Monday, September 12, 2011

Sargento Cheese Tasting & Review: Just Because It's Sliced Does Not Mean It's Processed

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to taste and compare Sargento brand natural cheese with processed American cheese. Until I said yes to this job--with some reservations, I might add, I thought all pre-sliced cheeses were processed cheese. Well, nut-uh, is all I can say now. No way. There is the plastic-stuff-somehow-mysteriously-known-as-cheese and then there is Sargento.

Why buy pre-sliced cheese? Well, in complete honesty, I do not. What gourmet does (who does not have teenagers trawling ravenously through her refrigerator for instant cheese gratification)? I simply have accepted my fate and sliced from the blocks myself. Except--wait a second--I do buy pre-sliced when I am at the deli counter. Why? Because it's a breeze to slap the pre-sliced cheese onto a yummy deli sandwich and mostly because I KNOW the deli department cheese will be fine quality cheese. No cheesy cheese need apply.

If cheesy cheese is your desire, head to the dairy department of your supermarket and get the extended shelf-life processed cheese (sometimes known as "American cheese") made from questionable ingredients like molten protein gel and food colorings as well as tasty emulsifiers like citrate and potassium phosphate. Gets your taste buds all worked up, doesn't it?

Otherwise, if you'd like to know more about the good stuff--the deli department cheese that just happens to not be in the deli department, read on.

Sargento, if you are unfamiliar, is the company that makes those cheerful red packages of cheese that come conveniently in shredded or sliced or string cheese configurations and are found in hundreds of variations (Mexican, Italian, American--and that's just the Bistro Blends). Sargento invented the selling style of hanging the packages of cheese on hooks within the diary department. According to Sargento, "Our natural cheeses meet the highest standards of our expert cheese graders. Just what you'd expect from a family as passionate as ours."

Off I go to the supermarket to buy Sargento cheeses and the least possible amount of the so-called-cheese that competes with it as I can get by with for the purposes of experimentation. I have no idea if Sargento will live up to its lore--but I hope so, because being able to loosen up my gourmet ideals and occasionally pop a package of easy and delicious and wholesome cheese into my shopping cart would be a big benefit. I am not snooty about cheese, I just love good cheese. Is that so unreasonable? My eight-year-old loves string cheese, so that will be easy to go along with. The shredded Italian cheeses would work right in with a pizza supper I can put together. We'll see what I come home with.

[Two days later . . .]

I have to disclose, I almost never shop in supermarkets. Instead, I buy from Trader Joe's, Smart & Final (a discount warehouse), Costco (another, bigger, discount warehouse), and our local farmers' market. Also, we grow many of the vegetables we eat in our back yard (thanks, Hubs, you are amazing!). So it felt weird going to our local grocery store chain, but off I marched. Turns out picking up a few packages of Sargento cheese (Sargento provided me a $25 gift card to pay it--thanks, Sargento!) is no breezy thing. I saw at least 20 varieties of cheeses. Finally, I opted for four:

Sargento Artisan Blends Authentic Mexican five-cheese blend, shredded
Sargento Colby-Pepper Jack cheese with habanero and jalapeno peppers, sliced
Sargento Classic Mozzarella, ChefStyle, shredded
Sargento Natural Muenster, Deli Style, sliced

Another confession—oops! I didn't buy American processed cheese to do the comparison. Why? I just couldn't. It's like buying a tacky romance novel if you are a literature professor.  Just embarrassing. You know what I mean. Also, I promise--I know what the fake stuff tastes like--fatty nothing. Got it.

Being a pepper-head, naturally, I dived straight into the spicy Sargento cheese. Piquant, but not too hot, it was delicious enough to make me think of how I'd use it--Mexican appetizers? Jazz up a sandwich? Next I had the Mexican cheese blend--just a pinch tells you, this is real cheese with an autentico pizzazz. Queso fresco, the cheese most commonly served in real Mexican restaurants is simple, if not bland, but this was different. More fun, more texture.

Next, my eight-year-old dove into the muenster. She's all, "What's muenster, Mama? Is that like 'Monster'?" I told her muenster was my favorite cheese when I was a college girl. Now, it's my little girl's favorite, too. Creamy, smooth, with that lovely orange border--exactly deli cheese.

I kept thinking, while tasting, that it's a shame Sargento sells their fine-quality cheeses in the you'd-miss-them-if-you're-a-food-snob plastic pouches, all shredded or sliced or otherwise prepped to make them easy to use. I'm thinking easy-to-use doesn't have to be a detriment. It can be a boost. Tonight's menu? Homemade pizzas, topped with our--I'm proud to say it now--gourmet pre-shredded Sargento mozzarella. There. I can so to learn something new.

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