The ubiquitous sandwich slice.

“BLASPHEMER!” the gods of cheese cried (I suppose that would be the French?) as I hit the publish button for this article. I can hardly fault them, since any self-respecting connoisseur would scoff at the idea of giving a serious treatment to the processed cheese industry. I was never one to step down from a challenge though, so here follows my review, in a broadly encompassing way, of American/processed cheese.

First, we need to address the “broadly encompassing” aspect of this review. I have no desire to discuss the nuances of Velveeta for an entire article at this stage of my blog, nor possibly ever unless the company hires me. Yet I could. I could talk to you about Borden vs. Kraft, I could discuss the multitudinous forms of liquid cheese such as Tostito’s White Queso Dip or the industrial version of liquid “cheddar” used on Arby’s Roast Beef and Cheddar. I could discuss the recent trend of processing nearly any extraneous flavor into a new processed cheese, such as onions, habaneros, or even fruit. I could have an entire SERIES of articles about the subject, and it’s one of the subtle joys of being an American: the effects of an industrial revolution on a nation lacking 1000 years of previous historical precedent. That’s another article though. No, I will have to speak in some generalities and hit a few highlights for you, and this article will be far from exhaustive for all of our sakes.

To the cheese! I have heard that some European nations refer to American cheese as “rubber cheese” due to its flexibility, and while I can understand the comparison the texture of our cheese is more akin to a butter cheese than rubber. This makes absolute sense, because the key factor of American and other processed cheese is that they are young cheeses. You will not find a single, solitary processed cheese which has the word “Aged” attached, and if it says “Sharp” it isn’t coming from the age of the cheese. This means processed cheeses initially have a milder flavor, and some of them are left precisely that way.

In my opinion, one of the canonical examples of what you should picture as American cheese is Kraft Singles, individually packaged for sandwiches. If you are a cheese snob you may find it unpalatable, but trust me, there are much, much worse options to represent American cheese (try a slice of government cheese acquired with food stamps if you don’t believe me, some of that almost does have a rubbery texture). I find Kraft Singles to be acceptable when I don’t have a special cheese at hand. You must understand: I LOVE cheese, and this means mediocre cheese is better than bad cheese, while bad is better than none. That said, I might grab a quick snack of a Kraft Single by itself with no accompaniment: it is a palatable cheese. It is buttery, rich, mild, and a little salty.

There is a certain swath of our industry that markets liquid “cheddar” type cheese, and it is almost universally to be avoided. The best of this ilk are cheeses that approach the quality of Velveeta. While you wouldn’t sit and eat a lob of Velveeta by itself – probably – it makes a good accompaniment to dishes such as macaroni and cheese (Velveeta Shells and Cheese is a tasty dish in particular). Velveeta is extremely rich, quite salty, and is stronger than a typical American cheese. However, companies cut corners and don’t use a brand-name product like Velveeta, so you are stuck with whatever knockoff got the lowest bid for their chain of restaurants. Such cheeses are barely palatable when masked by other food, and become downright intolerable when sampled alone. The flavor of a bad liquid “cheddar” is hard to describe: watered-down, chemical, bland, and often with an aftertaste. There are varying degrees of course, as I said, some are closer to Velveeta in flavor.

As an aside here: the concept of liquid cheese is one area processed cheeses have old-fashioned cheeses over a barrel with. There are some specific classic cheeses that melt well, but the list is not that long. Practically every processed cheese can be turned into chip dip or a grilled cheese sandwich if you wish. The ability of processed cheese to so easily conform to another state of matter allows it a niche in some types of cooking and gives a chef looking for creativity in their recipes another tool in their arsenal.

Ultimately, my final assessment is that American/processed cheese is a guilty pleasure. The guilt comes from the knowledge that better cheese exists, and that we support mega corporations with our patronage while slowly stamping out variety. The pleasure is just that: a rich, mild, salty, fatty cheese that melts well into all the comfort foods we love. If you decide to sneak a few Kraft Singles, there will be no judgment coming from me. ^_~

(image courtesy of wikimedia commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wrapped_American_cheese_slices.jpg)