Today is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich day. I'm vegan, but I eat a whole lot of grilled melted cheese-like product sandwiches. My mom gave me her panini press a few years back, and it gets more use than almost any other appliance in my kitchen.
However, the perfect vegan grilled cheese is elusive. The thing about most vegan products, from veggie burgers to ice cream to fake cheese, is that you need to experiment until you find the right fit. There are some terrible, terrible products on the market, and the fact of the matter is that many vegan cheeses taste like garbage, with textures and colors not found in nature. (You heard it from a vegan.) Plus, it's important to note that many brands of soy or rice cheese are not actually vegan; these contain casein, a milk protein, or other milk derivatives.
However, there are some vegan cheeses that are quite excellent. In celebration of this glorious day, I present you with a sampling of my extensive research into vegan cheeses, the good, the bad, and the Tofutti.
Daiya, cheddar: Daiya is, completely deservedly, the It cheese substitute of the moment. It has a chewy texture and savory, slightly nutty flavor, without the horrid plastic taste you get with some vegan cheeses. It melts quite well, and actually stays fairly solid rather than turning into a runny liquid; some people rave that it even forms cheese-like strands when pulled apart. I find the texture a trifle gelatinous when melted, but all-in-all this is a first-rate product. It's one of the few vegan cheeses that is soy free, and is now available at many Whole Foods Markets, though an employee at the Whole Foods closest to me looked at me like I was from Mars and said, "I wish" when I asked him where I could find it on their shelves.
Tofutti, mozzarella flavor: Eaten plain, it has a creamy, tangy, garlicky flavor, not unlike feta cheese or raita. It actually sort of burns the throat, not something I look for in a cheese replacement, or food in general. When grilled, the burning sensation goes away, but the cheese itself disintegrates into the bread; it's like eating two pieces of toast loosely bound together with a sticky substance. I love Tofutti's other products (Cuties, Sour Supreme, and vegan cream cheese) but this fake cheese was just terrible; I bought it at QFC if you really want to try it.
Vegan Gourmet, mozzarella, cheddar and nacho cheese: In my opinion (and the opinion of many others, as evidenced by it winning VegNews' award for best vegan cheese in 2005), this is the best vegan cheese on the market. The mozzarella has a creamy, soft texture that actually resembles fresh mozzarella. The cheddar is a little closer to American in flavor and texture, but has a sharpness to it that I find irresistible enough to eat by the slice. The nacho cheese is ideal for nachos or giving grilled cheese sandwiches a bit of kick. The best part is that all of the flavors actually melt superbly; it's a little more liquidy than Daiya, though not as extreme as Tofutti. Vegan Gourmet available almost everywhere I shop (QFC, Whole Foods, the local food co-op), though is significantly more expensive at the regular supermarket. Definitely buy.
Vegan Rella, mozzarella flavor: I cannot get over the smell of this stuff. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is that I find so repulsive, but something about its odor activates my gag reflex. The sticky, slimy texture upon removing it from the packaging is also off-putting. The taste is passable, though strikes me as very artificial; if sort of reminds me of yogurt that may or may not be past its expiration date. In its solid state, Vegan Rella has a mild flavor and creamy mouthfeel that is well-suited to crackers or rice cakes. Melted, it turns into a runny opaque fluid that I really can only compare to forms of bodily discharge that have no place on a food blog. AVOID.
WayFare, out of Bozeman, MT, may be a new contender on the market. They had a booth, though no samples, at VegFest this past weekend, and are starting to gather buzz in the vegan food blogging community. I haven't had the opportunity to sample their wares yet, but will approach with an open mind.
These are by no means not the only vegan cheese on the market; my favorite vegan pizza joint uses Teese, which is difficult to find in stores. You can find small, artisan cheeses in shops that cater heavily to vegans. And, if you're really adventurous, you can make your own.
I'm always looking the try new vegan cheeses, so what's your favorite?