I am an unabashed lover of preshredded cheese, but in the test kitchen, we’ve long sung the praises of shredding cheese by hand (or in a food processor). Preshredded cheese is coated with additives such as cellulose or cornstarch to keep it from clumping, which can affect its mouthfeel and meltability. Still, preshredded cheese is an incredible shortcut: It saves time, it saves your hands from wrestling with a sharp grater, and it saves you from extra cleanup. It’s equally at home atop baked potatoes, nachos, and tacos; in cheese sauces and macaroni and cheese; and more. I’m not alone in my love for it. Americans spend more money on shredded cheese (including popular products such as Mexican, Italian, and multicheese blends) than cheese in any other form—by a long shot. Last year, shredded cheese beat out block cheese by more than $1 billion in sales, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
Could we find a good shredded cheddar? We chose six shredded cheddar cheeses, priced from about $3.00 to about $4.00 per 8-ounce bag. We focused on sharp cheddar, which is the kind of cheddar we call for most often in our recipes. Three of the products were orange, and three were white; all were “traditional,” “thick,” or “farmstyle” cut—we didn’t include any “fancy cut” or “finely” shredded cheeses, since thicker shreds most closely resemble what we get from shredding by hand or in the food processor. We sampled the six products plain and melted atop nachos.
The shredded cheddars we tried all had the same key ingredients: cheddar cheese, a mold inhibitor (usually natamycin), and an anticlumping agent (usually cellulose, starch, or a combination) to keep the shreds from sticking together.
When we sampled the cheddars plain, many tasters could pick up on the cellulose or starch coating the cheese; it gave the strands a drier mouthfeel and slightly duller flavor than we’re used to in sharp cheddar. Tasters still thought all the cheeses were “savory” and “sharp,” and they struggled to pick up on differences between the products. We were curious to see how the cheeses fared when melted. While cellulose and starch can actually aid melting by keeping the protein in the cheese dispersed, they also draw moisture out of the cheese over time, which can inhibit melting.
We liked all the cheeses we melted and tried on nachos, but tasters noted some differences in meltability. Some cheeses were “smoother” and “more stretchy,” while others were a bit “greasy” and “slightly separated.” To understand why, we compared ingredient labels and looked at starch levels, but all the products had nearly identical levels of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and we saw no clear pattern in the type of anticaking agent used. While we couldn’t measure the amount of starch or cellulose in each cheese and all had similar sell-by dates, it’s likely that some lower-ranked cheeses were more dried out, reducing their ability to melt smoothly. Our favorite products melted smoothly and evenly, without any separation or greasiness.
Flavor differences were a bit harder to pick up on. While some of the cheeses were “sharp” and “punchy” when tasted plain, most were described as “mellow” and “mild” when melted for the nachos. Experts told us that some of the compounds responsible for sharp flavor can dissipate during cooking, which is likely why tasters rated the flavors of the melted cheeses more uniformly. The sodium levels of the cheeses ranged from 170 milligrams to 200 milligrams per 28-gram serving, but none of the cheeses was deemed too salty when sampled plain. However, when sampled with salty chips in the nachos, tasters gave a slight edge to products with less sodium.
Ultimately, we can recommend all the cheeses we tried. However, Kraft Sharp Cheddar Shredded Natural Cheese came out on top for its “subtly sharp,” “buttery” flavor and its “softer,” “smoother” texture when melted. Tasters also found its thinner strands easier to sprinkle than the products with thicker strands.
But how did our favorite preshredded cheddar compare to our favorite supermarket sharp cheddar cheese that we shredded ourselves? To find out, we pitted it against shreds of our favorite block cheddar, Cabot Vermont Sharp Cheddar, in three more blind tastings: plain, on nachos, and in Simple Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese.
In the plain tasting, the Cabot block cheese won by a landslide. Its shreds had a much sharper, more prominent, and punchy flavor, without any of the starchiness of the Kraft cheddar. Though flavor differences mellowed out when the two cheeses were melted, tasters also preferred the silky texture of the Cabot cheese in nachos. The Kraft cheese, which had the smoothest texture of all the preshredded cheeses we tried, didn’t break and wasn’t overly greasy; however, it was still dry when compared with the block cheese, likely due to the addition of modified cornstarch. As we expected, experts confirmed that the cellulose and starches added to preshredded cheeses dry out the surface of the shreds and inhibit melting and flow.
While meltability may be one reason that we preferred the cheese we shredded ourselves to preshredded, dairy industry experts told us there’s another reason that block is typically best: It’s often a higher-quality cheese. While cheesemakers always strive to make the best possible cheese, some batches inevitably come out better than others. When the cheese is graded by manufacturers before packaging, batches with minor defects—such as a softer texture, undeveloped flavor, or minor variations in color—are usually shredded, coated with anticaking agents, and sold as packaged preshredded cheese.
While preshredded cheese may not be of the same caliber as block, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Though we gave a slight edge to nachos made with block cheese for their slightly punchier flavor, tasters still thought nachos made with the preshredded cheese were plenty savory and flavorful. And since we often use a mixture of cheddar and American cheeses in macaroni and cheese, tasters detected even less of a flavor difference between the macaroni and cheese made with the preshredded Kraft cheese and the version made with shredded Cabot block cheddar.
So when should you opt for preshredded cheese? If you have the time, we still recommend shredding block cheese by hand or in a food processor for the best results. However, for dishes where the cheese will be melted or combined with other ingredients, we think the shredded stuff makes a perfectly acceptable shortcut.
For quick fixes and simple weeknight meals, we recommend Kraft Sharp Cheddar Shredded Natural Cheese (about $3.50 for 8 ounces). It was subtly sharp and savory, and when melted it had the smoothest texture of all the products we tried.
If you have the time to shred your own cheese, our favorite supermarket sharp cheddar cheese is Cabot Vermont Sharp Cheddar (about $4.00 for 8 ounces). Its flavor is punchier and it melts better than our preshredded favorite from Kraft.