What is nutritional yeast? How to cook with this ingredient

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One of the most common things you’ll hear from people who are considering going veg is that they could never live without cheese. And who can dispute that? It’s hard to beat that umami-rich cheese flavor that makes everything from sauces and casseroles to popcorn better.

Enter the vegan’s secret weapon: nutritional yeast.

I heard about nutritional yeast over a decade ago, when Katie Quinn, today’s video producer (now famous cookbook author and culinary personality), told me it was her favorite popcorn filling. I admit I was disgusted by the name. Little did I know then that this would soon become a pantry staple that helped inspire my whole family (even my super picky nephew) to eat dairy-free dishes without complaining.

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What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast that is cultivated for use in food. It is the same species of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that is used for baking bread and brewing beer. While the yeast cells are alive when you use it at the start of the cooking or brewing process, nutritional yeast is not alive.

The final product can be found as yellow flakes or as a powder. If we’re being honest, it sort of looks like fish food. You’ll find it in flour-like packaging or in self-serve bulk bins at grocery or health food stores. The popular version of Bragg is easy to spot in its bright yellow cartridge. Bob’s Red Mill nutritional yeast packages can often be found alongside specialty flours.

Bragg brand nutritional yeast is a popular choice.Alamy

It’s funky, flavorful, nutty, earthy, and adds an unmistakably Parmesan-esque cheese flavor to dishes.

Also called “nooch” (one author accurately claims that the nickname “sounds like someone from the Jersey Shore”) or even “hippy dust,” nutritional yeast was a fringe ingredient for those in the know. But, like veganism itself, nutritional yeast has become a go-to ingredient for home chefs trying to cook healthier foods.

Sweet Potato Mac and Cheese

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Benefits of nutritional yeast

The “nutritional” in the ingredient’s name isn’t just a marketing gimmick: Nutritional yeast is packed with fiber and iron, and a tablespoon serves almost a day of B vitamins. Each tablespoon provides about 4 grams of protein at 25 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. It is gluten-free and dairy-free, making it a must-have ingredient for people with dietary restrictions.

All Purpose Vegan Cheese Sauce

Ashely McLaughlin / Oh she shines everyday

How to use nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is a great way to add a cheesy flavor to vegan versions of popular comfort foods, and it also helps thicken sauces. It’s a powerful ingredient that transforms vegetables without adding a lot of fat. Nutritional yeast adds umami to vegan mac and cheese, thickening butternut squash and almond milk “bechamel”. It works the same mixed with cauliflower and cashews in this creamy cauliflower, leek, and greens bake. Or in this vegan nacho cheese sauce. Cauliflower, cashews, garlic and lemon juice combine with nutritional yeast to make a smooth and silky vegan Alfredo sauce. And nutritional yeast replaces grated Parmesan when sprinkled on French fries, kale chips, pizza, pasta, or when added to pesto.

Cauliflower, leek and baked green vegetables

Anson Smart / “Cooking Whole Foods Every Day” by Amy Chaplin (Artisan Books)

However, it will not give you any melting texture.

Nutritional yeast has a strong flavor, so start with a smaller serving, taste and add more as needed. When recipes call for more than 1/2 cup of nutritional yeast, I usually start with half and add more if I want a more cheesy flavor. When you take it too far it can taste a little too cheesy and, well, wrong. But, that’s all personal preference. Add it as you would add a spice. I also like adding a squeeze of lemon to some of the sauces I make with nutritional yeast – the acid balances the rich flavor well.

Easy vegan pesto

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To store nutritional yeast, store it in a tightly closed container and it will last you two years.

Don’t be put off by the name or be afraid to try recipes that use nutritional yeast. But beware: he is known to deceive (and even convert) some dairy enthusiasts.


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