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Most cheese connoisseurs cringe at the thought of processed cheeses. Think of Kraft singles, Laughing Cow, or Velveeta. Most of us loved such cheeses when we were kids, we always made sure Mom grabbed some at the grocery store. So why do they offend our adult palates? Labels that contain the name “cheese food” don’t make them sound any more appetizing either.
Processed cheeses are made with some natural cheeses, but usually contain other unfermented dairy products as well as chemical emulsifiers like sodium phosphate and citrate to circumvent the aging process necessary to produce most natural cheeses. Normally processed cheeses are medium firm, have a very mild flavor, and a consistently smooth texture.
Processed cheeses are often criticized for having a small range of flavors and textures and for potential health effects associated with the use of trans-fats, chemical preservatives, and artificial colorings. But like anything else, the health risks are negligible when these items are consumed in moderation, and these types of cheeses also offer many advantages.
Being cheese enthusiasts ourselves, we originally began stocking certain processed cheeses in order to satisfy our customers who requested them. But there has been a recent surge in the acceptance of many of these processed cheeses amongst the culinary community. The consistency of processed cheeses enables them to melt much more smoothly than natural cheeses, which tend to separate and pool after prolonged heating. They also have a much longer shelf life and the shortened production process lowers their cost significantly. This makes them ideal for use in cooking.
Some dishes call for only the finest natural cheeses, but many do not. It would be unusual for a chef to use a top shelf wine or liqueur to cook with. The same goes for cheese in many cases. This came to our attention when Jim Kennedy, a customer and friend of ours who also happens to be a retired chef ordered some horseradish cheese from us. He specialized in classic French cuisine and had been an apprentice to the first American-born Master Chef, Richard Schneider. So his opinion carried a lot of credibility with us. He shared his ideas for incorporating the horseradish cheese into high-end cuisine with us: “We melted it into mashed potatoes and it was superb. We melted it into Alfredo sauce and it was wonderful. We baked it into a quiche and it was sensational. We baked it with macaroni and it was incredible. In the future we intend to combine it with the smoked bacon cheese in all the above.” he said “We were afraid it would be tame for mainstream palates, but we were pleasantly surprised.”
That brought us to the most important benefit of processed cheeses: they come in a very diverse array of flavors. Besides horseradish, processed cheeses come in flavors like bacon, pepperoni, garden onion, Bermuda onion, hot pepper, super hot pepper, caraway, and even Southwestern Salsa. We also offer smoked varieties of many of these. Of course American cheese is the archetype of processed cheeses, but we also offer Sharp (aged) American, which is probably our best-selling processed cheese because few other cheese stores offer it. All of these flavors make excellent additions to simple or complex recipes. We were very impressed with the zing the Bermuda onion cheese added to our burgers!
So while most cheese aficionados will wrinkle there noses at the mere mention of processed cheeses, we have now found some very sophisticated uses for them. Of course, if the cheese is offered by itself or used as a finishing element for a fine dining recipe, natural cheeses are best. But processed cheeses can be excellent ingredients in complex recipes and add zesty variations to simple ones.