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Many recipes for vegan cheese use cashews as a base. I have to avoid these recipes because I am highly allergic to cashews. Due to the nature of the allergy, I also have to avoid most tree nuts.

What properties do cashews have that make them desirable as a base for vegan cheese and how can I replicate their function with other ingredients?

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    I'm not allergic but I also hate how common cashews are in these recipes simply because they're really expensive. – Alex Hall Mar 3 '17 at 9:25
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Cashews are used in these recipes because they are high in fats and so produce a creamy texture, as well as having a nice flavour and mildly sweet taste (which reproduces somewhat the slight sweetness of some dairy cheeses due to the presence of lactose).

As the closest alternative, I suggest using seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower or sesame. Pumpkin seed butter is, in my opinion, the best approximation to cashew nut butter in "cheese" sauces, as it seems to be sweeter than other seeds. I quite often use pumpkin seed butter when following a recipe (pasta for example) that calls for cheese. However, it's green, which might put folks off. Sesame is definitely better on the appearance front.

Here's a recipe for cheese using sesame seeds, from One Green Planet:

Ingredients:

1 cup water/non-dairy milk plus 1 tablespoon agar agar
1/2 cup un-hulled (use hulled seeds for a less "smoky" flavor) sesame seeds
1/8 cup nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Optional Flavorings:

2 tablespoons onion, minced
1 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  1. Grind the sesame seeds, nutritional yeast and salt until it forms a flour.
  2. For a thicker cheese, add 1 tablespoon of oil and keep grinding until it becomes a sesame butter (aka tahini).
  3. Simmer 1 cup water or non-dairy milk and agar agar flakes for about five minutes. Let cool for another five minutes.
  4. Blend together the sesame seeds and agar agar mixture.
  5. Hand mix in your spices and herbs, if using.
  6. Cover a bowl with plastic wrap and pour in the cheese, cover and refrigerate until firm.
  • Walnuts have more fat than cashews, though; cf. this & this. – Geremia Jun 28 '17 at 1:57
  • Thanks for the pumpkin seed suggestion. Green lol - I'm making Jalapeno soup. The recipe calls for 1/2 a cup of raw cashews to make the cheese sauce along with nutritional yeast a 1/2 cup. My next stop will be to find out what the heck nutritional yeast is. Hey alexa !!!! My oldest Granddaughter is vegan and it's helped her a ton. Thanks Again. – Tony Feb 14 at 16:43
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Cashews are used in these recipes because they have little fiber and what fiber they do have dissolves in water. For example, homemade nut milk normally leaves grounds at the bottom of the pitcher for any nut except the cashew.

As I read this question, you are looking for alternative to tree-nuts, because if it weren't for your allergy most other tree nuts are a good enough substitute for any other tree nut. So you'd want to use seeds instead, e.g. sunflower seeds, sesame seed. I'm not seeing them on the list of tree-nut allergies.

Depending on the recipe, silken tofu might be a good substitute, it really depends on what the motivation of including cashews was.

  • Little fiber does seem to be the reason cashews are used (as opposed to walnuts, which actually have more fat). – Geremia Jun 28 '17 at 1:59
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So the first part of this is the direct answer to what you asked, and the second part is about "the why", about what's going on "under the hood" in these recipes to make them work.

You can use cauilflower (in that recipe, any oil will do instead of coconut oil), tofu, pumpkin seeds or hemp seeds (or any other seed, if you aren't allergic to them), and even simply any plant milk on its own, reduced into a sauce.

You can also use potatoes as the base for the sauce, but I think those are less successful (they usually taste thinner or starchier, instead of creamier).


anything I can substitute... to get a similar end result.

Nuts and coconut are high in fat, which is why they make such creamy sauces when liquified. In general, you can imitate that texture using other ingredients in 2 ways:

1) Use added fat. You can replace the fat content of nuts or coconut with another source, like vegetable oil or vegan butter.

2) Use a thickener. There are all sorts of thickeners with different texture properties: flour (recommended), potato starch (recommended), cornstarch, arrowroot powder, tapioca starch (not recommended for Alfredo sauce, it produces a stretchy, cheese-like consistency that's good for cheese sauces but not cream sauces), etc.

As far as imitating creamy taste of dairy cream or of cashew cream, that's little bit hard, because there aren't many things that taste as close to dairy cream as blended cashew will. But you can still produce delicious things, so just experiment. Sometimes adding a tiny amount of a sour ingredient (like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice) or a sweet ingredient (like sugar) will help change the flavor to what you want (dairy often has both sour and sweet notes, because lactic acid is sour, and lactose is slightly sweet). If you don't know how these things will change the flavor of the sauce when you're cooking it and are afraid of ruining it, you can take out a small portion of the sauce from the pot, and experiment with seasoning it (that way if it goes wrong, you haven't ruined the whole pot).

  • Your note about coconut oil looks a little out of place next to cauliflower. – nloewen Mar 8 '17 at 20:59
  • Will I need to use anything as an emulsifier if I am adding fatty oils directly? – nloewen Mar 8 '17 at 21:01
  • Edited slightly. – Re_Re_Think Mar 8 '17 at 21:02
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    If you're using a high speed blender, it will almost always blend together, especially if there's even a little starch in the sauce. If it's very watery, and you're worried about the sauce "breaking" (demulsifying), you can instead make fatty oils part of a sauce by: Starting with a vegan roux (a mixture of oil and flour or other powdered starch that's heated on low heat and continuously stirred), and thinning that out to whatever consistency you want using the water-based (polar liquid) part of the sauce. – Re_Re_Think Mar 8 '17 at 21:09

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