A Vegan-Curious Quest: Food Writer Corey Mintz Goes in Search of the Perfect Cheese Alternative


Vegan camembert cheese made with cashew nuts. Photo: ocphoto/adobe stock

For the vegan-curious, giving up cheese might be too hard a sacrifice. Food writer Corey Mintz goes in search of an edible alternative.


As I bite into my quesadilla, my entire world distills down to one burning question: Why does this vegan cheese taste and feel like I’m chewing down on glue? I was tasting my way through a taqueria’s menu when I spotted the plant-based cheese alternative and asked to try it. “I’ll save you the trouble,” a staff member told me. “It’s not very good.” She was right. It’s a pale yellow colour, similar to mozzarella or Mexican queso de hebra, and it melts. But in every other aspect it was less like cheese and more like the liquid adhesive my daughter uses to affix pompoms to cardboard. 

I don’t think vegan diners should have to suffer through this quesadilla, so as a consultant for the Winnipeg food hall where the taqueria is located, I’m on a quest for a plant-based cheese that not only tastes like real cheese, but melts like it.


Back In The Day


Fifteen years ago, it was acceptable for restaurants to offer dairy-free pasta primavera as the lone option for vegans. Back then, they could also get away with tortillas filled with something that was chalky, or nutty – usually beans or grains as a substitute for beef or cheese – so long as it appeased the tiny percentage of their clientele who didn’t eat animal products. 

These days, vegans – and the vegan-curious “flexitarians” who straddle the fence – represent a much larger segment of the dining population, as much as 10 per cent of Canadians (according to a recent study by the online market data portal Statista), and they want a better dining experience. Veganism is an ideology based around the belief that animals should not suffer for human benefit. A vegan’s diet isn’t just about their health, or the environment. It puts animal welfare first. And it’s often a 100 per cent commitment. A dedicated vegan probably won’t wear leather, ride a horse or even go to the circus. 

While that study points out that people in their 20s are five times more likely to follow a vegan diet than people in their 50s, the gen-Xers and boomers interested in transitioning to a more plant-based diet often approach things with a different motive than devout vegans. 

“The main driver is health,” says Pamela Ferguson, a B.C. dietitian with a private practice in plant-based nutrition. “That’s why people get into plant-based. That’s true for the boomer age group. Because that’s when we have more medical complications in our lives and we often turn to diet to address some of our most common diseases, like diabetes and heart diseases.” 

Ferguson believes the same is true for gen-X (she and I both belong to this group) but adds that it’s an age bracket that tends to be more adventurous in food choices. I personally believe embracing a plant-based diet is easier for those of us who grew up eating Asian and Indian cuisines – culinary traditions with a lot of dishes that are naturally vegetarian or vegan. 


A Taste For Meat


The growing trend away from animal products is why the world’s largest meat processors, companies such as Tyson Chicken, Cargill and JBS, are investing in animal protein alternatives. While they’re not about to divest from meat entirely, they also don’t want to leave any plant-based dollars on the table. For gen-Xers and boomers interested in veganism for health, these products are a bit of a distraction; more of a gateway for weaning people off meat, rather than a healthy alternative. I’ve tried many of them. Regardless of where any plant-based patty tastes on the scale between beef and cat food, once it’s been packed into a bun with sugary ketchup, sweet or salty pickles and cheese, let’s face it, it’s not really good for you. 

Back in the ’90s, my first cooking job was for a vegan meal delivery company. One time I added lemon zest to steamed broccoli and my boss told me she heard raves from clients who, she confessed, had long ago acquiesced to bland-tasting food. Later, I spent two years cooking in a vegetarian restaurant, where nearly every table ordered sweet potato fries with “buddha sauce,” which was mostly peanuts and sugar. Many diners came to the restaurant because it felt like a healthy choice and extended that assumption to anything they ordered. So, I’m no stranger to the perception of healthy eating versus the reality. 

On the other side of cooking for a living, I’m one of those people who tries to eat a plant-based diet a few days a week. Just like most people my age, I want to feel better. The increased energy and lower risk of heart disease is unlocked by eating vegetables, not substitutions for meat or cheese. Last night it was hummus, pita and a head of cauliflower roasted with za’atar (a spice blend containing sesame seeds, sumac, coriander and oregano). Tomorrow, I’m going to try a recipe for mushroom larb (the Laotian salad of chopped meat dressed with lime juice and fish sauce). Will I toss the cauliflower with a teaspoon of chicken fat? Will I season the mushrooms with fish sauce? Sure. I’m not an absolutist, and I’m not afraid of the vegan police busting through my door for the small portion of animal-derived product I’m using for flavour rather than sustenance. 


Restaurant Revolution


Having said that, as diners, many of us do want to eat fewer animal proteins, and we rely on experts to make that experience delicious rather than taste like doing homework. Over the last decade, chefs and restaurateurs have been motivated as much by this market trend as their own dietary changes and have begun expanding their vegan offerings. 

In 2016, when Steven Salm decided to go plant-based, he brought his restaurants on the journey with him. As president of Chase Hospitality Group (CHG), Salm oversaw Toronto luxury restaurants The Chase, Colette Grande Café and Kasa Moto, whose offerings included seafood platters, duck confit and wagyu striploins. Within a few months, CHG overhauled all their menus to be 25 per cent vegan. 

Soon afterward, Salm opened Planta, employing the phrase “plant-based” in place of vegan. By 2022, he’d divested of his oyster and steak businesses to focus on expanding Planta, which has grown to 10 locations in the U.S. and Canada. All of that was possible because of an audience for vegan cuisine that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Planta’s vegan pizzas: top, Vodka; bottom, Spicy Chorizo; left, Leek Bianca. Photo: Courtesy of Planta


The modern-day strategy of launching any restaurant includes designing menus with multigenerational, plant-based eaters in mind. A chef colleague, developing a Filipino food concept, wants to offer a vegan version of classic dishes like sinigang, a tart tamarind and poached fish soup, and kare kare, a sweet peanut-based stew usually made with oxtail. Supporting him in his goal of appealing to a flexitarian audience, I found a bottle of plant-based fishy tasting sauce made with fermented pineapple. It’s quite good, with enough funk that it will add that note of umami to the dish and enable him to place that coveted “V” on the menu board.


The Quest Continues 


Which brings me back to cheese. It’s one thing for a plant-based substitute to play its part in a symphony of flavours within a braised dish. It’s another to stand in place of real melted cheese in a quesadilla, which is just cheese in the middle of a folded corn tortilla. When fake cheese is one of only two ingredients, it has to be good.  The vegan diner of 20 years ago may have co-signed the fiction that a sprinkle of nutritional yeast flakes tasted like cheese. But today’s vegan-curious dabbler will not become a repeat customer with gluey cheese. 

So, how do we fix this?

American food writer Alicia Kennedy notes that vegan cheese is still very much a niche product. “Unlike plant-based burgers, which are marketed to meat eaters, [vegan cheese] is peddled largely to a captive audience, namely vegans and the lactose intolerant,” she says in her 2021 essay on Eater.com, Vegan Cheese is Ready to Compete with Dairy. Is the World Ready to Eat It?

According to Kennedy, there are basically two kinds of vegan cheese: the old glue style I ate in my quesadilla, usually made with coconut oil and starch, and a more modern product, made by fermenting nut and oat milks to create more richly textured — and flavoured — curds and whey.

“When liquefaction happens due to heat, [vegan cheeses] often just turn into something resembling white sauce or are sticky behind the teeth. You need some protein structure there to provide an equilibrium of solidity and liquefaction,” explains Miyoko Schinner, founder of Miyoko’s Creamery in Sonoma, Calif., which focuses on fermented vegan cheeses.  “This can be achieved through actual curd-making and aging, much as in traditional cheesemaking, with added oils that help to melt it.” 

Kennedy is a fan of Miyoko’s. But, except for their cultured vegan butter, I can’t get their products in Winnipeg, where I live. Violife is widely available, and its versions of cheddar and mozzarella slices taste far better than the Daiya used by the taqueria. The coconut oil flavour is noticeable, but not dominant. Most brands I find on shelves — Sheese and Vegan Mexicana — are also coconut-oil based, except for Parmela Creamery, which uses fermented cashew milk to make shredded cheddar and mozzarella. It’s got a good bite in solid form, but when melted, whatever flavour was present appears to evaporate into the atmosphere, leaving behind an industrial mess. There seems to be something about the volume of non-animal fat needed for these products to render under heat, which results in a texture more sticky than gooey, and a flavour more associated with The Home Depot than home cooking.

Ferguson, the B.C. dietitian, says the problem is finding a vegan cheese that melts like the real thing. “I don’t have a lot of hope for your cheese quest. I think cheese is the last frontier.”

My advice to the taqueria? Cover the quesadilla in hot sauce or take it off the menu. 

A version this article appeared in the Aug./Sept. 2023 issue with the headline ‘Hard to Please Cheese’, p. 68.


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