I had never tasted vegan cheeses until about an hour ago. As someone who considers herself pretty dairy-dependent, I've never had a real reason to try them, and I wanted to give these cheeses a fair shot.
So I decided to go about my evaluation systematically, by trying three different varieties of vegan cheeses in two different applications — plain, as a table or snacking cheese, and, to test meltability, in a grilled cheese sandwich with my favorite fixings. If the cheeses couldn't shine in these critical ways, there'd be no chance of my ever purchasing them again.
And my verdict?
I'm pretty split.
As a former vegetarian, I've had many personal experiences with foods designed to mimic meat, and I've never really been much of a fan. And so I went into this trial with the assumption that I'd be equally unimpressed with an imitator not only of of dairy, but of cheese. I guess I've just felt that the best vegan or vegetarian food is just that — food, real food — and that anything created specifically to fulfill what a vegetarian or vegan is avoiding in their diet is something contrived or unnatural, to be taken with a grain of salt.
With that said, here is my analysis: I had a Monterey Jack and a Cheddar soy cheese (or cheese alternative, more accurately, as the packaging points out), made by the brand Vegan Gourmet. The second variety was a soy-free rice-based cheese alternative, "American Flavor," by Rice Vegan. These came in individually-wrapped slices, like Kraft singles.
Right out of their packages, the differences from the cheeses I know were clear. The soy cheeses were shiny and slick, even though totally cold (I'd have expected some shine if they'd been at room temperature), and left a watery residue behind in their packages. Peculiar, I thought, but hey, ricotta leaves moisture behind, too, so who am I to judge? Both were quite rubbery in texture.
Melting Vegan Cheese
I decided to delve first into their potential as melters, in one of my very favorite applications of cheese in general: between two slices of toasted bread, sandwiching sliced tomatoes, with pickles and dijon on the side. Indeed, this would be a way to let these cheeses shine in the most favorable light possible.
The soy cheeses melted well, while the rice cheese needed some help. After a good amount of time staring at my bread crisping away in the skillet with no sign of the cheese yielding, I nudged the process along by sort of searing the cheese in the skillet directly and then transferring it back between the warm bread. It melted with direct contact to heat, sure, but it seized up almost immediately after taking it out of the skillet. Perhaps a rice cheese isn't destined for melting. The flavor, indeed, resembled that of American cheese, and its appearance was strikingly similar, too. Texture-wise, though, it became grainy and almost dry, like a powdered cheese on some of those so-called natural cheese snacks at health food stores. (What is that cheesy powder made of, anyway?!)
The soy cheese took surprisingly well to the grilled cheese application. I preferred the Monterey Jack flavor over the Cheddar by far. It had a very creamy quality, but in a non-milky kind of way, much like soy milk is creamy, but not milk-y. There was something eerily sweet about it, which I just tried to ignore. It was gooey and melty, just like any good grilled cheese should be, but its aftertaste was oily, and it left behind a pervasive slick in the mouth. I found myself enjoying the doughiness of the bread, the tomato-mustard-pickle combo, and the crunch of the sandwich more than the cheese itself. Alas, poor Monterey Jack played second fiddle to the rest of the components. Or, rather, sixth fiddle.
Vegan Cheese on the Cheese Plate
None of the cheeses make quite the statement on a cheese plate as do standard fine cheeses. If they're meant to be snacked on, it should be a super casual, one-person affair. (Especially in the case of the shrink-wrapped slice of rice cheese.) So table cheeses, they are not.
Plain, the cheddar flavored soy cheese tasted much like the artificial dusting of powder on cheese flavored snacks. The mozzarella flavor had an overt buttery flavor, which I found odd, considering that it's vegan, which then had an aftertaste of plain soy milk. And the rice cheese? Not delicious. In texture, it was simliar to its melted version: grainy and greasy.
For grilled cheeses, a pita pocket, or even grated into a scramble, though, these cheeses are fine-- especially the soy versions — and if you're vegan, I bet they'd do a fine job of satisfying a hankering for something creamy, protein-filled, and yes, even cheesy.
• Rice Vegan and Vegan Gourmet cheese alternatives can be found at Whole foods for $3.49/six ounces and $4/10 ounces, respectively.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant TV chef on The Martha Stewart Show.