American cheese is something of a contentious issue here in the Uproxx Life Slack chat. Our editor, Steve Bramucci, likes to defend it on the grounds of texture and meltiness, and says he even puts it on ramen. But apparently, I’m an insufferable faux-europhile because I’ve generally thought of it mostly as over-processed, non-cheese trash.
[Thank God we all agree that sharp cheddar is great. — ed.]
It tastes bland or bad and what’s the upside? That it “melts well?” When I make grilled cheese or cheeseburgers with cheddar slices it seems to melt just fine. Of course, I don’t normally buy the stuff, so maybe this opinion is outdated or based on ignorance. For my latest blind taste test/ranking, I bought every “American cheese” available near me to see if any of them could convert me.
Without getting too into the weeds of what “American Cheese” actually is and the various legal labels assorted with it, the basics are that it came out of a process invented in Switzerland, by which various cheese scraps could be combined into a sort of processed cheese product rather than wasted — kind of like we do with meat in sausages and hot dogs.
Canadian-born American emigree James Kraft patented a similar process in the US (apparently combining cheese and pasteurized milk in a copper kettle, then poured into sterile containers) in 1916, with the goal of creating a cheese with a longer shelf life. Some types come poured into individual packets, Kraft single-style, while other types come off a big block at the deli. These days, the milky, melty cheese product is still the second-most bought sliced cheese in America, as of 2019 (mozzerella was number one).
PART I — Methodology
For the purposes of this test… well, I just ate the cheese. And for once I didn’t have to cut it first! (*rimshot*). But seriously folks, I know there are a lot of disparate uses for American cheese — nachos, cheeseburgers, ramen, even apple pie (Robert De Niro orders it in Taxi Driver), but there are so many that choosing just one as a judging criteria seemed too specific and trying to test them all seemed impossible.
In the end, I figured the fairest test was the most obvious: just eat the cheese. I had my wife (*Borat voice*) lay the slices out for me, numbered but unlabeled. I took notes on each slice and ranked the results. That’s it!
- Kraft Singles American 2% Milk
- Kraft Singles
- Sunnyside Farms 2% Milk American Cheese Singles
- Kraft Deli Deluxe American Slices
- Velveeta Slices Original
- Horizon Organic American Singles
- Kretschmar American Cheese
- Kretschmar White American Cheese
- Boar’s Head White American Cheese
- Boar’s Head American Cheese
- Primo Taglio White American Cheese
- Primo Taglio American Cheese
PART II — The Ranking
12. Kretschmar American Cheese (Sample 7)
Kretschmar is a brand of Smithfield Foods that you can find everywhere from Walmart, Target, Food 4 Less, and your local supermarket chain, like Ralph’s or SaveMart in Central California, where I found mine. This particular cheese came from the deli case (as opposed to individually pre-packaged, like some of the others).
The website describes it as “Made from a blend of Wisconsin cheddar or colby cheese and pasteurized to stop the ripening process.”
This one is more orange with a more of a matte than glossy finish. It’s thick too and looks by far the most like cheddar of any of the cheeses. When I pick it up, barely any flop. Are we sure this is American?
The nose is… barely there. Maybe vaguely grassy? There’s something ever so vaguely herbaceous in there.
Biting in… woof. There’s something chalky, but also chemical/metallic tasting in this. I hate it. I keep going back to try to figure out what’s so bad about it and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s definitely gross. I’m having that “Hey, come try this, it SUCKS!” reaction here. I grabbed some tortilla chips to eat afterward as a palate cleanser.
I can’t really explain why this tasted so strange. It looked like tasty, inviting cheese, possibly the most of any in the group. But the melt, the texture, and most of all the flavor just seemed off. Maybe it picked up weird flavors from some of the other things inside the deli case, I don’t know.
11. Kretschmar White American Cheese (Sample 8)
Presumably the same as above, only without the yellow coloring. According to the site, “a mild, creamy, salty flavor with a medium-firm consistency.” (Don’t even think of making a sex joke here, I will call the police).
This one is white. I think we can all agree on that. Let the record show… The finish is more matte than glossy, and it’s thick like a deli slice. I think there were two deli slices in here that are distinctly thicker than the rest. Lots of heft when I pick it up too, one of the least floppy. (What did I say about sex jokes!)
Not much happening on the nose, other than a sense of salty processed-ness.
Biting in… this is definitely a smidge better than the other deli-looking slice. It’s less chalky and metallic, but it’s still pretty bad.
This was basically the same cheese from the same deli case as above and not surprisingly it ended up in basically the same place.
10. Kraft Deli Deluxe (Sample 4)
“Kraft Deli Deluxe American Cheese Slices are creamy, rich, and full of flavor. Enjoy our sliced American cheese with a mild, slightly tangy flavor and smooth texture that goes well with any meat or vegetable dish.”
Presumably a slightly “fancier” version of Kraft singles from the OG of American cheese (invented by a Canadian). One notable difference between this and Kraft singles is that this has 0 grams of sugar, while the singles have two grams. One of its “special features” is “double the calcium.” So it’s got that going for it.
This one is less glossy on the exterior and doesn’t have obvious markings from the plastic, which makes me think it looks more like “real” cheese. It’s sort of a flat yellow in color. When I pick it up it doesn’t “flop” as much as the others. Do we want our American cheese to “flop?” Discuss.
On the nose, it smells a lot like cheddar seasoning, almost like a nacho cheese Dorito. If you put the nacho cheese Dorito bag and this cheese under my nose blindfolded I don’t know if I’d be able to tell the difference. Probably I’d smell the corn. Anyway, moving on…
The flavor is… weird. Oh, I don’t like this at all. It’s like a muddle between that bland processed cheesiness, competing with the nacho seasoning flavor, with a hint of chemical in there and a kind of “off” aftertaste. This one made me crinkle my nose.
I guess sometimes fancier isn’t better. I much preferred original Kraft singles to this supposedly fancy version that tasted like weird chalk and shit.
9. Velveeta Slices Original (Sample 5)
The OGs of processed melting cheese concocted this American cheese slice, er, “pasteurized recipe cheese product” from whey, milk, milk protein concentrate, modified food starch, canola oil, sodium citrate, and some other fun stuff including paprika extract and annatto for color. How about that?
“Seed oil” haters need not apply.
This one is lighter yellow with medium gloss and a little leoparding on the exterior, presumably from the individual plastic wrapping. It’s toward the thiccer end of the spectrum. VERY floppy when I pick it up, despite the thickness. Is this a good thing? I dunno.
On the nose, it has that milky aroma plus… God what IS that? I’m having a hard time placing it. Salty, lemony? I don’t know.
On the palate, it’s very melty, with nothing particularly offputting, but not much going on either. Very neutral, bland, and sort of barely there. A vaguely sweet aftertaste.
In retrospect, I think the flavor I may have had trouble placing was the paprika extract? I’m not really sure. Anyway, this one was basically what I imagined American cheese slices to taste like — melty, milky, and sort of bland. It’s fine.
8. Kraft Singles (Sample 2)
What’s the first cheese you think of when you think of “American cheese?” Probably Kraft singles, the only product here with its own Wikipedia page. According to the website, “our sliced cheese has a mild, savory flavor and smooth, creamy texture that’s perfectly melty,” made from cheddar cheese, skim milk, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey, calcium phosphate and a bunch of other stuff including our old pals paprika extract and annatto.
Annatto… annatto… annatto gonna ask why this cheese is this color, anyway.
This one looks thicker than some of the others and has more of a gold color, with just a hint of the plastic imprint on the outside. It has a decent body to it, so it doesn’t just flop over (probably because it’s thicker — score one for physics! ).
On the nose, it smells more salty, like a cheddar seasoning packet, but with just the faintest hint of something chemical.
In my mouth, the thickness gives it a melty “body” to it, but it’s weirdly kind of flavorless. This isn’t offputting, just bland.
I don’t have any special love or sense memory for Kraft singles that would elevate them above anything else, it seems. They are a fine baseline for this kind of cheese, for whatever that’s worth (probably not much).
7. Sunnyside Farms 2% Milk American Cheese Singles (Sample 3)
Sunnyside Farms is a brand you can find at SaveMart, Sprouts, Lucky, and a handful of other chains. These badboys are made with “cultured milk, water, cream, whey, sodium citrate, milk protein concentrate, modified food starch, whey protein concentrate, calcium phosphate, salt, sorbic acid (preservative), sodium phosphate, citric acid, apo carotenal and beta carotene (color), lactic acid, enzymes, vitamin d3.” I’m always trying to add more modified food starch to my diet, so that’s cool. Food starch taste good in hyu-mon food.
This one is like a medium pale yellow, with some texture on the surface from the plastic and fluting on the edges (that’s right, bitch, I said “fluting,” put that in your flute and toot it). It’s one of the “glossiest” options, for whatever that’s worth. Love a cheese I can see my reflection in.
On the nose, it has that milky, melty, processed cheese smell — nothing chemical or off-putting about it though.
This one has more of a chew to it, it doesn’t melt in the mouth as much. Which isn’t good or bad, in my mind, it’s just a fact. Nothing too chemical or weird about the taste, just kind of bland. Doesn’t taste like much.
Again, very bland and unobtrusive, if that’s your thing.
6. Primo Taglio American Cheese (Sample 12)
Primo Taglio is a popular deli case brand sold at Von’s, Safeway, Albertsons, and their related chains. According the website, it’s made with “American Cheese, Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes, Sodium Citrate, Sodium, Phosphate, Sorbic Acid.” Love when my American Cheese is made with American Cheese. It’s actually kind of weird how little information is available for this one.
Like a flat, lemon yellow in color, definitely more like a deli slice than a single packaged one.
On the nose, there’s something slightly vegetal in there along with the salt and milk.
On the palate, that vegetal flavor is still there, kind of masking the other flavors. It reminds me of a faint, raw bell pepper. The salt and melt is otherwise nice — it doesn’t completely dissolve in that more processed kind of way. It’s not *bad* per se, it’s just a little strange and not quite what I expect.
This brand was — spoiler alert — my favorite cheese, in its other incarnation. This yellow version had a funky flavor in it, presumably from what they use to color it. Hard to say with an ingredients list this vague.
5. Horizon Organic American Singles (Sample 7)
This organic American cheese from an organic dairy brand has most of the usual stuff plus organic annatto for color. Annatto gonna list all the other ingredients here, va fongool.
This one has a lot of package marks but is less glossy than some. Sort of flat yellow towards pastel. Not too floppy when I pick it up, sort of medium.
It’s sort of salty and seasoned-tasting on the nose.
This one has more bite than melt to it, chewier than some of the ones that just melt into milk on your tongue. The flavor kind of has a little salty bite to it too, which is nice. Pretty neutral and kind of barely there though for the most part, but not offputting at all.
I was a bit surprised at such a high finish for an organic brand on such a processed product. I would call this “above average” though not necessarily an enthusiastic “good.” Solid B+ of American cheese.
4. Kraft Singles American 2% Milk (Sample 1)
This 2% milk American cheese boasts “1/3 less fat than regular American cheese” along with a fairly standard-looking ingredients list including annatto and paprika extract for color.
Sort of a pale lemon yellow in color, with some “leoparding” on the skin, presumably from the single serving plastic.
It smells… well, like processed cheese, I don’t really know how else to describe it. It has a milkiness to it, I guess. The texture is very floppy when you pick it up.
Biting in, and it sort of melts in my mouth. You can tell just from the mouthfeel (MOUTHFEEL!) that this would have a decent melt to it. It’s melty in a not entirely offputting kind of way, and a little sweet. It only sticks to my teeth a little. The flavor is sort of bland, but mostly pleasant and creamy. Actually, I think I like this one because it reminds me of drugstore nachos, which I ate an embarrassing amount of as a teen.
I would never have guessed that a reduced fat option was going to beat the genuine article, but that’s why we do blind taste tests, right? This was actually the best of the individually-packaged options (as opposed to the ones that get sliced from the block at the deli, which by and large were the better options).
3. Boar’s Head American
Boar’s Head is a deli brand sold all over, notably at Von’s/Albertsons, HEB, Kroger… Full ingredients list for this one in particular: “American Cheese (Milk, Salt, Cheese Culture, Enzymes), Cream, Sodium Phosphates, Paprika, Annatto, Salt.”
Again, love when my American cheese is made with American cheese. It really brings out the American cheesiness, I find.
This one is medium yellow, more matte than gloss, with uneven deli-style edges and tiny air bubbles that must’ve formed when they poured the liquid milk/cheese mixture and let it cool. It flops a little when I pick it up, though not nearly as much as the kinds that clearly came from individual plastic wraps.
On the nose, this one smells milky and a little salty, with juuuuust a hint of some kind of earthy herb in there, presumably whatever they used for color.
On the palate, this is pretty straightforwardly cheesy. It melts in my mouth while retaining a little chew, and it’s nicely salty.
The top three here are all cheese products that actually taste like cheese. I don’t know that I’m *entirely* sold on the concept of American cheese, but I would definitely eat any of these without complaining.
2. Boar’s Head White American Cheese (Sample 9)
“Crafted from a hand-selected blend of rich, savory Cheddars, this all-American cheese has a smooth, creamy texture and a pleasantly mild taste. Boar‘s Head American Cheese is an amazingly meltable, flavorful classic.” Same ingredients list as the yellow, minus paprika and annatto.
This is white, and clearly came off of a deli block — the cut is a little uneven and it breaks instead of folding.
On the nose, it smells straightforwardly milky, with nothing chemical or metallic in there that I could detect.
There’s a chew to it, though it mostly melts in your mouth. It definitely seems like one of the saltier ones, but the flavor and seasoning are really on point. It actually tastes… kinda like cheese. I could see actually eating a piece of this cheese for the taste, which is not something I expected with American cheese.
I’d have to taste this head-to-head with cheddar, havarti, baby swiss, etc. to determine whether it was actually better than a non-American alternative, but relative to other American cheeses this was easily near the top. Likewise, I’m sure I’m biased towards the white American cheeses, ever since I found out the color was just an additive and not something naturally occurring in the cheese. Which isn’t to say that the color is “bad” for you, it’s like adding a little turmeric powder to your flour when you make pasta to turn it more yellow. It’s a visual element and not much else. But at the same time… why? I’m definitely not married to the idea of my cheese being yellow or orange.
Which is to say: I’d have to taste these blindfolded to determine whether I can actually taste the difference between yellow and white American (the difference being probably a minuscule amount of paprika and/or annatto) or if it’s all just mental.
1. Primo Taglio White American (Sample 11)
Despite the fancy eye-talian-sounding name (which means “first cut,” in case you were wondering), Primo Taglio is actually the cheaper option at the Albertson’s family of supermarkets, behind Boar’s Head (and has basically zero web presence, hence the lack of a picture). There isn’t much difference in the ingredients list between the two either, so far as I can tell: “American Cheese, Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes, Sodium Citrate, Sodium, Phosphate, Sorbic Acid.”
This one is — spoiler alert — white, and looks more like provolone than white American, just based on the thickness and deli-sliced appearance. Matte finish. It flops when I pick it up.
On the nose, I get more salt than milk, sort of like parmesan meets whey.
On the palate, it’s mostly salty/milky/cheesy, but there is just a hit of something ever so slightly funky, like a provolone. It doesn’t melt on the tongue as much as some others, but the taste is really good. This tastes by far the most like “real cheese” of anything so far.
Why I chose the cheaper deli option at Von’s over the more expensive one is as much a mystery as why I ended up liking the 2% Kraft more than the original. Maybe the seasoning-to-fat ratio was higher? In any case, this does feel like a great cheese for a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese for a baby. I’d probably still want cheddar in mine, but definitely no complaints about this one.