A crack team of Spinoff taste testers munched their way through 34 dairy-free cheese alternatives to bring you this definitive list of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Just as some people cannot fathom the concept of vegetarian sausages or almond milk, the idea of cheese that isn’t made from dairy provokes outrage in certain sectors.
Even at The Spinoff office, riddled as it is with woke, vegan-sympathising “young angsties”, some were shocked, horrified, disgusted by the curious cheese-like packages filling our fridge. Rather than leaving the tasting panel to ponder its plant-based coagulated casein alternatives in peace, they’d holler “IT’S NOT CHEESE!” whenever another tasting session was held (there were several, as it turns out there’s a hell of a lot of vegan cheese out there).
Many of us, however, are more open-minded, and the tasting panel featured a rotating lineup of Spinoffers, from vegan cheese aficionados to dedicated dairy disciples delicately dipping their toes in the plant-based pool for the first time. We tasted 34 different cheeses from eight different brands. Some we loved, some we hated; others half of us loved and half of us hated. For many of them, the collective response was “meh”.
It’s no surprise, really: just like traditional cheese, the vegan version covers a broad spectrum. Some are made from nuts, some soy, some potato starch, some coconut oil and some, well, we weren’t really sure. How does one compare a dill and garlic cream cheese with a smoky paprika cheddar? It’s hard, but we gave it a go.
On that note, we’re at pains to point out that we’re not experts, and cheese tasting is a naturally subjective activity. In that spirit, please take these ratings with a grain of salt: one woman’s dairy-free disaster is another’s plant-based paradise.
Here are our official rankings, ordered from our least favourite to our most favourite.
34 KAIAROHA TREE NUT CHEESE – OLE MOLE CACAO CHIPOTLE
Kaiaroha Tree Nut Cheese is a small Auckland business that makes cheeses using nuts and a probiotic culture. Several of its cheeses fared much better, but this one… just didn’t quite hit the spot for us. Jihee Junn was confused by the presence of cacao nibs on the top of the cheese, noting “the texture makes me think I’m eating cookie dough with chocolate chips”. Josie Adams echoed this sentiment, adding “but because of the flavour, it’s so much more upsetting”. Alice Webb-Liddall likened that flavour to “spicy vomit”, while big boss man Duncan Greive said the aroma was like “something sitting at the bottom of your compost fermenting”, but noted it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. Food editor Alice Neville was more forgiving, saying there was perhaps too much going on for one cheese, but she didn’t hate it.
33 SAVOUR ORGANIC CULTURED AGED NUT CHEESE – SMOKEY CHIPOTLE
This cheese annoyed some of us, as all the Savour brand cheeses appeared, to our palates anyway, to be essentially the same cheese with a small element tweaked. “You just can’t put a different coat on the same cheese and call it a different cheese!” fumed Webb-Liddall.” “I’m tired of the lies,” added Adams. “I’m mad at it.” Made from cashew and macadamia nuts using a vegan probiotic, this version featured the addition of New Zealand-grown cold-smoked jalapeños. Neville found it one dimensional, with the chipotle adding heat but not a lot of flavour. She was also offended by the unnecessary addition of the letter e to the word smoky, which proved to be a recurring theme throughout the tasting. “It has all the worst elements of the worst cheeses we’ve tasted so far,” was Greive’s brutal two cents.
32 ZENZO DAIRY FREE CUMIN SEED CHEDDAR
Junn did not like this cheese (which is made from potato starch and coconut oil and some other stuff) because she hates cumin, and Junn is therefore cancelled. Neville loves cumin, especially in a delightful vintage gouda or some such, but did not like this cheese. “Weird texture,” she proposed, to which Don Rowe poetically added, “it’s like someone blended sweat, flour and cumin and put it in my mouth”. Alex Casey also picked up elements of sweat, comparing it to BO, yet also saying “it’s not too bad – on a cracker it’s delicious”. Webb-Liddall was also a fan, saying simply “I quite like it”.
31 TERRA SUNDRIED TOMATO & BASIL CASHEW CREAM CHEESE
We tasted three cream cheeses from the Terra Nut Cheese brand and liked this one the least. “Foamy and yuck,” said Leonie Hayden. “Gross, soapy,” added Neville. “Bad, just bad,” said Webb-Liddall.
30 HAPĪ CULTURED CASHEW CHEESE – HARORE
Hapī sells vegan cheese, nut milks and the like online, through their Napier store and at farmers markets. Their soft cheeses are based on cultured cashews and use a vegan probiotic, and this one features harore, the native forest mushroom. We love the use of indigenous ingredients, but unfortunately we didn’t love this cheese… “Flavourless and too tangy,” said Hayden.
29 TERRA DILL & GARLIC CASHEW CREAM CHEESE
This Terra offering didn’t fare much better than the sundried tomato and basil above. Hayden reiterated her “foamy and yuck” comment, and Junn noted that all the Terra cream cheeses tasted exactly like their firm version (see number 19), but “smooshed into jars”. “I like dill but I’m not loving this,” added Neville. “It doesn’t quite work.”
28 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – MOODY BLUES
On the whole, we were very impressed with Crescent Cashew Nut Cheese, but we could not get our heads around this one. Their take on a blue cheese looked glorious, but… the mould tasted like bad mould, not good mould. “It’s not bad,” said Junn after taking a bite, but then, “oh no wait, I’m eating mould. It tastes like permanent marker.” “I fucking love blue cheese but I do not like this,” added Neville. “Terrible aftertaste.” Greive awarded points for effort. “They are trying something very ambitious by replicating a blue cheese,” with Adams adding, “it tasted bad but it held up in every other respect”.
27 ANGEL FOOD DAIRY-FREE MOZZARELLA ALTERNATIVE
Spruiked as a “meltingly good mozzarella alternative”, this is made from modified pea and maize starch, whatever that is. We first tasted it raw and were highly unimpressed, lamenting the horrid texture and “mushroom breath” flavour. However, the point of the cheese is to melt it, so melt it we did. Things improved, but not a huge amount. Junn bemoaned the lack of stringiness that typifies a regular mozzarella, while both Adams and Webb-Liddall noted the cheese turned almost to liquid and lost most of its flavour upon melting.
26 SAVOUR ORGANIC CULTURED AGED NUT CHEESE – CHEDDAR
Our main beef with this cheese, another cashew-based number, was the fact it was presenting itself as a cheddar, but had no discernible cheddar qualities. “It’s so soft! I do not like it,” said Junn. “It’s the worst kind of salty. It reminds me of pâté and I don’t like pâté.” Catherine McGregor reckoned it should be labelled a nut pâté rather than a cheese, while Alex Braae likened it to a hummus. Rowe picked up “hints of playdough”, adding “it’s not bad, but it’s not a cheese. You could put lavender drops on it and sell it at Lush as a face cream.” Neville, ever conciliatory, said, “I ain’t mad at it. I’m trying not to think about it as cheese and the flavour’s OK. The texture’s a bit odd but it’s not too bad. Good on a cracker.”
25 SAVOUR ORGANIC CULTURED AGED NUT CHEESE – TOASTED CUMIN AND PEPPER
Another from the Savour family, this cheese didn’t particularly impress us either, with Junn likening the texture to “tofu left out in the sun”. Long-time fake meat enthusiast Greive felt it was similar to “one of the old-style meat substitutes. It’s kind of the flavour of Nutolene”. Cumin connoisseur Neville could detect barely any of the aromatic spice, and not a hell of a lot of pepper either.
24 ANGEL FOOD DAIRY-FREE PARMESAN ALTERNATIVE
This stuff, comprised largely of coconut oil, sunflower oil, salt and yeast extract, comes in powder form to sprinkle over pasta and the like. We chucked it into our gobs straight, which was perhaps unfair, but a tasting is a tasting. Webb-Liddall compared the aroma to Rotorua’s sulphuric whiff, while Junn said simply, “oh my fucking god what the fuck is this”. “Kinda sweet,” said Neville. “Coconutty, but not in a good way.” Hayden reckoned nutritional yeast was a better option for vegans wanting that umami sprinkling. “The coconut oil overpowers it.” Adams was a fan, however, somewhat confusingly saying, “it doesn’t taste good, but it does what it’s supposed to”.
23 TERRA PLAIN CASHEW CREAM CHEESE
The plain Jane of the Terra family, this cream cheese underwhelmed us. “It’s passable as a base but I don’t really like it,” said Hayden. “It’s not wowing me but I’m not hating it,” added Neville. “No flavour,” was Webb-Liddall’s take. “Can’t they put some salt in it or something?” Adams pointed out that the label suggested taking it to a party. “I’d be mad if someone turned up to my party with that,” said Webb-Liddall.
22 HAPĪ CULTURED CASHEW CHEESE – GARLIC
“That is too garlicky,” said Junn, and we had to agree. “I love garlic but I have no idea what I’m meant to do with this. I’m confused by this product,” added Adams, while Neville suggested stirring a little into a sauce might be a good option to mellow out the flavour.
21 ZENZO DAIRY-FREE CHEDDAR
This was a polarising cheese. “At first I was like, ‘it looks like real cheese!’” said Alex Casey. “Then I picked it up and it felt like real cheese. Then I tasted it and I hate it. It turns to dust in the mouth. It tastes like something horrible from my childhood. It’s like Le Snak.” Webb-Liddall, on the other hand, said, “I don’t absolutely hate it. It tastes like the butter off movie popcorn.”
20 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – CHARLATAN
This was another that started well and then… things went downhill. “It’s good!” shouted Hayden, swiftly followed by, “wait… wait.” She concluded that the texture was good but it tasted like dirty dishwater at the back of the throat. Junn was the most complimentary, referring to the taste as “eccentric”. “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be [after witnessing the other tasters’ reactions]. I appreciate the firmness of it.”
19 TERRA SMOKEY CASHEW NUT CHEESE
This cheese perplexed the tasters with its sourness. “I’m intrigued by it, it’s definitely not right but I’m profoundly curious about its makers’ intentions,” said Greive, with Adams adding, “I don’t understand it, but I like it.” Webb-Liddall was least impressed, likening it to “spam salmon”. Neville was annoyed by the e in smoky, but otherwise sided with the confused-yet-intrigued wing of the tasting panel.
18 ZENZO DAIRY FREE SMOKY PAPRIKA CHEDDAR
This cheese reminded Junn of Barbecue Kettle Chips, which is obviously a good thing. Neville was disappointed, craving more smoky paprika flavour, and Rowe said “it’s got no mana, no wairua”, yet still gave it a 7/10. As with the regular Zenzo cheddar, the texture of this version had its critics – perhaps the potato starch base is not for us. “Just a horrible paste,” said Casey. “It makes me sad.”
17 SAVOUR ORGANIC CULTURED AGE NUT CHEESE – CASHETA
This feta alternative looked delightful, swimming seductively in a lovely bath of olive oil and herbs, so our hopes were high, even after the jar proved particularly difficult to open. But, as Adams put it, “It was an absolute letdown.” The salty element pleased Neville, who said it was “vaguely feta-ish”, but she was less impressed with the texture, which Hayden likened to tofu, adding “all the flavour is coming from the delicious olive oil”.
16 HAPĪ CULTURED CASHEW CHEESE – CHIPOTLE
“Spicy, smoky – I’m into it,” said Neville of this creamy number that we all felt would make a fine condiment for a vegan Tex-Mex fan. “I feel like we’re not really rating cheeses any more, we’re rating dip, but it’s a nice queso and I would like to have it on my Mexicali five times a week,” said Junn.
15 ANGEL FOOD DAIRY-FREE CHEDDAR ALTERNATIVE
A polarising number, this was likened to sweaty socks by Neville, while Matthew McAuley described it as “extremely fungal”. Others didn’t think it was so bad on a cracker, and McGregor reckoned it would be OK “in a sandwich with lots of meat”, which kind of defeats the purpose of vegan cheese. Adams chucked some in a toastie and was not disappointed by its melting properties.
14 HAPĪ CULTURED CASHEW CHEESE – SOUR CREAM
This was a controversial inclusion among the tasters, many of whom felt sour cream had no place in a cheese lineup, but they were overruled because it tasted pretty decent. “Ooh, tangy,” said Neville. “I like the savoury nutty flavour of it,” added Junn. Hayden found it a little too tangy, bordering on the fizzy, but reckoned it would work well in a cake.
13 DIVA MAPLE SMOKED TASTY CHEDDAR
Adams described this as “an aggressive cheese”, while Junn opted for “intense”. Neville agreed the cheese was assertive in its flavour, but enjoyed it on a cracker. Greive was also a fan, saying it tasted “a lot like the classic Chesdale smoked processed slice”.
12 HAPĪ CULTURED CASHEW CHEESE – PARSLEY & WALNUT
Our favourite of the Hapī range, with walnuts providing textural interest. “I really like that one,” said Hayden. “The big fuck-off walnuts helped calm the tang the fuck down.” Webb-Liddall waxed lyrical about her love of parsley, and Adams said, “at first I was afraid of the walnuts, but now I like them”.
11 ZENZO DAIRY FREE MOZZARELLA
Unlike the Angel Food mozzarella, which did not fare well raw, this one wasn’t so bad unmelted. “It has quite a vegetable stock flavour to it but I don’t mind it,” said Hayden. “It’s not very mozzarella like, more like a pretend tasty cheddar.” It also melted better than the Angel Food mozzarella, and was Webb-Liddall’s top toastie pick.
10 ZENZO DAIRY FREE GARLIC HERB CHEDDAR
Rowe compared the colour of this cheese to “hungover pee”, but enjoyed its flavour and texture. Neville found the dried herb taste a little unpleasant, but still said it was “nae bad”, while Junn said it reminded her of the stuffing from a roast chicken. We tried this cheese relatively early in the tasting, at which point Webb-Liddall said it was the only one she would rate higher than a mie goreng packing peanut.
9 KAIAROHA SALTASH AGED CASHEW
This cheese looked the part, but on cutting into it, it was a lot less cheese-like than first impressions suggested. Still, we enjoyed it. “I could get through a lot of it,” said Adams. “This is creamy, I like it,” added Junn. Greive, ever a stickler for the rules, said, “I think it’s a nice thing to eat but it’s not a cheese as such. It’s a dip. You’ve got to stand for something in this world.”
8 SAVOUR ASHED SMOKY CHEDDAR
This cheese was disconcertingly black on the outside, leaving cheese cutter Neville’s hands akin to a coal miner’s. The taste was polarising, with Rowe and Neville counting it among their favourites, but Junn spitting it out in disgust. “It tastes like Rashuns!” exclaimed Casey in delight. “This is delicious,” said Neville. “Definitely my favourite. So smoky. I could smash a block of it easy. Very umami.” Adams detected “notes of burnt marshmallow”, and Webb-Liddall said it tasted “like the inside of a pizza oven” and was too much for her “sensitive young palate”.
7 KAIAROHA TREE NUT CHEESE – FENUGREEK AND NIGELLA
Kaiaroha redeemed itself after the disconcerting Ole Mole (34) with this fancily spiced offering. “It’s soft but in a different way,” said Webb-Liddall. “It’s kind of gummy, gooey, but I do like the flavour. I don’t mind a cheese that rides on its flavours. I am into it.” Neville enjoyed the point of difference the fenugreek offered, with Junn saying, “I was a bit freaked out at first but the flavour is actually nice. “Greive concluded, “I think in general, put shit in your vegan cheese. I want stuff that elevates it from being a mush.”
6 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – SCARBOROUGH FAIR
The people behind Crescent made goat’s cheese for many years, switching to cashew nuts because while not as cute, they’re apparently less maintenance than our quirky caprine friends. That experience shone through in the authenticity and skill shown in Crescent’s cheeses, hence their dominance in the top 10. The cheesemakers themselves compare this herbed soft cheese to a Boursin on their website, and it’s pretty spot on. “Nailed it,” said Hayden simply, with Neville adding “Yum, real yum!” We enjoyed that the herbs used – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, like the song innit – tasted spankingly fresh, though Junn found them overpowering. “If you love a dynamic herb experience, go for it, but not if you’re a bland-ass bitch like me.”
5 ANGEL FOOD DAIRY FREE CREAM CHEESE ALTERNATIVE
We were initially concerned by the solid texture of this product, which Junn compared to plasticine, but once we tried it we were impressed by its fidelity to “true” cream cheese. “It does what it sets out to do,” said Adams simply. Webb-Liddall said she’d use it for baking, while Junn would spread it on a bagel with jam. The coconut oil aspect was a little too overt for Hayden and Neville, but they agreed it was “quite cream cheesy”.
4 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – CASHABLANCA
Another top effort from ex-goat folk Crescent, who are based in west Auckland. “This is basically a real cheese,” said Adams. “If I craved camembert I would eat that and be satisfied,” added Webb-Liddall. Neville realised that the more “authentic” cheeses, those with rinds and the like, made her feel a little uneasy for a reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but conceded this was an impressive offering.
3 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – SNOW WHITE
This cheese resembled chèvre and almost tasted like one. “Tangy, creamy, yum,” said Neville. “Delicious,” added Adams. “I would happily replace goat’s cheese with that and goat’s cheese is my favourite cheese,” said Hayden. “I would serve it with honeycomb.” Junn felt the texture was a bit like toothpaste, but admitted it was “pretty good”. “Would eat again,” was Webb-Liddall’s conclusion.
2 DIVA GOURMET PEPPERCORN TASTY CHEDDAR
We all enjoyed the rustic appearance of this cheese, which was delightfully peppery with “actual cheesy flavour”, as Neville put it. Greive loved the heat from the peppercorns, and Junn liked it too, describing it as “creamy, but not in a pâté way”.
1 CRESCENT CASHEW NUT CHEESE – MOULIN ROUGE
The top cheese in our tasting came from our friends at Crescent, and had been drenched with port wine in the cellar (#relatable). “It’s consistent across every category,” said Adams. Neville praised the authentic appearance and texture, but would have liked a little more flavour, while Junn enjoyed the fact it had “bite”. “This is delicious,” said Webb-Liddall. “Don’t be fancy, just get dancy. I would take that to a party and not be ashamed.”