You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy vegan cheese, but it helps if you crave a rich, creamy spread that’s easy to make and works in a variety of recipes and applications.

If that sounds delicious, well, it is. Just ask Toronto chef Doug McNish. The classically trained chef turned vegan, and author of Vegan Everyday, says that in addition to great flavour and texture, swapping dairy for nut or seed-based cheese carries significant health benefits, too, as they’ve got lower cholesterol and heart healthy fats.

Once-upon-a-grocery-store, waxy, highly processed iterations were giving vegan cheeses a bad name, but these days chefs are concocting ambitious non-dairy cheeses, aging and fermenting them into fanciful creations like vegan Bries and Camemberts, and even vegan blues. They’re delicious, but McNish doesn’t recommend replicating them at home — unless you have a science degree and a cheese cave. For most of us, a simple, spreadable soft cheese is a great starting point.

McNish’s cashew ricotta (see below) is a classic entry level recipe, made by soaking raw cashews until soft, then blending them with lemon juice, sea salt, red peppers, garlic and cheesy tasting, B12-packed nutritional yeast. The resulting spread tastes great on crackers or toast, and makes a hearty, filling lasagna ingredient.

Cashew Vegan Cheese

Experiment by adding herbs or roasted vegetables, or swapping pumpkin seeds for nuts (just be sure to add a glug of olive oil to make up for the lost fat when substituting seeds). Cashews are the easiest, creamiest nut to work with, but any high-fat, raw nut will do.

Doug McNish’s Herbed Cashew Ricotta Cheese 

Ingredients:
4 cups raw cashews, soaked for 30 minutes and divided
1 cup red pepper, roughly chopped
2 tsp dry dill
1/2 cup lemon juice, divided
4 peeled garlic cloves
1 Tbsp fine sea salt
3 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1/2 cup water, divided

Directions: 
1. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process red pepper, dill, 1/4 cup lemon juice, garlic, salt, nutritional yeast and 1/4 cup water. Process mixture until smooth with no large pieces remaining. Add 2 cups of soaked cashews, and process again until smooth, stopping the machine as necessary to scrape down the sides of the bowl using a rubber spatula. Remove from the food processor and transfer to a mixing bowl.
2. In a blender, combine remaining cashews, lemon juice and water. Blend until smooth and creamy, stopping the machine as necessary to scrape down the sides. Combine the pureed cashews from the blender with the cashews from the food processor. Using a rubber spatula fold the two together until well combined. Refrigerate for 1 hour to allow the cashews to chill and slightly firm up. Serve immediately or store refrigerated for up to 7 days.

Tip: To soak the cashews for this recipe, place in a bowl and cover with 8 cups water. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes or overnight. If storing overnight, refrigerate. Drain, discarding soaking water.

Looking for more delicious recipes? Try these 25 Vegan Desserts Even Non-Vegans Will Love.