The Rise (or Rather, Melt) of Vegan Cheese and Our Favorite Picks

vegan cheese, kite hill

It’s the Holy Grail of vegan food. To create a passable vegan cheese is more than just an art, it’s practically a miracle.

If you’ve eaten a vegan diet for any length of time, you’ve seen the vegan cheese industry bubble and melt with all kinds of incarnations. At first, we were lucky to have Tofutti’s cream cheese-like spread. Nevermind that it’s loaded with hydrogenated oils and GMO ingredients. We took what we could get. There was VeganRella and Soya Kaas (which isn’t technically vegan—it contains casein). And who can forget the rice cheese singles that offered as much of the shivers as a traditional slice of American cheese itself? You could just feel the oils congealing somewhere along your spine. Ew. We tried tricks like covering up pizzas for the last few minutes of cooking so the steam would “melt” the rubbery substances we’d hoped would give us the stretchy goo we craved without the guilt we couldn’t stand. We used microwaves and flame torches in hopes of shreds disappearing into a clotted sea of soy, oil and “flavoring.”

While many vegan mock meats can effectively mimic taste and texture rather well (the biggest complaint I hear is that vegan meats are drier than animal products, but otherwise taste just like the real thing), cheese has long left us lacking. But, quite a few companies are getting close to perfection.

The darling of dairy-free cheese right now is Daiya (pronounced “day-uh”). The tapioca-based vegan cheese has true meltability that’s swayed the toughest vegans and even some dairy eaters too. But with melting comes consequences: While boasting some non-GMO ingredients—and being soy-free—the Daiya shreds are loaded with oils (including canola), “natural flavors” and stabilizers. But it melts. And vegans who miss cheese say it’s the best stuff ever (this vegan steers clear of the stuff. Always gives me an upset stomach).

Follow Your Heart and Teese brands are also receiving praises for their meltable vegan cheeses, but Daiya has virtually cornered the market—partnering with other brands (Amy’s and Tofurky use it on their frozen pizzas), food service distributors and top restaurants are all on the Daiya train, too.

Now, several brands are working on developing “finer” cheeses. Leaving the pizza and melting to the aforementioned brands, these aged vegan cheeses encourage you to tear off a hunk of baguette, say something French and crack open a bottle of expensive wine. One such brand is Kite Hill, formulated with chef Tal Ronnen. I tried these nut-based cheeses recently at his Los Angeles Crossroads restaurant. Served on a cheese plate with warm bread, jam, fruits and nuts, I realized it was the first time in my adult life I’ve ever eaten anything called a “cheese plate.” How refreshing. While the options I tried all lacked the bite of truly aged cheese, they were delicious nonetheless, and satisfied a hankering for hard cheese that I hadn’t realized I’d had.

But the true winner in the aged fine cheese category goes to a small Brooklyn-based brand called Dr. Cow. They naturally ferment their nut-based cheeses with acidophilus, which gives them a tang and texture that will be familiar to dairy cheese eaters. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can find them at Erewhon on Beverly Blvd. And be prepared to blink at the prices: nothing under $10 for a hunk the size of an apricot. But well worth the spend. The ingredients are impeccably clean as well: nuts, salt, acidophilus and some added flavors like kale or dulse. Truly delicious.

Similar to how the vegan mock-meat market exploded over the last decade (and has seemed to taper off with no noteworthy newcomers in years), it’s a pretty good guess that we’ll see more than a few more innovations and trends in vegan cheeses. And just like you can rather easily make your own veggie burgers from scratch, with a little effort, you can make your own vegan cheeses from scratch, too, using nuts and seeds (and never discount the myriad uses of nutritional yeast!). While they won’t get the melt of the highly processed stuff, they’ll certainly give you flavor—and a healthier option as well.

What is our obsession with melty, gooey cheese, anyway? I’ve spent more than a healthy bit of time fixating on this. One opinion is that there’s a chemical in cow’s milk to help “addict” the baby cows so they make sure to eat. When it’s made into cheese, it  becomes more concentrated, and the reason we crave the stuff is the opiate-like effect it appears to have on humans. (How many times have you heard “I’d go vegan, but I just can’t give up cheese!”) If that’s true, it could explain our pursuit of a vegan cheese that tastes and melts just like the stuff we’re eschewing for ethical reasons. But vegans don’t pursue faux animal bones in mock meats. We don’t seek out gristle or other components to meat products. Should we be agonizing over cheese that melts—especially if it means ingesting highly processed factory-made options?

I suppose like mock meats, it is a step in the right direction of a greater food consciousness. While I prefer a sprinkle of nutritional yeast on an otherwise cheeseless pizza, here’s hoping we melt our way into a more ethical and humane future.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image courtesy of Kite Hill

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