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Cheesy lineup. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's no secret that we here at AHT love our American cheese. Nothing else has the same melty, gooey texture and milky, salty flavor that accentuates, but doesn't compete with a burger.

Of course we realize that it's a stretch to even call the stuff "cheese," but if New York Mag's Approval Matrix has told us anything, it's that we're anything but high brow, and that's perfectly fine by me.

But the question is, which American cheese is the gooey, melty, milky, salty, cheez-y best?

This week we cooked over 40 burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches with ten different brands of American cheese to find out.

The Set-up

All cheese were tasted completely blind in two forms: on top of a griddled 100% brisket burger on a toasted Martin's Potato Roll (no condiments allowed), and as a double stack inside a Wonderbread grilled cheese sandwich. Tasters were asked to rank the cheese based on flavor, meltability, and overall impression.

Despite their mannerly appearance to the outside world, SE-ers are surprisingly bad at taking direction. Strict protocols were put in place and several spankings were administered to ensure that tasting sheets were completely filled out in a timely and orderly manner.

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Meltability

For the most part, the meltability of a cheese came down to one factor: the ingredients list:

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The top is the typical ingredients list from a "Cheese Product," a term that is only vaguely defined, and is not restricted by the government. Most "cheese products" are thus labeled because they bulk up their real milk with a large amount of "Milk Protein Concentrate"—a much cheaper ingredient than real milk or real cheese, and one that is not allowed in any product labeled "American Cheese" according to the FDA.

The photo below demonstrates the range of meltability we found within our tasting:

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Real "American Cheese," like Kraft Deli Deluxe slices must be made up of at least 51% actual cheese (hence, "cheese" will always be the first ingredient on the label). It has a distinctly higher melting temperature (i.e. it stays solid longer) than "Cheese Products", and this makes sense. Cheese products contain a higher percentage of milk proteins, along with a few emulsifiers in there that help them stay softer and melt at a lower temperature. Their first ingredient is usually "milk."

For the most part, during cooking, the meltier the cheese, the more appetizing the sandwiches looked. However, the absolute gooiest of the bunch, Kraft's Velveeta slices—which are bound with gelatin—melted to a nearly completely liquid state as the cooked, saturating the bread and oozing out onto the griddle.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum, the two organic cheeses made by Wholesome Valley failed to melt in the slightest, remaining solid, and even crumbly after being fully cooked, as the grilled cheese in the photo below can attest to.

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Obviously, there's something wrong with that picture, and it ain't the bread.

Flavor

As far as flavor is concerned, they ranged from super salty and bland, to mildly salty and bland. Flavor is not American cheese's strong point—nobody ever claimed it was. So it's not surprising that it didn't factor heavily into people's overall rankings.

The Tasting Results

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Surprisingly, for both the burgers and the grilled cheese sandwiches, the overall rankings remained pretty much the same, with a tiny bit of flip-flopping near the top end. And none of the cheeses outside of the bottom two were deemed unacceptable.

Our conjecture about American cheese being all about the goo factor was pretty much correct—overall, the cheeses that melted the best scored the best in our tastings, although lack of flavor did downgrade a couple of the best melters (notably Velveeta).

It turns out that the more wholesome sounding "American Cheese" (Deli Deluxe and Hotel Bar) held no significant advantages over the "Prepared Cheese Products," despite having real cheese as the first item in their ingredients lists. In the end, they were downgraded for their inferior melting qualities.

In the end, the most remarkable part of the tasting was how remarkably similar all the cheeses. In reality, as long as you stay away from the Wholesome Valley brand, you should be pretty safe with whatever you choose to top your patty with.

Here are the cheeses, in order of preference.

1. Super A

20100625-cheese-tasting-01super.jpgThis generic store-bought brand was deemed the meltiest (see the burger above). Perhaps because it contained close to the least amount of real cheese? The predominant flavors were milky and salty, which seems to be what American cheese is all about.

Cheese Type: American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Overall Score: 7.8
Comments: "Solid flavor, salty, yum," "Good! Flavorful and melty."

2. Kraft Singles

20100625-cheese-tasting-02Kraft.jpgThe ones we grew up with, and they still taste just the same. In a grilled cheese it stretches and oozes without becoming totally liquid and soaking into the bread. On a burger is drapes the whole patty in a gooey sheath. We really liked this one.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Overall Score: 7.7
Comments: "I like it in a processed kinda way." "Milky, strong dairy, yum!" "What I think of American as tasting. This may be the best melter of all."

3. Velveeta

20100625-cheese-tasting-03velveeta.jpgThe only cheese product which includes gelatin in its recipe. It melts to an almost liquid consistency—too gooey by some standards. In both the grilled cheese and burger, the cheese melted right into the bread, which some tasters loved, but others were confused by. It was the least flavorful, but its sheer goo factor seemed to make up for it.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Overall Score: 7.4
Comments: "Salty and creamy," "Sticky-wicky," "Goooooooeey," "Flavor indiscernable."

4. Land O'Lakes

20100625-cheese-tasting-04Land.jpgOne of the more flavorful of the bunch, though the flavors bordered on 7-11 cheese-pump style. A great meltability and strong milkiness put this one firmly towards the top of the pack.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Overall Score: 6.8
Comments: "Pretty classic. Taste like a Kraft Singles clone," "Melty and assertively milky," "Total salt BOMB with a fake nacho, fake Handi-snacks, fake-something taste—nothing actually offensive though."

5. Horizon Organic

20100625-cheese-tasting-05Horizon.jpgWith only 6 ingredients (compared to Velveeta's 16), it was the most "natural" sounding of the bunch. But those emulsifiers must be there for a reason, because it was also one of the least meltiest, turning waxy a few seconds after biting into the sandwiches. A good strong, almost cheddar-like flavor helped.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Process Cheese Food
Overall Score: 6.6
Comments: "Nice sharpness—like fake cheddar," "Turns plastic-y pretty quickly," "Seems to solidify in my mouth"

6. Borden

20100625-cheese-tasting-06Borden.jpgI didn't even know that Borden makes American cheese, but as a 100% American farmer-owned company, it makes sense. This middle of the pack cheese was exactly that: average flavor, average texture. Nothing bad, but nothing to write home about.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
Overall Score: 6.4
Comments: "Not complex. Doesn't taste like anything," "Not highly remarkable, but it's good for showcasing a burger." "Nothing wrong, nothing notable."

7. Kraft Deli Deluxe

20100625-cheese-tasting-07deluxe.jpgDeli Deluxe is Kraft's premium offering, and it's actually a real American cheese, as opposed to a cheese product. Ed wanted so badly for this one to win, but in the end the real cheese didn't improve its flavor enough to compensate for its relative lack of meltability.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Process American Cheese
Overall Score: 6.0
Comments:

8. Hotel Bar

20100625-cheese-tasting-08hotel.jpgSold for $15 in packs of 120, this was the most generic real American cheese that we could find. A virtual clone of the Kraft Deli Deluxe (down to a nearly identical ingredients list), just like the Deli Deluxe, it's got real cheese as its first ingredient, with all of advantages (flavor) and disadvantages (meltability) that come with it.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Process American Cheese
Overall Score: 5.9
Comments: "Stiffish, unremarkable," "Mild. Not too salty, but nice," "Really strong taste" "Tastes kind of processed."

9. Wholesome Valley

20100625-cheese-tasting-09Wholesome.jpgYou may feel good buying this product, but we guarantee that feeling will end as soon as you put it in your mouth. A total lack of meltability, and the most unnaturally neon orange color of all of the cheeses were only overshadowed by its lack of flavor.

Cheese Type: Pasteurized Process Cheese Product
Overall Score: 3.0
Comments: "Stiff and really orange," "WHY DOESN'T IT MELT??" "Usually I like orange-ness, but it looks more dramatic than it tastes," "Bright orange. NO taste. Dislike dislike," "

10. Wholesome Valley Vegan

20100625-cheese-tasting-10vegan.jpgOne word: Why?
Cheese Type: American Flavor Soy Vegan Slices
Overall Score: 0.2 (because most tasters didn't follow the instructions to rank from 1-10 and went ahead and gave it a 0)
Comments: "THIS IS HORRIBLE AND YOU ARE MEAN FOR MAKING US EAT IT," "Oh Jesus, it's BACK!!!" "Grainy FAIL," "BLUCH Get outta my mouth!" "Get it out! Get it out! Gritty/grainy! Nooooooooooo!" "OMG NOOO" ":("

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About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.

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