Last year, the test kitchen published a vegan cookbook (Vegan for Everybody), so for a while there was a lot of dairy- and egg‑free food around. It’s not a diet I’ve ever subscribed to, but watching (and tasting) the development process gave me a healthy respect for how flavorful and satisfying vegan cooking can be. In fact, it prompted me to retool a recipe category that typically relies heavily on dairy and eggs: creamy dressings and dips.
Vegan recipe authors tout all sorts of supposedly stealthy dairy alternatives such as beans, tofu, avocado, and coconut milk. But if you ask me, most of them don’t live up to their promises. I tried dressings with avocado, which was conveniently bland but visually obvious. Tofu and coconut milk worked aesthetically, but their flavors were too dominant. And beans tasted starchy.
But then I learned about nut cream, which is used as a starting point for vegan cheeses and creamy sauces. To make it, you simply soak raw nuts overnight to soften them, and then drain them and process them in a blender until they form a puree that’s creamy, smooth, and rich (nuts are a source of fat, after all). And here’s a big perk: Unlike with tangy dairy products or mayonnaise, their neutral flavor lets seasonings come to the fore, producing results with potent flavor and creamy body in one.
Sources suggested a wide variety of nuts and seeds for the job, but I narrowed it down to cashews and blanched almonds because their pale color and subtle flavor (when raw) would make them easy to hide. I soaked the whole nuts overnight, drained them, and pureed each in a blender for 5 minutes, adding just enough water to keep things moving.
Both purees looked creamy, but the almond one was a bit grainy. I’d proceed with the smoother cashews (for more information, see “Cashews: Cream of the (Nut) Crop”), but first I wanted to see if I could trim down that soaking time.
I wondered if creating more surface area on the cashews for water to be taken in would help, so I roughly chopped them and soaked them for only 3 hours. This yielded a nicely smooth puree, so next I tried finely chopping them and soaking them for 1 hour. Success again—but could I skip the knife work altogether?
My next batch of cashews went straight into the blender, where I let the machine grind them until they looked like fine gravel mixed with sand. Then I transferred them to a bowl, covered them with water, and let them sit for just 15 minutes, after which I drained them in a fine-mesh strainer and returned them to the blender. One minute on low speed and 4 minutes on high turned them smooth and creamy. Time to make dressing.
I started out with a “ranch”-style herb dressing, the simplicity of which would test the cashews’ anonymity. After grinding, soaking, and draining 1 cup of nuts, I returned them to the blender. I added just enough water to enable the mixture to form a vortex while blending; I then added cider vinegar, shallot and garlic, salt and pepper, and a touch of sugar for balance.
After 4 minutes of churning, the mixture was silky, rich, and thick—the perfect consistency for dipping (mental note taken) but too heavy for dressing greens, so I thinned it with water. It was also warm from the friction of the blending, so I chilled it before stirring in minced chives and parsley to avoid wilting the delicate herbs.
This dressing was wonderfully creamy, and the neutral cashew base allowed the flavors of the herbs, alliums, and vinegar to emerge in a way that tangy dairy hadn’t. Delighted, I popped it into the fridge and, per test kitchen protocol, sent the recipe to volunteer testers (go to AmericasTestKitchen.com/recipe_testing for more information) while I dreamed up flavor variations. But my enthusiasm was premature. Some testers complained of harsh allium flavors; others reported that their dressing was watery and that it seemed wasteful to send so much of the ground nuts down the drain. The second comment confused me, since I’d only ever drained away the soaking water. But then it hit me: Blenders and strainers vary, and a combination of a superfine grind and a coarse strainer would mean that fewer cashews were making it into the dressing, resulting in a thin consistency.
Fortunately, I saw a way to foolproof and streamline my method: “Soak” the ground cashews in the other dressing ingredients right in the blender jar. That way, there was nothing to drain and no variation in consistency.
Back to the complaints of overly potent allium flavor, which I initially attributed to personal taste and the use of larger-than-average shallots and garlic cloves. When I opened the container of dressing I had made 48 hours earlier, I was hit by a powerful waft of onion and garlic. With all those allium cells broken during blending, their sharp flavors had continued to build during storage.
Our science research editor explained that the allicin that forms when garlic cells are ruptured breaks down over time, hydrolyzing into a variety of sulfide compounds with unpleasant flavors. The easy fix: Substituting garlic and onion powders for fresh garlic and shallots, respectively. The flavor of these pantry alliums is standard and more stable over time, so the substitution increased the dressing’s shelf life by several days (for more information, see “The Power of Powdered Alliums”).
Finally, the variations. I started with classics such as ketchup- and horseradish-based Russian dressing and herb- and anchovy-rich Green Goddess, the latter of which was just as good on greens as it was on vegetables, grilled chicken, and fish. Then I went modern with roasted red peppers and tahini and ginger and miso, knowing that all these dressings were as creamy and rich as dairy- and egg-based ones but even more flavorful.
A surprising ingredient quietly imparts the smooth richness of dairy or mayonnaise while letting the other ingredients shine.