Stepping foot inside Rebel Cheese, in Austin, Texas, is just like walking into any other gourmet grocery shop—at least at first. There are racks of wine, specialty food items, made-to-order sandwiches, and several pungent wheels of artisan cheeses, all immaculately displayed in a giant glass case. But this is no ordinary deli—Rebel Cheese is the first-ever vegan deli and wine shop in Texas and one of the few of its kind in the country.
Nestled inside the case, their house-made cheeses include an aged cheddar, a truffle Brie, garlic herb Boursin, and an aged Cotswold, plus dozens of imported cheeses and meat-free charcuterie. And all of it is crafted using age-old cheese-making techniques—except, in this case, the base ingredients are cultured nuts and oils, rather than animal milk.
Kirsten Maitland, co-owner of Rebel Cheese—who runs the shop with her husband, Fred Zwar—says that their diverse, thoughtfully curated selection is a key part of the customer experience. “We import a bunch of cheeses from all over the States and Canada. We wanted to do that to offer a wide variety, because we wanted it to be similar to a dairy cheese shop, where you can go in and have an array of choices.”
This may represent the high-end of the spectrum—many of Rebel Cheese’s tasty cheeses have been aged for months, and as such, they definitely belong on your fanciest cheese board—but the vegan cheese market runs the gamut, from cheap cheddar to melty, mid-level mozzarella to high-brow Brie. In fact, there are more alternatives now than ever before.
What Makes a Cheese Vegan?
Unlike cheese that’s made from casein—a milk protein found in the milk of animals like sheep, goats, and cows—dairy-free cheese is made from plant protein. The most common base ingredients for vegan cheese include soy protein, vegetable oils (safflower, coconut, canola), nuts (cashews, almonds), seeds (sunflower), and nutritional yeast, among others.
The diversity of protein sources for vegan dairy has been steadily expanding over the last few years, according to Zak Weston, Foodservice & Supply Chain Manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit dedicated to sustainable plant-based eating. “Cashew and soy are still major players, but today's plant-based cheeses also use coconut, cauliflower, almond, chia, rice, potato, and pea ingredients,” says Weston. “We're also seeing a big uptick in blends of plant proteins, where more than one type of plant source is used in order to improve the sensory appeal, lower pricing, or provide better nutritional properties.”
How Is Vegan Cheese Made?
Production itself is much the same as regular cheese-making, albeit sans animal products. Plant proteins are separated and mixed with bacteria, then oils, emulsifiers, and thickeners are added to the mixture, which gives the cheese its consistency. The bacteria-and-protein combo sits and breaks down further, until the desired consistency is reached.
Meltability is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to plant-based cheese production, though there are select brands and products that have mastered this. It’s all about the ingredients, according to GFI Food Scientist Miranda Grizio. “To match the melting profile of dairy cheese, it’s important to use the right blend of fats and oils,” Grizio says.
Some types of vegan cheese are highly processed, while others contain just a few simple ingredients and undergo a slow aging and culturing process. Of the latter, Maitland says, “The longer that these cheeses age, the more flavor there is, and the better the texture is. They just get firmer and firmer, which is one of the key things that’s been missing in the vegan cheese world.” And, to keep it as fresh as possible, just as with animal cheese, the majority of vegan cheeses must be refrigerated.
Vegan Cheese Substitutes: Brands to Know
Though it can be difficult to mimic the nuanced flavor and texture of cheese, there are several brands out there who are doing just that. Whether you’re looking for mozzarella for your homemade pizza toppings, feta for a Greek salad, Brie for a cheese plate, or just a hunk of Parmesan to snack on, rest assured that there’s a vegan cheese out there to fit your needs. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the most popular (and delicious) brands available:
Much like the cheeses that Rebel Cheese makes and sells, Miyoko’s specializes in artisanal nut-based cheeses (among many other vegan products). “If you’re doing a fancy charcuterie board, you’re going to want Miyoko’s,” says Jessica Morris, who runs Rabbit Food Grocery, an all-vegan grocery store in Austin.
One of the first vegan cheese makers on the scene, Daiya is still known for producing reliably good dairy substitutes. Their “Shreds” (cheddar, mozzarella, pepperjack, and more) are the real deal.
This relatively new brand is already beloved for their “Superfood” plant-based cheeses.
Follow Your Heart
“If you want a shredded cheese to throw into macaroni, or a sliced American cheese to make a grilled cheese, Follow Your Heart is the best brand you can find nationally,” says Morris.
Kite Hill makes a mean dairy-free ricotta, as well as a truly delectable cream cheese-style spread.
“Violife is next-level,” Morris enthuses. Notably, their Just Like Feta Block is routinely praised for its tangy, rich flavor and crumbly texture that’s very similar to dairy-based feta.
The Dairy-Free Cheese Industry: Then and Now
Just a handful of years ago, options for vegan cheese were severely limited. Most (if not all) cheese alternatives were more akin in taste and texture to a pencil eraser than actual cheese. But there’s a veritable revolution happening in the plant-based cheese world, thanks, in large part to increasing consumer demand. And manufacturers are working hard to keep up with that demand.
“If you’re making a subpar product, it’s going to get demolished in the marketplace because there are so many really good [cheeses] out there that are keeping manufacturers on their toes,” says Morris. “Not only is vegan cheese more widely available than ever, it’s also better than ever.”
Interestingly, this is all part of a bigger plant-based revolution. According to SPINS retail sales data released April 2021, compiled in partnership with the Good Food Institute, plant-based food dollar sales grew 43 percent in the past two years—all while food dollar sales of traditional animal products grew just 17 percent in the same time period. The retail market for plant-based foods is worth $7 billion, up from $5.5 billion in 2019. SPINS is an independent wellness-focused data provider.
So, what accounts for this industry growth? No surprises here: According to Maitland, Morris, Weston, and other plant-based connoisseurs, it’s a mix of heightened awareness about how our plant-based eating habits may positively impact the planet and the inherent cruelty of the dairy industry. And, crucially, many people simply can’t comfortably digest dairy. “There’s a lot of growth out there because so much of the population has some kind of dairy sensitivity or they’re 100 percent allergic,” says Maitland. “People are becoming more educated about health and nutrition, as well as the environment and animal welfare.”
This trend will only lead to more—and better—vegan cheese manufacturers, says Weston, who notes that, as Americans continue to scale back on dairy, “more and more opportunities are being created for plant-based cheeses that deliver on the cheese experience without the allergenicity, nutritional, and sustainability drawbacks of animal-based cheeses.”
That being said, you certainly don’t have to be dairy-free to try vegan cheese. As Maitland says, “We get a lot of customers who aren’t vegan, who come back time and time again, just because they love the taste of our cheeses. So, give it a chance; it’s just like trying anything new. And who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new food that you love."
Good Food Institute. U.S. retail market data for the plant-based industry. Published April 6, 2021.