What Is Vegan Cheese?
Put simply, vegan cheese is a plant-based substitute for animal-based cheese. It’s typically consumed by people who are dairy-free; have lactose intolerance; or subscribe to a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet. There is no single way to make vegan or plant cheese, and a number of options exist. Some common ingredients in vegan cheese include soy, nuts, seeds, and flour, as well as tuber crops.
Vegan cheese has become increasingly popular in recent years and the quality, at least from a flavor perspective, is much better than it used it to be. The variety of flavors and textures available to people opting for vegan cheese can get them much closer to the experience of the real thing.
Vegan cheese, however, is highly processed and not necessarily a “natural” product like dairy cheese. Dairy-free cheese, like soy, is an industrial product, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unhealthy or bad for you. It’s all about how much you eat and the type you select.
Furthermore, cheese and non-dairy options are different nutritionally, regardless of how indistinguishable their taste and texture may be.
Plant-Based Sources of Vegan Cheese
Nuts and Seeds
Nut-based “cheeses” are one of the most popular vegan cheese products because of their taste and texture. They are much lower in calcium than regular cheese, but you can get around that by selecting calcium-fortified options.
Nut-based cheeses are popular for two reasons: they are relatively easy to make at home and they require little processing as far as vegan cheeses go.
Seed cheeses are equally convenient for at-home creations, with a culturing process very similar to that of conventional cheeses.
For the most part, the manufacturing process for both involves soaking, blending, and fermenting the nuts/seeds with same bacteria generally used for dairy cheese. Flavor is sometimes added with nutritional yeast or herbs.
Nut-/seed-based cheeses are generally made from:
Soy is an extremely common plant-based substitute for countless foods, and it’s also a good source of plant protein. Soy-based cheese products are available in a variety of forms and use various ingredients. They can be made from tofu or other soy proteins, and are usually held together with vegetable oils, gums, and other additives. These additions also provide texture and flavor.
Not all soy cheese products are vegan, however. Some contain casein protein, which allows them to melt like real cheese. These may be useful for people with a lactose intolerance, but do not fit into a vegan or vegetarian diet. Unlike seed and nut “cheeses,” soy-based products are completely industrially manufactured.
Some cheese substitutes are made out of flour, or combinations of flours and other products like soy. They are less likely to be used as sliceable cheeses—like nut and some soy options—but rather as sauces. In other cases, smaller amounts of flour are used as binding agents for nut-, seed-, and soy-based “cheese” products that are more suited to solidification.
Coconut is another base for cheese alternatives, but it must be highly processed to reach any semblance of cheese. The high fat content of coconut oil helps to recreate the rich creaminess of cheese, but the strong flavor of coconut means it requires all kinds of additives to make it taste cheesy. Starch is typically added, or flour, as are flavors like nutritional yeast, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon juice, and salt.
Potatoes and Carrots
Like flour, these tuber vegetables are also common in cheese sauces and spreads (especially vegan nacho cheese). They’re also great alternatives for those with nut-free, soy-free, and lactose-free needs. The cheeses can be made in your kitchen with fresh ingredients as well. Simply chop up the veggies and boil them until they’re soft. Then transfer to a blender, and blend until smooth. To boost flavor and texture, you can include nutritional yeast, starch, oil, water, non-dairy milk, and seasonings.
Is Vegan Cheese Healthy?
It’s hard to classify vegan cheese as a health food—much in the same way it’s hard to classify cheese as a healthy food. When it comes to real cheese, especially unprocessed cheese, there is something to be said about the naturally occurring protein, calcium, and other compounds (not to mention the taste!) found within—that relationship and mixture cannot be recreated.
That said, when’s the last time your doctor told you to eat more cheese?
Vegan cheese is essentially a replacement for regular cheese. You don’t want to make it a central component of your diet, largely because it is highly processed and whole foods are typically the best foundation for a diet.
Certain vegan cheese products are loaded with vegetable oils, coagulants, color, salt, and other preservatives that really don’t offer much from a nutritional standpoint. These should be used minimally at most.
But there are some varieties—largely nut-, seed-, or potato and carrot-based options—that are mainly comprised of whole foods and therefore are much better nutritionally. These varieties will be rich in fiber, healthy fats, and other micronutrients, and in turn, can be a useful contribution to a healthy diet.
3 Vegan Cheese Recipes
1. Cashew Brie
Cook time: 30 minutes Serves: 8
2 1/2 cups cashews
2 tablespoons brown rice flour
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
1/8 teaspoon Himalayan salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 cup hemp seeds
5 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup pistachios
1/2 cup fresh blackberries
1 package freeze-dried fruit of your liking (apricot, pear, figs, etc.)
- Soak cashews in hot water for two hours.
- Pour half the cashews, brown rice flour, and melted coconut oil into a high-power blender. Set to low speed and blend until combined.
- With blender still on low, add in Himalayan salt, cinnamon, maple syrup, two to three sprigs of fresh thyme, and hemp seeds. Combine.
- Add the rest of the cashews and blend on medium for two minutes.
- Use parchment paper to line a nine-inch-round baking dish.
- Pour nut mixture into the prepared dish. You may need to tap it lightly a few times on the counter, so that it sinks into mold. Smooth the top.
- Refrigerate for at least four hours.
- Prep the topping as the mold sets: Cut freeze-dried fruit into bite-sized pieces. Mix in with pistachios and two to three sprigs of thyme.
- Remove mixture 10 minutes before serving and add topping; drizzle with berries and maple syrup.
2. Tofu Gouda
Time: 50 minutes Serves: 8 ounces
7 oz. tofu (extra firm)
2 cooked potatoes
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 pinch paprika
Coarse sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup soy milk
2 tablespoons vegan butter
1 tablespoon agar agar
- Place tofu and potatoes in a blender and mix. Add in mustard, paprika, sea salt, and pepper. Blend until mixed; set aside.
- Heat the milk and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter melts, add agar agar. Stir consistently for about six minutes. Pour the milk mixture into the blender with the tofu-potato mix, and blend to combine.
- Fill ramekins or muffin molds with the mixture to solidify. Cool to room temperature (roughly 10 minutes) and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. Baked Vegan “Mozzarella” Sticks
Time: 12 hours
1/2 cup cashews, soaked 2 hours
1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 cup psyllium husk
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cashew cream
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Rice paper, as needed
1/4 cup plus 2-3 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 – 3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
- Fill a small bowl with the warm water and psyllium, and blend well. Set aside for two hours.
- Pour mixture into a high-power blender or food processer. Add in cashews, cream, lemon juice, yeast flakes, sea salt, and pepper. Blend until mixed.
- Transfer the blend to a bowl and cover. Let it solidify overnight.
- Remove the solidified cashew mixture from the bowl and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
- Submerge the rice paper in warm water for a few seconds, until soaked. Remove, drain, and place on clean surface.
- Place a “mozzarella” slice on the rice paper and wrap—repeat for each “mozzarella” slice.
- Get three deep plates add flour and bread crumbs separately, on two dishes.
- On the third plate, put paprika, turmeric, starch, and salt. Add water and dissolve with fork. If too thick, add more water. Consistency should be like mixed eggs.
- Place “mozzarella” slices in the flour, then starch, and then bread crumbs.
- Simmer oil in a pan and fry both sides.
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