My family and I are vegans. (If you’re unfamiliar with vegan diets, they are similar to vegetarian diets — no beef, no poultry, no fish, no pork — but they also exclude all dairy products and eggs.) We happened upon this lifestyle suddenly, but it’s changed everything. Less than a year ago, I decided to tackle a year of vegetarianism for a graduate school project, thinking that it wouldn’t be a big deal, and I’d be happy to have the year behind me. Vegetarianism is so often an emotional decision, but I wanted to approach it through research, not tears.
As it turns out, researching vegetarianism without tears is nearly impossible, especially if your research includes watching animal rights documentaries. Beyond emotions, I found myself surrounded by research that called into question so many of the foods I had eaten for my entire life. Suffice it to say, without going into too much detail, I found myself quickly switching my diet from vegetarian to vegan and deciding that this was a life change, not a year-long journey.
My family was curious about my project, and they began researching the subject as well. A month later, five out of the seven of us were vegans. The change happened so rapidly that our ingenuity had to fight to keep up with our diets. We couldn’t have meat. We couldn’t have milk. We couldn’t have Hershey’s chocolate — I nearly cried thinking about all of the s’mores I’d miss out on. (Then I found out that I couldn’t have marshmallows either, so the chocolate point was moot.) All we could think about was what we couldn’t have anymore. That first month was filled with a lot of salads and yearning.
While milk chocolate was a definite sacrifice, we all felt that our biggest sacrifice was cheese. I never realized how much cheese we had been eating until we couldn’t have it anymore. It had been everywhere.
The holes in our hearts, we now know, were caused by more than just missing one of our favorite foods. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that cheese is actually considered somewhat addictive. In contains something called casein, which is a protein found in dairy products. When casein breaks down, your body gets a small high.
High off cheese? It sounds crazy, but it explains a lot. E magazine’s Just Like Cheese? says, “When put on a strict, meat- and dairy-free ‘vegan’ regimen, the food most missed by 59 overweight post-menopausal women was cheese.” Not chicken. Not steak. Not eggs. Cheese. I didn’t have to be post-menopausal to miss it. Grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, macaroni and cheese, my favorite deli sandwich and just plain sharp cheddar — I missed these foods so much that it made me angry.
Cheese rage. I was in a state of cheese rage for a very long time.
Today, I’ve recovered almost completely. Maybe my body has gotten used to my cheeseless diet, or maybe my brain has just gotten too tired of fighting. Either way, I miss cheese rarely these days. Some days, however, the fight goes on.
Vegans aren’t alone in this struggle. After doing some research, I was astonished to learn that a huge number of people are lactose intolerant. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 90 percent of Asians, 70 percent of Blacks and Native Americans, 50 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of Northern Europeans are lactose intolerant.
Those of us who simply cannot fathom cheese-free pizza for life have been forced to search for non-dairy options. Fortunately, recent advancements in vegan cheeses have provided us with dozens of options. From non-dairy cream cheese and parmesan to nacho cheese and mozzarella, the options are endless. But which is best?
The Grilled Cheese and Quesadilla Experiment (Vegan Gourmet and Daiya)
Seven months. That’s how long I went without a grilled cheese sandwich. The marathon ended when the grilled cheese and quesadilla experiment began.
I was so excited about this project that I could hardly wait for my husband to return home from the grocery store with the goods: one block of Follow Your Heart brand Vegan Gourmet Cheddar Cheese Alternative (I’ve found that products names get longer as your diet becomes more specific) and one bag of Daiya Cheddar Style Shreds.
I’ll give you the dish on these two brands before I tell you about our experiment. We had tried Vegan Gourmet’s mozzarella non-dairy cheese before on our pizzas and been happy with the results. The cheese doesn’t melt quite as nicely as real cheese, but the flavor was good and so was the texture. We hadn’t ever tried the cheddar variety.
Daiya is like the holy grail of the vegan world. Vegans rave about the way it melts and tastes. However, we tried a pizza a couple of months ago with Daiya Mozzarella Style Shreds, and I found the whole thing just a little bit too goopy. The dairy-free cheese didn’t set up again at all, so I felt more like I was drinking cheese than eating it.
Vegan Gourmet cheeses are made from tofu (Vegan Gourmet Nutritional Information), whereas Daiya cheeses are made from tapioca (Daiya Nutritional Information).
I decided to make three vegan grilled cheese sandwiches: one with Vegan Gourmet, one with Daiya and one with both (just for fun and because I knew we’d both want more). I used regular wheat bread and vegan butter (Earth Balance is our favorite) in a frying pan.
It may have been a mistake to make the Daiya grilled cheese first. It was too good. That overly-melty quality that Daiya has is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches. The flavor was good but not strong. My husband and I adored it. My cheese rage was nowhere to be seen.
Next, I made the Vegan Gourmet sandwich. Because I bought this cheese in a block, I simply cut thin slices of it for the sandwich. Unfortunately, the cheese wasn’t melted all the way by the time the bread was toasted. The texture was wrong, but the flavor was pretty good. Because it’s not a perfect cheddar flavor, the strong taste is slightly disconcerting. We both felt, however, that if we had eaten the Vegan Gourmet sandwich first, we would have been happy enough.
The vegan grilled cheese sandwich with both cheeses was good except for the Vegan Gourmet melting problem. I liked that the Daiya provided the melt while the Vegan Gourmet provided the flavor. Still, our favorite was the Daiya.
A couple days later, we still had tons of leftover cheese, so we decided to make quesadillas. This time, I shredded the Vegan Gourmet. I layered both kinds of cheeses on a tortilla with vegetarian refried beans and some jalapenos. It couldn’t have been more delicious, and I didn’t notice any problems in melting. If we could afford to buy two kinds of cheeses all the time, I’d definitely use these in cooperation from now on. Yum!
As far as pizzas go, we’re going to stick with Vegan Gourmet, at least for now. Its pizza-topping texture, in my opinion, is much more appetizing.
Tree-nut Cheese (Dr-Cow)
I requested a sample of Dr-Cow’s Cashew Nut Cream Cheese, and the company was nice enough to send me not only cream cheese, but a variety of other cheeses as well, including Aged Cashew & Hemp Seeds Cheese and Aged Macadamia Cheese.
I opened the Cashew Nut Cream Cheese at the office and let everybody have a try. We served it with rice crackers and Wheat Thins. Most of us were really surprised by how good it was. I had never tried vegan cream cheese before, so I didn’t know what to expect. As far as being an exact match for dairy cream cheese, I’m not sure that Dr-Cow delivers. But when it comes to delicious spreads for crackers and sandwiches, I’d definitely use this product again.
This cream cheese was mild enough that, when eaten on a Wheat Thin, the taste of the cracker took over a little bit. On a rice cracker, however, the flavor of the cheese shined through. It was a little bit tangy, which made us think that this would be a great summertime spread (maybe on fresh-baked bread with some tomatoes). Not a single person in the office said they wouldn’t try the cream cheese again, which, in the world of non-dairy alternatives, is a rave review.
After I took the leftovers home, I had the opportunity to try the spread on some fresh rye bread. The tanginess of the cream cheese with the strong flavor of the rye was wonderful.
The other cheeses from Dr-Cow weren’t trying too hard to be exact imitations of dairy cheeses. They came in individually-wrapped 2.5-ounce pieces, and I cut small wedges out of them to eat.
These cheeses aren’t intended to be pizza toppings or quesadilla fillings, they’re supposed to be enjoyed for their unique flavors without too many other ingredients. They melt in your mouth sort of like a super-sharp cheddar with a little bit of grittiness (probably from the nuts). Their flavors are relatively strong. While I was eating them, I was thinking about all of those fancy stinky cheeses that I never tried while I could have and thought that Dr-Cow’s cheeses were probably the non-dairy equivalent of those. Pair them with a glass of red wine and a novel with many large words, and you’ll be the height of class.
My husband’s favorite was the Aged Cashew Nut Cheese, which is relatively mild in comparison to some of the others. It is the company’s top seller, and we can see why.
Here’s an extra surprise: Aged Cashew & Crystal Algae Cheese. Imagine my surprise when I opened a wrapper to find a lump of extremely green cheese!
Nacho Cheese (Chreese)
Road’s End Organics makes a product called Chreese that I had been warned about. One of my vegan blogging friends told me that if I ever saw a product called Mac and Chreese, I should walk briskly in the other direction. One of our editors had a similarly bad experience with the same product.
Needless to say, I was a little bit wary of trying Nacho Chreese Dip. I received samples of the mild and spicy varieties on the same day as the Dr-Cow samples, so the whole office tried the Chreese as well. We didn’t have any chips at the time, so we served it with rice crackers and Wheat Thins.
The Chreese arrived in jars, and the oil inside was separated from everything else. If you imagine the way natural peanut butter looks in a jar when it separates (but less natural looking and yellow), you’ll have an idea of what we were greeted with when I opened the first jar of Chreese.
Most of the people who tried this product felt that it was neither really great nor really bad. The texture of the dip is much thinner than a regular canned nacho cheese — kind of like a creamy soup. The flavor was much more peppery than cheesy. The editor who had tried Mac and Chreese noted that this dip was significantly better than that product.
I brought the nacho dip home with me and tried it with some baked tortilla chips. Under those circumstances, the flavor of the Chreese becomes much more apparent, and I wasn’t sure I liked what I tasted. After a handful of chips, I abandoned the dip, and both jars have been untouched in my refrigerator ever since.
My recommendation for this product is to use it only if it will be paired with other good flavors. On a bean burrito, any of the less-tasty flavors of the dip may be covered up and the good parts might come through. Overall, however, I have to sadly admit that I don’t see myself buying Nacho Chreese Dip any time soon.
Parmesan (The Vegetarian Express)
The Vegetarian Express sent me a sample of their Parmesan substitute, Parma Zaan Sprinkles, which look similar to regular Parmesan but have a slightly more yellow tint.
My husband and I both tasted these by themselves first. We thought that the flavor was pretty good (far, far superior to other vegan Parmesans we’ve tried in the past), but it did have kind of a funny aftertaste. The good news is that Parma Zaan Sprinkles aren’t supposed to be eaten alone.
We tried them on some spaghetti and were happy with the result. They don’t really have a melting quality, so I’d consider them more of a seasoning than a cheese. If you’re dairy-free and you really miss Parmesan, I’d definitely recommend these. Would I use them in a recipe that required a large amount of Parmesan? Probably not — they’re just not similar enough to the real thing. As a meal topper, however, they’re plenty good enough.
Obviously, I wasn’t able to try all of the delicious non-dairy cheeses on the market, and there are still a lot that I’m excited to try. Have you had successes or failures with vegan cheeses? Share your story by posting a comment below.
Lindsey Siegele is the Senior Web Editor at Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find her on Google+.
Photo by Lindsey Siegele