Is plant-based cheese really cheese? Well, sort of. But instead of dairy from cows, sheep or goats, vegan cheesemakers are making it with plant milk, nuts, tapioca and even rice.

There are many different methods to make vegan cheese nowadays. The easy way? Using a plant-based milk base (from foods like cashews or almonds) and adding a few thickening agents and seasonings.

Plant-based diets are on the rise

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Caitlin Harrington and Richard Daves, husband-and-wife co-owners of The Little Eggplant, a New Jersey-based vegan family business, have been encouraging people to reevaluate their plate. Among their products are a variety of vegan cheeses, including traditional camembert and bleu cheese styles, complete with the mold and veins you would see in dairy cheese.

You can find The Little Eggplant’s cashew-based buffalo style mozzarella — which is their best-seller — and cultured ricotta at both WoodStack pizza locations in Pine Brook and Metuchen, as well as Mama's Cafe Baci in Hackettstown.  

Harrington and her family moved to New Jersey five years ago, after previously living in NYC.

“Right before we left the city, there was a huge vegan food explosion,” she said. “So many restaurants and food shops that were strictly vegan opened up.”

The trend is also seen in New Jersey and has been expanding nationwide. Fast food giants including Dunkin Donuts and Burger King recently started offering vegan options to cater to a crowd that is demanding attention.

Not only did people seem to be in search of something new, but there was also a surge of enlightenment; many are concerned with eating a cleaner, more ethical diet, keeping in mind the impact of animal agriculture on our planet.

Restaurants like Blissfully Vegan Café in Ringwood, NJ, have designed a menu focused on vegan soul food and clean eating. With sustainability in mind, their products are both organic and eco-friendly as their mission is for people to feel good about what they eat while supporting the earth.

WoodStack, meanwhile, sells a lot of vegan pizzas with The Little Eggplant’s cheese, and they’re not even a vegan establishment.

“When non-vegan places have diversified menus that feature organic and plant-based ingredients it further proves just how much vegan options are really growing,” said Harrington.

Okay, but it’s not “real” cheese

Although the vegan boom turned many former meat-eaters on to plant-based diets, omnivores may be skeptical and hesitant to try vegan food.

Some would argue that vegan cheese lacks something present in dairy cheese — and Harrington agrees with that.

“It’s true, casein is a milk protein that is literally addictive to the human brain,” she admited. “It is the main reason why people always say they could never give up cheese.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren't excellent vegan alternatives and very realistic faux cheeses out there.

Blissfully Vegan Café has a multitude of plant-based menu items with vegan cheese as the hero ingredient, like their Spicy Buffalo Cheeze Fries,  or turkey burger topped with “cheddar.” They even offer a chicken parm entree with coconut mozzarella over zucchini noodles. Pizza lovers can try their buffalo chicken thin crust pizza with vegan smoked provolone.

Harrington said it’s a lot easier to be vegan or plant-based these days, as there are so many options for unique recipes, and encourages everyone to give it a try.

“Even if you start small with replacing certain products, or Meatless Mondays,” she said, “it is a step in the right direction.”

More on NJ Flavor:

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4 Great Seasonal Beers by NJ Breweries (That Aren’t Pumpkin)

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Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at jlieberman@tapinto.net.