long way over the years,” says Lauren McNeill, RD, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. Alts to dairy cheese are on the up and up, putting slander against vegan varieties—is this shredded plastic or fake mozz?—to rest.

While we won't go so far as to proclaim that they're all good, we can certainly affirm that there are endless new plant-based cheeses to choose from. While most are (at very least) decent, a select few will qualify as downright delicious.

Here, a guide to buying the best plant-based cheeses, including what they're made from, how to use vegan cheese, and the health benefits you'll reap from eating them.

What is plant-based cheese and what is it made from?

Considering cheese is a broad foodstuff, plant-based options are made with ingredients (sans any animal products) that vary based on the brand or recipe. “Some rely mostly on nuts like cashews or almonds, while others use soy or tofu, tapioca starch, potato starches, or coconut oil,” says McNeill. Homemade varieties often call for a base of potatoes, carrots, nutritional yeast, nuts, or seeds.

How am I supposed to use plant-based cheese?

Think of the cheese usually stacked on a charcuterie board, then remind yourself that it probably has a vegan dupe by now. The cheese experience—whether vegan or not—will always depend on its melt, texture, and stretch. Different varieties of cheese can cover a wide range of flavors, from subtle creaminess to a pungent tang depending on what kind you reach for.

All of this simply means that you should be able to use vegan cheeses in the same ways that you would use their dairy-rich counterparts. If you're making a plant-based pizza or panini, go for shredded vegan mozzarella and add a sprinkle of nutritional yeast to replicate the savory-salty flavor of Parmesan. If grilled cheese or vegan "cheeseburgers" are on the menu, you'd benefit from buying a package of plant-based cheese slices. And if you're trying to quell a craving for queso, try a cashew cream-based dip that's been blended with similar spices or make your own.

The culinary options are no different from traditional cheese, but do keep in mind that the melt-ability and flavor of vegan cheeses will vary (read: tofu cheddar is not going to taste the same as the real thing, and that's okay).

How is vegan cheese made?

While the science of transforming animal proteins to cheese is unique, vegan fromagers have learned a thing or two from the traditional process. Kite Hill, the brand behind popular dairy-free yogurts and cheeses, says taste and quality took the reins during product development.

“To make cheese, one of the first things we needed to tackle was to form a curd,” says Tal Ronnen, co-founder and culinary chef at Kite Hill. They settled on creating curd from almond milk made of locally-sourced nuts from California’s San Joaquin Valley. “Once the almond milk is made, we inoculate the recipe with proprietary enzymes and cultures,” Ronnen says. This classic technique helps the brand’s ricotta alternative mimic the taste and silky texture of the real thing.

Are there any health advantages to eating plant-based cheeses?

Of course, the healthfulness of vegan cheese depends on its ingredient list and level of processing. McNeill says varieties made with a base of potatoes, carrots, nutritional yeast, nuts, or seeds might pack more nutrients than their dairy counterparts. This can include more fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, and magnesium, she says. Certain brands also enrich products with nutrients you’d get from dairy cheese. Take Treeline’s cashew cream cheeses, which are fortified with probiotic-rich acidophilus. However, vegan cheese takes a couple of losses. “Most store bought cheeses are lower in protein than traditional dairy cheese, but also may be lower in saturated fat than dairy cheese,” says McNeill. So nut and soy-based cheeses might not elevate your diet to the next level of health, but it’s also likely you’re not digging into a cheese ball every night.

Additionally, plant-based cheeses can be easier to digest, especially for 65 percent of the population that struggles with lactose, which makes dairy cheese a no-go. Bye bye, gas, indigestion, and problematic trips to the restroom.

Best plant-based cheese brands

Finally finding your favorite vegan cheese might take a little shopping around, and it also depends on what cheesy dream you’re chasing. Shreds? Blocks? Queso? Soft brie? Mozzarella balls? The options are becoming endless.

Best vegan cheese slices: McNeill personally opts for Chao cheese by Field Roast  for grilled cheese sandwiches, melts, and for oozing over veggie burgers. It's made from a base of coconut oil, corn, tofu, and potato starch and tastes (and looks, and pulls) just like the real deal.

Best vegan feta: Try the feta from Canadian shop Stokes. Its herby richness is perfect for crumbling on salads, pasta, tofu scrambles, or baked feta pasta. It also bakes beautifully in pastries like Greek Spanakopita.

Best plant-based shredded cheese: The plant-based mozzarella shreds from Follow Your Heart will knock your socks off. The meltability of this product makes it perfect for topping pizzas, pastas, or vegan chicken parm.

Best spreadable alt-cheese: Don't sleep on Treeline’s soft French-style nut cheeses, like their herb garlic, creamy scallion, and chipotle serrano pepper spreads. Putting these out on a cheese board at your next get-together is a good call in you want happy customers, vegan or not.

Best vegan queso:  Heads up that a jar of Siete’s cashew queso dip is impossible not to polish off in a single sitting. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Best cheese wheels: The hardest part about eating Miyoko’s cheese wheels is simply choosing the flavor you want to try first. With options ranging from sun dried tomato garlic to French style winter truffle, how does one decide?

How to make plant-based cheese at home

So you’re trying to be a fromager? Your best bet to start is with vegan cheese sauces to douse over pasta, nachos, burrito bowls, and more. Hack a celebratory creamy cheese ball with Minimalist Baker’s version made with nutritional yeast and pimento peppers. Opt for a cashew and macadamia nut option from chef Lauren Montgomery for a tangy spread. You can also whip up a five-ingredient “goat” cheese in your food processor a la Fork and Beans. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, go full cheesehead and attempt Miyoko Schinner’s feta recipe that develops flavor over time. Voilà: Wine and cheese nights will never be the same.

Originally published April 24, 2020; with reporting from Betty Gold. 

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