“When consumers tried to improve their health by shifting to skim milk, Congress set up a scheme for the powerful dairy industry through which it has quietly turned all that unwanted, surplus fat into huge sales of cheese—not cheese to be eaten before or after dinner as a delicacy, but cheese that is slipped into our food as an alluring but unnecessary extra ingredient.
The toll, thirty years later: The average American now consumes as much as 33 pounds of cheese a year.”
― Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
In 1980, the average American only ate about 8 pounds of cheese a year. Now consumption continues to rise. As Michael Moss points out, cheese has become an ingredient that is used to market foods as over-the-top, crave-able products. Just think of pizza with stuffed mozzarella cheese crusts, burgers loaded with gooey hunks of cheddar, and the aisle of your grocery store that is entirely devoted to macaroni and cheese.
Cheese has gone from a luxury item, to be savored in small quantities, to an ingredient that regularly shows up in food.
Cheese is a big source of fat, mostly unhealthy saturated fat that blocks your arteries. It is also high in salt and cholesterol. In addition, cheese, like all dairy, contains Casein, a protein that has morphine-like addictive effects on your body
Beyond just healthy, cheese production has a huge impact on the environment. It takes about 2 gallons of milk to make just 1 pound of soft cheese (like brie, mozzarella, or cheddar). The dairy industry relies heavy on subsidized crops and GMO’s to feed dairy cows. In fact, about 30% of the world’s surface area is dedicated to feeding cattle. Plus, those cows produce a great amount of waste and carbon emissions, accounting 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than SUV’s or factories.
What’s a cheese-lover to do?
Time for the help of a chef.
Here are my Chef's tips for when and how to use plant-based, dairy-free substitutions for getting off the cheese habit:
1) Cheddar, Alfredo, and “Velveet-ugh” :
Your Best Option for Soft Cheese and Cheese Sauces is Soaked Cashews or Macadamia Nuts
Macaroni and cheese is one of the most popular recipes in America and consistently ranks high on Google search lists. To make a respectable mac and cheese, you’d start with a base of butter and flour. Then whisk in milk and whatever sorts of cheese you like. Usually cheddar is the star for mac and cheese, but sometimes fontina, gouda, mozzarella, and other melty cheese find their way in there. This same cheese sauce is similar to Alfredo, Béchamel, or any other sort of rich, creamy sauce.
To replicate that same rich, creamy texture in the plant-based world, you want rich, creamy nuts. Cashews and Macadamia nuts have some of the highest saturated fat levels, which means they have rich, fatty flavor. Soaking them overnight softens them so that you can puree them into a smooth consistency. Both are neutral in flavor and color, which allows you the chance to modify them to your preferred tastes. For flavor, you can add chili powder for Nacho “Geez”, roasted garlic for a creamy Alfredo, or a dash of nutmeg for a Béchamel. For color, a dash of ground turmeric imparts classic yellow, while paprika or ground annatto bring deeper orangish-red tones.
Problem: I’m trying to watch how much saturated fat I eat, and I know cashews and macademias have a lot. Is there another nut I can use that is bit healthier?
Solution: Yes! Almonds, hazelnuts, and pine nuts are good options. Pine nuts are rather pricey (lately they’ve been over $20/pound), and hazelnuts have a bitter peel that can be tricky to remove. My best choice, then, are almonds.
Katie’s Chef Tip: Be sure to use peeled almonds (slivered almonds are my preferred variety) as the peel can be slightly bitter and give your sauce a brownish hue. This brownish color is one of the reasons I don’t recommend using walnuts, pecans, or similar brown nuts for purees.
Problem: I’m allergic to nuts. What can I do?
Solution: Seeds are your answer. Hemp seeds and sunflower seeds work well. My preferred choice, though, are sesame seeds. In fact, I like using tahini (which is made from ground sesame seeds), and I’ll do this when cooking for kids with nut allergies. Because I use roasted tahini (made from roasted sesame seeds) taste is a bit stronger than raw cashews, so I cut back on the quantity. For 1 cup of cashews, I’ll use about 1/3 cup tahini. You can also option for pumpkin and squash purees (see option 4, below)
Katie’s Chef Tip: Seeds and nuts don’t exactly measure the same when it comes to using “cups” or “tablespoons”. Your best bet is to weigh the ingredients instead. 1 cup of raw cashews weighs about 5.1 oz so opt for 5.1 oz of seeds for a smoother substitution.
Question: Can I use cashew butter?
Answer: Absolutely! Cashew butter is just like peanut butter but made with cashews. You can find it in a few natural grocery stores or order it online. Because the cashews are already ground into paste, it saves you the step of soaking.
For ¼ cup of raw cashews = use about 2 tbsp. cashew butter
Katie’s Chef Tip: Just like with ground peanut butter, jarred cashew butters might have extra oils or salt mixed in. Avoid anything with added oil; not only does it add extra empty calories, it can also leave a greasy flavor in recipes.
** Did you know? Cheddar cheese is really an off-white color, with different hues dependent on the quality of the milk used. In order to put a consistent product on the shelves and build customer trust, companies began dying cheddar cheese with annatto back around the end of World War II.
2) Feta, Ricotta, and Halloumi:
For Firm Cheese and Cheeses with Texture use Firm Tofu
Sometimes you want chunks of feta cheese to sprinkle over salads or crumble over a baked pasta dish. Lasagna is usually filled with a sturdier cheese, often ricotta or cottage cheese. To replicate this same texture, tofu is the best dairy-free ingredient to use.
Why does Tofu work best?
The process that goes into making tofu is very similar to the process used to make these firm cheeses. To make tofu, soy beans are soaked then crushed to separate the whey from the soybean juice. A coagulating agent is then introduced to the soybean juice, altering the pH, akin to the way in which cottage cheese is made. Take it a step further, these soy “curds” are then pressed into blocks. Feta cheese is similarly pressed into blocks, before undergoing a brining process where it gets its salty flavor. Firm tofu can also be brined with vinegar and salt for a feta-like flavor. It’s no wonder the same sort of funky flavor synonymous with cheese is also tasted in tofu.
The firm texture of tofu helps it hold up for many applications: you can cut it into chunks to enjoy over salad or crumble it into chunky ricotta-like consistency for lasagna. You can even put tofu chunks on skewers and grill it, like you might grill halloumi cheese.
Problem: I’m allergic to soy. What can I use instead?
Chef Katie’s Tip: Since we like the chunky texture of tofu, I’d recommend swapping it out for something with a similar chunky texture. Cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas) are my best choice here. They can be brined in a salty-vinegar brine to soak up flavor for Vegan Feta crumbles. Or, you can give them a rough chop in your food processor for a slightly creamier Chickpea Ricotta. They might not have the same funky flavor, but the texture will work and nutritional yeast will help give you an umami richness.
Problem: I’m trying to avoid GMO’s, and I heard that soy is a big GMO food.
Chef Katie’s Tip: You’re right. Much of the soy produced in the US is grown using genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). However, most of this soy goes to feed cattle in the livestock and dairy industry. Most tofu in stores these days is GMO-free and Organic (which must be GMO-free). It’ll usually say it right on the label.
Question: I heard it’s unhealthy to eat too much soy. What do you think?
Chef Katie’s View: Just as you would want to use cheese as a garnish, you should also think of your Tofu cheese as more of a garnish. Simply by swapping out the dairy for plant-based, you’re already making a healthier choice. You’re ditching the cholesterol, saturated fat, and casein-induced addiction that comes with dairy. You’re also making a choice that has less of an environmental impact. For more, I think you should read this: 8 Heart Healthy Soy Recipes and Why It's Okay to Eat
3) Parmesan, Asiago, and Romano:
For Hard Cheeses use Cashews, Macadamia, or Almonds
For grated and shredded cheeses, chopped nuts best replicate the texture you crave. When mixed with dried spices and salt, you can adapt the flavors to fit how you’ll use these “sprinkles”: Add dried thyme, basil, and red chili flake for a spicy Italian sprinkle over pasta, or try with rosemary and garlic powder for a savory flavor over popcorn. Follow the same tips as above for using nuts: opt for nuts without peels and fattier nuts like cashews and macadamia will give you richer flavor. The secret weapon, though, for my Cashew “Parm” recipe is nutritional yeast. This ingredient is well-known in the vegan world for its cheese-like quality. It imparts a savory, umami flavor and a golden cheese-like color. Plus, it adds essential B-12 vitamins to your plant-based diet.
4) Pumpkin, Butternut Squash, and White Beans:
When Should I Opt for Purees instead of Nuts?
For cheese sauce, garlic sauce, “Nice” cream, and other creamy applications, you can swap out some (or all) of the nuts for creamy vegetable and bean purees. Canned pumpkin puree is an easy go-to, with beautiful color and neutral flavor. Oher vegetable purees would work, though, like butternut squash, kabocha squash, sweet potato, and even carrot puree. White cannellini beans can be used for rich texture and neutral flavor in sauces and dips.
Question: Why would I use pumpkin puree instead of cashews?
Answer: Pumpkin is much less calorie dense than cashews. For someone trying to lose weight, it’s important not to eat too many nuts, as these are high in fat and calories. Pumpkin has less fat and offers more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Chef Katie’s Tip: Because there is less fat in squash puree than in cashews, it won’t have quite the same rich flavor. As you’re first starting to break your cheese habits, you’ll still want this rich, creamy flavor – best to stick with using cashews. Then, as your tastes change, you might want to try using these purees. Many plant-based eaters talk about how their tastes change over time and they prefer the lighter, less-rich options. Also, someone who is trying to lose weight or reduce cardiovascular disease should try to reduce the amount of calories and saturated fat in their diet. These purees offer a healthier option for them.
Have your own favorite dairy-free recipe? Or maybe a request for Chef Katie?
Please share in the comments section at the bottom of the page
Healthy, Plant-Based, Oil-Free Cheese Substitute Recipes:
Further Reading and Resources:
Michael Moss, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Macaroni and Cheese is one of the most popular recipes in America, International Dairy Foods Association: http://www.idfa.org/news-views/media-kits/cheese/cheese-facts
Bonnie Liebman, The Changing American Diet, A Report Card: file:///C:/Users/simmons008/Downloads/changing_american_diet_13.pdf
How much cheese can I expect to get from one gallon of milk? from Cheese-Making.com: http://www.cheesemaking.com/learn/faq/beginner-cheese-maker.html
Katie Simmons, Would you cut meat one day a week to prevent climate change? from Plants-Rule: http://www.plants-rule.com/blog/2015/12/9/would-you-cut-meat-one-day-a-week-to-prevent-climate-change?rq=environment
The history of cheddar cheese reflects the development of the U.S. food system, from The Splendid Table: http://www.splendidtable.org/story/the-history-of-cheddar-cheese-reflects-the-development-of-the-us-food-system
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel. Some of her favorite trips include 4 days on the Incan Trail in Peru, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, and exploring the pretzels and vineyards of Germany.