Plant-based cheese has come a long (read: loooong) way since it first became commercially available in what can only be best referred to as the Vegan Dark Ages (i.e., around the turn of the century). In fact, the vegan cheese of today barely resembles its early ancestors.
From its humble beginnings of rubbery, dry textures and bland, lackluster taste to its now robust flavorings and ooey-gooey, melty consistency—vegan cheese now stands on a par with its dairy-based counterparts.
But how exactly did vegan cheese get to where it is today? And why did it take so long, darn it?! (Asking for a friend.)
The History of Vegan Cheese
While many may think vegan cheese is a relatively new creation, one of the earliest types of dairy-free cheese actually appeared in the 1500s. According to the sourcebook History of Fermented Tofu: A Healthy Non-Dairy/Vegan Cheese (1610-2011), vegan cheese first originated in the form of fermented tofu in either China or the Okinawa Islands.
Fermented tofu is a common condiment in East Asian cuisine. The tofu is typically made from soybeans, salt, rice wine, and vinegar or sesame oil. It’s then processed and preserved into blocks that resemble cheese.
The non-dairy cheese-esque product made its debut in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Wo Sing & Co—one of the Western world’s first known tofu manufacturers—began making fermented tofu in San Francisco in 1878. In 1882, France officially gave the salty, preserved tofu blocks a name: “fromage de soja,” which translates to soy cheese. And in 1919, a British patent listed fermented tofu as “fermented cheese.”
Ten years later, scholar Nganshou Wai’s research, entitled “A new species of mono-mucor, Mucor sufu, on Chinese soybean cheese,” became the first scientific study of fermented tofu to be published in a major article. The study landed in the prestigious journal Science.
From Tofu to Nuts: The Evolution of Vegan Cheese
Tofu’s varying degrees of firmness and texture have made it a good option for replicating the consistency of cheese. And even though tofu has little to no taste and can take on the flavor of various seasonings, the first tofu-based vegan cheese products to hit the market in the 1980s simply didn’t stack up well against dairy-based cheese.
The shift in vegan cheese flavoring and variety occurred nearly two decades later. Brands began churning out more plant-based cheese options using an array of other ingredients. These included seeds like sunflower and sesame, plant-based milk, coconut oil, nutritional yeast, rice, and nuts—such as pine nuts, almonds, and cashews.
Surprisingly, the latter category is just about as versatile as tofu. Walnuts can be ground to make parmesan cheese; cashews can be soaked to make mozzarella. For those that don’t have nut allergies, nut-based cheeses are also a suitable option for those that are allergic to soy.
How to Make the Best Vegan Cheese
Tofu and nuts like walnuts and cashews make for terrific soft cheeses. If you’re desiring a firmer cheese, you can whip up plant-based cheese blocks using almonds and macadamias. To give your dairy-free cheese a flavor reminiscent of dairy cheese, simply add nutritional yeast. And don’t be stingy on the seasoning. You can add a “cheese-like” flavor using herbs, spices, and flavored salts.
Tofu- and Nut-Based Cheese Recipes
Whether you prefer tofu cheese or nut cheese, there are a variety of recipes out there to try. Here’s a handful to get you started.
You can harness tofu’s culinary prowess by making a variety of dairy-free cheeses. Top your salads and sandwiches with this tofu-based feta cheese. Spice up your morning bagel with this garlic and herb tofu cream cheese recipe. And for a melty, nachos-worthy dip, make this crowd-pleasing vegan queso.
Your vegan charcuterie board never looked as tasty as with this herbed cashew cheese block. Cashews can also be whipped into a cheddar cheese dip. This vegan cheese sauce recipe uses cashews and an array of vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, and onions, to achieve its creamy consistency. And for a spicier cheese block, simply add paprika. This smoked cashew cheese gets its cheesy flavor from nutritional yeast.
For a delicious, pasta-ready cheese, make this almond cheese block. The tangy, slightly sweet, and creamy nutty cheese requires only five ingredients to make: almonds, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and water. You also only need five ingredients to make this almond-based ricotta cheese.
Make a delicious nut-based cheese to pair with crackers with this cheddar macadamia cheese recipe. The recipe features nutritional yeast and miso paste to give the block its cheesy flavoring. Whip up these herbed macadamia cheese balls, too! The balls are seasoned with oregano, garlic powder, thyme, pepper, and other herbs for taste bud-pleasing flavor with every bite.
Click here for our complete list of vegan cheese recipes that will make you forget about dairy.
Vegan Cheese Market Soars
Due to the rise in demand for plant-based products, the vegan cheese market is now expected to reach $2.5 billion by the end of the year. The market is also projected to hit $7 billion by the end of 2030.
According to the study by market intelligence company Transparency Market Research, competition within the vegan cheese market is high as a result. A growing number of dairy-free cheese producers have been maximizing their capacity to churn out high-quality, cheesy products consumers will actually enjoy.
Here are five brands that have cracked the code to the perfect melty, stretchy vegan cheese.
Best Vegan Cheese Brands
1. Daiya Foods
Earlier this year, Canada-based vegan cheese brand Daiya Foods reformulated its classic vegan cheese shreds. Its Cutting Board Collection Shreds are now even meltier and cheesier than ever before. The non-dairy shreds are available in four different flavors: cheddar, mozzarella, pepper jack, and a blend of cheddar and mozzarella. Melt them atop pizza or sprinkle them on your tacos.
2. Miyoko’s Creamery
Arguably the crème de la crème as far as vegan cheeses go, Miyoko’s Creamery has been churning out high-quality, artisanal cheeses since 2014. The California-based company carries a wide selection of non-dairy cheeses, including slices, wheels, shreds, and chunks. Try Miyoko’s cultured farmhouse cheddar slices or the fresh vegan mozzarella.
3. Field Roast, Chao
In addition to its authentically-flavored plant-based meats, Field Roast’s produces a wide selection of vegan cheese. The company seasons its creamy coconut-based Chao cheese slices with fermented tofu. They come in a variety of flavors, including original, tomato cayenne with spicy peppers, and coconut herb with black pepper.
This Greece-based brand’s vegan cheeses are soy- and nut-free. The company’s award-winning cheeses are coconut-oil based and available in shreds, blocks, slices, and wedges. Try Violife’s cheddar shreds or parmesan wedge.
5. Follow Your Heart
What started out as a country-style market in California’s San Fernando Valley has grown to become a leading supplier of vegan products like cream cheeses, spreads, yogurts, and cheese. Try Follow Your Heart’s provolone-style slices or parmesan shreds.
Click here for a full list of vegan cheese brands.
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