Missing Cheese? How to Go Dairy-Free Without Going Flavor-Free

04/09/2015 11:43 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015
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We were at a holiday function recently, sitting around the table after dinner eating cookies. Everyone wanted milk with their cookies and that got the conversation going about what type of milk people were dunking into. It surprised us that nearly everyone opted for almond milk and mentioned that they either didn't eat any dairy or limited the quantity of dairy they did eat because of lactose intolerance. Because we often have clients (and family and friends) who ask us for tips on how to cut/reduce dairy but keep the rich flavors and textures in their meals and snacks, we thought we would put together some of our favorite foods that deliver a similar taste/texture to cheese and other dairy. Here goes...

1. Cauliflower: Steam cauliflower and then puree it into soups or smoothies and you'll swear they contain cream. One of our favorite smoothies is this one, which doesn't contain any dairy but tastes like a milk shake. We have also served potato soup with pureed cauliflower instead of milk/cream and no one knew the difference.

2. Coconut: Flip a can of coconut milk upside down and leave it in the fridge overnight. The fat in the milk will solidify, separating the coconut cream from the water. Flip the can over and open it, scooping the creamy layer from the top but leaving the water behind. Whip with beaters just as you would whipped cream and you'll be happy to see that it whips up just like the real stuff. You can add vanilla and sweetener to taste. You can also make your own yogurt at home using coconut milk and probiotics (tutorial found here) which is great used as yogurt or sour cream. Also, if you love pumpkin pie, substitute a can of coconut milk for the evaporated or condensed milk and you will never look back.

3. Almond meal: Sprinkle almond meal on top of dishes you'd normally use Parmesan cheese on (ex: pasta dishes) to give that same texture. Better yet, mix almond meal with dried herbs and a pinch of sea salt and sprinkle that on top.

4. Avocado: If you're missing cheese on sandwiches, pizza, burritos, and quesadillas, let avocado come to your rescue. It's got a rich flavor and texture that really seems to satisfy the same senses that cheese does in these instances. Is it exactly the same? No. Will it make a sandwich without cheese feel less "cheeseless"? One hundred percent yes. Also, if you've never tried avocado chocolate mousse (yes, you read that correctly) then puree 2 ripe avocados with 1/4 cup cocoa powder (adjust to taste), 3 tablespoons maple syrup (adjust to taste), 2 tablespoons unsweetened almond milk (use more for a thinner pudding), and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and dig in. Avocado is also fantastic added to smoothies to impart a super creamy consistency and pureed avocado (or guacamole!) is awesome as a dupe for sour cream.

5. Pureed pumpkin: We've been making a killer burrito using canned pumpkin and chickpeas. You can spread canned pumpkin onto sandwiches to impart a similar mouthfeel to softer cheeses.

6. Nutritional yeast: This one really needs a name-change. Cheezy flakes? We'll go with that for now. If you like cheesy popcorn, try tossing popped corn with olive oil, salt, and cheezy flakes. Game changer even for people who eat dairy. It's also a great way to impart a very cheesy flavor into sauces, such as a creamy cashew sauce or filling. Try these jalapeno poppers and we bet the only comments you'll hear are people asking if you made more.

7. Cashews: Soak cashews for a few hours, drain, and then puree with a little garlic, salt, and cheezy flakes (see above re: public relations-related name change) to make a legit dupe for spreadable cheese. Add thawed frozen artichoke hearts and spinach to this mixture, bake until heated through, and then amaze people with spinach artichoke dip at your next party. Again, the only questions you'll be asked are related to whether or not you made more (it really is THAT good). Soaked and pureed cashews are also a believable replacement for ricotta cheese.

8. Mushrooms: Umami -- that satisfying flavor that you get from things like meat and cheese -- is also found in mushrooms. So, add sautéed mushrooms to dishes that you'd typically add cheese to. Mushrooms are an especially satisfying replacement for cheese when they're combined with one or two of the other replacements (avocado, cashew puree, cheezy flakes, etc.)

And a final reminder, if you do have to cut or limit dairy -- you might miss it for a week or two, but then the cravings quickly become much more mild. Especially if you're using some of these substitutions.