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The ultimate guide to nutritional yeast: what is it and how is it used?

January 19, 2022

If you’ve ever been curious about vegetarian or vegan cuisine, you’ve probably heard of nutritional yeast. Commonly used in everything from vegan cheese to popcorn toppings to supplements, nutritional yeast is packed with nutrients and umami flavor. But what actually is it?

What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast, also sometimes referred to as “nooch”, is a flaky, yellow powder made from deactivated baker’s or brewer’s yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae, to be specific). It is naturally high in B vitamins, zinc, folic acid, and protein, and is often fortified with additional nutrients like vitamin B12.

Nutritional yeast is made by growing the saccharomyces cerevisiae on molasses, and then harvested, cleaned, and “deactivated” during a high-heat drying process. 

Is nutritional yeast vegan?

Yes, nutritional yeast is vegan (and a great source of protein and vitamins that are commonly found in meat)! Similar to mushrooms, yeast is a member of the fungus family. 

Some brands of nutritional yeast products may have added ingredients that are not vegan or vegetarian-friendly, so you will want to pay close attention to the ingredients used in your nutritional yeast. Look out for whey and other animal products to ensure that your nutritional yeast is truly vegan.

What does nutritional yeast taste like?

The flavor of nutritional yeast varies slightly between different brands and products. Typically, it is described as tasting cheesy, nutty, umami, and savory. It is a great flavor additive with no salt, sugar, or fat. 

How to use nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is commonly used to add flavor and/or nutrition to different types of dishes. Because it contains nutrients commonly found in animal products (like protein and vitamin B), it is very popular in vegan dishes and other diets that limit the consumption of animal products.

16 grams (or approximately 1.5 tablespoons) of nutritional yeast can contain around 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, with only .5 grams of fat. Some fortified nutritional yeasts will have up to 1000% of the daily value of vitmain b12 in a single 16-gram serving. So, it’s easy to add a ton of nutrition to your cooking with just a tablespoon or two of this ingredient. Since the early 1900s, nutritional yeast has been known as an affordable and healthy way to supplement vital nutrients.

Nutritional yeast is not only added to food and recipes to bolster the nutritional content, but it is also available as a dietary supplement for that same reason. It is a rare source of protein that does not contain any whey, animal products, soy, or gluten, and is available as a powder or tablet as a supplement.

Is nutritional yeast a seasoning?

A seasoning, at its core, is something that adds flavor to food. So, nutritional yeast can definitely be used as a seasoning! It is commonly used to add a “cheesy” flavor to non-dairy cheeses, sauces, and even on popcorn to add an irresistible umami flavor. 

Recipes that use nutritional yeast

Looking for recipes that use nutritional yeast? Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Vegan “shrimp” — it’s easy to find vegan meat replacements for beef and chicken, but seafoods can be much harder to find! This vegan swap uses seaweed to get the briny ocean flavor, and nutritional yeast to add protein and umami flavor. 
  • Vegan ribs with Asian flavors — this vegan rib recipe uses tofu as the main protein, with a delicious asian-inspired marinade.
  • Vegan pea pesto fettuccine — a nutrient-packed dish filled with protein and veggies.

Nutritional yeast popcorn

Popcorn is one of the most popular recipes using nutritional yeast. It is a great vegan alternative to buttered popcorn and adds a deliciously rich, nuttiness to the flavor.

You can make nutritional yeast popcorn by adding 1-2 tbsp of nutritional yeast to your favorite microwave popcorn and shaking it to coat.

If you prefer to make popcorn from scratch, heat 3 tablespoons of your favorite oil (coconut oil is great) over medium-high heat, add ½ cup of popcorn kernels, and cover your pot. Shake the pot gently every 15-20 seconds to make sure it doesn’t burn and wait until there are a few seconds between pops. 

Add ¼ cup of nutritional yeast and salt to taste, and shake it up!

Nutritional yeast vs. active dry yeast

Nutritional yeast and active dry yeast are similar in a lot of ways, but cannot be used interchangeably. They are made from the same essential ingredient, saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast.

However, in the process of making nutritional yeast, the living organism is deactivated during a heated drying process. 

As the name implies, active dry yeast is a form of active, not deactivated yeast. The same organism, saccharomyces cerevisiae consumes sugar and starch and creates carbon dioxide. This activity is what creates a leavening effect in baking. 

Flavor-wise, nutritional yeast has a rich, nutty, cheesy flavor, while active dry yeast is described as tasting “yeasty” (for whatever that’s worth). Active dry yeast is not used as a seasoning or flavor enhancer. 

If you use active dry yeast in place of nutritional yeast, not only will it not serve the purpose of seasoning your dish, but it is also likely to become frothy and messy as the yeast begins the fermentation process. 

Can you use nutritional yeast in baking?

Nutritional yeast is deactivating, so it cannot be used as a leavening agent in baking. If you replace baking yeast with nutritional yeast, it will alter the flavor of your baked good, and it will not rise. 

Where to find nutritional yeast in the grocery store

It should be pretty easy to find nutritional yeast in your local grocery store. Most stores will stock it in one of two places: either in the seasoning aisle or in the health food aisle. If you can’t find it in either of those two places, it may live with other vegan and vegetarian products.

Can’t find it in your local grocer? You can also buy nutritional yeast online on Amazon, or Bob’s Red Mill is a very popular vegetarian-friendly brand that is available on their website

What can you use instead of nutritional yeast?

If your recipe calls for nutritional yeast but you don’t have any on hand, there are a couple of alternatives that you can consider.

Flavor substitutes for nutritional yeast

Ingredients that add umami, nuttiness, or savoriness are the best flavor substitutes for nutritional yeast. Try swapping it out for soy sauce, liquid aminos, mushrooms, miso paste, or bouillon to achieve similar flavors.

Texture substitutes for nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is also a thickening agent, which is why it’s so common to see in vegan sauce recipes. Make a cornstarch slurry, roux, or use gram (chickpea) flour to thicken your vegan sauce if you don’t have nutritional yeast on hand. Because nutritional yeast is so rich and flavorful, you might also want to consider adding one of the flavor substitutes above if you are making the ingredient swap for texture.

So, if you’re looking for a way to bolster the flavor or nutrition of your next dish, nutritional yeast is a great choice. It is easy to find in your local grocery store or online, but if you don’t have it on hand there are plenty of alternatives you can try instead. 

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