Ask any vegan, and they’ll tell you: A common reaction people have to their diet is, “How do you do it? I could never give up cheese!” We’re all cutting back on meat in favor of eating more plants. And more people are shifting away from cow’s milk in favor of alternatives made from almonds, cashews, coconuts, and other non-dairy sources. But a life without classic cheddar or creamy camembert seems like blasphemy. However, this may soon change, too.
In the past, the only vegan cheeses on the market were the equivalent of celebrity impersonators—a sad, disappointing excuse. Most had a rubbery texture and plastic taste, and they were made from ingredients like palm oil, starches, and gums. But today there’s an increasing number of artisanal non-dairy cheeses on the market. Ones that, if you served them at a wine tasting and didn’t tell your friends, they might not even realize they’re eating vegan.
“More people than ever want to reduce their intake of animal products,” says Michael Schwarz, founder of Treeline Cheese, which produces cheeses made from cashews. “I think it’s due to a combination of the revelation of what does on in dairy industry, health issues, and climate change. But they still want to be satisfied in having a really nice thing to eat instead of dairy cheese.” Enter nut cheeses.
Related: How to Make Vegan Zucchini Lasagna
Each company makes their cheeses slightly differently, but most start with fresh or soaked nuts because their high fat content results in a creamy, cheese-like consistency. They break the nuts down until they resemble a cream. Then the cream is cultured with good bacteria (probiotics), which interacts with the nuts and produces lactic acid. This lends a cheesy flavor and makes the cream firmer. Some cheeses are then aged for a few weeks for an even firmer texture. “It’s a fairly simple process, but the devil is in details. You have to pay attention to how it’s cultured. It’s a live product and requires great care,” Schwarz says. Several companies also add herbs or spices to naturally flavor their products.
So what do they actually taste like? Schwarz says to keep one thing in mind: “People who make brie are not claiming to make Camembert—they make brie. Similarly, we don’t sell ‘vegan cheese.’ We sell ‘nut cheese,’ which stands on its own merit. Don’t think these cheeses will taste exactly like a cheese you’ve have before.” Kaitlyn Misheff, director of education for Matthew Kenney Culinary, says even people who eat dairy enjoy the treenut cheeses served at Matthew Kenney restaurants. “It’s just really good.”
To see how good nut cheese really is, we asked a few non-vegans, including Yuri Weber, cheese buyer for Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, to sample a few artisanal vegan cheeses. Below are Weber’s reviews of the top picks. (If your local natural foods store or Whole Foods doesn’t carry these cheeses, you can buy them all online at VeganEssentials.com.)
Dr. Cow Tree Nut Cheese Aged Cashew Nut & Hemp Seed Cheese
Made from just four ingredients—organic cashews, organic hemp seeds, acidophilus (bacteria), and Himalayan pink sea salt—Weber said this cheese tasted the most like dairy cheese out of the 14 we taste tested. “It has a mouthfeel similar to real cheese,” he said. Eat it with crackers and a tart jam, like red currant, he suggests.
Punk Rawk Labs Dairy Free Nacho Nutmilk Cheese
If you like a little heat, try this cashew-based cheese. It also has carrots, to naturally give it an orange color as well as some nice crunchy texture, chili pepper for spice, and green onions. Make a roux and add this to create a sauce or dip (after all, it is nacho flavored).
Treeline Treenut Cheese Classic Aged Artisanal Nut Cheese
Hickory smoked salt adds a subtle smokiness to this cashew cheese. Weber found it to be very nutty and silkier in texture than the Dr. Cow, and he suggests eating it with something sweet, like chestnut honey.
Miyoko’s Kitchen Aged English Smoked Farmhouse
Miyoko’s adds chickpea miso to most of its cheeses, and the flavor is quite pronounced in this tart, richly flavored cashew cheese. The smoke flavor is much stronger than in other cheeses because the cheese is smoked, rather than having flavors added to it. Add it to chili or a sandwich.
Kite Hill Soft Ripened
This cheese fooled many non-vegans it’s so close to a brie. Made from almond milk, salt, enzymes, and cultures, this aged cheese even has a soft rind (which is edible). Kite Hill says it’s best served out of the fridge, but one vegan tester said she’d bake it.
Of course, you can also make your own nut cheese at home. Cashews are a common base since they have a subtle flavor, but Misheff says macadamias are also great because they’re harder, which adds body. “Or use a 50-50 combination for a firm cheese that’s bit creamy in center,” she suggests. Soak your nuts overnight to soften them, then rinse and drain before processing. A high-speed blender is best for making nut cheese, because the machine needs to be strong enough to chop your nuts into a cream.
If you’re making a fermented cheese, Misheff stresses to be sure everything is sterile—so follow common sense and be sure your hands and all equipment are clean. This way you won’t get any mold on your cheese. “Mold will only happen if there’s bad bacteria [i.e. something other than the probiotic] in the environment,” she explains. And be sure you’re fermenting in a spot in your home where the temperature is pretty consistent.
Give it a go with this recipe from Misheff for macadamia chevre. You can serve this on crackers, or make beet carpaccio by slicing beets super thin and marinating in a mix of olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Then top with the cheese. (If you don’t want to try fermenting, simply blend the nuts, water, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and salt for a ricotta-like cheese.)
2 cups macadamia, soaked, drained, and rinsed
1/4-1/2 cup water (use more or less as needed)
2 capsules acidophilus powder (find this in health food stores)
1/2 teaspoon nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (such as rosemary and thyme), minced
1 teaspoon spices, ground or whole (optional)
1. Blend macadamias, water, and acidophilus powder in a food processor until completely smooth. Place mixture in a square of cheesecloth and tie up the ends of the cheesecloth. Place cheese in a strainer, and set over a small bowl to drain. Check cheese after 24 hours. If you live in a humid environment, it may be ready. If it doesn’t smell sour enough yet, let it go another 24 hours.
2. After cheese has fermented, fold in nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and salt, adjusting seasoning as desired. Form mixture into a log shape using parchment paper, twist the ends tight to form a tight cylindrical shape, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 2 days or until firm. Once cheese is firm, remove from parchment, and roll in minced herbs or spices of your choosing to form a layer around the outside of the cheese. Place macadamia chevre in a fresh piece of parchment, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until ready to serve.