Vegan cheese, which is alternately referred to as dairy-free cheese or plant-based cheese, is a product that mimics some of the properties of cheese. These include its texture, its flavor, and to some extent its melting ability, even though vegan cheese is made without using any animal-based ingredients whatsoever.
- Aka "Dairy-Free Cheese" or "Plant-Based Cheese"
- Made With No Animal Products
- Softens Rather Than Melts
- Comes In a Variety of Flavors
What Is Vegan Cheese?
Vegan cheese is simply cheese made with plant-based milk rather than the milk of an animal. Remember that ordinary dairy cheese is made by adding a bacterial culture to animal milk (usually cow, sheep, or goat) to acidify it, then using enzymes to coagulate the milk proteins, forming solid curds, before shaping and squeezing those curds to make cheese.
How Vegan Cheese Is Made
Vegan cheese is made using a similar process, but it starts with plant-based milk, like soy or nut milk. A bacterial culture is added to separate the proteins in the milk, and it's often supplemented with oils, emulsifiers, and thickeners, like tapioca, pea flour, arrowroot, or agar, to achieve a cheese-like texture. Like dairy cheese, vegan cheese undergoes aging, both to develop flavors and to make the texture more firm, since aging creates a drier cheese.
Both dairy and vegan cheeses are made by isolating the proteins in milk and processing them into a solid form. But since it's made with added thickeners and emulsifiers, vegan cheese is more analogous to processed cheese, such as American cheese, than it is to true dairy cheese.
The main difference in cooking with vegan cheese versus dairy cheese is that vegan cheese doesn't melt in the same way, if at all. Dairy cheese is a network of milk proteins called caseins that hold little pools of milkfat. The protein strands in casein are held together by calcium bonds. When heated, the fat liquefies and the calcium bonds dissolve, collapsing the network of proteins and causing the liquefied fat to flow.
Vegan cheese has a different structure since it contains no casein. This means that heating it creates a different result, typically a softening of the cheese rather than an outright melting of it. Furthermore, since vegan cheese doesn't contain lactose, a natural sugar in dairy milk, it doesn't brown in the same way as dairy cheese does.
Still, vegan cheese adds a creamy mouthfeel and texture. This can vary from spreadable, as in cream-cheese style vegan cheeses, to longer-aged cheeses that resemble cheddar, which can be used in all the ways that ordinary cheese is used. Just keep in mind that vegan cheeses soften rather than melt, which means they don't get stretchy.
What Does It Taste Like?
Vegan cheese is fermented, through the addition of bacterial cultures, so it has a tangy, tart flavor similar to that of dairy cheese. And through the aging process, the flavors are developed and concentrated. Additional ingredients, such as salt, spices, and other seasonings, are also added, depending on the variety, so a wide range of flavors is possible, ranging from sharp cheddar, which has a bold, intense flavor, to soft, spreadable cream cheese, which is milder but still tangy.
Where to Buy Vegan Cheese
Vegan cheese can be found in the refrigerated sections of many grocery stores, both specialty and conventional. It might be kept near the regular cheese, or it might be in the vegetarian section, along with products like hummus and tofu.
Vegan cheese should be refrigerated, where it will generally stay fresh for seven to 10 days, although this can vary from brand to brand and type to type. For best results, follow the use-by instructions printed on the package.
Vegan Cheese Recipes
Try using vegan cheese anywhere you'd use ordinary dairy cheese. It won't behave exactly the same way, but experiment with it to find what works.
Types of Vegan Cheese
Vegan cheeses mainly differ by what sort of protein base they're made from. Most vegan cheeses are made from nuts, such as cashews, which produce the creamiest texture. Almonds, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and macadamia nuts are also sometimes used. Soy milk is another common base for vegan cheese. Technically, tofu is a form of vegan cheese, as it's made by curdling soy milk and then pressing the curds into blocks.
Vegan cheese is available in blocks, slices, and shredded. Sliced and shredded cheese will melt a bit better than the blocks.