New to nutritional yeast? You could be forgiven for giving it the cold shoulder. For starters, it’s flaky and – let’s admit it – it looks dull. That yellowy-brown colour doesn’t help either. But there’s more to this time-honoured vegan staple than meets the eye.
The author and recipe developer Harriet Birrell needs no convincing of nutritional yeast’s charms. She’s been a fan since discovering it at her local health food store in 2012. Nutritional yeast (affectionately known as nooch) has become a pantry must-have, featuring regularly in her plant-based recipes. Birrell’s books Whole and Natural Harry have introduced scores to this hardworking flavour booster.
Clearly, others are starting to sit up and take notice too. In July, Cambridge Dictionary saw fit to add the word nooch to its listings; US financial news service Bloomberg issued a release tipping that the global value of the nutritional yeast market would more than double to US$999.5m by 2032; and on Etsy, you can buy handmade ceramic jars purpose-built for storing nooch.
Jack Stuart, chef-owner of neo-bistro Blume in Queensland’s Boonah, first encountered nutritional yeast at the acclaimed Brunswick Heads restaurant Fleet, which used toasted flakes in a dressing for a cabbage and kale slaw.
“It’s still an ingredient not that many people know about – some see it as an underground health food thing – but lots of chefs are using it,” says Stuart.
Nutritional yeast flakes feature on Blume’s current menu adorning a sebago potato hash, a dish Stuart describes as pure comfort food.
“Nutritional yeast has an almost umami-like parmesan flavour to me. It’s very savoury and makes a dish very rich and tasty.”
But what exactly is it, and how is it created? Nutritional yeast is grown specifically as a food product. It’s a processed, dried and inactive form of yeast usually derived from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast traditionally employed in brewing. Grown on glucose, sometimes molasses or sugar cane, it’s dehydrated and pasteurised. Unlike baker’s yeast, it can’t be used as a raising agent, and it’s also different to the food supplement – dried brewer’s yeast – which has a bitter taste.
Birrell’s approach to nooch is something that’s ever evolving. First, she viewed it as a readymade parmesan substitute for dishes like her tomato zucchini bake. Now she’s more adventurous, putting the savoury flakes to work in anything from plant-based parmesan to no-dairy cream “cheese”.
She even uses nooch to lend umami balance to sweet treats – like in pancakes and the icing she slathers on a plant-based carrot cake. It’s become something she now uses nearly every day.
Nicole Dynan, an accredited practising dietitian, came to nooch only recently. A flexitarian for most of her life, Dynan had been hearing about this misunderstood ingredient from vegan clients for years. But she only got around to trying it in 2020 when she spotted it in a bulk food store.
“I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think it would be as good as it is,” Dynan says. “I’m a huge lover of parmesan cheese and it gave me definite parmesan vibes. It has quite a rich flavour.”
She now sprinkles nooch flakes as a cheese substitute over lentil bolognese, uses it on salads, and as a flavour booster in soups and mashed potato.
And despite what you may read on some corners of wellness-internet, Dynan says nutritional yeast is inactive so it can’t increase yeast overgrowth. She cautions, though, that there’s some evidence to suggest people with Crohn’s disease should avoid baker’s, brewer’s and nutritional yeast, as they sometimes trigger abnormal immune responses in the guts of susceptible individuals.
For most of us though, nooch is a worthwhile addition, says Dynan. It’s low in calories, gluten-free and lactose-free, a source of fibre, with zero fat and it is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids.
The most common brands of nutritional yeast are fortified, Dynan says, with “vitamins and minerals added to it during the manufacturing process. These include B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12) and trace minerals such as selenium, zinc, iron and manganese.”
And while the cost of nooch varies widely depending on the brand, and where you buy it, the cost can be comparable to, or less, per gram than parmesan.
“We’re trying to encourage Australians to cut back on red meat and processed meat because we eat too much of them,” says Dynan. “Nutritional yeast is a good alternative product.”
Here are some tasty ways to use it:
Try a lighter version of a potato layer bake, using savoury yeast flakes and vegetable stock in place of cheese and cream. Cover the base of a deep ovenproof dish with a glug of olive oil and a shake of nooch flakes. Then add thinly sliced potato (preferably using a mandoline), and continue creating layers of potato, yeast flakes and oil until your dish is around half full. Make a double strength vegetable stock using a good quality vegetable stock cube, then pour over until it sits just beneath the last layer of potato. Sprinkle more nooch and lots of crushed black pepper over the top. Cook until potatoes are tender and golden in a preheated 200C oven.
Make a tasty fried-egg topper for a rice bowl, or to use as a sandwich filling, by carefully sprinkling a mixture of curry powder, chilli flakes, salt and nooch on an egg while it is frying. Flip it and let the heat toast the spices and nooch for another minute or so.
Whip up a vegan cheese sauce by using plant-based margarine and flour to create a roux, allow the roux to cook, then whisk in your preferred plant-based milk until any lumps have disappeared, adding nooch flakes to taste for cheesiness.
Create a cheesy, nutty dressing for salads. Just stir nooch flakes into tahini then add water to thin it to your desired consistency. Add lemon juice and salt to taste. This also works well on a burger in place of processed cheese.
Harriet Birrell’s plant-based parmesan
This recipe is an edited extract from Whole, published by Hardie Grant.
Makes 1 cup
140g raw cashews or nut/seed of choice
35g nutritional yeast
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
Add all ingredients to your food processor. Pulse until you get a texture like almond meal. Enjoy on pizza, pasta, salads and wraps – or as a delicious addition to avo toast and nourish bowls.
Store in a glass jar in the fridge for up to two weeks, or freeze to store for longer periods.
Jack Stuart’s confit kipfler potato with toasted yeast and garlic mayo
Cooking the potatoes confit-style intensifies the potato flavour. Toasting the yeast flakes brings out their nuttiness. If you’re buying mayo rather than making it using the confit oil, simply use a fork to crush in the confit garlic before dolloping.
For the confit potatoes
500g Kipfler potatoes, scrubbed of all dirt
1 head garlic, cut in half
Sprig of thyme and rosemary
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1L grapeseed oil
Salt to taste
For the garlic mayo
4 egg yolks
1 tbsp mustard
½ litre of confit oil (from the potatoes)
Confit garlic (from the potatoes)
Mayonnaise (good quality and store-bought, optional)
For the nutritional yeast crumb
200g yeast flakes, gently toasted in a pan until lightly browned
To cook the potatoes, place in a deep sturdy saucepan, cover with oil and add all other ingredients. Cook gently on the stove until potatoes and garlic are tender – about an hour. Using a slotted spoon carefully remove, then slice the confit potatoes. Season with flake salt, pepper and sherry vinegar.
Add a good dollop of mayo over the sliced potatoes, then cover with cooled, toasted yeast flakes.