America’s Test Kitchen knows best. They test the wahzoo out of everything that passes through their New England food lab. So I was interested in what they’d recommend for those buying their staples and canned goods at supermarkets. Here’s a partial list of some of their taste findings, including quotes from food testers.
Supermarket Balsamic Vinegar: Bertolli Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. This inexpensive supermarket balsamic was deemed best for everyday use (i.e. dressings), while more costly gourmet vinegars were reserved for drizzling on berries, steaks, or a good cheese.
Supermarket Prosciutto: Volpi Prosciutto. Recognize that one? It’s made right here in St. Louis and aged 9 months. Called “tender, buttery, and silky” and perfect for Saltimbocca.
Supermarket Hummus: Sabra Classic Hummus. A protein-rich, low fat, creamy dip. Contains just the right amount of tahini and uses the ripest chickpeas for a “clean, earthy flavor.”
Canned Whole Tomatoes: Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes. This one surprised me. They found that the much-hyped, DOP certified San Marzanos tomatoes did not measure up in sweetness or flavor to this American brand.
Downside: American tomatoes have far more salt. They also have calcium chloride to maintain firmness that the imports do not.
Spaghetti: De Cecco Spaghetti No. 12. Taste was nearly the same for all tested noodles, but texture varied. The winner contained semolina rather than Durum flour, which improves texture. It also underwent a long, slow drying process rather than an accelerated one.
Crab Meat: Phillips Premium Crab Jumbo. “Sweet, meaty and plump. This product most closely resembles fresh crabmeat, but at a cost of $27 per pound.
Creamy Peanut Butter: Skippy Peanut Butter. The childhood favorite got top honors both plain and baked into cookies despite having a weaker nut flavor than some of the others tested.
Non-Fat Greek Yogurt: Fage Total 0%. “Rich-tasting. . . hard to believe it’s nonfat.” Includes live and active yogurt cultures.
Dark Chocolate Chips: Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. A clear winner because of its low sugar content and high percentage of cacao. Most chips are lower in cacao so the bits hold their shape in cooking. Testers panned Nestles Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels. They felt like the low cacao and high sugar level gave chips the taste of “cheap Halloween candy.”
Chicken Broth: Swanson Chicken Stock. “Rich, meaty flavor, less sodium than most.” Though Swanson won ATK’s favor, they also gave high marks to the concentrate Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base for flavor, price, and ability to last for two years in the fridge
Supermarket Vanilla Ice Cream: Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla. To testers the vanilla taste was more important than texture or consistency. They noted that when buying vanilla ice cream look for “vanilla extract” on the ingredient listing. Just “Vanilla” has both synthetics and natural flavor while “Natural Vanilla Flavor” is made from the same thing as artificial vanilla extract. “Natural Flavors” indicates just a trace of real vanilla. Testers preferred the taste of ice creams with ordinary sugar rather than corn syrup, those with high fat content, and those with egg yolk as a main ingredient. Read the labels.
Supermarket Bacon: Co-winners were Farmland Thick Sliced Bacon and Plumrose Premium Thick Sliced Bacon. “One of the meatiest, with saltiness offset by sweetness.” In bacon, it’s the moisture that carries the salty-sweet flavor and that proved true with testers prefer wet-cured bacon over dry. Thicker sliced bacon picked up more of the smokey flavor in curing. All bacons were tested by oven-frying.
All-Beef Hot Dogs: Nathan’s Beef Franks. Picked as “top dog” for juiciness, snap, size, and plump. Hot dogs that were too lean were dry; testers prefered a bit more fat for a tender, juicy dog. They were put off by hot dogs that were too heavy in spices and corn products and preferred those with a bit more salt over low salt varieties.
Tortilla Chips: On the Border Chips. “Light, flaky, crispy with bright corn taste.” Testers found blue chips to be lacking in salt and somewhat bitter. They preferred thick chips with curves or curled edges to trap dip.
All-Purpose Flour: King Arthur Unbleached Enriched All-Purpose FlourFlour and co-winner Pillsbury Unbleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour. Serious cooks keep a variety of special purpose flours on hand, but for most home cooks one of these two all-purpose varieties is desirable.
All-Purpose Vegetable Oils: Crisco Blend. “Very clean taste. . . neutral and balanced.” The blend of canola, soybean and sunflower kept oil fresher and more flavorful. But ATK determined that for most recipes with lots of ingredients, it doesn’t make much difference which oil is used.
Barbeque Sauce: Bull’s Eye Original BBQ Sauce. “Balanced sweetness, nice tang, subtle smoke.” For a high-end barbecue sauce, ATK picked Pork Barrel BBQ. “Big. bold, tangy, robust, clings nicely.”
California Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: California Olive Ranch Arbequina. “Lovely, nutty, and fruity with notes of lemon, vanilla and honey.” While they favored a Spanish imported oil—Columela—this California variety came a close second in the testing.
Canned Tuna Fish: Wild Planet Wild Albacore Tuna. “Rich, flavorful, not fishy, substantial.” The winner was not double cooked. Most canned tuna is cooked after being frozen and again after canned. Being hand packed and cooked just once resulted in fresher flavor and firmer texture and almost no canning liquid. Testers preferred it in tuna salad.
White Sandwich Bread: Arnold Country Classics White. “Perfect structure, subtle sweetness.” This bread won in the test for best textured sandwiches and crunchiest croutons.
My Biased, Unofficial, Non-Scientific Conclusion
I agree with all of ATK’s findings except the one on tomatoes (I like those San Marzanos) and their pick for BBQ sauce (I go for Sweet Baby Ray). I’ve never had Arnold’s White Bread or Nathan’s Franks. Hmm. . . maybe that would be a twosome worth testing.
Somethings are just a matter of personal preference, despite the judgment of professional tasters.