The first plant-based queso I came across was by grain-free Mexican food brand, Siete Foods, back in 2018. The brand sent it to the Well+Good offices when it first came out. It quickly became a huge favorite among editors, and my colleagues starting buying it themselves as soon as the samples disappeared. But then things got quiet, and I didn't see any others really start to pop.
Considering that the plant-based food market grew 11 percent in 2019 to its current worth of $4.5 billion, coupled with the rising interest in plant-based Mexican food, it seems now is really the time for plant-based queso to shine in the spotlight. In the years since trying Siete's version, there has been an explosion of other brands tapping into this trend, such as Core&Rind Cashew Cheesy Sauce ($10), Trader Joe's Cashew Fiesta Dip ($4), Plant-Based Pantry's Vegan Queso Nacho ($14), and Good Foods Plant Based Queso-Style Dip ($5). Hold on to your produce, people—we have ourselves a trend!
How plant-based queso is made
There are a lot of different versions of queso out there (just ask any Texan on the Well+Good team) but typically, the dip is made with cheese, cream, onion, tomatoes, and cilantro. While opinions are mixed about the health merits of cheese and cream (both are sources of calcium, but also contain lots of saturated fat that can be harmful for heart health), it's hard to find a healthy eating expert who isn't a fan of nuts or cauliflower, the foundation of the above-mentioned plant-based quesos. But of course as anyone in the food space knows, it doesn't matter how healthy something is; if it doesn't taste good, it just won't sell.
According to Veronica Garza, Siete's co-founder and president (and a 2020 Well+Good Changemaker), adding plant-based queso to their product line was a natural expansion; they are, after all, a Mexican food brand. "Growing up in Texas, queso is very important," she says. "Bowls of chips and queso bring people together around the table and you can find it at every restaurant. So, I started playing around in the kitchen to see if I could mimic the flavor." She personally has a dairy sensitivity, which added extra motivation to create a queso that she could enjoy, too.
Garza had seen cashew nuts used as the foundation of many vegan cheeses in recipes, so that's where she first started to experiment. When cashews proved to be an excellent creamy base, she started layering in the other ingredients, which include tomatoes, carrots, green bell peppers, and nutritional yeast (for the cheesy flavor). "I decided to test [the queso] by putting it out at a family gathering and just having people try it without telling them what it was." It was only after multiple people commented on how great it was that she told them she had made it—and that it actually didn't have any cheese in it at all. Their surprised reaction was all she needed to see before moving forward in producing it for the masses.
Good Foods's plant-based queso came about a little differently. Mandy Bottomlee, the brand's marketing director, says it was formulated as part of a whole line of cauliflower-based sauces, birthed in January 2019 at the same time as seven other dips (almost all cauliflower and almond-based). "The cornerstone of all our products is plant-based foods that are better-for-you alternatives that still taste great," she says. The brand is based in Wisconsin (aka "America's Dairyland"), she adds, so there was a lot of pressure to get the cheese taste just right.
She says the queso in particular was tricky to master; it took more than 30 tries and almost nine months to get it right. Ultimately, besides cauliflower and ground almonds, the final ingredients list also includes red bell peppers, red onions, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, chia protein, ground cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper as the core ingredients. "Besides tasting really good, we wanted it to have that beautiful [golden] color using natural ingredients, so the cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper really helped with that," she says. All the experimenting paid off. Bottomlee says that the queso became the stand-out product of the launch.
The rising popularity in yet another plant-based product is just another indicator that plant-forward eating is truly here to stay. And if you do have a sensitivity to dairy, the varied options on the market may be reminiscent of the first time you learned dairy-free ice-cream exists. Only this is better because all that's in the secret sauce are...plants. Talk about liquid gold.
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