The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

What, Exactly, IS American Cheese? (And Why Do Some People Love To Hate It?)

It's one of the most maligned and misunderstood links in the culinary food chain. It's blended. It's processed. It's artificially colored. It comes individually-wrapped in plastic. It's the food that food snobs love to hate. It's American Cheese. And – sorry, food snobs -- I actually like it. Some of it, anyway.

I grew up in America's Dairyland. Like most kids, the first cheese to pass my lips was a slice of American. As I grew older, I eventually learned to appreciate cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, mozzarella, Colby, Monterey Jack, Gouda, Gruyere....well, you get the idea. But through it all, I remain faithful to the cheese that first brought me to the dance – good old American.

But, what, exactly is American cheese and why do so many food purists discount and dislike it?

In the first place, there is debate as to whether or not American cheese actually qualifies as cheese. By broad definition, cheese is produced by a natural process that involves separating milk into solid and liquid components – curds and whey – and compressing the solids into cheese. And, while elements of real cheese can be found in American cheese, it is primarily produced by chemical means that incorporate emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors, and other additives. In short, it is a processed cheese product, not a true natural cheese.

The process that produces processed cheese is defined, categorized, and regulated by the Food & Drug Administration under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Section 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products). (Yes, they have a special section devoted to cheese and “cheese related products.” Read the Code someday when you have a week. You'll be amazed.) Anyway, the regulations say that pasteurized process cheese can be comprised of a single cheese or a blend of cheeses. Cream, buttermilk, milkfat, water, salt, artificial colors and flavorings, and other “optional ingredients” may also be added. The blended mixture is heated, emulsified, molded – and by that I mean poured into a mold rather than being allowed to mold, – and cooled. Ta-dah! American Cheese!

It has not always been so. Once upon a time, America produced a cheese that was a true cheese. But even then it was sometimes rated pretty low on the quality scale.

Cheddar cheese is a staple of British cheese-making. Originating in the Somerset village of Cheddar, it dates back to at least the mid-12th century. The very process by which the cheese is made is called “cheddaring.” That, of course, is a subject for a whole 'nother article, so let's just say that when the British settled the Colonies, they brought their passion for cheddar cheese with them.

After the little dust-up that began in 1776 was settled, newly-minted American cheese-makers began exporting their brand of American-made cheddar back to England and Europe. Originally, the product was thought to be inferior to true English cheddar – a cheap imitation that sold for a cheap price. The British began referring to this allegedly inferior American cheddar as “American cheese” to differentiate it from the superior home-grown product.

Eventually, Americans got better at producing cheese, and soon some higher quality American cheddars were being re-labeled and sold for higher prices in European markets. The practice even carried over into some American markets. But America also continued to produce cheap cheese for quick sale, which resulted in these lesser quality efforts still being labeled “American cheese,” hence the reason for the “American cheese” label to be associated with cheaper, lower quality cheese.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines American cheese as a “cheese of cheddar type, made in the U.S.” and lists 1804 as the first known usage of the term "American cheese.” Merriam-Webster pushes that date back to 1763 and defines American cheese as “a process cheese made from American cheddar.”

By the 1890s, American factories had begun churning out huge quantities of American cheddar, sometimes popularly referred to as “factory cheese,” or “store cheese” due to its widespread availability.

Around this point in the timeline, Wisconsin began to assert itself as the cheese-making powerhouse it would eventually become. And in a particular little village in Wisconsin, a fellow named named Joseph Steinwand developed a new cheese, similar in character to cheddar but without employing the traditional cheddaring process. He named it after his hometown, Colby.

Colby cheese is softer and milder than cheddar. Lacking a well-defined character of its own, Colby lends itself well to blending with other cheeses. And somewhere, somebody discovered that it blended really well with American cheddar. This blending – and a fellow named Kraft – represented the next generation of American cheese.

Canadian-born entrepreneur James Lewis Kraft had been selling cheese out of a wagon on the streets of Chicago since 1903. In 1916, he discovered and patented a process for pasteurizing cheese. Because his new process retarded spoilage and dramatically improved shelf life, Kraft was able to market his pasteurized process American cheese all over the United States and Canada. The U.S. government even provided tins of processed cheese to its troops in World War I.

Americans loved this processed hybrid. Sold in blocks by delis and grocery stores, processed American cheese had a milder flavor and a smoother texture than traditional cheddar. By 1930, more than forty percent of cheese sold in America bore the “Kraft” label. It was a cheap staple during the Depression years and a patriotic symbol for the war years that followed, when rationing and bans made more exotic imports difficult to obtain.

Then came the '50s; the “modern” era, the age of convenience. The Space Age. And with the decade came the mophing of American cheese into the product we know today. By most accounts, it was not necessarily a change for the better.

Sliced bread had been around for about twenty years, so why not sliced cheese to go with it? Kraft, of course, was the innovator, introducing pre-sliced cheese to the American market in 1950. Individually-wrapped slices were not far behind. What most consumers did not realize – and probably still don't – was that these convenient cheesy marvels were never freshly sliced from a loaf or block of cheese. Rather they were – and are – formed by pouring hot cheese product directly onto wax paper – or later, cellophane or plastic – wrappers and allowing the product to cool into “slices,” ideal for topping a burger or for slipping between slices of bread in a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

As the form altered, the character and content of American cheese began to change, as well. Less and less reliance was placed on blending real cheeses – like the traditional cheddar and Colby blend – as cheaper products became available. American cheese was – and is – now being manufactured from a set of ingredients that includes milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, and salt. Sometimes milk products are bypassed altogether in favor of vegetable oils.

Of course, none of this product development qualified the end result to be labeled “cheese” anymore. New York's Borden Milk Company and others had joined Kraft in the manufacture and distribution of process American cheese and purveyors of natural cheese began to pressure dairy state legislatures and the federal government to step in, accusing Kraft and its competitors of fraud for marketing their processed products as cheese. They demanded regulation of what they referred to as “embalmed” or “renovated” cheese. Federal government regulators did eventually get involved, but rejected “embalmed” cheese in favor of the more appealing “process cheese.” And they introduced numerous specific designations for the new “American process cheese” industry.

In general, “American cheese” has a legal definition under the aforementioned Code as a type of pasteurized process cheese. But, even so, not all pasteurized process cheeses – or “cold-pack cheese food” as the Code calls them – are created equal. So further sub-categorizations are needed.

First, you have “Pasteurized Process Cheese.” This amalgam can contain one or more cheeses. It may also include “optional ingredients” of either a dairy or non-dairy nature. Fat and moisture content may vary by product, but fat content is generally restricted to less that 47 per cent.

Then there's “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food.” I love this one. “Cheese Food” has to be at least 51 percent, by final weight, of one or more "optional cheese ingredients." Doesn't that sound yummy? These “optional cheese ingredients” have to be mixed with one or more "optional dairy ingredients" and they may also contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" of a nondairy type. Moisture must be less than 44 per cent, and fat content can equal no more than 23 per cent. Got that?

Of course, “Pasteurized Process Cheese Product” is a real crowd pleaser. The FDA doesn't even have a standard for this designation, which is usually applied to the really cheap generic and store brands. It's a step or two down from the equally undefined “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.” And don't forget “Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread,” which is similar to “Cheese Food” but must be spreadable at approximately room temperature.

Of course, the manufacturers have designations of their own, marketing “Deluxe” or “Old-Fashioned” or “Premium” varieties. There is a difference in quality and taste among these higher end – and higher-priced – products. They're still “Pasteurized Process Cheese,” but they're several cuts above the “cheese food” and “cheese product” alternatives. Usually, the “deluxe” options are sliced but not individually wrapped, making them nearer a natural cheese than their plastic-clad cousins. These slices are more nearly related to the block cheeses found in delis, which are also “Pasteurized Process Cheese,” but they are at least a little higher up on the fake cheese chain.

Take, for example, “Cheez Whiz,” a Pasteurized Process Cheese Product that contains the following: whey, canola oil, milk, milk protein concentrate, maltodextrin , sodium phosphate, contains less than 2% of whey protein concentrate, salt, lactic acid, sodium alginate, mustard flour, worcestershire sauce (vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor), sorbic acid as a preservative, milkfat, cheese culture, oleoresin paprika (color), annatto (color), natural flavor, and enzymes.

What American household doesn't have Velveeta stashed in the pantry? According to Kraft, the Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread has been “Pleasing Families Since 1928.” Now available in twenty-eight varieties, it's very similar to Cheez Whiz: milk, water, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, contains less than 2% of salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), and cheese culture.

And, of course, we must include the stuff that flavors the only macaroni and cheese many Americans have ever known; the orange stuff in the blue box. You can buy it straight up, if you like, in a shaker-top plastic container. Up until few years ago, Kraft used to market it as “Grated American Cheese.” Nowadays, it's called “Macaroni & Cheese Cheese Topping” The package exhorts the consumer to use it on or in nearly everything except ice cream. Maybe they just haven't thought of that one yet. Regardless, it is a variation of the same ingredients; whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, milk, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, and cheese culture.

Kraft's “Deli Deluxe” slices, labeled a “Pasteurized Process American Cheese,” contain: milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, water, milkfat, sodium citrate, calcium phosphate, salt, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, with starch added for slice separation.

Kraft “Singles,” identified as a “Pasteurized Cheese Product,” are made up of: milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), enzymes, vitamin d3, and cheese culture.

The “Select” version of Kraft “Singles,” while still a “Pasteurized Process American Cheese,” has the fewest artificial ingredients: milk, water, sodium sictrate, milkfat, salt, contains less than 2% of sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, oleoresin paprika (color), annatto (color), enzymes, and cheese culture.

Watch the labels. As noted, many cheaper store brands are designated as “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food,” which may contain a higher quantity of “optional ingredients” than the usually pricier alternatives.

If you want to slide way down the scale, there are producers that market Imitation “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food.” As an example, a brand called “Always Save American Sandwich Slices” contains: water, modified food starch, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, maltodextrin, whey, sodium caseinate, salt, enzyme-modified cheese (cultured milk, water, salt, sodium phosphate, cream, sodium citrate, enzymes, sorbic acid [preservative], artificial color), guar gum, sodium hexametaphosphate, sorbic acid [preservative], artificial color, and lactic acid.

Differences in quality and flavor among different varieties of American cheese depend largely on the percentage of real cheese versus additives used during the emulsification process. Fewer additives and more natural ingredients equal a result that tastes less like plastic and more like natural, unprocessed cheese. For instance, Kraft's “Cracker Barrel” brand of natural sharp cheddar (I know, not technically an “American” cheese, but close enough for comparison purposes) contains pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, and annatto (for color).

Now, let's talk about color.

If you've ever had a sandwich at Subway, you've noticed that they offer a white American cheese. What's the difference between white American and the orangy-yellow stuff that you buy at the grocery store? Nothing. The coloring is a dye added because Americans apparently think cheese should be yellow or orange. (The stuff I have in the refrigerator is colored with paprika. Some use turmeric. Still others employ artificial dyes.) Why? I don't know. A quick look around the cheese section will immediately reveal that most cheeses are white or some close variation thereof. There are a few English cheddars that have a yellow coloration, so perhaps these were the role models for bright orange American cheese. Could be. Some vendors try to pass white American cheese off as a “premium” product – one on which they can jack up the price. Don't buy into it. It actually costs them less to produce because they don't have to dye it.

The biggest selling point for American cheese is its meltability. Nothing melts like American. It's positively gooey. Just what you want on a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese. Or in macaroni and cheese, for that matter. Most natural cheeses aren't designed to melt. Mother Nature works hard to make the curds all stick together. Deliberately making them ooze into a cheesy slurry is counter-intuitive, I suppose. But that's what Americans like. Cheddar tastes good, but it separates into a lava-like protein gel and an oily liquid fat when heat is applied. American cheese just melts into a perfectly cohesive yellow-orange puddle.

Detractors will point out that American cheese lacks depth of flavor. It has a bland, uninteresting texture, and no aroma to speak of. More seriously, they point to unhealthy levels of sodium, trans-fat, chemical preservatives, and artificial colorings and flavorings. Guilty as charged on both counts. As to the latter, moderation is the key – as is the case in most things. Of the former charge, I can only plead the palate. Some people like bland, uninteresting cheese. It's a matter of taste. I like a nice Swiss emmental on a ham sandwich. I like varying blends of asiago, provolone, pecorino, Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and mozzarella in Italian dishes. I like cheddar on crackers or in a cheese sauce. Fontina makes a fine fonduta, although you should try it with a blend of mozzarella and provolone, one or the other of them affumicato (smoked.)

On grilled cheese, I like plain old bland, boring, unsmelly, textureless American cheese. So, sue me, food snobs. At least I insist on the “good stuff,” the premium deluxe brands. If I ever used slices of orange-colored, cheese-flavored emulsified vegetable oil – even on grilled cheese – I would be justifiably banned from membership in AIFS (Associated International Food Snobs.)

Besides, kids like it and any time you can get something even nominally nutritious into a kid, you're off to a good start. And who can say that Kraft Deluxe American Slices might not be the first step on a long road to becoming a cheese connoisseur? Worked for me.

With apologies to John Lennon, all I am saying is give cheese a chance.

Buon appetito.

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