Don’t fear this vegan ingredient with an odd name. It helps add cheesy flavor to everything from popcorn to enchiladas.

We’ll be honest. Whoever named nutritional yeast isn’t winning any awards for marketing. Its moniker sounds like a questionable health product you’d order from an infomercial — rather than the savory culinary chameleon it is.

That’s probably why this vegan cheese substitute often goes by an alternate (much more hip-sounding) nickname: “nooch.”

As a versatile plant-based food, nooch is a veritable gift from the heavens for adding a cheesy, slightly nutty flavor to all sorts of recipes without loading up on salt, fat, or animal products. For vegans and omnivores, cooking with nutritional yeast can be a novel and delicious adventure.

So let’s release the yeast beast! We’re sharing all things nooch-y, from health benefits to enticing vegan recipes with nutritional yeast.

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Juan Moyano/Stocksy United

If you’ve ever baked up a batch of homemade bread or fragrant cinnamon rolls, you’ve probably used activated yeast, a single-celled microorganism from the fungus kingdom. This yeast is the key ingredient that helps baked goods rise.

Nutritional yeast comes from the same family as baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). But unlike baker’s yeast, the pasteurization process makes nooch inactivated. It’s useful for adding flavor and texture to foods and supplies a savory, cheesy flavor.

Nutritional yeast is usually yellow or golden and comes in powder, flake, or granule form. While once relegated to obscurity in crunchy granola health food stores, you can find nooch at most grocery stores. It typically hangs out in the spice or condiment section or may rub shoulders with other “health food” products.

They don’t call it “nutritional” yeast for nothing. Besides flavoring vegan pizzas and savory popcorn, nooch has some notable health benefits.

For starters, it’s surprisingly high in protein, serving up to 8 grams (g) in a single tablespoon. (Even the highest-protein cheese can’t compete with that.) And unlike cow’s cheese, nutritional yeast has minimal fat (less than 1 gram per tablespoon) and a moderate 3 g dose of fiber to support digestive health.

Plus, when you sprinkle a bit of nooch into recipes, you’re not adding sugar (read: 0 g) and only an itty-bitty amount of sodium – 25 milligram (mg) or 1 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) per tablespoon. Then again, be aware that by subbing it for real cheese, you will lose out on calcium.

As an extra gift to vegans, many manufacturers fortify their nutritional yeast with vitamin B12, the nutrient that helps create red blood cells and maintain the central nervous system.

Since animal foods are the primary natural source of B12, most vegans need to supplement their diet with it. But nooch can help fill in the gaps since it boasts 730 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI).

That’s a perfect thing since a deficiency can lead to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, and tingling and numbness in the extremities.

Mmkay, so it’s savory and flakey, and nutritious. But what does nutritional yeast do in a recipe? A lot!

Nooch beginners may prefer to sprinkle Parmesan-like atop pasta, pizza, or vegan meatballs. (Say “when”!) The flaked version adds the savory flavor you crave and a hint of crunch.

Still, there’s even more to the story than sprinkling.

Flakes and powder melt well, making them friends with vegan versions of cheesy favorites like mac and cheese, enchiladas, risotto, and more. Some recipes pair it with blended cashews or silken tofu for creaminess or a liquid like water or nut milk to thin it out.

Similarly, nooch can add velvety smoothness and savory vibes to soups and sauces where you’d typically expect cheese or other dairy products.

If possible, don’t omit nutritional yeast (or a substitute listed below) from a recipe that calls for it unless it’s used as an optional topping. You’ll miss out on its rich, nutty flavor and thickening powers.

You could substitute cheese – especially – a grated cheese like parmesan – in many places where you’d like to use nutritional yeast. But this probably isn’t the answer if you’re interested in nooch for its vegan properties.

Instead, there are many plant-based alternatives for those times when you can’t get your hands on the OG NY for one reason or another.

Since it’s a type of inactivated yeast, you can always turn to other yeasts, like brewer’s yeast, for a similar flavor (though brewer’s yeast will probably have a somewhat beer-y taste). Yeast extract (aka marmite or vegemite) will also do the trick in sauces and soups.

For a sprinkle of something flaky and delicately crunchy, you could turn to crushed nuts, dried chopped mushrooms, or crushed fried onions.

Or, it’s nutritional yeast’s umami flavor you’re after. Try soy sauce, coconut aminos, or vegetable bouillon as a replacement in recipes.

Are you looking for some healthy nutritional yeast recipes? We’re happy to oblige.

1. Nutritional yeast kale chips

Kale chips are already crunchy and savory, but you can elevate these elements even further by adding nutritional yeast. These “cheesy” kale chips are nature’s answer to Doritos.

Get the kale chips with nutritional yeast recipe.

2. Vegan enchiladas

If you’ve gone vegan or cut back on dairy for digestive reasons, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Mexican faves like enchiladas. In this plant-based version of the restaurant classic, nutritional yeast joins forces with tofu to create a cheesy texture, while avocados supply healthy fats.

Get the vegan enchiladas recipe.

3. Nutritional yeast popcorn

Nothing quite matches the childlike fun of popping your popcorn on the stovetop. And when you combine the whole-grain goodness of popcorn (yep, it’s a whole grain) with the high-protein, low-sodium benefits of nutritional yeast, your next Netflix marathon can be delicious and nutritious.

Get the nutritional yeast popcorn recipe.

4. Vegan pizza

This plant-based pizza makes veggies sing by sautéing them with garlic and herbs before scattering them across the pie. Then, for a finishing touch, nutritional yeast joins crushed cashews, sea salt, and garlic powder for upgraded vegan cheese.

Get the vegan pizza recipe.

5. Vegan mac and cheese

Some may call it blasphemy — we call it dinner! Vegan mac and cheese isn’t a contradiction when nutritional yeast takes center stage. This recipe even uses gluten-free noodles so GF and DF folks can get in on the action.

Get the vegan mac and cheese recipe.

If cooking with nutritional yeast’s powdery golden dust seems a bit daunting at first, that’s OK. Start slow with a sprinkle here or there on kale chips, pasta, or pizza — or by following the step-by-step recipes above. Before you know it, you may find yourself the Ultimate Nooch-Master.

On the other hand, if you’re already a fan of this umami vegan delight, keep sprinkling, stirring, melting, and blending. You add fiber, vitamin B12, protein, and fantastic flavor with every shake of the can.