If you always buy the winners of our taste tests, you’re set up for success when you cook or bake. But we know that shopping isn’t always that simple. Perhaps your grocery store doesn’t carry our favorite mozzarella, or maybe there’s a great sale on an unfamiliar brand of peanut butter. Here we’ve collected some of our most memorable discoveries—the little gems that make us a hit at dinner parties, the insider tips we tell family members who call us in a panic from the grocery store, and the extra intel that we use to inform our own purchases when we’re off the clock. Armed with this information, you’ll always be able to find products that will make you successful in the kitchen.
Block Mozzarella: Study the Ingredients
For the best texture, avoid anything labeled “low-moisture.” These cheeses are drier than regular mozzarella and don’t melt as smoothly. We also recommend looking for products with “whole milk” on the front of the package or in the ingredient list. Mozzarella made with whole milk has a richer, milkier flavor than part-skim alternatives. Finally, for a pleasant tanginess that approximates the brightness of fresh mozzarella, look for vinegar in the ingredient list. Cheeses that are made with cheese cultures instead of vinegar don’t taste quite as vibrant.
When shopping: Avoid “low-moisture”; look for “whole milk” and “vinegar” in ingredient lists.
Sharp and Extra-Sharp Cheddar: Consider Color
Do you like yellow cheddar or white cheddar? The answer usually depends on where you grew up. People living on the West Coast and across much of the South and Midwest prefer yellow, while New Englanders like white cheddar. In the test kitchen, we like both. But we’ve found that they taste almost as different as they look.
When shopping: For a milder and softer cheese, choose yellow. For a sharper and firmer cheese, buy white cheddar.
Chocolate: Percentages for Precision
If you’re using chocolate bars or chips in a recipe, pay close attention to the cacao percentages printed on the packages. The higher the cacao percentage, the less sugar is added, so you get chocolate that’s progressively more intense and less sweet. For milk chocolate, those with cacao percentages in the high 40s (our favorite is 48 percent cacao) will give you both milky richness and lots of chocolate flavor. When using dark chocolate, we recommend ignoring the terms “bittersweet” and “semisweet” because they are used interchangeably and don’t indicate chocolate intensity. Instead, seek out products with cacao percentages around 60 percent. You’ll get sophisticated flavor, and finicky recipes such as pots de crème will set up properly. If you really like very dark chocolates (those with cacao percentages ranging from 70 to 90), baking success depends on a variety of factors that aren’t listed on labels. Seek out our winners (see left).
When shopping: Terms such as “bittersweet” and “semisweet” are imprecise, so focus on cacao percentages instead. Look for milk chocolates with percentages in the high 40s and dark chocolates with percentages around 60. For very dark chocolates, seek out our winners.
For White Chocolate, Less Cocoa Butter Is Better
Many packages have somewhat curious names: “white morsels,” “white melting chips,” “white baking wafers.” These products don’t have enough cocoa butter to be labeled “chocolate,” but that’s not a bad thing. Imitation white chocolate is easier to work with than real white chocolate. The oil in imitation white chocolate causes it to set up firm and snappy when it’s melted and cooled, while real white chocolate must be tempered, a finicky process of heating and cooling. Imitation white chocolate is also brighter in color.
When shopping: For the easiest and most reliable results, buy a product without the word “chocolate” on the label.
The Secret to the Best Cocoa Powder: Extra Fat
We prefer Dutch-processed cocoa powder to natural because it gives baked goods deep, dark color and intense chocolate flavor. But here’s a tip that’s less well known: Check the labels of Dutch-processed cocoa powders and find one that contains at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving, such as our winner, Droste Cacao. As with all foods, more fat means more richness and flavor. Also, the more fat a cocoa powder has, the less starch it contains. Starch absorbs moisture and can make baked goods dry, so less of it means that cakes, cookies, and brownies are moist and tender.
When shopping: Look for a Dutch-processed cocoa with at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving.
For Peanut Butter, Pay Attention to the Oil
Choosing between creamy and chunky peanut butter is just the beginning. Both are available in three distinct styles. The most familiar options (think Skippy or Jif) are sweetened and contain hydrogenated vegetable oil that keeps them from separating. “Natural” alternatives actually come in two categories. One—which includes Skippy Natural and Jif Natural—is sweetened with sugar, swaps out hydrogenated oil for palm oil, and is smooth and creamy. The other (think Teddie or Adams) has no added sugar or oil and is more rustic in texture; it must be stirred before use because the oil separates from the ground peanuts. For snacks and sandwiches, buy what you like. However, when making our baking recipes, choose a brand with hydrogenated oil for consistently rich, tender results. The "natural" peanut butters with palm oil produce thin and crumbly cookies, while those without added oil result in cakey, lean-tasting cookies.
When shopping: For baking our recipes, choose a peanut butter with hydrogenated oil.
For the Best Olive Oil, Harvest Dates Matter
Avoid “pure” and “light” olive oils, both of which are lower-grade products that are akin to vegetable oil in flavor, and seek out “extra-virgin” options instead. Another tip: Look for a bottle with a harvest date. Unlike “best by” dates, which aren’t standardized in the oil industry and can be many years after the oil was packaged, harvest dates are a clear indication of an oil’s freshness—and a sign that the manufacturer is being transparent about quality. Harvest dates are printed on both of our widely available supermarket winners, from Bertolli and California Olive Ranch. If you’re able to choose between several options, look for a harvest date within the previous year.
When shopping: Look for an extra-virgin olive oil with a harvest date within the last 12 months.
Canned Tuna Terms Decoded
Do you like mild tuna or a full-flavored fish? Albacore (also labeled bonito del norte or white) is pale in color and mild in flavor. Yellowfin, skipjack, and bluefin are darker and fishier; confusingly, these varieties of tuna are sometimes labeled “light.” Next, consider texture. “Solid” indicates tuna that’s packed in one layer, as a single fillet; “chunk” tuna is flaked and packaged in smaller pieces. Finally, examine the ingredient lists. The best water-packed tuna doesn’t actually contain water; it’s cooked just once (the industry norm is twice) and it retains enough of its natural moisture. Look for a can that contains just tuna and salt. We also suggest giving oil-packed tuna a try. It’s often the same price as water-packed tuna, and it’s great on salads or sandwiches. Avoid cans that contain flavorless soybean oil or vegetable broth, and look for tuna packed in olive oil.
When shopping: Choose tuna based on texture and how strong you like the fish to taste. Avoid products with added water or vegetable broth for water-packed tuna; for oil-packed tuna, look for those packed in olive oil instead of soybean or vegetable oil.