I am generally of the opinion that fake food should not be eaten. I used to dabble in the world of vegetarian meats, substitute dairy and eggs, and a myriad other lab- or otherwise-created “foods.” But you know what? They’re just not very good.
If you want a burger – eat a burger. If you’re concerned about things like environmental impact and animal welfare (and you damn well should be), then make sure you get your products from a responsible producer. But trying to substitute a Portobello mushroom cap or a Boca burger for a fresh ground beef patty fresh off the grill is never going to work, and you’re not going to be satisfied if what you really want is meaty goodness. Substitutes are nearly always full of artificial, chemical garbage that people have no business ingesting. And even when they’re all natural it’s just far too many strange ingredients that we really don’t need all put together. Eat the real thing or don’t eat it at all.
That being said, sometimes you don’t have that option. The innumerable dietary restrictions people possess have just as many causes – and not all of them are avoidable. Whenever human nature is faced with the forbidden, of course, we want to push our boundaries and obtain it all the more. Even if that boundary is something as seemingly benign as a piece of cheese.
A friend recently reached out to me and tasked me with the objective of finding the least offensive non-dairy cheese. Non-dairy cheese, you say? An abomination! But, my curious nature got the best of me and I agreed to begin the hunt. I always say I’ll try anything once, so I’d better put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.
I went to my local organic market and picked out a variety of cheese substitutes with which to experiment. I decided that the best way to truly test a non-dairy cheese was with the epitome of all that is cheesy holy goodness – a grilled cheese sandwich. What better way to enjoy a piece of cheese than slapped between two crisp, buttery slabs of bread and heated until it’s ooey-gooey goodness?
I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of my little experiment. I’ve been surprised by new foods more often than not (like Quorn is an amazing substitute for chicken and it’s not really a “substitute” in the sense that it’s packed with all sorts of artificial garbage). Read on for my notes and thoughts on all four types I tested:
Rice Vegan – Cheddar Flavor
Galaxy National Foods
Rice Vegan cheese slices are a rice-based non-dairy alternative that claims to be dairy, soy, cholesterol, and lactose free. What it isn’t missing, according to its producer, is “big cheese taste!” Sadly I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree…
Feel: Stiff little squares, not entirely dissimilar to thin pieces of cardboard.
Smell: Meh – a little cheesy, but pretty bland.
Color: Neon-organic – my term for an unnatural shade of orange with artful brown flecks.
Meltability: Nearly non-existent. It half melted, but I had to nearly burn the sandwich to get it there.
Taste: Downright awful – like grainy, orange library paste.
Verdict: If you can’t eat normal cheese and this is your only other option – just stop eating cheese. Please don’t put this in your mouth.
Veggy Slices – Cheddar Flavor
Galaxy National Foods
This soy-based cheese alternative was vastly different from its rice counterpart. These slices more closely resembled Kraft singles more than any of the other cheeses – which I think most people would be inclined to disagree is technically a “real” cheese, either, but hey – it makes an OK grilled cheese.
Feel: A little rubbery – like a Kraft single.
Smell: Moderately cheesy, with a little hint of grain.
Color: Neon orange
Meltability: Good – melted within the time it took to perfectly brown the exterior of the sandwich
Taste: Surprisingly similar to a Kraft single. A little mellow, it could use some sharpness, but altogether not unappealing.
Verdict: If you’re jonesing hardcore for a grilled cheese Sammy and you don’t mind processed cheese in general, this is your go-to substitute. Dunk it in some tomato soup and you’d be hardpressed to tell the difference from a dairy-based processed cheese.
Daiya Cheddar Style Shreds
Daiya is by far the most popular and well-known cheese alternative. I’ve seen it mentioned in numerous vegetarian magazines and many people praise it’s meltability and surprisingly similar taste and texture to regular cheese. I’m going to assume that anyone who has said those words hasn’t eaten real cheese in so long that they are no longer cognizant of what real cheese actually is.
Feel: Shredded cheese-like; a little crumbly.
Smell: Similar to sharp cheddar or goat cheese, but with this weird yeasty quality that wasn’t altogether pleasant.
Color: A kind of orangey-brown color
Meltability: Melty – unless it touches the pan and then it gets hard and brittle
Taste: In a word – weird. It’s kind of cheesy, but it has this weird yeasty aftertaste that is pretty hard to ignore. It’s obvious this isn’t cheese and I don’t think it could be covered up with tomato soup or other accoutrement.
Verdict: Pass – it’s just….weird.
Almond Cheddar Style Shred
I’d head of vegans turning cashews into great non-dairy alternatives, but this was my first experience with almond alternatives (except of course for almond milk, which is delicious). I’d have to say that my first concern arose with the claims of no gluten, GMO’s, lactose, sugars, cholesterol, saturated fats, or trans fats – what the heck is actually in this stuff then?
Feel: Shredded cheese-like, but crumbly
Smell: Strikingly similar to fake nacho cheese dip
Color: A truly frightening shade of radioactive orange
Meltability: Pretty lame – it takes some serious moist heat to get this stuff to melt.
Taste: It tastes like nothing – zero flavor. It’s not just that it doesn’t taste like cheese, it doesn’t taste like anything. Not really surprising considering the lack of all ingredients that actually provide flavor.
Verdict: Pass – not even remotely cheese-like.
And the winner is…. Veggy Soy Slices!
Are they perfect? No. Are they going to obliterate your craving for cheese? Probably not. Will they satisfy an undeniable need for a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup? Most likely.
This is actually the one that’s still in my refrigerator. After a single bite of the other ones they made a direct journey into my trash can – so that’s got to be in their favor.
Ultimately, cheese substitutes are just that – substitutes. There’s never going to be anything that will ever taste like cheese except cheese. But, when your body simply won’t cooperate and you’re at the point of either shanking a fool or risking serious gastrointestinal distress from eating real cheese – pick up a package of soy cheese and make yourself a sandwich. It’ll make your life marginally better.
Any other food testing requests? Leave them in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Side note: To keep our grilled cheese truly dairy-free I used Earth Balance buttery spread. As far as margarines and butter substitutes go, it’s pretty good. A little salty, but browns nicely and is also good on slightly warmed seeded bran muffins.