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American cheese is actually a processed version that might or might not contain other types of cheese. It often consists of a host of processed ingredients. Choosing the best American cheese depends largely on checking the label and assessing the ingredients. Of course, your individual taste preferences will also dictate which cheese is best.
Generally, the product known as American cheese is not 100 percent cheese but rather is made from milk, dried milk powder, and milk fat. Many manufacturers also include milk protein concentrate, whey, and salt. While the ingredients in most American cheeses might be similar, the tastes and textures vary widely.
The quickest way to determine the best American cheese is to check the packaging. If the label reads that the cheese is a “pasteurized cheese food,” it means that it must contain at least 51 percent American cheese along with a certain minimal percentage of milk fat. Of course, it can still contain other processed ingredients, including dried milk solids and milk protein concentrate, but generally it will have the smooth, creamy taste and texture you might expect from American cheese. On the downside, though, this type of cheese tends to have a higher melting point, and that might cause some frustration if you are using it to make grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, and other foods that require a cheese that melts easily.
On the other hand, if the label declares that the product is a “pasteurized cheese product” it likely contains less than 51 percent American cheese and doesn’t meet the minimal percentage for milk fat. These cheeses have higher amounts of processed ingredients and will likely have flavors to match. On the upside, these products generally have lower melting temperatures, so if you are looking for a cheese for burgers or sandwiches that quickly yields a gooey melted texture, this type might constitute the best choice for you.
Many brands, especially those that are prepackaged or identify themselves a “cheese product,” use added flavors, preservatives, and high amounts of sodium to improve the taste and keep the cheese fresher longer. Unfortunately, this sometimes gives the cheese an unnatural taste and texture that some describe as tangy, bitter, or rubbery. Also, too much sodium can make the cheese taste overly salty and gritty. If you are looking for a cheese with a more natural, creamy taste, opt for those sold at the deli counter rather than the prepackaged variety because deli cheese is often less processed and contains fewer preservatives.
You might notice that American cheese also comes in two primary colors, namely, white and yellow. Some brands have such a deep yellow color that they appear orange. The color comes from certain additives called annatto and apocarotenal. These additives don’t generally add much taste, but when used in larger quantities, such as in the darker, more orange cheeses, some people can detect a slightly spicy or bitter flavor. To be on the safe side, if you prefer a more natural flavor, opt for the white cheeses over the yellow variety.
I don't know if there's much science to it, but my mother always swore that the best tasting American cheese was the type that wasn't divided by plastic into individual slices. Getting the slices separated could be a bit troublesome, but mom believed it was worth the effort.
I do know that those slices tend to be a bit thicker, but whether they taste better as mom claimed is a matter up for dispute. Still, it couldn't hurt to try some of that cheese and see if mom was right, could it?
American cheese is a great way to get a kid that hates milk to get a decent amount of calcium. Some brands of American cheese have an increased calcium content and the companies that make those love to brag about that fact when labeling the product. Those "extra calcium" varieties may be exactly what you want when looking for American cheese.
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