For most vegetarians, the last holdout that keeps them from going vegan is cheese. There is a simple evolutionary reason for this: cheese contains huge amounts of fat and salt, which are brains are hardwired to love. Our brains tell us to love fat because it is such a good source of energy. We love salt because it is required for balancing fluid levels in our bodies. Remember, until recently in human history, it wasn’t that easy to find salt. Our brains light up with pleasure chemicals when we taste salt. When you combine fat and salt, the pleasure reaction is even greater.
The truth is that you probably won’t miss cheese (that much) after going vegan. But, this partly relies on how well you are planning your meals. Each vegan meal you eat should contain a source of fat (such as avocado, coconut, seeds, or nuts). Without this fat, you aren’t going to feel very satiated and you might start craving cheese. Read more about the health benefits of fat here.
Cheese is also a main ingredient in many vegetarian recipes. So, if you are making the transition from vegetarian to vegan, you’ll probably find that your usual recipes are really boring without the cheese. A pizza without cheese becomes bread with just sauce on it, and a quesadilla without cheese is just a tortilla with salsa inside. Below are some ways that you can replace cheese in recipes so meals stay interesting.
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Store-Bought Vegan Cheese
There are now several different brands making vegan cheese, and you can find them in many health food stores. This isn’t to say that these vegan cheeses are healthy. Many of them are made with highly refined ingredients. There is also the problem that a lot of them won’t melt. I find it really funny that Daiya, one of the leading brands of vegan cheese in the USA, even advertises on their labels that their cheese “melts and stretches.” Daiya is one of the better tasting brands of vegan cheese (in my opinion at least), but some of them taste really terrible. If you try one brand of vegan cheese and are disappointed, don’t give up. You can try a different brand or go the more natural route with the options below.
Make Your Own Vegan Cheese
Remember, the reason we love cheese so much is because it is fatty and salty. Most cheeses also have a bit of tang to them from the aging process, which is what gives it that flavor we associate with cheese. So, making your own cheese is actually pretty easy. You just need a neutral-tasting fat (cashews work well for this), some salt, and a bit of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar for the tangy taste.
There are all sorts of vegan cheese recipes which you can find online, including some more-advanced recipes which involve fermenting to replicate the taste of aged cheese. These won’t exactly taste like the cheese you are used to, but they will help satisfy any cravings you have for cheese. Here is one recipe to get you started.
Basic Vegan Cashew Cheese Recipe
- 1 cup of raw cashews, soaked in 3 cups of water for at least 12 hours
- 2 tsp of lemon juice
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup of water
Drain the cashews and give them a quick rinse. Then just blend all of the ingredients in your blender until smooth. Yes, that’s it! You can add some granulated garlic, fresh black pepper, or nutritional yeast to give it more taste if you want.
If you are really serious about vegan cheese, I recommend buying the book Vegan Artisan Cheese (available in paperback and for Kindle). It is written by vegan chef Miyoko Schinner and has awesome recipes for meltable, slicable cheese. You can read my review here or buy Vegan Artisan Cheese here.
Crumble Up Some Firm Tofu
This works really well in place of ricotta or cottage cheese. Just crumble some firm tofu with a fork and mash in some salt and lemon juice. For pizza, you can also mash tofu with nutritional yeast, oil and salt. It isn’t quite the same as pizza, but it gets the job done.
Nutritional yeast serves as a great stand in for parmesan and tastes great sprinkled on top of veggies or popcorn. It also is the base of many vegan cheese recipes. Since most nutritional yeast is fortified, using it is a good way to get B12 as a vegan. Read more about what is nutritional yeast here.
Avocado is a great source of healthy fats. Mash it up and use it instead of cheese on sandwiches, wraps, or in Mexican food. Don’t ever bake/cook avocado though. It gets gross!
Like avocado, pine nuts are a healthy fat. Compared to other nuts, pine nuts have a creamier texture so they work well in place of cheese in some recipes. For example, if you are used to putting cheese on top of asparagus, you’ll find that pine nuts taste just as good. You can also make a vegan pine nut pesto and use it in place of cheese in Italian recipes, such as on pizza or penne.