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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Powered By Plants: Slicing vegan cheese, which ones are the best?

UPDATED: Wed., July 31, 2019, 8:50 a.m.

The “ultimate vegan grilled cheese” as decided by The Spokesman-Review features writer Jonathan Glover. (Jonathan Glover / The Spokesman-Review)
The “ultimate vegan grilled cheese” as decided by The Spokesman-Review features writer Jonathan Glover. (Jonathan Glover / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a question so iconic, it might as well be a right of passage when switching to a plant-based diet: But don’t you miss cheese?

Of course we miss cheese. Well, at least some of us.

Like hundreds of thousands of Americans who’ve taken the plunge, I became vegan for animals and the environment, not my own health. In fact, in the year since – after a decade being vegetarian – I think I’ve gained weight.

But I’ve also come to terms with my diet’s shortcomings. Among other pitfalls, chief among them is no more salty, creamy, fatty and addicting cheese.

Luckily, though, it’s 2019, and the quality of vegan imitation is only getting better. Problem is, they can be tricky to find. And who wants to spend $5 on something that tastes like plastic?

That’s where I come in. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I trolled Spokane’s grocery stores in search of smooth, plant-based perfection.

And because no matter how you slice it, vegan cheese isn’t great straight from the package, I grilled them up between two slices of bread lathered in vegan butter.

Maybe in addition to Meatless Mondays, the omnivores and vegetarians could partake in Wheyless Wednesdays?

Daiya Cheddar Style Slices

The best thing going for Daiya is it’s everywhere – in pre-packaged pastas, shredded and, of course, sliced. Consider the latter the Kraft singles of the vegan cheese world, both good and bad.

While it’s cheap enough ($4.49 per package), it definitely looks rubbery. And smells a bit like a foot. But don’t let first impressions fool you.

I was pleasantly surprised when the singles began to melt properly, emulating cheese convincingly enough. And that processed, rubbery feel is slightly less pronounced in a grilled sandwich.

Its biggest downfall is still its taste, though, which is a love-it-or-hate-it mock flavor, especially the cheddar variety.

Meltability: A. Taste: C. Overall: B.

Available at Rosauers, Huckleberries Natural Market, Natural Grocers, Target and My Fresh Basket.

Parmela Creamery Aged Nut Cheese

I’ve never been a fan of this cashew-based cheese, which sets out to emulate that fermented, sour taste of a gorgonzola or feta. Plus, saying it out loud opens you up to a bevy of eighth-grade humor.

From the get-go, the first thing you’ll notice is the feel. It’s a bit slimy. Then the smell – it hits you hard. Thankfully, the taste is much milder.

Melted, it’s still a bit gelatinous. But thankfully it does lose some of that aged kick. I’d recommend it as a topper to lasagna or maybe pulled apart or slapped on pizza. Definitely not as the main ingredient in a cheese sandwich.

Meltability: B. Taste: D+. Overall: C.

Available at Huckleberries Natural Market, Grocery Outlet (sometimes) and Natural Grocers.

Violife Cheddar Slices

The first words out of my mouth after taking a bite of this cheese: “Oh my God.”

Yes, it’s that good. And uncanny – I actually didn’t believe it was vegan at first (it is).

It melts great, feels like cheese and even tastes like a smooth medium cheddar, no doubt spurred by the “cheddar flavour” that’s fifth on the ingredient list.

It’s only downside is its rarity. The brand is European, and U.S. grocery stores have been slow to adopt. But it’s available for cheap in at least two Spokane stops.

Meltability: A. Taste: A. Overall: A.

Available at Natural Grocers and Main Market Co-op.

Fieldroast Chao Creamy Original

Having tried this brand before, I had high hopes coming in, and, thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.

I’ve long considered Chao to be the most “cheese-like” of the vegan offerings. It’s so close to the real deal that I’m convinced most people wouldn’t know it was vegan at first blush.

All of that comes at a price: at Safeway, it’s $7.49 a package for 10 slices. Pro tip: Natural Grocers sells it for $5.49.

In a grilled cheese, that light, provolone-like flavor was slightly ruined with a hint of fakeness but still delicious. If you prefer white cheeses with a more subtle flavor, this should be your go-to. Definitely a winner.

Meltability: A. Taste: B+. Overall: A-.

Available at Natural Grocers and Safeway.

Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda

I wouldn’t normally make a grilled cheese with only gouda, but rules are rules. As you can imagine, it was very smoky.

But the cheese itself is delicious. Like the Chao and Violife, it emulates that iconic melt perfectly and doesn’t stick to your teeth like Daiya sometimes can. But Follow Your Heart almost overdid it with the smoky flavor.

Mixed with other cheeses, though, I can see this flavor going places.

Meltability: A. Taste: B-. Overall: B.

Available at My Fresh Basket, Natural Grocers and Main Market Co-op.

Bonus ultimate grilled cheese

Given that, realistically, I would only once in my lifetime have $35 worth of vegan cheese at my disposal, I decided to make the ultimate plant-based grilled cheese sandwich – or melt, if you want to get technical.

Using a mix of the Violife, Chao and Follow Your Heart smoked gouda, in addition to a few slices of Tofurky deli meat, I made a fatty, delicious monstrosity that’s absolutely horrible for your heart, but also kind of good for it in a mother’s homemade cooking kind of way.

My method: Take two slices of Seattle Sourdough Baking Co. sliced sourdough (or any other bread you prefer) and lather it in vegan butter – I used Country Crock Plant Butter. Set aside four to five slices of cheese and three slices of hickory smoked Tofurky.

On a frying pan over medium heat, put down a smidgen of olive oil, then rub both pieces of bread into the pan, butter side down. Quickly load it up with cheese (I used two slices of the Chao, two of the Violife and one of the Follow Your Heart) and put the Tofurky in the middle. Then cover the pan – since vegan cheese takes longer to melt than conventional cheese, you’ll want the added convection heat.

Hang out for about a minute, then check the bottoms. If it’s burnt, the pan is too hot. Turn it down and try again. You want a light golden brown.

When you’ve hit nearly Instagram-worthy brownness, fold the sandwich into itself, then let it cook for a bit longer, uncovered. If you cover it here, you risk turning that delicious crunchy grilled bread soft. Once the bread looks good enough to scarf down, flip and repeat.

I like to finish it off with a spritz of garlic powder before taking it out of the pan.

Now either cut it in half or enjoy whole, but do it quickly. Vegan cheese doesn’t stay melted long.

Powered By Plants is a monthly plant-based-focused column by features writer Jonathan Glover. Have any suggestions? Ideas on what should be covered next? Email jonathang@spokesman.com.

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