The Daily Meal’s overeager copy editor observed a vegan diet for January and is detailing his successes and pratfalls in a series of personal essays.
The most common response to telling someone you’re vegan is an almost instinctual defensive reflex. “I could never do that,” your friend insists, eyebrows narrowed, just to clarify in case you’re angling toward any sort of recruitment effort. No? It hasn’t been that hard, really, you explain. I mean, you really couldn’t live without meat?
“I guess I could survive that,” your friend relents. “But I genuinely wouldn’t know what to do without cheese.”
Nobody ever says they just couldn’t live without eggs, even though eggs are delicious, cheap, and easy to use, deliver a host of nutritional benefits, and serve a great number of technical purposes in baking and cooking. Cheese is the animal product that, for most Americans at least, sinks its hooks most firmly into the heart as both a treat and a staple. The very idea of vegan pizza just makes most people feel sad.
Perhaps with that in mind, the always-eager People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sent a bag of vegan goodies to The Daily Meal offices after I started my “Veganuary” stunt, and it wasn’t filled with bok choy and snap peas — instead, it included vegan “caviar,” an ersatz “sausage,” a powdered mixture that mimics eggs, and a number of vegan “cheeses.” (Full disclosure: PETA sent me a bunch of vegan food. Thanks, PETA!)
These products looked pretty convincing on first glance, so my first thought was to pull a fast one on my coworkers by saying I’d received samples from “Brass Paddle Creamery” upstate. I picked up a few other vegan cheeses from the nearest Whole Foods to compose a platter.
Once I unwrapped everything, though, it became clear that no one was going to fall for this. As far as vegan cheese has come in recent years, it’s still stuck in the uncanny valley between cheese and totally-not-cheese. Even if the flavor is pleasing, anyone who’s fond of cheese’s distinctive characteristics will quickly notice something off about vegan cheese.
So instead of staging the least successful prank ever, I counted on the consensual goodwill of my comrades to carry us through a vegan cheese taste test.
It did not go well.
What cheese tastes like
One editor described the “roller-coaster of emotions” that occurred between seeing the vegan cheese being set out and smelling it. “I would never be tricked into thinking it was real cheese,” she hissed after gamely tasting each variety.
I tried to pin my peers down regarding precisely what secret flavor component real cheese has that these cheeses lack.
“Milk, obviously,” one snarked. “There's also a particular texture and … subtle flavors that these cannot match.”
“It’s hard to describe what cheese tastes like,” another mused more thoughtfully, “but none of these really hit the nail on the head.”
My colleagues also offered comments individually on each of the five brands we tried. I’ve included their most amusing impressions below, although I’d suggest that these not be taken as serious criticism — vegan food tends to inspire hyperbole, and I believe your experience might vary, as I’ll explain below.
Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda-Style Slices. “This tasted like a campfire,” one editor told me, “which I didn’t hate.” Another opined that the over-the-top smoky flavor “covered up any weirdness.” This was the overall favorite.
Daiya Jalapeño Havarti Style Farmhouse Block. “Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” cried one taster. “The spiciness of jalapeño was super strong,” sassed another. “Compensating for something?” A few complained of an odd aftertaste.
Punk Rawk Labs Smoked Nutmilk Cheese. Most tasters were wowed by this brand’s story and style. “I would definitely want to hang out with them,” one editor said in reference to the Minneapolis-based brand’s all-female ownership triumvirate. Most found the cheese relatively innocuous, though it was criticized as too peppery. Tasters found the gray color off-putting.
Field Roast Chao Slices Tomato Cayenne. “Did they cut bland hummus into cheese?” one particularly unforgiving editor asked. Most others actually found it too spicy rather than bland, and some complained of an odd aftertaste.
Treeline Treenut Cheese Green Peppercorn. Most tasters felt this had a fairly neutral flavor to match its gray color. The texture was divisive. “Nothing that crumbles should also spread,” one editor said, recoiling in terror. “Unless it’s Play-Doh.” Others found it inoffensive and smooth. “If I absolutely had to,” one told me, “I could get behind it.”
The conclusion seems clear, then, right? Vegan cheese is a disaster!
Actually, I had a much different experience than did my comrades, probably because of the fact that I haven’t eaten cheese in a month. It’s not that I don’t think my colleagues’ criticisms are valid — the Gouda did taste like someone trying to cover up a lack of natural flavor with an excess of smoke, for instance — but I can see these cheeses filling a useful role.
The key, for me at least, is thinking of these not as cheese but as more similar to “processed cheese food.” I’d take any of these over a Kraft Single or a glob of Velveeta in a heartbeat, and most people seem to consider those “cheeses” acceptable for a variety of uses, though you’d never just set them out on a platter with like a decent chèvre.
One positive result of my colleagues’ revulsion was that there was plenty of cheese left over for me to experiment with at home. When used as a complement rather than a centerpiece, these cheeses really do have a lot to offer. The Punk Rawk Labs and Treeline offerings work well as a creamy spread to line a wrap, for instance, and even the much-maligned Field Roast Tomato Cayenne adds some welcome pop to a simple avocado, tomato, and arugula sandwich.
Our healthy eating editor noted that, after the taste test, her officemate felt a powerful urge to binge-eat real cheese — she’s adamant that the healthiest approach is to always eat what your body tells you it wants, and she feels strongly that substitute products like these can create a damaging mental feedback loop. If you’re considering switching to vegan cheese for the sake of losing weight or something like that, it’s probably not advisable.
If you’ve decided to be vegan for ethical or environmental reasons — well, it’s still probably smarter to focus on all the delicious dishes that are naturally dairy-free rather than trying to fully fill the void with vegan cheese. But if you’re avoiding dairy and your heart reaches out for those slices in the deli aisle, many vegan alternatives are absolutely worth a try.
Some of the food samples for this review were provided by PETA at no cost to the writer.
Previous installments in this series:
I’m About to Go Vegan for a Month Basically on a Dare (12/19/2017)
My ‘Traditional’ Vegan New Year’s Day Meal Already Has Me Freaking Out (1/2/2017)
The 5 Worst Things About My New Vegan Diet, 12 Days In (1/12/2017)