What is Nutritional Yeast?

This pantry staple is a secret weapon for plant-based cooking.

Nutritional Yeast
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Nutritional yeast—or “nooch,” as it’s lovingly referred to by fans—is an indispensable ingredient when it comes to dairy-free and plant-based or vegan cooking. With a noticeably cheesy flavor, it’s the shelf-stable secret behind most vegan mac and cheese recipes, but it can also add much-needed umami flavor to a range of dishes.

“The moment you step foot in any type of plant-based recipes, you quickly notice how many of them love nutritional yeast—and with good reason,” says Alexandra Caspero, a registered dietitian and the owner of Delish Knowledge, a plant-based recipe blog. “It’s got this nice rich, nutty, umami taste that I truly believe a lot of plant-based cooking lacks. Once you understand how to release that savory, almost meaty flavor, it’s a game-changer.”

Here, you’ll learn everything you need to know about nutritional yeast, from buying it to storing it to cooking with it.

What is Nutritional Yeast?

Nutritional yeast is derived from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast strain used for baker’s and brewer’s yeasts. But unlike that packet of active dry yeast you’d use to make a loaf of bread rise, nutritional yeast is inactive, or “dead.” After it’s harvested, the yeast is pasteurized and dried, killing off the live yeast cells. So, when working with nutritional yeast, think of it as a seasoning agent rather than a leavening agent.

Speaking of seasoning, nutritional yeast has a flavor profile that many describe as cheesy, nutty, and umami. That’s because it naturally contains glutamate, the same molecule found in MSG. But while nutritional yeast can boast a satisfying savory flavor, it typically does not contain added monosodium glutamate or salt.

Putting the Nutrition in Nutritional Yeast

As the name might imply, nutritional yeast packs a powerful punch of vitamins and minerals in a small package, particularly if you opt for a fortified version. The flavor and texture of unfortified and fortified nutritional yeast are the same, but the former doesn’t contain any added vitamins or minerals, while the fortified version (which is most common) features synthetic vitamins that are added during the production process. While those additional vitamins vary by brand (be sure to check the ingredient list on the label), fortified nutritional yeast typically contains B vitamins—specifically B12, which is only naturally found in animal-based foods and thus is often lacking in vegan diets.

What to Look for When Buying Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is mustard yellow in color and most commonly sold as thin flakes that almost look like fish food, but you can also find it in powder or granule form. Look for brands such as Bob’s Red Mill or Bragg (also available online) at most health food stores and some well-stocked grocery stores and natural markets. Since it has such a versatile flavor profile on its own, it’s most often sold without any additional flavorings, but some brands offer versions like salt and vinegar, garlic, or nacho cheese.

Because nutritional yeast is inactive, it’s much more shelf-stable than active dry or instant yeast and can last up to 2 years. Caspero recommends treating it much like you would any other spice and storing it in an airtight container in your pantry or in the refrigerator to extend the shelf life even more.

How to Use Nutritional Yeast

For an easy introduction to nutritional yeast, try sprinkling it raw on some freshly popped popcorn, kale chips, or avocado toast. Because it has such a cheesy flavor profile, it’s a no-brainer for making vegan mac and cheese or adding creaminess to a dairy-free cashew cheese sauce. “It really is amazing how much, when prepared correctly, nooch takes on that cheesy taste,” Caspero says. “When I'm developing recipes, I like to think of nutritional yeast as almost like a vegan Parm. It's not quite the same, but it has that kind of aged, nutty, savory taste that I think Parmesan cheese really has. If you think of it as that type of flavor profile it starts to make more sense where nutritional yeast could be beneficial in recipes.”

But don’t just think of it as a cheese replacement. Caspero says nutritional yeast can add depth and richness to tons of different dishes—even if they’re not vegan. She recommends adding a teaspoon or two when sautéing veggies or tossing pasta with some olive oil or butter. Nooch can also add a nice mouthfeel and savoriness to vegetable soups and chilis.

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