Of all the ingredients I use in my recipes, the one I’m asked about the most is nutritional yeast. I’ve been cooking with it for so long that I forget how strange it must sound to people who are new to vegan cooking. Neither the word “nutritional” nor the word “yeast” conjures up mouthwatering images, but the truth is, it’s one of the few “health food store” ingredients that I wouldn’t want to have to do without, not because of its nutritional value, but because of its flavor. So what is it, why should you use it, and where can you find it?
What Nutritional Yeast Is
Nutritional yeast is a food additive made from a single-celled organism, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, which is grown on molasses and then harvested, washed, and dried with heat to kill or “deactivate” it. Because it’s inactive, it doesn’t froth or grow like baking yeast does so it has no leavening ability. Don’t worry; no animals are harmed in this process because yeasts are members of the fungi family, like mushrooms, not animals.
Nutritional yeast has such an unappealing name that somebody started calling it “nooch” and the name caught on in some corners of the internet. The brand that most vegans use is Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula because it is a good source of vitamin B12 and contains no whey, an animal product that is used in some other brands. In the U.K., nutritional yeast is sold under the Engevita brand and in Australia as savory yeast flakes.
What It Isn’t
Nutritional yeast is not the same as brewer’s yeast, which is a product of the beer-making process and is very bitter. It’s also not Torula yeast, which is grown on paper-mill waste and is also not very tasty. And please do not try to substitute active dry yeast or baking yeast, which taste bad and will probably make a huge, frothy mess because their yeasts are alive.
Where Can I Find Nutritional Yeast?
You probably won’t be able to find nutritional yeast in a typical grocery store. I buy it from the bulk bins at the local natural food store, where it is labeled “Vegetarian Support Formula.” Larger grocery stores might have Bob’s Red Mill or Braggs brand in the natural food section. If you can’t find it locally, Amazon has several brands, including Red Star. Some brands of nutritional yeast taste better than others, so if you can, buy a little and taste it first; if you don’t like it, try another brand.
I use the flaked version of nutritional yeast, but it’s also available in a powder. If you’re using the powder, you will need only about half as much as the flakes.
Why Use It?
As you can guess from its name, nutritional yeast is packed with nutrition, particularly B-vitamins, folic acid, selenium, zinc, and protein. It’s low in fat, is gluten-free (check specific brands for certification), and contains no added sugars or preservatives. Because vitamin B12 is absent from plant foods unless it’s added as a supplement, nutritional yeast that contains B12, such as Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula, is a great addition to the vegan diet (though I strongly recommend taking a supplement as the only way to be sure you’re getting enough). Not all nooch has B12, so check the label carefully before buying.
The vitamins and minerals are all well and good, but truthfully, most people use nutritional yeast for its flavor.
How Does Nutritional Yeast Taste?
Nutritional yeast has a flavor that has been described as cheesy, nutty, savory, and “umami.” Just a tablespoon or two can add richness to soups, gravies, and other dishes, and larger amounts can make “cheese” sauces and eggless scrambles taste cheesy and eggy.
Adding a small amount of nutritional yeast to a dish enhances the flavors present and helps form a rich flavor base.
If for some reason you can’t find nutritional yeast or can’t use it, you can safely leave it out of recipes where it’s used in small amounts as only a flavor enhancer; in some cases, miso or soy sauce can be used in a 1:3 ratio (1/3 of the amount of nooch called for), though both add sodium, so you may need to reduce the salt. In recipes where nutritional yeast provides the bulk of the flavor, such as vegan cheese sauces, it’s best not to attempt to substitute it.
Does It Contain MSG?
No. The savory, umami taste of nutritional yeast comes from glutamaic acid, an amino acid that is formed during the drying process. Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid found in many fruits and vegetables and is not the same as the commercial additive monosodium glutamate.
How Do You Use Nutritional Yeast?
If you’re new to nutritional yeast, it’s better to try it a little at a time rather than to dive right into a recipe that uses a lot of it. Try some of the suggestions below, using just a little until you develop a taste for it:
- Sprinkle it on popcorn.
- Stir it into mashed potatoes.
- Add a little to the cooking water for “cheesy grits” or polenta.
- Sprinkle on any pasta dish.
- Make almond “parmesan” by blending nutritional yeast with raw almonds in a food processor.
- Add a tablespoon or two to bean dishes to enhance flavors.
For a Savory or “Poultry” Flavor:
These recipes use small amounts of nutritional yeast to form a flavor base and are good for beginning users.
For a Cheesy Flavor:
In many of these recipes, nutritional yeast is a central ingredient adding much of the flavor. Leaving it out isn’t advised.
For an Eggy-Cheesy Flavor:
Nutritional yeast contributes a lot of flavor to these tofu-based “egg” dishes.
For More Nutritional Yeast Information:
- The Nutritional Yeast Cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak
- The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook by Louise Hagler and Dorothy R. Bates
- Nutritional Yeast at Bulkfoods.com
- Ask Alisa: What is nutritional yeast and how does it taste?
Update 11/2014: There have been studies (such as this one and this one) that raise the concern that high amounts of synthetic folic acid may increase the risk of breast cancer. Most brands of nutritional yeast do contain added folic acid in varying amounts. If you are concerned about this, read labels carefully and choose brands that contain as little as possible. I know of three brands of nutritional yeast that don’t contain synthetic folic acid: Sari Foods, KAL Unfortified Yeast Flakes, and Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutritional Yeast. If you know of other brands, please leave details in the comments.
Update 3/2017: Recently, a vegan magazine claimed on its blog that nutritional yeast is under attack by the EPA. The article got a lot of vegans worked up with insinuations that veganism is being targeted. It was all based on a misreading (or not reading at all) of proposed amendments to the EPA rules on the manufacture of both baker’s and nutritional yeast. The rules are not new and were put in place to protect workers and the environment from carcinogens formed when large factories make these types of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Please, if you see the artcle being posted, know that nutritional yeast is not under threat, the price will not be rising (unless people start hoarding it), and it is not going off the market. Don’t buy into the hysteria. Here is a link to the EPA page with all the necessary documents, so you can read it for yourself: https://www.epa.gov/stationary-sources-air-pollution/manufacturing-nutritional-yeast-national-emission-standards.
What’s Your Favorite Use?
Please share your favorite ways to use nutritional yeast in the comments below.
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