Not all processed cheeses are created equal
Individually wrapped cheese gets a bad rap. This is possibly because it looks like shiny plastic in its package, or because it isn’t technically cheese. Some people associate it with government cheese, the processed food product given in bulk to welfare recipients in the back half of the 20th century. But here’s the thing: Welfare programs are good, and so is the cheese they spread. Most commonly referred to as American cheese (in America, at least), processed cheese is unbeatable on hot sandwiches. This is because cooking causes the fat and protein in ordinary cheeses to separate, resulting in an oily slick surrounding a flavorless glob. Processed cheeses, however, with their extra emulsifiers and salts, heat up into a perfectly gooey cream and don’t lose any flavor. This is why they’re the go-to choice for cheeseburgers and egg sandwiches around the country.
There are a lot of varieties of processed cheeses out there, and they usually come in packs of 16 or 24. Pick the wrong type, and you could be stuck with a lackluster cheese for a long time. So I decided to figure out the best brand. To keep things even, I made a grilled cheese sandwich with each variety using the same amount of cheese (the equivalent of four slices per sandwich). What I found is that not all processed cheeses are equal, though, mostly, they’re all fine. Here they are, ranked from worst to best.
This “imitation pasteurized process cheese food” is not actually American but “American flavor.” I hate to disparage a great deal, but this 99¢ pack was completely awful. The cheese food melted into a bumpy mess and tasted like water from a plastic bottle that had been in a hot car all day. This was the only sandwich I didn’t finish.
A real Philly Cheesesteak is made with Cheez Whiz, and Philly Cheesesteaks are great, so I thought it was important to include this. I was surprised to find it in a jar, but it turns out that Easy Cheese is actually the one that comes in a spray can. When cold, it’s basically the same texture as the other processed cheeses, but when it’s heated it’s much runnier. The taste had a hint of pimento mayonnaise to it, which I never noticed when eating cheesesteaks. Without meat, though, it’s a bit overpowering. The taste was kind of bad, but, as is often the case with vinegary products, the aftertaste was quite good. I wasn’t going to eat the whole sandwich, but then I did.
Tropical Sandwich Slices
Tropical makes a lot of good (and affordable) Central American fresh cheeses, but they also sell less exciting things like cheddar and this “imitation pasteurized process cheese food.” The idea of an imitation processed cheese—an imitation of an imitation—is interesting in an ontological sense but doesn’t taste amazing. Once heated, it sort of curdled and tasted like bad movie theater nacho cheese (which, admittedly, isn’t awful; I still ate the whole sandwich). The pack of 16 slices is only 99¢, which would be a great deal if there weren’t exponentially better slices for just pennies more.
Borden American Singles
Each of Borden’s American cheese singles promises that the company is 100 percent farmer owned, which seems good (unless the farmers are, you know, the racist kind). These are a little paler than your average fluorescent orange slices. The flavor is good, but they lack the hearty constitution of some competitors. The cheese falls apart in the plastic wrap, and heats up to an uneven, toothpaste-like consistency.
Horizon Organic American Singles
Somehow, all the cheese melted into the bread, so it didn’t really have much flavor. What remained tasted fine, but isn’t worth the extra money unless you really care about organic milk (which is totally admirable).
Kraft Deli Deluxe American
Unique to this list, these slices didn’t come individually wrapped. The pack of 24 cost $7.69, which is nearly twice as much as regular Kraft Singles. In appearance and texture, these are much closer to regular cheese. When heated, the cheese separates the way that cheddar often does, which I found unsatisfying in a grilled cheese sandwich. I imagine this would be good on a burger, but that might just be because there’s a burger on the package. I had high hopes for this one—I wanted a richer American—and instead just got regular cheese.
My grandma used to make me the best grilled cheese sandwiches. I asked my mom to make them at home and thought hers were awful. It turned out that my mom was using real cheese and my grandma was using Velveeta. (Real ‘90s kids love processed food.) So I was surprised to find that slices these were only pretty good. This may be the result of an ingredient change (in the last 15 years the FDA has led Velveeta to change its labeling from “pasteurized process cheese spread” to “pasteurized prepared cheese product” to its present “pasteurized recipe cheese product”), or maybe it’s hard to recapture the wonderment of childhood—who could say? Still, they were smooth and creamy, just with a little less cheese flavor than what I’m looking for.
Boar’s Head American
A few years back, Boar’s Head ran an ad campaign telling consumers to make sure their deli was selling real Boar’s Head and not just stocking inferior charcuterie behind Boar’s Head stickers. The idea of counterfeit deli meats blew my mind. Now I assume that Boar’s Head must truly make quality products, because why else would someone fake them? Their American cheese offering is basically a glossier cheddar. Of all the cheeses I tried, this is probably the only one I’d eat cold. Hot, it was great, but not quite as smooth as...
Kraft Singles White American
“White American” cheese is one of those things where the joke seems so obvious that you can't figure out which direction to take it. What is surprising is that it’s still ostensibly cheddar flavored; I thought it might be like provolone, but nope. A quick scan of the nutrition label makes this seem nearly identical to regular Kraft Singles, but the flavor is probably 10 percent subtler. The main difference is that white American is noticeably gooier, spilling out of the sandwich and bubbling on the pan in a way that I found very cool.
Kraft Singles American
This is the classic pasteurized prepared cheese product that we know and love, and let me tell you: It holds up. They’re slightly sweet in a way that perfectly counters the saltiness and sourness of bread and butter. The cheese melts into a perfect cream. When you bite into the sandwich, the cheese coats your teeth, which sounds gross but isn’t. Like iPhones and the color black, Kraft Singles is the most popular choice for a reason.