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Last year was really not my year. I was diagnosed with what my doctor unsympathetically termed “a raging case of acquired lactose intolerance.” Too many grilled cheese sandwiches, I assume. In the first few weeks of my health-mandated banishment from lactose, I desperately craved a tuna melt. Not the sexiest of sandwiches, I know. But I wanted one. I wanted one of those blue plate specials with canned fish of questionable quality and a fat slice of cheddar wedged between pickle chips, all delicately griddled together into a gooey, greasy, delicious mess. But apparently this could potentially kill me. So I caved and bought my first bag of Daiya-brand faux-cheddar shreds. What followed was nothing short of a revelation. This vegan-friendly replacement was not only delicious, but in many instances, performed better than my darling milk-based original. I feel your skepticism, but let’s discuss. After all, my much-craved tuna melt was divine.

After some ad hoc experimentation, I realized that Daiya’s strength — presumably for all vegan cheeses — is emphatically NOT in its raw state. Straight out of the package, Daiya is grainy, structurally unsound and generally unappetizing. If your goal is a cheese board alternative, I recommend you keep looking. The good news: Artisanal nut-based styles like goat and brie are steadily improving with time.

It works well in pressed sandwiches, binding nicely with the bread and transforming into a nearly brie-like gooeyness when melted. I use the pepper jack shreds for quesadilla (and tequila) night, and toss a generous pinch of mozzarella into my hangover omelet the next morning. Quiches, frittatas, biscuits, polenta, enchiladas and bean dips also make regular appearances in my kitchen, especially for cocktail and dinner parties. Just make sure you season aggressively to compensate for the natural saltiness Daiya lacks.

Despite these successes, Daiya shines brightest when incorporated into sauces for baked mac 'n cheese, cauliflower and potato gratins and lasagna. For all of these applications, I replace the usual cheeses in my béchamel with a combination of Daiya’s cheddar and mozzarella varieties. The key is using a lactose-free milk with a small fat content. Using 0% lactose-free milk may seem like a healthier option, but without the fat to bind with the Daiya, you’ll end up with a thin, lackluster Mornay (and nobody wants that). 

I am certainly a convert, but I’ve had my faux-cheese failures, and they have been glorious. Here are three things, besides eating straight from the package, never to do with Daiya:

  1. Reheating
    Daiya, like many allergy-friendly foods, is not a forgiving product. I’ve had limited success with leftover pizza, but it relied solely on the microwave, which melts the cheese but wreaks havoc on the crust. The result is a very rubbery lunch al desko.
  2. Cream cheese frosting
    This was an abysmal failure. My stand mixer didn’t speak to me for weeks afterward, and the office ended up getting store-bought treats. Daiya’s flavored cream cheese alternatives are perfectly acceptable on their own for schmearing purposes, but for this frosting to be successful, you need fluffy, whippable, actual cream cheese. The balance between the cheese and sugar is crucial as well, but without the right texture, it’s impossible to actually frost your cakes.
  3. Nachos
    I suspect its lack of oiliness is to blame, but Daiya doesn’t deliver the stretchy, omnipresent goo requisite to a proper tray of nachos. All my attempts have ended with gelatinous clumps of toppings and small kitchen fires. Dale Talde’s Pork Slope makes a superlative version using a nacho cheese sauce instead of simply applying shredded cheddar directly onto the chips, so it follows that if you made a Mornay with Daiya, this might work out. 

Daiya’s gift to the lactose-intolerant is that it melts as well, sometimes better, than your standard go-to melting cheeses. It creates the same velvety texture, but without the risk of oily residue or broken sauces — which often happens with aged cheddar/Gruyére/manchego and other high-oil cheeses.

Conclusion: Any time your recipe calls for a cheesy, cohesive mixture, reconsider trading your block of sharp cheddar for a bag of the fake stuff.  

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