A Defense of Nutritional Yeast
Even as someone who sprinkles nutritional yeast on any savory brunch dish, I will readily admit that it is not the friendliest-looking ingredient. It seems scary, unnatural somehow, these nearly neon yellow flakes of something that resemble dandruff more than anything else. But I’m not obsessed with the stuff because it looks good. No, I’m in love with it is because nutritional yeast tastes like cheese, and if you’re dairy-free like me, you know nutritional yeast is one of the few reliably delicious ways to give non-dairy dishes a much-missed creaminess and cheesiness. It’s a game changer, especially at brunch, since you don’t realize how much cheese is listed on brunch menus until you decide you’re not going to eat it anymore.
So, what is nutritional yeast? To be honest, I’m still not totally sure, even though I eat it every single day and try to convince my friend, coworkers, and roommates that it is, in fact nature’s cheesiest gift to humankind. If you want to get technical, nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast, which means it’s been cultured then “killed” with heat so unlike brewer’s or baker’s yeast, it won’t start fermenting. Or something like that.
But what I am certain of is that nutritional yeast goes well with basically anything savory, especially at brunch. It’s surprisingly versatile, and it can be used in basically any recipe, pretty much anytime the word “cheese” shows up. Have you been missing cheesy omelets since you went dairy-free? Pour some nutritional yeast in there. Whisk together some nutritional yeast, salt, pepper, and olive oil for a makeshift, creamy vinaigrette. There are recipes for dairy-free quiches, vegan hollandaise sauces, vegan “cheese” grits, and tofu “egg” scrambles—all of which use liberal amounts of nutritional yeast instead of cheese.
I decided to give up on cheese—real cheese—at the end of 2015, because I find that when I don’t eat dairy, my skin looks clearer, my stomach feels less bloated. And although there are convincing non-dairy substitutes for basically every dairy product that was in my fridge, and although brunch without dairy is, for the most part, basically the same (just with 60 percent less bloating), I’ve found that the white whale of the dairy-free brunch is cheese.
Cheese is the one dairy product that doesn’t have an obvious dupe, and even though vegan cheese is a thing, I don’t think it’s any good. That isn’t to say that I won’t eat it—Vinnie’s Pizzeria on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, for example, always has a vegan pizza option that comes with melted Daiya cheese on it, and I will scarf a slice of that down at any time of day, no questions asked.
There’s something about vegan cheese, though, when it comes in blocks or slices or even shreds, that tastes too healthy. It may be creamy, but there’s something about it that lacks in its essential cheesiness, like its vegetables are showing or something. It doesn’t really taste good unless you melt it, at which point it congeals in a weird way that makes it a little too chewy and dense. Vegan cheese is never really what you want.
That is where nutritional yeast comes in. I don’t think I would’ve ever grabbed a canister of nutritional yeast if I hadn’t become so desperate to eat something, anything that kind of, sort of tasted like cheese. But what nutritional yeast lacks in prettiness, it makes up for in spades with cheesiness. Bon Appetit even went as far as to call nutritional yeast “nature’s Cheetos dust,” which is a fairly accurate description of the taste. It’s a little bit nutty, like a sharp, aged cheddar, with just the right amount of salt and a ton of umami.
In my house, what Sriracha is to spice, nutritional yeast is to cheese, and I find myself sprinkling it on everything, from toast to omelets, to add a little extra kick. I put it on all the foods that I’ve always wanted to make cheesy but didn’t because it seemed too aggressive or unhealthy, and that might be one of the biggest advantages of using nutritional yeast instead of cheese. While it’s probably not the best thing for your body to sprinkle shreds of cheddar cheese on everything you eat, nutritional yeast is fairly healthy: only 45 calories per tablespoon and a good source of protein and vitamin B12. Finally, with nutritional yeast, you don’t have to feel guilty about making everything in your life cheesy.
I’ve been trying to get others on board with my obsession, but it’s been hard. The visual is hard to overcome, and I get it. Nutritional yeast looks gross, and in some ways, it’s still a mystery ingredient. But once you start using it, I promise you that, whether you’re dairy-free or not, you’ll never look back, and you’ll want to make everything taste like cheddar.