We found a brand that’s (almost) as good as fresh from the block.
Published Apr. 1, 2017. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Simple Chicken Dinner
It’s a tempting shortcut: spend a few more dollars for a bag of shredded cheese and save time—and potentially skinned knuckles—by not having to grate the cheese yourself. We usually prefer to shred our own mozzarella for pizza, pasta bakes, etc., since most pre-shredded cheese contains anti-caking agents like cellulose powder (miniscule pieces of plant fiber) that can make the cheese stiff and dry, but we wondered if there was a shredded brand that could work in a pinch.
To find out, 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers tried seven brands of shredded mozzarella plain and melted on pizza. We also sent the cheeses to an independent lab to get a read on fat and sodium content.
Texture was the most glaring problem for most of the brands. None were great when eaten raw—the anti-caking agents made their strands gritty and powdery, and there was no fooling tasters into thinking this was freshly shredded mozzarella. But while tasters said no, grazie to the idea of eating pre-shredded cheese for a snack or atop a salad, most agreed that texture wasn’t as much of an issue when the cheese was melted on pizza. Though many brands were still unacceptably rubbery and stiff when melted, a handful emerged from the oven perfectly stretchy and chewy.
Why were some cheeses better than others when melted? The nutritional labels didn’t reveal any differences in the amount of cellulose powder or starch in each brand. Instead, lab tests pointed to fat as the culprit. Our winner—the only cheese made from whole milk in our lineup—contained 45% fat in its dry solids (a measurement of how much of the cheese is fat once water is removed). Lower-scoring cheeses (again, all made from part-skim milk) were significantly leaner, with between 36% and 41% fat in their dry solids. Fat helps cheese retain a tender, milky texture when melted, which explains why leaner products cooked up dense and rubbery, while fattier cheeses were more tender and stretchy.
Fat also contributes to flavor, so it was no surprise that lower-fat cheeses were seriously lacking in the buttery, rich flavor we expect from mozzarella. It didn’t help that some of these brands were also under- or over-salted; we found the sweet spot for seasoning to be between about 210 and 230 mg of sodium per serving—just enough salt to add a savory complexity that tasters craved. One other factor that contributed to flavor: Our winner was the only cheese that contains vinegar, and our tasters appreciated the tang it added. Testers also noticed that a few very finely shredded cheeses were clumpy and sticky, easily balling up into dense clumps that left the cheese splotchy and unevenly melted. When we measur...
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