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Cottage cheese has shed its diet-staple persona and emerged as a delicious food in its own right. But which product should you buy?
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What You Need To Know
No midcentury diet book was complete without mention of cottage cheese, a soft, lumpy fresh cheese with slightly tangy flavor. Consumption peaked in the early 1970s, when the average American ate 5 pounds a year. But like Jane Fonda, cottage cheese is so much more than a bygone health fad. And it's having a resurgence in popularity. New products are on the market, some touting the cheese's protein levels and the “live and active cultures” that purportedly promote gut health.
Cottage cheese is a tasty snack when eaten plain, and it's also a useful ingredient: In the test kitchen we use it in baked pastas because it stays creamy, and we add it to pizzas, dips, and desserts, where it contributes moisture and richness. But what exactly is cottage cheese, and does it matter which product you buy?
How Cottage Cheese Is Made
Cottage cheese—so named because it was first made in farmhouses, aka cottages—is produced by acidifying pasteurized skim milk and sometimes adding rennet (enzymes that promote curd formation). Curds form after several hours, and then they're cut into pieces and cooked until the desired firmness is achieved. The curds are drained and rinsed, and finally, salt and cream are added to them. (The amount of cream determines the fat content of the product; fat-free cottage cheese is the curd without any cream.) A key difference in modern cottage cheese manufacturing is the possible inclusion of additives such as xanthan gum or guar gum, usually to prevent liquid from separating.
To find the best product for both snacking and cooking, we selected five top-selling, nationally available cottage cheeses, priced from $0.17 to $0.36 per ounce. We excluded our previous winner, Hood Country Style Cottage Cheese, because it's available in only 12 states, and we focused on full-fat (4 percent milk fat) products since that's what we call for most often in our recipes. (We generally don't recommend cooking with fat-free cottage cheese because it can break and create a grainy, watery texture, so we call for it only in certain reduced-fat recipes.)
Why You Should Look for a Short Ingredient List
After sampling the cottage cheeses plain and in lasagna, we analyzed our rankings and found that texture was critical: Our highly rated cottage cheeses were drier and less liquid-y, while our least favorite products were watery. However, we noticed that wetter products had more additives such as xanthan gum, guar gum, and locust bean gum—all meant to bind ingredients and make the cottage cheese less watery. Our winner and runner-up had no gums at all and the shortest ingredient lists in the lineup.
Curious as to why the stabilizer-free product...
Everything We Tested
Tasted plain, our winner was “fresh” and “very creamy,” with an enjoyable “full fat flavor” balanced by a “nice tangy richness.” Tasters noted this product's “larger,” “uniform,” “cube-shaped” curds and liked its “thick consistency,” with a “creamy” dressing that nicely “holds curds together.” The texture was “a little grainy” in lasagna, but tasters praised its “clean,” “tart,” “delicious” flavor.
Our runner-up had a “tart,” “bright dairy flavor” with a “milky tang that lingers.” We also noted its “slightly dry” curds and “pebbly” texture, which we liked because it was “not very liquid-y at all.” When we included this cottage cheese in lasagna, tasters noticed that the texture was “slightly granular” but that there was a “distinct,” “strong” cheese flavor and “nice tang.”
“Small, delicate curds” that “aren't too well defined” lent this cottage cheese a “creamier,” “smooth” texture. It was “rich,” even “a little sweet,” though some tasters also noted a “sour” “off-flavor” when we sampled it plain (it was well within its sell-by date). An expert told us this could be due to the inclusion of natural flavor and/or whey.
We appreciated the “nice tangy flavor” of this cheese, noting that the “small, uneven” curds were “squeaky” and “dry,” with a “springy,” “firm” texture. But overall, it was “loose” and “a little watery,” with a “thin” dressing that made it seem like the curds were “separating from the liquid.” However, the wateriness was not noticeable when we tasted it in lasagna.
Recommended with reservations
We found this “soupy” cottage cheese with “runny” dressing overwhelmingly “watery,” and one taster exclaimed, “There is so much liquid!” The flavor was also “bland” and “dull,” and some tasters disliked “the irregular size and shape of the curds.” As with the other products, these issues were less apparent when we combined the cottage cheese with other ingredients in lasagna.
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