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What is 'nooch'? The secret weapon for cheesy, savory flavor (that isn't cheese)

Sure, it looks like fish food — but it provides funky, savory, nutty, earthy flavor.
Flakes of Yellow Nutritional Yeast a Cheese Substitute and Seasoning for Vegan Cooking
We want the funk.Pamela Maxwell / Alamy

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

Enter the vegan’s secret weapon: nutritional yeast.

I heard about nutritional yeast more than a decade ago, when then-TODAY video producer (now famed cookbook author and food personality) Katie Quinn told me it was her favorite popcorn topping. I’ll admit, I was grossed out by the name. I didn’t know then that it would soon become a pantry staple that has helped me trick my whole family (even my super-picky nephew) into eating dairy-free dishes without complaint.

Garam Masala-Spiced Popcorn

What is nutritional yeast?

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

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

Bragg brand nutritional yeast is a popular choice.Alamy

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

Also called "nooch," (one writer accurately asserts that the moniker "sounds like the name of someone from the Jersey Shore") or even "hippy dust," nutritional yeast used to be a fringe ingredient for people in the know. But, like veganism itself, nutritional yeast has gone mainstream as a must-have ingredient for home chefs trying to cook healthier food.

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 one tablespoon serves up almost a day’s worth of B vitamins. Each tablespoon provides about 4 grams of protein at 25 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. It’s gluten-free and dairy-free, making it an indispensable ingredient for people with dietary restrictions.

Vegan All-Purpose Cheese Sauce

How to use nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is a great way to add cheese flavor for vegan versions of popular comfort foods, and it also helps thicken sauces. It’s a powerhouse ingredient that transforms vegetables without adding much fat. Nutritional yeast adds umami to vegan mac and cheese, thickening the butternut squash and almond milk "béchamel." It works similarly blended 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 pair with nutritional yeast to make a silky smooth vegan Alfredo-sauce. And nutritional yeast subs in for grated Parmesan when sprinkled atop fries, kale chips, pizza, pasta or when added to pesto.

Cauliflower, Leek and Greens Bake

It won’t, however, give you any melty 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 of that and add more if I want a cheesier flavor. When you go overboard, it can taste a little over-cheesy and, well, fake. But, it’s all personal preference. Add it as you would add a spice. I also like to add a squeeze of lemon to some of the sauces I make with nutritional yeast — the acid balances out the rich flavor nicely.

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

Don’t get turned off by the name or hesitate to try recipes calling for nutritional yeast. But be warned: it’s known to fool (and even convert) some dairy lovers.