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Hate to love it or love to hate it? We slice through the stigma surrounding American cheese.
Published June 1, 2015. Appears in Cook's Illustrated July/August 2006
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What You Need To Know
American cheese is polarizing. A good American cheese is mild, but not bland, and melts like a dream in grilled cheese sandwiches and atop burgers. But in this age of slow food, plastic-wrapped cheese slices have become a symbol of hyperprocessing. Could we find a product that we actually liked?
To find out, we asked 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers to sample seven nationally available American cheeses plain and in grilled cheese sandwiches.
Tasters didn’t like bland cheeses, so we examined salt levels, but we saw no clear trend. Instead we noticed a different pattern: The shorter the ingredient list, the better-tasting the cheese. Our top product listed just five ingredients—cheese, water, cream, sodium phosphates, and salt—and was praised by tasters for its cheddar-like sharpness, while the bland bottom-ranked cheeses contained up to 20 ingredients, many of them processed dairy derivatives like whey or milk protein.
We reached out to experts to figure out what impact these ingredients might have on cheese flavor. They told us that some manufacturers cut costs by using less actual cheese in their products and more comparatively cheap dairy ingredients like milk, whey, or milk protein concentrate. While these dairy products contain many of the proteins found in cheese, they lack the bacterial cultures that contribute sharp, nutty flavors. This explained why products with whey or milk protein concentrate tasted bland and boring, while top-ranked brands were complex and tangy.
To confirm that our top-ranked products contain more actual cheese, we sent the products to an independent lab for analysis. Since cheese is higher in fat and protein than other dairy products, products with more natural cheese will also usually have significantly more fat and protein than products that use whey or milk concentrates. This held true in our lab results—lower-ranked cheeses that use alternate dairy products contained as little as 8 percent fat and 14 percent protein, while our recommended cheeses contained more than 27 percent fat and 19 percent protein.
Lab results helped explain textural differences. Experts told us that replacing natural cheese with other dairy adds moisture to the final product. Our bottom-ranked cheeses did indeed have higher moisture percentages (up to 51 percent, compared with 40 percent moisture in top products), and many of these cheeses were watery and wet when melted. Some products attempted to counteract excessive moisture by adding gelatin or other thickeners, but tasters thought that these additives made for grilled cheese that was too gummy and stiff.
So how can you tell if you’re getting a product with more ...
Everything We Tested
Our winning cheese, which is made from a blend of natural cheese, had “nutty,” “sharp” tanginess and a “slightly soft,” “tender” texture. These “superthin” slices melted perfectly for “creamy” grilled cheese.
These “crumbly” slices made “molten” and “melty” grilled cheese that was “rich,” “sharp,” and “cheddary,” with “balanced” notes of “cream” and “butter.” Said one taster: “All that’s missing is a bowl of tomato soup.”
Though this “cheese product” contains added whey and milk protein concentrates, a lower moisture level made these “thicker” slices “crumbly” like “aged” cheese, with “cheddar-like sharpness” to match. This product’s “tangy” acidity made for “rich” grilled cheese, though a few tasters found it a little too “assertive.”
Recommended with reservations
Most tasters agreed that this best-selling product had “classic,” “very familiar” American cheese flavor, though a few found it too bland: “good for kids, but boring for adults.” In grilled cheese, these slices were “supermelty,” but they were “plasticky” and “rubbery” when tasted plain.
“Bland,” “greasy,” and “waxy,” these high-moisture slices melted into a “slimy,” “wet” mass that coated tasters’ mouths and teeth. Many also thought that this cheese had a “funky,” “artificial” sourness that was reminiscent of chemicals and preservatives.
Another “mouth-coating” cheese, this product was “rubbery” and “gummy” when melted and had a “superprocessed,” “plastic wrapper” flavor. Sampled plain, this cheese was “really bland,” “boring,” and “oily.”
One of the few products without any natural cheese, these “vibrant yellow” slices were “thick,” “tacky,” and “gluey” from added gelatin and “lacked any real cheese flavor.” Instead, tasters were turned off by their “sickening” sweetness and “microwave popcorn flavor.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.