A quality vegan cheese product is perfect for someone transitioning to a vegan diet, and even seasoned vegans enjoy the convenience of a classic grilled cheese made with non-dairy cheddar slices. However, these products are often processed and can be expensive.
There are times when we’re in the mood for something with a more streamlined ingredient list and heightened nutritional profile. Plus, you’ll likely save a few dollars. With that in mind, here are five non-dairy cheeses that aren’t your typical sliced, shredded, or gourmet vegan cheese product. But first, here’s more about the cheese industry, and why vegans choose not to eat dairy cheese at all.
Where does cheese come from?
Cheese is a dairy product, usually made with cow’s milk. However, it can also be made with goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or buffalo milk. Casein and whey are the two main milk proteins used to make cheese. Around the world, more than 264 million cows are farmed to produce dairy products, including cheese. Last year, global production hit more than 22 million metric tons.
Why vegans don’t eat cheese
Many vegans choose to eat plant-based cheese or products that taste cheesy (like those listed below), for animal welfare reasons. On dairy farms, female cows are artificially inseminated repeatedly because they can only produce milk if they have a calf. After the calves are born, they are taken away from their mother, often within 24 hours (but the time can be as short as one hour), so that farmers can take the milk. According to Animal Equality, most cows on US dairy farms (more than 90 percent) are confined to cramped, indoor operations.
But the dairy industry isn’t just associated with poor animal welfare, it’s also bad for the planet. Animal agriculture is linked with a multitude of environmental issues, including water pollution, air pollution, and rising greenhouse gasses. According to the UN, the entire livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 percent of emissions.
But good news: dairy cheese isn’t a necessity. Thankfully, plenty of plant-based alternatives exist, and we’ve put together the ultimate guide to finding the best ones. And there are also a number of ingredients that can be made to taste like cheese, too.
5 dairy-free cheesy swaps
Reach for these five vegan ingredients the next time you want to cheese up your favorite foods.
1 Nutritional yeast
These nutrient-dense golden flakes are the key ingredient to any well-executed homemade cheese. When used on its own, nutritional yeast—or nooch, for those in the know—has a natural and distinctly cheesy flavor. It’s excellent on pasta in lieu of vegan parmesan, popcorn instead of powdered cheese flavoring, and roasted or steamed vegetables in place of a melted cheese product. You’ll also find it in several recipes for cheesy sauces, dips, and even desserts. Nutritionally speaking, nooch could qualify as a superfood—just two tablespoons yield six grams of protein, two grams of fiber, no fat, and a boost of B vitamins (including 80 percent of your daily vitamin B12). It’s a truly versatile powerhouse of a condiment—the only thing it can’t do is make bread. Please, don’t confuse it for baker’s yeast.
Hear us out. We understand hummus does not taste like cheese. However, it can replicate its creamy, melty texture in certain applications. Three particular standouts are pizza, quesadillas, and grilled sandwiches. The next time you make pizza at home, skip the tomato sauce and use hummus as the base. When cooked, it gets a little bubbly and browned while retaining its creamy texture. The same effect happens with grilled foods like quesadillas and paninis. It won’t stretch and ooze, but it offers moisture and a silky element that complements the other ingredients in your sandwich. It’s worth a try at least once! One thing to note: hummus does contain protein, but many blow it out of proportion. A two-tablespoon serving contains two grams of protein, which is only slightly better than most store-bought vegan cheese options.
They say cauliflower is infinitely versatile, but we’d argue that tofu can do far more than this cruciferous veggie. Depending on how it’s prepared, tofu can transform into a funky feta, textured ricotta, or a silky cheese sauce. It can be served raw in a tomato and basil Caprese salad or baked up in a rich lasagna or decadent mac and cheese. Stock up on both firm and silken varieties to make any of these options in an afternoon. When it comes to nutrition, firm and extra-firm tofu are more nutritionally dense, as they’re more concentrated (the silken versions contain more water). For a single serving of extra-firm tofu, you’re looking at eight grams of protein, 4.5 grams of fat, two grams of fiber, and eight percent of your daily iron. This certainly outperforms any vegan cheese product you could find on the shelf.
Sour cream, sweet cream, crema, mascarpone, parmesan, alfredo … when blended with a few other ingredients, cashews can take on an entirely new identity. The nuts’ fatty content lends itself well to obtain a creamy texture, and their neutral taste allows them to take on added flavoring agents such as miso and nutritional yeast. If you’re researching recipes for vegan cheesecake, alfredo sauce, or tiramisu, it’s highly likely you’ll see a trend. Nearly every cheesy recipe of this caliber contains cashews. We particularly love this Creamy Vegan Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese recipe. Of all the foods listed here, cashews are the most calorically and fat-dense. A one-ounce serving provides 150 calories and 12 grams of fat (two saturated), but it also contains five grams of protein and eight percent of your daily recommended iron.
The secret ingredient to any stellar mac and cheese or vegan queso? Potatoes … plus a few other things. We’ve enjoyed countless servings of belly-warming mac and cheese and dipped an infinite amount of tortilla chips into hot, gooey queso made with both white and sweet potatoes. When baked and blended, the flesh of a potato truly makes a difference in creating a velvety cheese sauce. Try it for yourself. This recipe uses gold potatoes for an intensely creamy pasta while this Easy Veggie Fakeout Queso relies on Yukon Gold potatoes (and a few carrots and spices) to achieve a spicy, dippable cheese sauce. While potatoes are often cast as the villain by fad diet culture, they’re simply misunderstood. A single medium potato only contains about 160 calories and negligible fat, and yet it fuels the body with four grams of protein, nearly five grams of fiber, 70 percent of your daily vitamin C, and around 10 percent of your daily iron and magnesium. We say eat more potatoes—especially in their cheesy form.