Some vegan cheeses are nut-based while others are oil-based, and taste, texture, and consistency can vary wildly between brands, even when comparing two cheeses that are both “cheddar style.” The qualities that make some of them great for frying up a grilled cheese sandwich also mean they might not work well as a stand-alone snack as each brand will have a vastly distinctive taste depending on the ingredients, making things confusing for the vegan cheese newbie. If you look at the label on your standard block of cheddar, you’ll usually see four ingredients: milk, cheese cultures, enzymes, and maybe some salt. Vegan cheeses, on the other hand, will name a dozen or so ingredients that can include things like tapioca flour, nutritional yeast, rice sprout, pea protein, coconut oil, natural flavors—the list goes on.
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It definitely takes some experimenting to figure things out when navigating the vegan cheese counter, which is why I decided to buy a bunch of different kinds of vegan cheese and try them out in some of my favorite cheesy recipes. Here are a few tips I learned along the way.
Not all vegan cheeses are healthy—or even vegan!
If you assume you’re eating a healthy alternative to real cheese, be sure to check the label first. Although several of the vegan cheeses I tried were about 30 percent lower in fat than their dairy counterparts, they had double the daily recommended sodium content, very low protein compared to dairy cheese (on average 2 grams per serving versus 6 grams in dairy cheese), and nearly no calcium and vitamin D. Many of the oil-based cheeses I tried contained several additives like carrageenan and xanthan gum that are used to congeal and thicken. They also have ambiguous labeling terms like “modified food starch” and “natural flavors,” so it’s difficult to know exactly what it is you are eating. One cheese I found even contained casein, a protein found only in milk! Overall, plant-based cheese might satiate your cheese cravings, but you’ll need to look elsewhere if you want to replace the health benefits of dairy.
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Oil-based cheese melts better than nut-based cheese
When purchasing cheese specifically for grilling or cooking, aim get one that explicitly states it will melt, otherwise you might end up with a gloppy lump. The general ingredients and composition of the cheese means that some of them will melt and blend well, while others won’t melt or blend at all. In testing the melt factor, the nut-based cheeses usually fell short, while the oil based cheeses tended to melt in a more uniform manner, resembling American cheese. When popped in a skillet, oven or microwave, the nut cheeses turned lumpy. Some of them didn’t budge at all, leaving a greasy pile in the middle of the pan.
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The best cheese for melting that I tried was Daiya Cheddar Style Slices, which has a coconut oil and tapioca starch base. The velvety texture was on par with regular old American or cheddar cheese. The taste, however, was a bit artificial, akin to the powdered cheese found in boxed mac and cheese. This cheese would be best accompanied by other ingredients offset the strong taste, like in a pasta dish or omelet. I also tried Parmela Aged Nut Cheddar Cultured Cashew Cheese in a grilled cheese, but it was gloppy and didn’t melt as well, though it tasted better, closer to real cheddar cheese. This cheese would be well-suited for a cheese plate or in a salad, as it can stand alone in flavor, but doesn’t melt as well for cooking.
Choose sugar-free cheese for cooking
Some vegan cheeses have hidden sugars that will change the taste of your recipe, especially if it’s a savory plate like lasagna. There are a few possibilities like ricotta, cream cheese, and spreads if you want to incorporate cheese into baking breads, cakes, and pies, but be sure you know what you are getting. Daiya Cream Cheese Style Spread had a smooth and creamy consistency, but contained added sugar. It wouldn’t transition well into savory recipes and sweet recipes might need to be adjusted. Since most baked goods have some amount of added sugar, it’s good to choose a neutral, unsweetened, unflavored cheese so you won’t have to alter your recipe. Kite Hill almond-based ricotta and cream cheese are two good choices for baking.
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Pay attention to the consistency when baking
Soft and cream cheeses are going to vary slightly in texture, thickness, and wateriness, which can dramatically affect baked goods. Slight adjustments or additional steps might be necessary when baking. For example, ricotta is generally a watery cheese that requires draining before adding into a mixture, but that step was eliminated when prepared with vegan cheese, which is drier. I made this easy cheesecake recipe with Kite Hill ricotta, which is a neutral, versatile cheese, making it complementary to both sweet and savory recipes. It made a superb cheesecake because of its fluffy texture, neutral taste, and less-watery composition.
Look for code words that might determine the flavors of the cheese
Depending on how you’re planning to use the cheese, its flavor will have a big impact when paired with other foods. Terms like cultured, salt enzymes, and natural flavors all play a part in the taste configuration. A cultured cheese containing salt enzymes might yield a saltier, tangier taste. Indiscriminate ingredient phrases such as “natural flavors” could mean anything. And watch out for hidden sweetness—agave syrup and brown rice syrup could be on the ingredients list, even if sugar isn't. Before you buy, check the label description to see exactly what flavors the cheese is touting.
Sometimes the cheese needs to stand alone
Like with dairy cheese, some vegan cheeses are best served solo. There were a few varieties I tried that didn’t melt or mix well, but still tasted delicious. Go Veggie White Cheddar and Meatless Bacon Bars, for instance, would be tasty for accompanying a cheese platter, or just straight up snacking. Kite Hill Chive Cream Cheese Style Spread was my favorite spread out of the bunch; it’s consistent texture and authentic flavor was almost indecipherable to its dairy competitors, but mostly suited as an additional topping more than anything else.