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Cheese-Plate Vegan Cheeses

Published June 2021

How we tested

With more and more people interested in eating plant-based foods some or all of the time, vegan cheeses are appearing on store shelves in a greater number of varieties than ever before. We thought it was time to take a closer look at one especially exciting emerging category: vegan cheeses that would be appropriate for serving plain on a vegan cheese plate. After surveying the market, we chose and tasted eight of the most well-regarded nationally available products, picking the top sellers from each manufacturer whenever possible. While promising new vegan mozzarellas, fetas, and cheddars are also available, we focused on cheeses that would be best eaten off a cheese plate, plain and uncooked, including Brie- and blue cheese–style cheeses in addition to two soft, spreadable fresh-style cheeses. To keep the focus firmly on the cheese itself, we chose "plain" cheeses whenever possible.

How Is Vegan Cheese Made, Anyway?

Most vegan cheeses are made from a base of nuts—usually cashews, which are rich in fat and fairly neutral in flavor—blended with water to make a smooth “milk.” To this base, some vegan cheese manufacturers add oils, starches, and flavorings so that the textures and flavors of the products more closely resemble those of dairy cheeses. Many artisanal vegan cheeses are then inoculated with cultures and fermented to produce more-complex flavors. Some are aged, though when they are, it's usually for a relatively short period of time when compared with some dairy cheeses. The degree to which aging seemed to affect our preferences depended on the type of cheese. Dairy Bries are usually aged for a few weeks, and when it came to the vegan Bries, we strongly preferred those that were aged for at least two or up to four weeks. Two unaged Bries landed dead last, while one Brie, which is aged for just four to five days, was polarizing. In contrast, the cultures and manufacturing processes used to make the two blue cheeses we tasted likely had a bigger impact on our preferences than the aging period. And we liked the two soft, spreadable vegan cheeses in our lineup that, similar to the fresh dairy cheeses that most likely inspired them, were unaged.

Creamier Cheeses Won the Day, and a Little Oiliness Was Fine

Textures ran the gamut from soft and spreadable to firm and relatively dry, though many of our favorite cheeses leaned toward the creamy side. Some tasters found the dense, rich textures of certain Brie-style cheeses in the lineup to be closer to that of cream cheese, though this wasn’t necessarily a negative. Whether or not their textures closely resembled those of their dairy counterparts, most of the cheeses were enjoyable to eat. The exceptions: two cheeses that included stabilizers and thickeners among their ingredients. These had off-putting crumbly, “plasticky,” or almost rubbery textures that drew criticism from all sides.

Tasters also noted that the vegan cheeses were generally more oily than their dairy counterparts. Six of the eight products in our lineup included coconut oil among their ingredients; coconut oil is a fat that’s solid at room temperature but quickly softens when it reaches its 78-degree melting point. The fat in dairy cheese also melts when warmed, but it’s bound in an emulsion with water and locked away in a matrix of dairy protein, so when warmed the liquid fat doesn’t readily separate from the emulsion to create an oily sensation. According to our science research editor, it’s likely that the fat in the vegan cheeses we tasted isn’t bound up in the same way, allowing just enough to leak out when warmed to create the impression of oiliness. However, this slight oiliness didn’t detract from our enjoyment of a cheese, and none was overwhelmingly oily. 

Acidity Improves Flavor, but Balance Is Key

In general, we preferred cheeses with shorter ingredient lists. Cheeses with added ingredients such as onion powder, mustard powder, or other “natural flavors” were either dominated by these flavors or head-scratchingly insipid. One addition we did appreciate was nutritional yeast—in moderation. It contributed savory, cheesy flavor to several of the products that we liked best, though that same flavor sometimes overwhelmed lower-ranking cheeses. 

Many of the cheeses we tasted were fairly tangy. For the most part, tasters enjoyed cheeses that had a healthy dose of acidity, especially when that acidity was balanced by other flavors, such as nuanced “fruity,” “buttery” notes and a deep all-around savoriness. That said, one especially tangy cheese lost points with some tasters who felt that its acidity crowded out its other flavors. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice and cider vinegar contributed to the brightness of several cheeses, but interestingly, the two cheeses that tasters found to be the tangiest did not include either of these ingredients. The lactic acid that naturally forms when foods ferment likely gave these their edge.

Tasters detected the flavor of cashews in several cheeses, an unsurprising finding considering that all the cheeses in our lineup were made with this nut base. While a noticeable nuttiness wasn’t a drawback when the cheese had plenty of other flavor notes going for it, it became a problem when cashew was the only thing we tasted. Thankfully, this was uncommon. Our favorite cheeses offered so much satisfying complexity that we noticed the cashew flavor only as an afterthought or as a pleasant but small part of the cheese’s flavor profile.

The Best Artisanal Vegan Cheeses: RIND by Dina & Joshua Classic Cambleu, Vtopian Peppercorn Brie, and Treeline Sea Salt & Pepper Plant-Based French-Style Cheese

In the end, we enjoyed many of the cheeses we tasted and think that most would be fine additions to a plant-based cheese board. We were especially wowed by one blue cheese–style vegan cheese, RIND by Dina & Joshua Classic Cambleu, thanks to its balanced funk and bright punch. We also liked the Vtopian Peppercorn Brie; though its texture was more lush and spreadable than Brie-like, we appreciated the little pops of spice and crunch provided by the peppercorns in its crust. Our favorite soft cheese was Treeline Sea Salt & Pepper Plant-Based French-Style Cheese, which was tangy, spicy, and perfect for spreading. We think both vegans and nonvegans will love these innovative cheeses.

Methodology

  • Taste eight artisanal vegan cheeses plain

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*