Some of my fondest memories involve what is commonly known as plastic cheese: movie theater nachos, bowling alley cheese fries, theme park soft pretzels dipped in a vat of neon yellow goop. There’s something uniquely comforting about the combination of carbohydrates and warm, salty cheese-adjacent substances. When I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia, this is what I crave.
My love of snack foods runs deep, but since I don’t always enjoy the feeling after eating loads of them (which isn’t to say that you won’t find several varieties of salty, crispy snacks in my kitchen, always), I’ve developed a parallel passion for re-creating less-processed versions of my favorites. Over the years, it’s become something of a hobby to figure out how to turn the stash of ingredients in my pantry—vegan staples like nutritional yeast, coconut oil, and vital wheat gluten—into the closest approximations possible. Often, the results are both better and more satisfying than their inspirations.
On one recent night at home (of course), I was struck with an acute need to have this gooey, salty “plastic cheese” on the twice-baked potatoes I was planning to make for dinner. So I decided to doctor up something like it with what I had on hand. While plant-based cheese sauces are not a new idea, this one requires absolutely zero planning. No soaking the cashews overnight, no cooking and mashing a starchy orange vegetable, no preservatives or emulsifiers. It takes 15 minutes, start to finish, and can be adapted and applied in countless ways.
Here’s how to make vegan cheese:
Start by soaking ½ cup cashews in hot water for 10 minutes, then drain and add them to a blender with 3 Tbsp. nutritional yeast, 1 Tbsp. red miso, 1 tsp. turmeric, and 5 Tbsp. water, plant-based milk, vegetable stock, or even pasta water (that salty-starchy bath is ideal). I like to add ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. hot paprika, and a few dashes of liquid smoke to spice things up. Blend this mixture until it’s very smooth (I use an immersion blender when I’m too lazy to break out my Ninja), and “cheese” is ready.
I like to spread it cold, on crackers, or eat it warm—as a dip with pretzel nuggets or fries, slathered on plant-based burgers, drizzled over roasted veggies. I’ll stir in chopped jalapeños or Hatch chiles for a spicy variation that works perfectly with chips, tacos, or as a base for mac and cheese. Or sometimes I’ll add diced pimientos, cayenne, and veganaise and then pop it in the fridge for a pimiento cheese spread that makes a mean sandwich. When I’m feeling more on the healthy side, it’s the perfect addition to my crudités platter too.
Is this vegan cheese sauce a 1:1 substitute for the “plastic cheese” my nostalgia brain wanted? Well, not exactly. While it doesn’t have the same odd stretchy texture as the kind of thing you’d find in a plastic tub with a peel-off foil lid, it’s packed with about 10 times as much flavor—and it’s every bit as comforting.
VC’s time to shine: