When you first give up animal products, it can be hard to know not only what to replace them with, but which of those actually taste good. So many people give up at the beginning, because they think that vegan alternatives are bad. Many mainstream grocery stores carry the cheapest or most processed options, and those aren’t generally the best. While it’s great that these alternatives are becoming more accessible, it can be helpful to know which ones actually taste the best. The truth is, the best vegan dairy products take time to discover. It takes a lot of purchasing, tasting, and researching.
While vegan alternatives to animal products are becoming reasonably priced, a lot of them are going to be more expensive than their animal counterparts. It’s not a great feeling to spend a good amount of something only to be disappointed, and craving the animal version even more. So, many either just eat things they aren’t in love with or go back to animal products. It doesn’t have to go that way though.
I’ve been vegan since 2018, and I am notoriously picky about alternatives. I’m going to walk you through the absolute best vegan alternatives that I’ve found—many of which are better than the animal counterparts…but first, let’s talk about plant-based dairy’s background.
Vegan Dairy’s History
Vegan dairy products tend to get a bad rap, but only in the United States. People have been eating plant dairy for thousands of years around the world, such as almond milk in medieval northern Europe, coconut milk in tropical climates, and soy milk in many parts of eastern Asia. The trope of vegan dairy being disgusting or purely trendy is rooted in an ignorance of world history, cultural importance, and the environment.
It’s really important to not put plant milks, cheeses, and creams into that category because of that. It has been around longer than most of the cheese that Americans eat everyday, and it’s enjoyed by people all over the world—for good reason!
Why Would Someone Pick a Vegan Dairy Product?
Out of all of the vegan alternatives for animal products, dairy seems to the most accessible. It’s the closest in price to animal alternatives (as opposed to the price difference between beef and plant-based beef), it’s the most familiar to people (how many non-vegans order almond milk lattes? A lot.), and it’s better for you. So many people are lactose intolerant, and plant-based dairies offer amazing ways to get calcium, flavor, and nourishment.
Despite all the many reasons someone would pick a vegan dairy product, the most notable reason remains the environmental one.
How do You Make Vegan Dairy?
There are two ways that plant-based dairy is made. There is the processed way and the old way.
The processed way tends to be practiced by companies that make subpar products. Most all of the vegan cheeses I’ve had have been ultra processed. They rely on artificial flavors, starches, oils, and preservatives to make their goods. Generally, the people who like these products also liked very processed animal dairies (such as American cheese). If that’s you, you will probably like most any vegan alternative. Pick the one that is most affordable to you, and give it a go!
The old way is done exactly how animal dairy is- with cultures and straining. Milks are made through straining and blending. For example, to make oat milk, blend oats with water and strain! To make any other kind of dairy product, makers use cultures from the food to give it a tang. You can tell if they’ve done this by two things—the ingredients list, and the expiration date. If the ingredients list is short and the expiration date is soon (meaning it’s not good forever), this product was made the old fashioned way. If there is a huge list of ingredients and additives, and it’s good for a long time, it’s highly processed.
I have yet to find an awful plant milk, and I don’t know anyone else who has. That said, certain milks are best for certain things. I think coconut milk and oat milk are best for baking, because they’re thick and creamy. I think almond milk is best for cereal, since it’s thin and goes with many flavors. I think almond and oat milks are best for cooking sauces, creamy dishes, and curries because their flavor is nutty. I think soy milk, oat milk, and coconut milk are best for hot drinks, because they’re so creamy.
As far as what to drink plain? That’s a very individual question, but I grew up eating a lot of coconut, so for me it’s coconut. It’s sweet, creamy, and frothy.
I personally think that all plant butters are good, but my favorite is from Miyoko’s. The European Style Cultured Unsalted Vegan Butter is amazing for baking and spreading on homemade bread. That said, all of their butters are incredible. Creamy, perfect consistency, and all packaging is compostable and recyclable! On top of that, it doesn’t contain palm oil—something almost all vegan butters tend to contain.
I have found a lot of great vegan yogurt brands, but my top three picks are So Delicious, Kitehill plain yogurt, and the dairy-free versions of Oui by Yoplait.
The So Delicious yogurts come in lots of flavors, are made with coconut milk, and taste exactly like Yoplait yogurts. They have the same consistency and flavor, and they’re so smooth. My favorite is the key lime flavor, and I love having it as a snack. It’s great for something light, or if you want something healthy and sweet.
The Oui yogurts are luxurious. I was always someone who preferred thicker yogurts, so this is my favorite thing ever. It tastes just like Australian-style yogurt, and is so decadent. I am in love with the coconut-flavored one, but they have lots to choose from. They come in glass, which is awesome for those trying to be low-waste, which is only a plus.
Kitehill makes a plain unsweetened yogurt that is so tangy and smooth, reminding me of Greek yogurt (something I missed dearly before discovering this). It’s so good with a little maple syrup and lingonberries with hemp hearts, but it’s also great savory! It’s ideal to use in sauces and dips! This yogurt is super versatile, and unlike the other brands, it’s made from almond milk.
Vegan Sharp Cheddar
If you’re craving sharp cheddar cheese, the product that I suggest is from Miyoko’s. The brand makes their cheeses from plant milks, using traditional cheese-making methods, rather than artificial flavors and starches. It’s real cheese, just made from plants. I can’t get enough of them, and I’ve never met anyone who thinks their products are anything less than amazing.
So the best sharp cheddar replacement in my book is their roadhouse cheddar spread, and it’s incredible for sandwiches, spread on crackers, burgers, or made into a festive cheese ball rolled in slivered almonds and craisins. It tastes just like the sharp cheddar cheese ball my mom would make for holidays and gatherings- so much so, that I cried when I ate it. I was completely unguarded when I tried it, as I simply bought it for a nice snack. I was not expecting it to unlock so many memories. I can’t recommend it enough.
Vegan Cream Cheese
I’ve always been a huge cream cheese fanatic. I grew up spreading it on my open-faced sandwiches (any other Danes out there?), gobbling it up on bagels multiple times a week, and putting it on crackers with shredded cheese. I was a fiend for cream cheese. I’ve tried a lot of types of the plant version, and while some have been not so great, I have found some seriously amazing ones too.
The first one I’ll suggest is from Kite Hill. Their cream cheese tastes amazing, and is made from almonds. They have multiple flavors, but the original one is just so creamy and versatile! This is the brand I buy the most because it’s the most affordable out of the decent ones I’ve tried, and it’s the best tasting. It’s not as thick as cream cheese made from cow’s milk, but is closer to lite cream cheese. That said, it’s just as creamy and decadent as the conventional ones. I enjoy this weekly on local bagels.
The second one is from Miyoko’s, and it’s cultured cream cheese. It’s extra thick (as thick as cow’s cream cheese), and has that tang to it that deli bagel sandwiches have. They also have multiple flavors- both sweet and savory! This one is perfect for sandwiches, as it holds up well without getting lost. It’s creamy, but not as much as Kite Hill’s due to the cultures. I can’t decide which one tastes better, since they both are just as good for different things. Before you try one, decide what you want to have it with.
Vegan Artisan Cheeses
Honestly anything from Miyokos is gold, and they just started making amazing cheese wheels! That said, a less expensive and just as tasty option is from Treeline. They make vegan goat cheeses, artisanal cheeses, and among other things, soft french-style cheese (my personal favorite). I love how tangy and creamy and complex their flavors are! This is always what I use for charcuterie boards, and even non-vegans can’t tell the difference.
While some vegan cheeses and dairy products are not good, it’s a fault with the companies who make them- not the veganizing of it. Plant-based dairies have been around for as long as animal dairy has been consumed, and it’s delicious. During the climate crisis that we are in, it’s a great idea to start figuring out which environmentally-friendly foods you love. The market has come a long way in a short amount of time, and there are only going to be tastier options as time goes on. Keep exploring, try everything, and if you don’t know where to start, start here.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn