Q: Christina (question sent via Facebook Fan Page) – What can you tell me about the cheesy taste of nutritional yeast? I am curious about the grilled “cheese” in the book [Go Dairy Free] and using Parma!, but am a bit nervous because I keep envisioning it smelling like B vitamin supplements and tasting just as awful. Are some brands better than others?
A: Alisa – Because nutritional yeast has evolved as a nutritional supplement, it suffers with a horribly unappealing name and a somewhat misunderstood reputation. Nutritional yeast, not to be mistaken with brewer's yeast, is a deactivated yeast that according to Wikipedia, is “produced by culturing the yeast with a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses, then harvesting, washing, drying and packaging the yeast.”
As a supplement, it is well known for being a good source of protein and B-complex vitamins. Since vegetarian / vegan diets can be deficient in B12, some like using nutritional yeast for this purpose, but keep in mind that not all brands of nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamin B12.
Yet, even for those of us not seeking its supplementation powers, nutritional yeast should not be underestimated as a flavoring for food …
Nutritional yeast has a relatively strong flavor that is somewhat similar to that pungent taste found in cheese. Like any food, nutritional yeast is loved by many and loathed by others. I personally fall in the middle ground. I do like using it in moderation (usually 1 tablespoon or less per serving) to offer a cheesy boost to certain recipes, without overpowering the entire dish.
If you are new to nutritional yeast, I do recommend easing in slowly. Big fans of nutritional yeast will use it in great quantity to make recipes like mock mac ‘n cheese. These recipes are usually too much for newbies, and may (unfortunately) turn some people off of nutritional yeast completely. Think of it as a condiment, and start off slowly. Use just a teaspoon per serving for one of the following:
- Sprinkle it over popcorn that has a light coating of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and perhaps a bit of chili powder or other seasoning
- Mix it into scrambled eggs, scrambled tofu, or mashed potatoes
- Blend it into a cheese-free pesto
- Stir it into a homemade dairy-free “cream” sauce
- Simmer it in a from-scratch gravy (meat-based or vegetarian)
Also, in my opinion, nutritional yeast is not a standalone flavor. To bring out its cheesy side, some salt (such as sea salt or soy sauce / tamari) always helps, and it does best on a background of other flavors. Parma! Is actually a simple blend that combines nutritional yeast with nuts and salt for more of a ready-to-use format. A similar mix can be made at home using the “Easy Parmesan Substitute” recipe in Go Dairy Free.
For those who have Go Dairy Free, I also recommend the Rich & Nutty Ricotta (soy-free), Five Minute Nachos, Tofu Ricotta, Cheesy Potato-Onion Bread, and Orange Cheesy Sauce (great for stove-top mac and “cheese”) as excellent “starter” recipes for nutritional yeast newbies. These recipes are rich in flavor, but use a very modest amount to help ease your taste buds into it. Once you get more adventurous, the Grilled “Cheese” and Cheesy Broccoli Soup recipes are definitely worth a taste.
I usually purchase nutritional yeast in bulk (typically Red Star brand), but have yet to find a big variation in quality or taste between the brands. The easiest nutritional yeast brands to find are Red Star, NOW, and Bob’s Red Mill. In the UK, it is better known as Engevita yeast. Though it can be found in a couple of forms, nutritional yeast is most readily found as flakes. The flakes are what I always use in recipes, and are the type most commonly used among cooks and recipe authors in general. But, if all you can find is the powder, go ahead and use it, it should work equally well.
Locally, look for nutritional yeast in health food stores and in the health food aisles of major grocers. It may be lurking in the bulk foods section (allowing you to purchase just a bit for sampling) and/or packaged on the shelves. If you can’t find it in stores, it is easy to pick up online, where it is usually competitively priced. Keep in mind, the price of nutritional yeast may seem high at first glance (can range from $9 to $20 per lb in my experience), but it is very lightweight, so you get quite a bit per pound, and as mentioned, a little often goes a long ways.
Keep in mind, no food is an exact replacement for another. Nutritional yeast offers many of the wonderfully bold flavor influences that cheese can offer, but it is not a replica. If you go in with an open mind, and enjoy the flavors of the dish, rather than expecting it to be something it isn’t, you may even find you like it better than the original dairy-filled recipe.
And remember, do use caution as your taste buds adapt to nutritional yeast or if you really like it right out of the shoot. It does contain a good dose of those B vitamins, so try not to go overboard. A serving is often noted as 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.