There’s something about soy cheese: The way it sticks like molten plastic to the back of your teeth, the way it oozes familiar cheesiness—a guilty pleasure for those sworn to forgo dairy products. But, despite the melty, gooey likeness to its milky nemesis, soy cheese doesn’t share the same ubiquity.
Stray from the boundaries of downtown Asheville (or other equally hip domains) and requests for nondairy cheese are often met with confused stares. And even within the confines of the city, you’re not going to be ordering it on your California-style burrito, your French-onion soup or your stromboli.
Even some of the vegetarian-specific dining establishments shun soy cheese. In fact, neither all-vegetarian restaurants Rosetta’s Kitchen nor Laughing Seed list it on their extensive herbivorous menus.
“We don’t use soy cheese because the only types I have found are not actually vegan,” explains Rosetta Star, owner of Rosetta’s Kitchen. For those who are newly dairy-free, this may come as a surprise. Many cheese alternatives (including rice cheese and veggie slices) contain casein, a milk-derived phosphoprotein that, when combined with rennet enzymes, coagulates. In essence, it makes cheese cheesy. In fact, so sticky is casein that it’s used to make adhesives and some plastics.
There are casein-free cheese-alternatives on the market. Vegan specialty-foods producer Vegan Gourmet offers mozzarella, cheddar, nacho and Monterey Jack flavors, while VeganRella makes one that actually melts much like dairy cheese. However, while such products can be purchased through retail stores, they are not readily available from wholesalers (and don’t even think about exotic-rice or almond-milk fromage). When it comes to the casein-fortified varieties of soy cheese, local distributors find it challenging to keep those products in stock.
“You have to realize, it has a 2,000-pound minimum,” says Marica Banks, general manager of Ference Cheese in north Asheville. “Only certain restaurants need that product. It’s fresh-made: Any soy product like that is perishable. You only have a certain window to use it.”
For a time last fall, Ference was out of soy cheese completely after her wholesaler’s previous provider went out of business. Dairy-shunning customers found that the sudden void affected many area restaurants. “It’s frustrating on our end because when we do run out of a product, it can be hard to find it again,” points out Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company kitchen manager A.J. Prindle. During one soy-cheese dearth, he called around to other vegetarian-geared restaurants and learned that one business actually made their own. For busy Asheville Pizza, that wasn’t an option, though the restaurant is sensitive to their customers’ needs.
“All of the soy cheeses we’ve carried had some amount of casein,” Prindle says. “I’ve noticed it’s gotten higher and higher on the ingredient list. We try to explain to our customers the nature of the soy cheese.” His suggestion for those wanting to avoid animal proteins altogether? Go cheese-less.
Star’s solution is a nutritional-yeast sauce that makes a convincing doppelganger for Velveeta. “Our main cheese substitute is our own vegan queso dip, which is a simple sauce of olive oil, nutritional yeast, flour, homemade salsa and spices,” she explains. “It’s a delicious and nutritious alternative to that nasty processed nacho cheese that I loved so much as a kid.”
Star also points out that, from a health perspective, heavily processed nondairy cheeses (with or without casein) are a sad substitute, lacking in taste and texture. Many long-term vegans find their way around the ubiquitous milky topping (trust me, it might be harder to give up cheese than to beat a nicotine addiction, what with pizza, burritos and nachos at every turn) by learning to love hummus more than mozzarella sticks and indulging in cashew spread (Laughing Seed just introduced it) instead of pimento cheese.
In the vegan home, tofu dips and nutritional-yeast gravies reign supreme—the latter, like Star’s queso dip, a strong stand-in when saucing a lasagna or spooning up mac and … well, you know. And local grocery stores keep in mind those avoiding dairy for health or political reasons.
“The basis of Greenlife Grocery is to honor the alternative diets,” says Sally Kehanst of that store’s marketing department.
“As far as I know, we’ve always had [soy cheese],” Kehanst continues. “We get it in individually wrapped packages.” Both casein and noncasein varieties are available, and Kehanst says there’s little price discrepancy. Eight-to-12-ounce packages run $3 to $5.
Likewise, Earth Fare keeps the product readily available. “We can order as much as we want; it’s easy to get,” says Shane Peninger of that companies’ grocery department. “There is one company [out of Atlanta] that has the best wholesale prices on many soy-cheese manufacturers.
“There are always people looking for it,” Peninger says of the demand. “It’s a steady seller. It’s a staple because we’re a natural-food store. We carry brands like Soy Kaas and Galaxy Foods; three to five different types of cheeses. We also carry almond cheese and cheese made from other grains.”
For bulk distributors, keeping the product affordable is a bit trickier. “You go to the grocery store and there are all these mom-and-pop brand soy cheeses, but it’s hard for suppliers to have competitive pricing,” Prindle says. Banks echoes the sentiment, explaining that, even though Ference Cheese has located a new soy-cheese supplier, the product now comes pre-shredded rather than in loaf form, and to place an order, several restaurants would have to express a need to meet the minimum amount. At Ference’s peak soy-cheese distribution, the store served some 10 restaurants. Now that number has dwindled to zero orders, though Banks is hopeful that as area eateries learn they can again buy the nondairy ingredient, they’ll do so.
But that still doesn’t solve the casein-versus-totally vegan dilemma, and strict vegans aren’t likely to find a fromage to fit their needs on restaurant menus any time soon. Those wanting to avoid milk proteins might have to stick with Prindle’s advice. “We have menu items that are inherently dairy-free,” he says of Asheville Pizza’s offerings, which include a black beans and rice dish and a veggie burger. “We have vegan options; we have vegan employees. We’re a very customer-oriented service.”
Similarly, diners bellying up to Laughing Seed’s sumptuous Thali plate and tofu-based Sloppy Joe sandwich, or Rosetta’s filling smashed potatoes and serene Buddha Bowl are unlikely to miss the cheese. At least not much.