The Best Vegan Cheeses
If you’re looking for swaps for melty mozzarella, creamy ricotta or grilled-cheese cheese, we’ve got you covered.
Tested by Amanda Neal, Miriam Garron, Alexis Pisciotta and Vincent Camillo for Food Network Kitchen
Text by Miriam Garron
With interest in plant-based everything exploding, it’s easier than ever to find vegan cheeses with flavors and textures that hew pretty close to your favorite dairy ones – or are just plain good on their own. Thanks to bacteria-cultured nut milk cheese, which is essentially processed the same way as dairy cheese, more and more vegan-friendly cheeses are becoming available online and in grocery stores.
To help navigate the hundreds of options, we asked our Food Network Kitchen recipe developers to taste some newer products and popular stand-bys. We tried to choose cheese with fewer ingredients listed on the label, and to stick to those that are less processed (which requires some parsing of labels or company websites). We didn’t abide by any hard-and-fast rules, but, like Goldilocks, went with a variety that felt “just right:”
- We included cheeses made with a variety of nut-milks, some coconut-based and just one or two with soy.
- While we tried to avoid encyclopedic ingredient lists, lots of vegan cheeses include ingredients we didn’t recognize, many of which play roles in reproducing various characteristics of dairy cheese. We recommend reading labels carefully if you are concerned about ingredients other than animal products; information about those ingredients is readily available online.
- Some vegan cheese producers follow certain principles in addition to forgoing animal products, including but not limited to sustainable sourcing, recycled or recyclable packing and non-GMO ingredients. Information is readily available on product website FAQs and/or packaging.
How to judge cheese that’s … not? None of our tasters are vegans. We agreed that making dairy cheese the standard-bearer was the wrong way to go. But describing vegan cheese using dairy-cheese terms – funky, sharp, melty – makes sense, as vegan cheese producers use that same vocabulary, though the actual funk or melt might be a bit different than dairy standards. And if a vegan cheese is named after a recognizable dairy cheese, like mozzarella or cheddar, we evaluated the vegan versions based on their proximity to their dairy namesakes, with some latitude. And really, all the comparisons to dairy cheese make it easier for the vegan cheese virgins to start making choices among the non-dairy world. In the end, our bottom line for vegan cheese is the same as it is for everything we eat: Does it taste good? And with that, here we go:
Best for Cooking
We included what we think of as the “Big Four” for cooking: the Italian-ish casserole and pizza essentials ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, plus the large and somewhat arbitrary category of grilled-cheese cheese.
To test, we topped sauced rigatoni with shredded mozzarella, dollops of ricotta and grated Parmesan before baking at 375 F until bubbly for about 25 minutes. For the pizza, we topped store-bought dough and sauce with mozzarella and Parmesan and baked at 450 F until the dough was crisp and the mozzarella melted, about 12 minutes. We finished both with a final sprinkle of raw Parm.
Amanda Neal, Food Network Kitchen recipe developer says, “If I have one take-away, it’s that I appreciate the less processed brands that have great flavor, even if they don’t melt exactly like dairy-cheese. They make me feel good about incorporating more plant-based ingredients into my diet.”
This cheese is soft and almost tofu-like but can be shredded on the large holes of a box grater with minimal crumbling. It’s available only in blocks. A pleasant, overall mild, milky flavor and a "lovely touch of salt" earned it the winning spot — raw and cooked — on our list. On the downside, it barely melted, contrary to the package claim that it "melts, slices and shreds," nor did it brown.
Kite Hill’s ricotta isn’t as light and fluffy as dairy ricotta, but the creamy texture, bright, lemony flavor and slight tang from tartaric acid, which occurs naturally in grapes, made this our overall favorite. Dolloped on top of a casserole before baking, it dried out just slightly but maintained its flavor and should do just fine baked in a casserole or lasagna. It’s also delightful smeared on toast and plopped on scrambled eggs.
No big winner – yet. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to live up to the number one cheese on our tasters’ Most-Loved Cheese list. These vegan Parms just don’t melt!
Best for Grilled Cheese
Turns out grilled cheese is our gateway dish. We were really impressed with how well some vegan cheeses oozed. And while they were indeed tasty, we will be honest: toasty, buttery bread makes everything sandwiched in between taste better. (A slice of juicy, warm tomato doesn’t hurt either.) So if you are making the switch, grilled cheese is a great place to start.
We sampled versions of mild childhood favorites, both because they are widely available and because they appeal to kids. To make our sandwiches, we piled a few slices on whole grain bread “buttered” with vegan mayo and toasted them on a lightly vegan-buttered griddle over medium heat for four minutes per side. The big winner? Well, we have two.
VioLife handicaps itself by insisting that these coconut oil and modified starch-based slices are just like their dairy counterparts. They’re not. But: they are bright orange and bendable in a classic singles kind of way. Cooked, they immediately evoked grade-school grilled cheese sandwiches: oozy, mild, with a very slight tang, somewhere between American and mild cheddar. If it were up to us, we’d call them "Just Like Chamerican." If you really concentrate, you’ll notice a bit of an oily coating in your mouth, but it’s slight. We say: go retro, griddle a few slices of cheese and tomato between store-bought white bread and serve with the bread-and-butter pickles. Or do the classic grilled cheese with tomato soup for a vegan flashback to your elementary school cafeteria.
The Uncreamery Cheeses
Both of these almond and coconut-oil based, soy-free options from San Francisco’s first vegan creamery make great grilled non-dairy cheese sandwiches. They’re oozy, unctuous and somehow reminiscent of fondue. Both are mild and milky. The Havarti retains its traditional mellow, very slightly cultured flavor and dilly herbaceousness when cooked. The burn from the Jack’s ghost peppers obscured its otherwise mild flavor a bit — if you love heat and don’t want dairy, this is the cheese for you. They get a little tacky at room temperature, but otherwise would be a nice, familiar addition to a cheeseboard, and the Havarti would make a great kids’ snack cheese with some apple slices.
Best for Cheese Boards
When it comes to cheeseboards, there are no noodles or breads to lean on – the cheese stands alone. That said, it’s nice to see vegan options that also look classy. These days, you can dress up your board with slumpy rounds and ashy, bloomy rinds. Here are some of our picks:
Treeline’s four cashew-based, naturally cultured Spreadable Soft French-Style cheeses took the prize. Less processed and with fewer ingredients than many other supermarket brands, these are great for the folks who love Boursin-type cheese. All four flavors nailed the creamy, spreadable texture of Boursin, with a slight chalkiness reminiscent of goat cheese, and just a bit of cashew flavor in the background. Our favorite? Spicy but-not-too Chipotle Serrano, with "pleasant" Herb-Garlic weighing in at a close second. Creamy Scallion reminded us of sour cream and onion dip, but with a strong tang that turned off some tasters. Least favorite? Sea Salt and Pepper, as the mild seasoning highlights the fact that the cheese itself is not super-flavorful. Bonus: We microwaved some of the Herb and Garlic and thinned it with water to make a light, smooth pasta sauce. Try that with Chipotle Serrano for a dairy-free queso, or topping for nachos or charred veggie tacos. Vegan cooking can be time-consuming, especially if you are just making the switch from meat-based meals, so these sauces are great shortcuts for vegan meals. Think of it as something like Hamburger Helper for the vegan set.
Dairy double-cream cheeses have a high butterfat content, which makes them reliably creamy. Our tasters said this traditionally cultured cashew-milk cheese did a pretty good job there, but with a touch of grittiness and a density closer to traditional chive cream cheese than a double cream. One taster noted a "hit of tang sharper than that in a standard cream cheese, and much more than in a traditional double cream like Brie." But overall, the tasters agreed it could make its way to a vegan cheeseboard.
Barncat from Conscious Culture, a Pennsylvania small-batch producer of cashew-based, cave-aged cheeses is available online and in retail locations across the country. A subtle, vegetable-ash veined cheese along the lines of a Cambozola, it ate "like the real thing," though it was just slightly tougher. With an edible rind, it stayed creamy and even oozy as it warmed up.
The Uncreamery’s Brie is rated "visually stunning, a soft little pyramid of bloomy, ash-ripened cheese that looks like it came straight from the cave." Miso adds a ton of umami; one taster noted that it tastes the way artificial butter tastes on popcorn — like cheese-flavored cheese, which is not a bad thing. The rind has a slightly bitter finish that builds with each bite, but this Brie was still a big favorite for our tasters.
Cheezehounds’ stonecarver-turned-vegan-cheesemaker Lori Robin makes her cheese in small town in the Catskills, and her cashew-milk (and hemp, soy and agar) Mulshenock, a flavor-mix of Gouda, Cheddar and smoke, scored at the top for taste. But its slightly rubbery texture cost it some points, and while that’s a critique that can apply to smoked dairy cheese, too, our tasters concluded it was just "a little too tofu-like." We recommend microwaving it briefly so it’s nice and melty before smearing on crackers.
This cashew- and almond-based vegan cheese from Misha’s has a lovely hint of smokeyness and savoriness, thanks to shallots, red bell pepper, smoked paprika and chipotle. There’s even a touch of turmeric to give it the quintessential orange cheddar color. The nuts add a creamy, spreadable texture, perfect for a cheese board with crackers, smeared on a burger, or even added to baked dishes like macaroni and cheese. It’s sold in eight-ounce containers, making it easy to pop off the lid and serve!
Maybe it’s harder to make firm vegan cheeses. We didn’t find a lot that we loved, and we we await the ultimate crystally vegan cheese, one that cracks into shards under the tip of your Parmesan knife. That said, we chose REBEL’s Gruyere, with its mix of rice flour, almonds and miso, plus some powdered spices that give it depth without announcing themselves too loudly, in part because it was visually pretty close to a younger dairy gruyere. Ditto on the texture and flavor — like all less-aged airy cheese, it falls on the softer, creamier side of firm — sliceable, not spreadable, and with a slightly nutty flavor and a bit of tang. For slicing and piling on crackers, perhaps with a slice of apple, a dab of chutney or some mustard, this is our pick. Try ordering it for delivery from Riverdel — the Austin, Texas company doesn’t sell widely.