Q: Gwen – I recently cut out dairy for health reasons. I am feeling so much better and really want to stay on this path, but the two vegan cheeses I purchased are poor substitutes. They don’t melt and one has a funky taste. Why is it so hard to find a good a good dairy-free pizza cheese? Does a good one exist?
A: Alisa – I certainly understand the demand for dairy alternatives – something to douse on your cereal, some bold flavor to sprinkle on pasta, and creamy goodness for that satisfying mouth feel. But, the truth is, no single food is exactly like any other food. Creating replicas to mimic the tastes and/or textures of a certain food is a true art (and in some cases, a science), but expecting them to be identical is asking for the impossible.
Though I offer numerous recipes and product recommendations for cheese alternatives in my book, Go Dairy Free, I also recommend tryting to step away from the alternatives when first going dairy-free. If you switch straight from a hunk of dairy cheddar to store-bought vegan cheddar-style “cheese,” there is no doubt that your taste buds will detect the difference, and in many cases, you will be disappointed. But cleansing your palate and enjoying cheese-free dishes for a while will allow you to overcome most if not all of your dairy cheese cravings and appreciate new flavors and textures rather than trying to find an imitation. At that point, you may even prefer several of the alternatives to their dairy-laden counterparts. Seriously …
But back to your question … why is it so difficult to mimic hard cheese? Cheese is primarily made up of the fat and proteins in milk. It is produced by curdling the milk protein casein, a process which separates the solid curds and liquid whey. Those solids (which are rich in casein and fat) are then pressed into final form to create commercial cheese.
Though casein is the most allergenic milk protein, it is also the “glue” upon which cheese relies. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “The word cheese comes from Latin caseus, from which the modern word casein is closely derived.” Casein is what gives cheese its telltale “stretch,” something that is incredibly hard to imitate with plant based proteins. Some lactose-free cheeses contain casein to help retain that cheesy texture – but these should not be mistaken for dairy-free cheese alternatives.
Stay tuned: Tomorrow we will feature a Daiya Vegan “Cheese” review and next week I will move onto Part 2 of Gwen’s question, “Does a good dairy-free pizza cheese exist?”
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.
Photo courtesy of Teese Vegan Cheese Alternative