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The Ultimate Shredded Cheddar Taste Test

The Ultimate Shredded Cheddar Taste Test


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To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, shredded cheese gets no respect. It’s tossed haphazardly onto pizza bagels, sits half-melted inside a crumbling Ortega taco shell, or globs up inside an omelette. But not all shredded Cheddar cheeses are equal. Some are just OK, others make for a great snack right out of the bag, and others can be a great addition to recipes ranging from scones to meatloaf. We put 13 different Cheddars, both sharp and mild, to the test, and have agreed upon a clear winner.

The Ultimate Shredded Cheddar Taste Test (Slideshow)

Shredded Cheddar, and shredded cheese in general, can sometimes feel like the outcast of the dairy aisle. It doesn’t have the same cult following or childhood devotion as, say, Kraft Singles do, and isn’t quite as versatile as Velveeta. But if you choose the right brand, shredded Cheddar can make or break a great dish. It can be the secret to great pizza, gratins and casseroles, macaroni and cheese, and don’t forget about Tex-Mex food!

In order to conduct our taste test, we purchased 13 different varieties of Cheddar: big national brands like Sargento and Kraft as well as store brands from supermarkets like Whole Foods and even smaller options like Walgreens' "Nice!" brand. We set up a blind taste test, and each of our tasters tried each cheese at room temperature, making note of its texture (creamy? Mealy?), smell, whether it tasted like real, high-quality Cheddar, if you could tell whether high-quality milk was used, and overall enjoyment. We also snuck a vegan cheese in there to see how it stacked up.

At the end of the day, the results were surprising. One of America’s most respected cheese brands tasted more like American cheese than Cheddar, a beloved supermarket brand got a middling score, and the one that came out on top is more renowned for its processed offerings. But there were clear winners and losers, and you can read all about them here.


Are Low Fat Shredded Cheeses Worth The Calories? | Taste Test

The prepackaged shredded Mexican cheese blend has been a staple of my life for as long as I can remember. Taco night? Mom always picked up a pack for the toppings bar. Late-night nachos in college? All we needed were some tortilla chips and a bag of blend. Same with the most basic of "quesadillas". It might not be authentic, but when I need a quick snack, a tortilla microwaved with some cheese blend inside has never steered me wrong.

Considering the frequency with which I consume this product, I've occasionally wondered whether or not I'd been doing myself a disfavor by never considering either the low fat, or the organic versions. So I picked up the three brands available at my grocery store—Sargento (one of the most popular supermarket brands), Organic Valley (one of the largest organic dairy producers), and Weight Watchers (who need no introduction)— and put them to the test.

The Criteria

So what makes a good Mexican cheese blend? In my view, it's a delicate balance between taste, texture, and ability to melt. You want a cheese blend that tastes, well, if not "Mexican"—authenticity doesn't seem to be the primary concern here—then still not simply like cheddar. Accepting that they mean Tex-Mex cheese blend, I'd say that it should be salty, with the lightly tangy yet smooth taste of most quesadilla filling cheeses.

The cut should be fine enough that it easily incorporates itself into the toppings on a taco or into the bean-y fabric of chili, but not so fine that the blend is grainy or sawdusty. On the other end of the spectrum, the blend shouldn't be too thick cut, the kind that forms into a hard, plasticky shell on whatever it tops. Above all, it must melt well, staying creamy and gooey, not broken or greasy.

The Results

I tasted all of my cheese both straight out of the plastic, and melted in the microwave. First, the plain tasting.


The Best Cheddar Cheese You Can Buy at the Supermarket

Maybe pepper Jack is too damn spicy for you. Or gorgonzola too flat-out pungent. Maybe triple-cream brie is more than you want to spend, and powdered "Parmesan"—you don't even know her. But tangy, crumbly cheddar is a cheese pretty much everyone can agree on, whether it's melted on top of a burger, infused into mac and cheese or just served up on a platter.

And while we're big fans of the fancy, schmancy cheddar you can score at the cheese store, we wanted to find a brand we could turn to any day of the week. So it was with great solemnity that I gathered the Epi troops for a cheddar cheese taste-off. To whittle down the pickings, we went middle of the road: sharp cheddar only (no milds, no mediums, no extra-sharps). We wanted an all-purpose cheese—one that tastes just as great sliced on top of a cracker as it does melted into an unbeatable cheese sauce. We bought each cheese in block form whenever possible and sliced them just before the tasting commenced. In addition, we tasted all cheeses blind, with nothing buy bland crackers to cleanse our respective palates. Here are the results:


What vegan cheese brands did we try?

Despite trying out 10 different brands, we know that there are even more out there. We just didn’t find them local to us. The brands that we did find and try are:

  • Daiya – both the original and the new cutting board blend
  • So Delicious
  • Follow Your Heart
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Aldi’s
  • Parmela Creamery
  • Whole Foods 365
  • Violife
  • Good Planet

I will be upfront that we had tried a few of these before. Specifically, we had tried both of the Daiya’s, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi’s. We had tried a different shredded flavor from Violife also.

However, we had never tried any of them side by side with other brands which we believe is really important when it comes to taste testing.


The Queso Showdown: Velveeta vs. Real Cheddar

During our Slow Cooker Dips Series, we’ve shared slow cooker queso recipes using two different types of cheeses: one with Velveeta and the other with real shredded cheddar cheese. After some serious queso taste-testing (it’s difficult work, people), we’ve compiled the data and compared the two recipes. (In the picture above, the Velveeta version is on the left and the real cheddar version is on the right).

Which queso will reign supreme in this showdown? Let’s find out.

Appearance & Texture

It was pretty easy to tell these two quesos apart based on appearance. The queso made with Velveeta cheese is smoother and creamier than the real cheddar queso. That’s why people have come to love this easy-melting pasteurized cheese product. The queso made with shredded cheese appeared a bit grainy and had a thinner consistency than the Velveeta queso. The color difference in the two queso dips is also noticeable, with the shredded cheese version appearing more orange.

Taste

If you’ve had Velveeta before, you know it has a distinct “cheesy” flavor. One of my taste-testers knew immediately which dip was made with Velveeta, although the appearance may have tipped them off, but the other tester thought the shredded cheddar version was actually the Velveeta-based queso. Both recipes have a bit of heat, as any good queso should, which comes from the cayenne pepper and chipotle chili pepper.

In the end, both of my taste-testers preferred the Velveeta version of queso, while I preferred the taste of the shredded cheddar queso.

Convenience

All of the ingredients are the same for each recipe, except for the type of cheese used and they’re both very easy to prepare. Throw all of the ingredients into a slow cooker, stir it a few times and you have queso. Since both Velveeta and shredded cheese are readily available at most supermarkets, we consider these recipes equal when it comes to convenience.

A box of Velveeta mini blocks cost $5.99 at my grocery store, while the two, 8-ounce bags of shredded cheddar cheese required for the recipe cost $5.76. If you’re at all like me, there may already be a couple bags of shredded cheddar in the cheese drawer so it may be more cost-effective to use what you already have on hand.

Conclusion

While I preferred the taste of the queso made with shredded cheddar, my two taste-testers perferred the Velveeta. And I do agree with them that the Velveeta queso had a better mouth-feel and appearance. The two quesos are equally convenient to make and comparable in price. The ultimate deciding factor therefore probably comes down to whether you are someone who uses and enjoys processed cheese products or prefers real cheese. Whichever way you go, you’re in for a goopy cheesy treat!


Homing In on Flavor

Flavor differences were a bit harder to pick up on. While some of the cheeses were &ldquosharp&rdquo and &ldquopunchy&rdquo when tasted plain, most were described as &ldquomellow&rdquo and &ldquomild&rdquo when melted for the nachos. Experts told us that some of the compounds responsible for sharp flavor can dissipate during cooking, which is likely why tasters rated the flavors of the melted cheeses more uniformly. The sodium levels of the cheeses ranged from 170 milligrams to 200 milligrams per 28-gram serving, but none of the cheeses was deemed too salty when sampled plain. However, when sampled with salty chips in the nachos, tasters gave a slight edge to products with less sodium.

Ultimately, we can recommend all the cheeses we tried. However, Kraft Sharp Cheddar Shredded Natural Cheese came out on top for its &ldquosubtly sharp,&rdquo &ldquobuttery&rdquo flavor and its &ldquosofter,&rdquo &ldquosmoother&rdquo texture when melted. Tasters also found its thinner strands easier to sprinkle than the products with thicker strands.


Which Cheddar Cheese is Best?

Cheese! A food so good that you can put it on almost any other food and it makes that food better! Don’t believe me? My multiple lactose intolerant friends who won’t stop eating cheese say otherwise. When we were asked to hold a Cheddar Cheese taste test, we knew it was a must!

The person who asked us to test Cheddar Cheese felt overwhelmed at the amount of brands of cheese, and the wide range of prices. (Which is why we started The Food Showdown.) And it’s true, there is such a wide range. Look at the price difference between the cheapest contender and the most expensive contender below.

Setting up the Cheddar Cheese Taste Test

The cheeses were presented on identical plates, labeled A-F.

Close up

The panelists were asked to select them all at once and were allowed to test in whatever order they wanted.

Our “low-tech” way to keep track of each brand.

Panelists were able to eat the cheese alone, or with whatever food (like cracker or bread) they wanted to eat with it. However they had to stick with that food for each brand. To see how we keep all tests unbiased, as well as a list of every test ever, click here.

The Contenders:

All brands are Sharp (because go big or go home) Cheddar. (Some brands have Extra Sharp as their only (Or only available at our local stores.) Sharp option. In that case, we used their Extra Sharp. It’s like fast food restaurants having Medium, Large, and Extra Large as their only drink sizes. Your Extra Large is the Large.)

In order of least to most expensive number is the price per ounce on their 8 ounce package, unless otherwise noted:

.312 (16 OZ shown, but price calculated on 8 OZ package)

.374

Tillamook, packaged at a local food co-op. They buy big wheels and then package in smaller quantities. The idea is that the cheese should be fresher as it’s not going through a large processing plant. Tillamook is the only brand that this was available for. Also, the only cheese was not sold in 8 oz packages… it was actually 15.36 oz.

.468

.524

.562 />.874

As with other foods we’ve tested like olive oil, butter, and potato chips, cheese does not have that large of an ingredient list. So will the more expensive prove to be worth the money? Or will a cheaper brand win it, as is quite often the case?

Cheddar Cheese Taste Test Results

Some of our taste tests have clear winners, or clear losers. Or one or two brands will separate themselves from the pack. This taste test didn’t end that way. The results were rather spread out, forming a nice even transgression from least to most favorite. Check out the point spread:

The letter corresponds to the placeholder during the test.

6 – Tillamook from the co-op (F)

Winner Winner!!

Insights:

We had bigger hopes for Tillamook. They built their brand on cheese, and won both vanilla and chocolate ice cream taste tests. But they did not fare too well here, coming in last and second to last place.

Cabot also surprised a lot of people by placing so low, because they are in the fancy cheese area of the grocery store. And when you think Cabot, you think cheese.

Remember that Cabot was the most expensive, at 2.8 times more expensive than the cheapest one… AND NOT ONE PERSON VOTED IT THEIR FAVORITE! Last place (co-op Tillamook) at least got one person to vote it their favorite.

No one was expecting Cracker Barrel to do so well. The general “feeling” was that they while they have cheese, they wouldn’t be a real contender. So this is probably the Cinderella story of this cheddar cheese taste test.

Lucerne (Safeway’s dairy brand) wins again! Safeway has won, or at least placed very high in most taste tests we’ve held. Lucerne was also the cheapest!

This test proves once again that more expensive does not always mean better.

Comments from panelists about each brand:

We like to include comments from our panelists about each brand. This way if there’s a quality in a cheese that you like, you can find it here, in case you don’t like our winner.

Tillamook from the co-op (F): mild flavor, thick!, not as good, best texture, limited flavor profile, tastes expensive, good, hard, extra sharp, more firm, robust, “no! oh, gross”

Tillamook (B): firm, mild, yuck, no, flavor develops later, weak, American cheese-like, boring, crumbly, hard, sharp, smoother with more bite, dry, not as sharp

Cabot (D): Harder, sharper, dry, strange flavor, somewhat dry, crumbly, sharp, dry, sharp, tangy, don’t like dry not flavorful

Kraft (E): Mild, soft, flavorful, good flavor, good texture, sharp, creamy-ish, mild, tasty, soft, smooth, smooth but not very flavorful

Cracker Barrel (C): soft, extra!, sharp, mild, sharp, salty, soft, chewy, mellow, soft, creamy, not as natural tasting

Lucerne (A): soft, sharp, good!, creamy, tangy, creamy, very sharp, creamy, soft, pliable, slightly mushy, sharp, creamy

Do you agree with our panelists? Is there a brand of cheese we should have included? Let us know in the comments. Have a food you’d like us to test next? Hit us up!

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EatingWell Taste Test: Reduced-Fat Cheddar Cheese

Some people immediately turn up their noses at the mention of reduced-fat cheese. This is understandable, given that some of these products are flavorless and have the texture of, say, rubber. Because EatingWell recipes regularly call for reduced-fat cheeses-Cheddar most often-we decided to put several brands to the test.

The term "reduced-fat" means the product has at least 25 percent less fat than the full-fat version-but must that translate to reduced flavor as well?

We gathered an array of reduced-fat Cheddars, then narrowed the field to our preferred six before convening a panel of cheese tasters to rate them. Our diverse panel included Ric, who said, "There&aposs no cheese I wouldn&apost put in my mouth" Dan, a Cheddar guy who wasn&apost convinced that reduced-fat cheese could actually taste good Henry, a grilled-cheese connoisseur Terry, who has been searching for an acceptable reduced-fat option Robbie, a lover of artisan and exotic cheeses and Jessie, who loves cheese but is cautious because she&aposs lactose-intolerant (most cheeses are low in lactose, since it&aposs drained off in the cheesemaking process). Here&aposs how our panel weighed in.

Cracker Barrel 2% Milk Natural Cheese, Extra Sharp Cheddar White

This cheese was the top pick by five of our six panelists. It also had the highest marks in appearance, taste, and texture. Dan, who vowed to never buy reduced-fat cheese, said he&aposd even set it out for guests. Henry said it tasted the most "real" of the options, and Jessie thought its balanced flavor had nice sharpness and acidity. Terry noted its square shape made it a great choice for cheese-and-crackers.

Cabot 50% Light

Robbie enjoyed the milk tang of the Cabot and its unobjectionable texture. Ric liked its sharper edge and nice appearance. Terry felt it was "sharper and cheesier" than the others, while Dan was fond of the flavor but wasn&apost as keen about its texture.

Kraft 2% Milk Natural Reduced Fat Mild Cheddar Cheese

Ric&aposs favorite he said, "This one has a complexity the others don&apost have." The chewy, gooey texture pleased Henry, who also noted it had a "different and better flavor than the others." The slight sharpness appealed to Jessie, who thought this one would be a winner melted on nachos. But Robbie disliked its texture and believed the only place for it was atop a bland saltine.

Robbie Stanley, editor of The Charlotte News

Ric Cengeri, rabid supporter of Preston North End, English football team

Dan Cypress, EatingWell accounting manager

Jessie Bradley, garden designer

Henry Sengle, 7th-grade soccer lover

Terry Wright, marketing manager

Other cheeses EatingWell liked:

* Crystal Farms Reduced Fat Cheddar Cheese

* Horizon Organic Reduced Fat Cheddar Cheese

* Tillamook Reduced Fat Medium Cheddar Cheese

Editor&aposs Note (June 25, 2010): Horizon Organic Reduced Fat Cheddar Cheese is no longer available.


Sargento

This blend had the most white cheese in the mix as well as the thinnest shred. In the ingredients, monterey jack is listed first, then cheddar, queso quesadilla, and asadero cheese. These last two are presumably where the "real Mexican" flavor is supposed to come from. Queso quesadilla is an easy melting cheese from Northern Mexico named after the melted cheese sandwich. In most parts of Mexico, queso asadero is a white, semi-soft cheese used for melting. Taste-wise, this blend is salty with a prominent Monterey Jack flavor. When eaten plain, straight out of the package, it has a dusty texture that catches in the back of your throat.

Most pre-shredded cheeses come tossed in some sort of moisture-absorbing starchy coating to prevent them from forming a single large blob in the pack. It's not good to eat them without heating them first to gelatinize that starch.


Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tasted the cheeses plain and in grilled cheese sandwiches.

The Color of Cheddar: Orange vs. White

Cheddar cheese hails from Cheddar, England, a town known for its elaborate natural cave system where British dairy farmers began aging cheese in the 12th century. Back then, a pale yellow color was a mark of quality in cheddar: It meant that the cheese came from healthy cows that grazed on beta-carotene-rich grasses. But in the 1600s, English cheesemakers figured out that they could pass off low-fat cheddar (which was less expensive to produce, but lacks yellow pigment) as full-fat cheese by adding orange food dye. The trend of dying cheese orange carried over into full-fat cheddar when manufacturers realized that seasonal variations in cheese color (colorful grasses are more abundant in warmer months) could be concealed by dying the milk a bright orange hue with annatto extract, a tasteless plant colorant.

Whether you prefer your cheddar orange or white largely depends on where you live: White cheddar is more popular along the Atlantic coast, while the rest of America favors orange cheddar. To accommodate regional preferences, most manufacturers produce both an orange and a white variety of cheddar. But aside from color, is there any difference between the two?

To find out, we pitted one brand’s white and orange sharp cheddars against each other in a blindfolded taste test, and later repeated the test with another brand just to be sure. In both tests, all tasters were able to identify the color of the cheese via taste alone. The white cheddars were deemed more acidic and sharper, while orange cheeses had softer textures and milder flavors. But if annatto is flavorless, what accounts for the difference? According to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some manufacturers actually make their orange and white cheddars differently, altering the moisture, fat content, and aging times to reflect regional palates. Sommer also said that while many dairy scientists maintain that there’s no chemical reason annatto should affect the flavor of cheddar, emerging research suggests that it’s possible annatto has an antimicrobial effect on cheese, changing how it ages and how its flavor develops.



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