You’ve heard of nutritional yeast and watched it sneak on to menus and into recipes. But what is it, and how do you use it? Here’s a primer.
Like kale chips and matcha tea before it, nutritional yeast is enjoying its moment in the sun. You might see it at hip restaurants like Roberta’s in Brooklyn, New York, where it has made cameos on asparagus and soft boiled eggs, or as the base of a vegan Caesar salad at Little Octopus in Nashville, Tennessee. Nutritional yeast, or “nooch” as some call it, is a dried, inactive form of the same yeast strain you might find in bread, typically fortified with vitamins. Bob’s Red Mill, for example, sells a large-flake yeast amped up with vitamins B3, B6, B2, B1, folic acid and B12. It has a little bit of protein per serving—8 grams per a quarter cup of Bob’s—and a whole lot of, you guessed it, Vitamin B.
Nooch looks innocuous—golden powder resembling crushed cornflakes—but its bouquet, straight, could easily be described as barnyardy. Tasting it on its own is even more bewildering to the palate, and is made me feel as though I’d walked into a bakery that was also a brewery, which was not quite as enticing as that sounds. Nutritional yeast has a lightly nutty, umami flavor that tastes a little thin on its own, which is why so many of its fans like to pair it with fat and salt. In fact, nutritional yeast’s most popular vehicle is popcorn.
My friend Beth Kracklauer, the food editor for the Off Duty section of The Wall Street Journal, wrote, “I only use it on popcorn, but rarely have popcorn without it. … The dry, flaky yeast adheres well to [it] as long as you use tons of butter. The butter + the yeast = a magical flavor alchemy, further enhanced, I find, by black pepper and cayenne. (The yeast is so rich and funky it needs a little brightening from the cayenne).
Nooch aficionados also like to use it in salad dressings, such as in this sesame-soy number. Sprinkled on avocado with lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt. Dusted on sauced pasta in lieu of Parmesan for a vegan dinner. Tossed with vegetables, salt, pepper, and oil and roasted. Parsnips and potatoes take very kindly to it, and buttered bagels can apparently benefit from a powdering, too. You can even make cashew-nooch “cheese” that apparently tastes quite like Parmesan.
For those of us who adore Parm, that’s a step too far. I love Parmesan, which is nutty and fatty and umami and satisfying in a way few foods are. But when I posted about nutritional yeast on Facebook I was inundated by dozens of recipe ideas and raves about its flavor. I am, perhaps, the minority. And I can see how vegans treasure it, since it boasts a flavor few animal-free foods do.
Realizing that perhaps I’d shortchanged nooch in the past, I picked up a bag of Little Lad’s popcorn, which mingles popcorn with herbs such as dill and plenty of nutritional yeast. I also snagged a bag of pure nutritional yeast from Bob’s Red Mill.
“Ugh,” I thought on the first bite of the Little Lad’s. The first hit of this stuff is intense and earthy and has that “healthy” vibe that never has floated my boat. And I want a beer. Mmm, beer. I took another bite, still thinking about beer, and about bread, and other yeasty things I like. I felt more partial to the stuff, but found it tricky to tell whether that was the power of nooch or popcorn. (The true test will be to sneak it onto movie popcorn; is there anything that tastes bad on that?)
I then tried the pure nooch on avocado with salt, which a friend had recommended, but which I thought was meh. Then I tried it on homemade bread with butter and salt, which was trippy. (Yeast on yeast!) In the end, I don’t think it’ll become a staple, but there’s no disputing taste, and I have plenty of friends who think it’s divine. If you want to try it, seek out the vitamin-fortified version, particularly if you’re on a vegan diet. Because not all nooch is created equal.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.