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Powered by Plants: Vegan cheese has gotten good – really good

Nachos made with vegan cheese from Daiya, top, and Violife.  (Jonathan Glover/The Spokesman-Review)
Nachos made with vegan cheese from Daiya, top, and Violife. (Jonathan Glover/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jonathan Glover For The Spokesman-Review

Not many people can say this, but I’m pretty sure I’m about 70% nacho. For the past several weeks, I’ve gorged myself on tortilla chips, fake meat, beans, cumin and other spices laid out on a metal sheet and cooked to a bubbling 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

And, of course, covered in vegan cheese. Lots and lots of vegan cheese. It was about two years ago this very month that I started writing this column. My first topic of choice? The best vegan cheeses.

Like most things in life, things have changed. Products have gotten better. What was once an emerging plant-based product field dominated by slices of plasticky goo has been replaced by bags, jars and buckets filled with years of research and quality testing.

Guinea pigs, no more. Now it’s time to enjoy ourselves. I’ve been enjoying myself. With nachos. The festivities started this month when I was perusing Fred Meyer – where I do most of my shopping – and I came across a package of Violife brand cheddar shreds.

I recalled from my vegan grilled cheese cookoff that Violife was one my favorites, but to be honest, I hadn’t had much of the stuff since then. Call it satiated (read: spoiled).

I gave it a whirl. And my test case: nachos, the kind covered in melted orange, cooked to a perfect scorching hot, dripping with cheesy flavor.

I knew for certain that if it looked and tasted real, that was it. This was all the nutrition I’d ever need ever again. Forget what I said about guinea pigs, I’d gladly offer myself up to science as the first man to be majority nacho.

And you know what? It worked. It was amazing. So amazing that I couldn’t stop. I had to try all of the vegan cheeses in all sorts of combinations. Here’s the result of my testing, and the winner surprised me.

No. 4: Daiya Cheddar Style Shreds

In a lot of ways, Daiya is like the Hershey’s of the vegan cheese world. Nobody really seems to love it, but it’s everywhere. And it’s cheap.

That’s the one positive it has going for it. No matter which grocery store you shop at, no matter where it is in Spokane, chances are there’s a Daiya product somewhere.

That’s where the praise stops. Open the bag, and you’ll immediately understand why this product is reviled. Is it an acquired taste? Maybe, but the same can be said of bile.

Because to many, that’s what it tastes and smells like. I lean more toward a foot, personally. It does melt, though, which is impressive. Especially as we get further down the list.

No. 3: Field Roast Chao Mexican-Style Blend

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. When I did my vegan cheese ranking, Field Roast’s Chao slices ranked incredibly high. And why not? They tasted great, melted great, and they were practically everywhere.

The only downside was price. Fast forward two years, and after finally trying their Mexican-style shreds (sounds perfect on nachos, no?) I have to say this ain’t it.

It tastes good, sure, but it doesn’t melt at all. If anything, it goes the opposite way. It hardens. Vegan cheese shouldn’t harden, especially not at 350 degrees.

And the entire point of nachos is to get the money shot – when you pull away a chip from the stack, you want what’s ever still bonded to hold on and stretch. I understand the Applebee’s commercial now.

And, it’s still expensive – about $7 a bag compared to Daiya’s $5. That’s in line with most of Field Roast’s products. But I also can’t help but love them, especially their hot dogs.

No. 2: Violife Cheese Shreds

I know – what’s even reality. I started this entire excursion because of this fine little bag of fake cheese. And it’s a great product – it’s just not the best.

First, let’s talk taste: It’s incredible. Of all the cheeses, this one tastes the most real right out of the bag. Whatever Violife does to get its cheddar flavor so on point, somebody steal it, please.

But what disappoints is the meltability. It’s just not there. The weird thing about making vegan nachos is you never really know the melt threshold. Is it 350, 400 or higher? And how long should it be in the oven?

Well, with the Violife shreds, I’ve tried pretty much all combinations for all reasonable times, and still – most of the shreds looks pristine as the day they left the factory.

What Violife lacks in overall cheese texture, it makes up for it with price. Like Daiya, it’s around $5, and it’s increasingly found pretty much everywhere.

No. 1: Daiya Cheddar Style Shreds Cutting Board Collection

Talk about a Cinderella story. This new version of Daiya’s cheddar shreds has been out for a while. It’s my fault for not trying it. And for ever doubting.

When I first opened the bag, I was met with the familiar Daiya smell (not good), and I was a little put off by the color. It looks like whoever made it went a little too hard on the self-tanner.

But after covering the pile of nachos in it, setting it in the oven for a few minutes and coming back, I was delighted.

It looks like real, honest-to-goodness cheese. Nothing fake about it. It melts like cheese, stretches like cheese and once melted tastes like cheese. I was blown away. The best part? It’s less than $5.

Apparently – and after doing some research (reading the ingredients) – this new formula acts and tastes so differently because it’s made with chickpeas.

But going by the ingredient list, it’s probably the excess of canola and coconut oil that allows it to melt so perfectly. As for taste, they’re not going into specifics, and I don’t blame them.

Jonathan Glover can be reached at jonathanglover22@gmail.com.

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