Photos: Elena Botella
We tested ten commonly available vegan cheeses to find out which ones are the creamiest, the meltiest, and the tastiest
I used Whole Foods availability as a marker of what vegan cheese slices may be most accessible in your area. Consumers concerned about Whole Foods? recent decision to cut medical benefits for its part-time workers may want to support an independent retailer instead.
Though all ten plant-based cheese slices had a similar ingredient list (all listed coconut oil as the top ingredient besides water, and all derived most of their calories from fat), their taste and textures varied considerably.
I split testing across two days, enlisting friends to provide additional insight.
In the first day, I assigned each vegan cheese into a ?division? (provolone slices, cheddar slices, smoked gouda slices, and a ?wildcard? round). Within each division, my panel of three provided tasting notes on the slices, first in a grilled-cheese preparation (cooked with Earth Balance and slices of Whole Foods? ?seeduction? bread, made on a cast-iron grill pan), and then raw. After trying both the raw and grilled slices, each panelist then ranked the cheeses within each division.
I decided to validate the initial observations in a second round of testing for two reasons. The first reason to perform another round of testing was to confirm that our meltability findings would hold up under scrutiny; your exact results in a vegan grilled cheese will vary depending on the heat of the pan when you start, and it?s hard to hold conditions constant during stove-top cooking in a home kitchen. I was surprised to see the extent that meltability varied, even within the same brand. My second reason for doing a second round of testing was that my initial panel had two members, myself and my girlfriend, who are seasoned vegan cheese slice connoisseurs, and hence could identify by taste some of the top-ranked contenders. With that in mind, I wanted to bring in some fresh tastebuds to help me discern quality at the top end of the spectrum, without being influenced by all the happy memories of prior snacking. One of the members of the panel was swapped out for this round of testing. In both rounds, the identities of the cheeses were not revealed to my fellow panelists until after we?d finished our discussion.
The Cheeses, Ranked
Three clear quality bands emerged. At the top end of the spectrum, the ?greats? are plant-based cheeses that compare favorably to dairy-based cheese slices. These cheeses have a true ?wow? factor, and in some cases, have a great deal of subtlety and nuance to their tastes.
Our ?goods? are solid options; I feel comfortable recommending these slices, and would be happy to eat any of them. Our ?not so goods? had two or more panelists who found these slices to have off-putting or unpleasant flavors, although in some cases, opinions were divided.
1. Violife Mature Cheddar ? Best All-AroundThe Violife Mature Cheddar captures the flavor notes of a higher-end dairy-based cheddar. Eating a Violife Mature Cheddar slice, it?s easy to imagine sitting on a rocking chair in the Cotswolds, looking out at a grassy field full of peaceful sheep. Although one would assume the Violife Mature Cheddar and the Violife Smoked Provolone slices would have similar formulas, in both our original test and in our retest, the Mature Cheddar had noticeably better meltability, which is why we gave it the top spot.
Others who pay close attention to the vegan cheese marketplace have celebrated the quality of Violife?s offerings. Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Mebus, founder of the vegan Blackbird Pizzeria said, ?I had been trying pretty much every vegan cheese I could get my hands on,? adding, ?when Violife became available, I thought it was better across the board than Daiya, and it resonated even better with my customers.? In 2017, VegNews editors named Violife their overall product of the year.
2. 365 Plant-Based Cheddar ? Best for Grilled CheeseFrom a flavor profile perspective, 365 Plant-Based Cheddar more closely resembles an American cheese than a cheddar (unlike the Follow Your Heart American, which, paradoxically, is the opposite). It has a bold, tangy, and bright taste, and exceptional meltability. Raw, the texture was discernibly ?mealier? than the Violife slices, but not to the extent that it couldn?t be enjoyed. If you want to replicate the type of grilled cheese you may have enjoyed as a child with Kraft Singles, this is your best option. While the Violife Mature Cheddar and Violife Smoked Provolone were lauded for not tasting ?lab-made,? by contrast, the 365 Plant-Based Cheddar evokes the best of what processed food has to offer.
Not surprisingly, the 365 offerings are the cheapest slices on the Whole Foods shelves; in Washington, D.C.-area stores, they?re $3.99, slightly less expensive than Daiya ($4.79), Violife ($4.99), Chao ($5.49), and Follow Your Heart ($5.69).
3. Violife Smoked Provolone ? Best for Eating RawThe Violife Smoked Provolone has a stronger, more complex, and we felt, somewhat superior flavor than the Mature Cheddar. In a grilled cheese, that?s less important; texture reigns, because whatever flavor your plant-based cheese provides is offset by the flavor notes in your bread, your oil, and the carbon-y char from grilling. That having been said, when eaten as a standalone raw snack, the Violife Smoked Provolone stands out, although it didn?t melt as nicely. When heated, its texture certainly changed, but we found that it ?sweated? more than it softened.
4. Follow Your Heart AmericanThe Follow Your Heart American, Provolone, and Smoked Goudas all performed well in the melt test, while having slightly inferior textures to 365?s, Violife?s, and Field Roast?s offerings at room temperature. Their American flavor was our favorite.
5. Field Roast Chao Creamy OriginalWe appreciated that this vegan slice was the only to make no explicit references to dairy-based cheese in its packaging. The flavor was quite mild, most similar to ?buttered? popcorn, which divided our group; some considered it ?uninspired? and ?tasteless,? while others found it pleasant and creamy. Across all ten cheeses, the Field Roast Chao Creamy Original had one of the best melts, and its room temperature texture was very comparable to Violife?s. Overall, I?d strongly recommend the Field Roast Chao as a sandwich cheese, both for raw and cooked sandwiches with more than one ingredient, but it would be a lower-ranked choice for standalone snacking.
6. Follow Your Heart ProvoloneWhen this went head-to-head with its closest competitor, the Violife Smoked Provolone, we felt the quality was comparable when melted, but noticeably worse at room temperature, where it was hurt somewhat by its rubbery texture. Like the Field Roast Chao, this is a good option for someone seeking a plant-based cheese that?s creamy and mild.
7. Follow Your Heart Smoked GoudaBefore adopting a more plant-based diet, smoked gouda would have been my overall preferred choice for a grilled cheese sandwich, so I was fairly disappointed by both smoked goudas I sampled, although the Follow Your Heart offering was clearly superior to 365?s. The smokiness was evident, although I don?t think it can be clearly interpreted as a smoked gouda, as opposed to, for example, a smoked mozzarella or smoked provolone. I appreciated its mouthfeel, and like other Follow Your Heart plant-based cheeses, it melted well.
The Not-So Good
8. 365 Plant-Based Smoked GoudaThis clearly picks up the vibes of a dairy-based smoked gouda, but not the best of those vibes. It has a strong, unusual flavor that comes across as clearly artificial. ?This just tastes off to me,? one taster commented. Unlike 365?s cheddar flavor, this one did not melt well.
9. Daiya Deliciously Dairy-Free Cheddar Style SlicesDaiya helped define the plant-based cheese market as we know it when they launched in 2009, so it?s sad to see them have fallen so far behind the pack.
At room temperature, the mealy mouthfeel renders the Daiya Deliciously Dairy-Free Cheddar Style Slice practically uneatable. Although its melt wasn?t great, it improved the texture enough to be enjoyed.
People who?ve had Daiya in the past will find these slices to be clearly recognizable as a Daiya product by taste. After the testing, my girlfriend and I julienned the leftovers and melted them on top of tortilla chips to make nachos, which I found to be a better use. In vegan pizza or nachos with many other toppings and flavors, Daiya?s weaknesses are better masked.
10. Follow Your Heart Pepper JackFollow Your Heart should update their formula for the pepper jack. With small tweaks, this vegan cheese could improve substantially. One thing we observed about the pepper jack was that it was the crumbliest of all the cheeses ? these slices were very difficult to remove from their packaging without breaking.
We liked the green and red jalapeno peppers, but the creamy ?cheese? base surrounding the peppers was substantially too sweet, creating an odd contrast. These slices are also a bit too thin ? the peppers aren?t adequately ensconced, which both contributed to the breakage issue, while also making these slices a bit too ?prickly? when your tongue encounters the peppers? sharp edges.
Grilling recommendations for plant-based cheeses:
It?s hard to precisely replicate the melt you may be familiar with from dairy-based cheeses in a plant-based cheese, even across the top melters like the Violife Mature Cheddar and the Field Roast Chao Creamy Original. You?ll have the best luck if you cover your grilled cheese while it?s on the pan; that helps heat reach the center of your sandwich, without resulting in an over-browning of the bread.
For an easy comfort food meal, I like plant-based grilled cheese paired with Trader Joe?s Organic Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup.