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Artisanal Cream Cheese

Published July 2014

How we tested

While artisanal cream cheese won’t be putting big national brands out of business anytime soon, we wondered if a small-batch, handmade approach to this everyday supermarket staple could take it to the next level. To find out, we mail-ordered three cheeses, from Vermont, Michigan, and Virginia.

To focus on flavor, we sampled the cheeses plain. Tasters gave top marks to the most complex-tasting cheeses, which had strong notes of herbs and radishes. We continued our evaluation with the classic application: the bagel test. If our tasters were expecting a schmear of Philadelphia Brand, they quickly realized that this was a different thing altogether. Instead of the familiar tacky, dense consistency of a foil-wrapped block, tasters noted that these small-batch samples were looser and lighter. Two of the three spread easily over bagels and were both so fluffy that they brought to mind lightly whipped cream. Tasters liked the third sample, too, but it lost points for its drier, almost crumbly consistency, which made it harder to spread.

But how would these artisanal products fare in baked applications? Our dessert recipes, like most published recipes, were developed using national supermarket brands that contain stabilizers. No surprise, then, that stabilizer-free artisanal cheeses led to textural problems in recipes for cheesecake and cream cheese frosting, in which the cream cheese was the primary ingredient. In the cheesecake, excess moisture sank to the bottom, while frostings made with each of the three cheeses looked curdled. But as a secondary ingredient in cream cheese brownies, the artisanal cream cheeses excelled, providing a pleasant, tangy contrast to the rich chocolate. In fact, all three brands in our tasting beat out brownies made with our supermarket favorite.

THE BOTTOM LINE: For baking recipes in which cream cheese is the primary ingredient, we recommend sticking with supermarket brands. However, if you are making our Cook's Illustrated Cream Cheese Brownies, or if you want a superior spread for your bagels, artisanal cream cheese will deliver a more complex flavor and lighter texture that is well worth the money. (If you want to use it as a secondary ingredient in another baking recipe, proper results may require some testing and adjustment.) Our favorite won the top spot for its full flavor and well-rounded balance between saltiness, tanginess, and creaminess.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*