Cheese-Less Sauces

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD, CCE

Perhaps you find yourself in the mood for a creamy, cheesy sauce every once in a while, or maybe even every day. You crave it for your macaroni, cauliflower, tortilla chips, stuffed tomatoes, or bean dishes. Luckily, there are lots of vegan versions of traditional cheese sauces, containing varying fat contents and calories and requiring various amounts of time and different cooking techniques. There are choices out there for everybody.

An Easy Cheese-less Sauce

If you are not in the mood to stand and stir for too long, make a from-the-refrigerator cheese-less sauce. In a small pot, combine equal amounts of vegan sour cream and soft silken tofu. Stir over low heat until warm. Crumble in some vegan American- or cheddar-style cheese and stir like crazy until the cheese is melted in. If the sauce is too thick, stir in a little bit of water or soymilk to thin while continuing to heat. If the sauce is too thin, remove from the heat and stir in additional sour cream.

Depending on your taste, you can season this basic sauce with any combination of white pepper, garlic or onion powder, curry powder, hot sauce, cumin, or dry mustard.

Using Starches

If you'd like to make cheese-less sauce using starches, you've got three choices for main ingredients — nutritional yeast, potatoes and tofu, or cashews.

For a nutritional yeast sauce, combine the yeast and some all-purpose white or wheat flour in a small sauce pot. Add just enough water, soymilk, or rice milk to thicken the mixture. Mix like crazy to form a thin, smooth paste. Put the sauce on low heat, and add more water or milk to make the desired consistency. This sauce must be stirred constantly so it does not burn and lumps won't form.

When the sauce is thoroughly heated, remove it from the stove and whisk in a small amount of vegan margarine for smoothness. Add dry mustard and white pepper. As long as you are patient, this is a relatively foolproof sauce to prepare. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to four days and can be reheated, either on the stove or in the microwave, without breaking down.

If you have a bit more time and a blender, you can prepare a potato- and tofu-based cheese-less sauce. Peel and dice some potatoes, and cook them in water, along with some minced carrots and a hint of diced onions and garlic, until very soft. Pour the cooked potatoes and liquid into a blender and process until smooth. Add silken tofu and process the mixture again until smooth. To flavor, select from nutritional yeast, soy sauce, hot sauce, cumin, or dry mustard.

When finished, this sauce resembles a smooth, medium-consistency cheese sauce. The secret is in the flavoring, which will take a bit of experimenting until you get the ‘cheese' flavor you like. This sauce separates if stored in the refrigerator or reheated, so make just enough for a single meal.

Cashew-based cheese-less sauces are very popular because of their texture and ease of preparation. Place raw cashews, water or soymilk, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and lemon juice in the canister of a blender or food processor and process until smooth and creamy. This sauce can be refrigerated for approximately two days, and it can be gently reheated as needed.

Many uses for Cheese-less Sauces

No matter how you make it, cheese-less sauce can be used to spruce up frozen veggies, leftover potatoes or pasta, veggie burgers, or baked potatoes, to name a few options. Cheese-less sauce plus chopped, steamed broccoli equals creamy broccoli and cheese soup. Cheese-less sauce, a hint of tomato purée, and a splash of hot sauce can yield a hot nacho sauce, great for soups or dips. ‘Kitchen sink' cheese-less sauce for a baked potato topping can include diced onions and bell peppers, minced black olives, cooked beans, and a dash of curry.

For a traditional macaroni and cheese, figure on ½ cup of sauce for each cup of cooked pasta. Begin with ⅓ cup uncooked pasta, cook according to the package directions, drain the pasta, and toss it with your cheese-less sauce of choice.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Spray a baking dish with vegetable oil and add the mac ‘n' cheese mixture. Top with bread crumbs, crushed corn flakes, chopped onions, cooked soy crumbles, diced sweet onions, or paprika and bake, uncovered, for approximately 20 minutes or until bubbly.

In addition, there are countless other ways to use cheese-less sauces. Many can be served as a hot dip for fresh fruit — such as apples, pears, pineapple, peaches, or plums — or for vegetables — such as carrots, tomato wedges, bell peppers, celery, jicama, green beans, zucchini, or summer squash. Use cheese-less sauce as a topping for bean chili or tamale pie, as part of a rice-and-bean casserole, or as a creamy soup, filled with vegetables and beans.

Nut and Seed Cheese-Less Sauce

(Makes approximately 3 cups or twelve ¼-cup servings)

Serve this recipe as the sauce for macaroni and cheese, as a topping for baked potatoes or vegetables, or as a base for soup.

  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup almonds, cashews, or sunflower seeds (or a combination)
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato purée
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • ¼ cup nutritional yeast

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until very smooth. Pour the mixture into a saucepot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it becomes thickened to the desired texture. This should take approximately 5-7 minutes.

Note: If desired, mix in a small amount (less than a Teaspoon) of dry mustard or turmeric for color.

Total calories per serving: 37 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Tofu and Tahini Cheese-Less Sauce

(Makes approximately 2 cups or eight ¼-cup servings)

This is a thick sauce that can be used cold, or it can be heated for pasta, lasagna, or pizza.

  • ½ pound firm tofu
  • ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ⅓ cup nutritional yeast
  • ⅓ cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 Tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons dried parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and purée until smooth.

Total calories per serving: 116 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 142 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Mustardy Cheese-less Sauce

(Makes approximately 2 cups or eight ¼-cup servings)

This sauce does very well in the oven, as part of a casserole, or for macaroni and cheese. It also freezes well.

  • 1 cup nutritional yeast
  • ¼ cup all-purpose white or wheat flour
  • 2 Tablespoons garlic powder
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • ¼ cup prepared (not dry) mustard
  • ¼ cup nonhydrogenated vegan margarine

In a large, heat-proof bowl, combine the nutritional yeast, flour, and garlic powder and mix well. Whisk in the boiling water, a little at a time, to form a smooth paste. Add mustard and margarine and mix well. Set sauce aside until needed.

Note: The water must be boiling for the margarine to melt and the ingredients to combine.

Total calories per serving: 144 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 157 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Pimento Cheese-Less Sauce

(Makes approximately 4 cups or sixteen ¼-cup servings)

  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup pimentos (roasted red peppers)
  • ¼ cup nutritional yeast
  • ¼ cup sesame seeds
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Place in a saucepot and heat gently until warm.

Serve as a hot dip or over rice, beans, pasta, or veggies.

Total calories per serving: 70 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 7 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Bean and Cheese-Less Sauce

(Makes approximately 2 ½ cups or ten ¼-cup servings)

This is a very thick sauce that works well as a dip, as a tamale pie ingredient or an enchilada filling, as a pizza topping, or for a baked cheese sandwich.

  • 2 cups drained canned white beans
  • ⅓ cup nutritional yeast
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste) or cashew butter
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon prepared (not dry) mustard
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Total calories per serving: 99 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 15 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Miso Cheese-less Sauce

(Makes approximately 4 cups or sixteen ¼-cup servings)

In addition to being a good topping and a hot dip, this recipe makes a great macaroni and cheese sauce.

  • 2 cups water
  • ⅔ cup nutritional yeast
  • ⅔ cup firm silken tofu
  • ⅓ cup all-purpose white or wheat flour
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 2 Tablespoons white or light miso
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup vegetable brot
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • Up to 2 additional cups water, as needed

Combine all ingredients, except the last 2 cups of water, in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Pour into a saucepot, whisk, and cook over low heat. Slowly add the water, stopping and allowing sauce to cook, while whisking, until desired thickness is attained. This should take approximately 5-7 minutes. You may not need to add all of the additional water.

Note: For a creamier sauce, you can whisk in 2 Tablespoons of nonhydrogenated vegan margarine at the very end of cooking.

Total calories per serving: 53 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 113 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is The VRG's Food Service Advisor.